The Unexplained: Rise of the Convulsionaires
January 27, 2023
Sara Marie Hogg
Two very unusual things began happening to some of the Convulsionaires practicing Jansenism: healing miracles and hysteria.
Who were the strange Convulsionaires of the early 1700s in France and Flanders? Yes, there were such people.
Actually they sprang from a religious movement within Catholicism called Jansenism – named for Cornelius Jansen who was Bishop of Ypres from 1635-1638.
Jansen’s theology was outlined in his book, Augustinius, which followed the beliefs of St. Augustine. It had aspects of the belief of predestination and was criticized for going against man’s free will.
Pope Innocent X denounced Jansenism as heresy in 1653, but forms of it did continue into the 1800s.
Jansenism became more and more complex and over time had many prominent characters getting involved in either practicing it or denouncing it. Even Blaise Pascal had converted to Jansenism in 1646, and induced family members to follow.
Two very unusual things began happening to some of the people practicing Jansenism: healing miracles and hysteria.
The healing miracles occurred at the tomb of Francois de Paris. The popular religious figure, a martyr, was schooled by Augustinians at a seminary controlled by Jansenism. Francois was loved for continuing to give away his wealth to the poor. He died at the age of 36 and was entombed at the parish cemetery at St. Medard. People tried to collect religious relics from around his tomb: dirt, wood, whatever they could find. They made pilgrimages, just to be near the tomb.
Miraculous healings began happening there in the cemetery. Pilgrims claimed to be cured of blindness, paralysis, and tumors.
The pilgrimages increased in 1731, in hopes of more miraculous cures.
Francois de Paris was up for sainthood.
Then, the convulsions started. The first one, in July of 1731, was a horrific spectacle.
L’abbe de Bescherand had a convulsion at the cemetery – he was lifted into the air, his face was contorted, he foamed at the mouth. He hollered for hours. Others began having convulsions. Soon there were more convulsions than miraculous healings.
The convulsions were odd enough, but The Convulsionaires began to have total immunity from both pain and injury. To test this immunity, onlookers were encouraged to punch and kick the Convulsionaires as they rolled around convulsing. It was true. They showed no pain or injury.
Skeptical philosopher, David Hume witnessed rooms of Convulsionaires and was astounded by their immunity.
Rumors flew that people were barking like dogs and swallowing glass and hot coals.
The cemetery was closed in 1732, but The Convulsionaires gathered outside the cemetery gates and convulsed. Sometimes they were arrested, and sometimes the people punching and kicking them were arrested. They were forced into private homes to do their convulsing.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Jansenism had lost any strength as a viable theological sect. Little branches and off-shoots were active well into the 1800s.
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