‘That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach,’ wrote Aldous Huxley in 1959. This aphorism feels especially relevant now, when history seems to be repeating itself with a vengeance. In the 1990s, in The End of History, Francis Fukuyama suggested that the ideological battlegrounds of the twentieth century were a thing of the past. History has quickly proved him wrong. We’ve come full circle, with battles raging between left and right, the religious and the secular, each deaf to the other.
So Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun (1952) – a book that could easily be subtitled ‘politically motivated witch-hunts and how to avoid them’ – feels horribly relevant. The Devils is about the supposed possession of a convent of nuns, thanks to the alleged witchcraft of a Catholic priest with a sex life that reads like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It includes exorcisms, torture and Byzantine political manoeuvrings by an untouchable elite.
The book came to me by an oddly international route. A Brazilian man, much inclined to mystical philosophy, took it to Copenhagen with him and gave it to a French fellow-student. The Frenchman was more interested in science than history but dutifully read the book and then forgot about it. Several years later, I moved in with the Frenchman in London. I was working as an archivist and had just signed up to a course on how to write about history more creatively.
At that point the Frenchman remembered The Devils of Loudun and fished it out of a neglected corner of the bookshelf. And so I learnt that the writing of history can be anything you want it to be: exciting, philosophical, opinionated, witty, dramatic, moving.
The Devils opens with Father Urbain Grandier arriving in the town of Loudun in about 1617. Urbain is handsome and clever and just as urbane as his name suggests. He swiftly seduces as many of the town’s ladies as possible, and he shows off his erudition in magnificent sermons. He is also pugnacious, taking nearly as much pleasure in gathering enemies as he does in acquiring lovers. ‘To be mistrusted by the stupid because he was so clever, to be envied by the inept because he had made good, to be loathed by the dull for his wit, by the boors for his breeding and the unattractive for his success with women – what a tribute to his superiority,’ Huxley has him cr
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