In 1590s France, there was no traveling show quite like that of Martha Brossier. Often accompanied by her father, the young woman appeared on stage to exhibit herself while in the apparent throes of demonic subservience. Brossier contorted her body as though it were being controlled by spiritual forces. Her eyes rolled in the back of her head. Guttural speech rumbled from her stomach through her closed mouth. To an unsophisticated audience, Brossier seemed worryingly afflicted. Centuries before The Exorcist (1973) captivated audiences, she was perhaps the earliest example of demonic possession presented as entertainment.
Like that film, it was a complete fiction.
Brossier was from the small French community of Romorantin, where her father worked as a weaver. After Brossier displayed the symptoms of being burdened by a demon—which her family claimed was the result of a vindictive neighbor who just happened to be a witch—her father decided that the spectacle would be of public interest. The two toured France, shocking audiences with Brossier’s unhinged behaviors. Priests would attempt to pull the demon out of her, which would be briefly successful before the entity came back—all the better to continue their tour.
Eventually, the two (or three) of them arrived in Paris, which provided more opportunities for public interest as well as increased scrutiny. Disturbed by the attraction, King Henry IV’s personal physician, Michel Marescot, was tasked with examining Brossier’s condition. And it’s here that her claims of being manipulated by sinister forces began to fall apart.
Marescot was clever. Brandishing a piece of the True Cross, a fragment believed to have come from Jesus Christ's crucifixion, he loomed over Brossier, who hissed in apparent pain at the religious iconography. But the cross was nothing more than ordinary wood. He had used the actual piece of True Cross as a tongue depressor in Brossier’s mouth, which had caused her no discomfort.
Priests then attempted to converse with Brossier in Latin. The demon, Brossier had said, spoke all languages. But Brossier couldn’t understand or respond.
This wasn’t quite convincing to those who had attended Brossier’s shows and remained certain the poor woman was being physically and psychologically tortured. So more tests were ordered.
When religious rites were spoken aloud, Brossier writhed in agony. She didn’t realize the Biblical text was actually a poem by Virgil. Even more damning was when Brossier was given holy water under the guise of it being plain drinking water. Brossier chugged it without any reaction. But when she was doused with regular water said to be holy water, she became hysterical.
This was all evidence enough for theologians and doctors to decree Brossier was a fraud, which landed her in prison for several months. This caused another flare of debate, as the clergy chastised the court for interfering on a matter they felt was theirs to investigate. Nor were Brossier’s “fans” wholly convinced even after repeated debunking. When Brossier was released, she took her show underground, holding seances for captivated audiences in small towns.
Whether she was purposefully deceptive or was convinced she was possessed is unclear. Either way, Brossier’s show came to an end, and it would be some time before William Peter Blatty reintroduced the idea of the exorcism as an entertainment spectacle.
[h/t The New York Times]