The first part of Elisabeth de Ranfaing’s life is marked by sexual repression aggravated by hysteria. Among the many studies consecrated to her, is that of the great French neurologist and psychiatrist, Jean Lhermitte. In Mystiques et Faux Mystiques, he firstly concludes that all those who had seen Elisabeth de Ranfaing suspended in the air had been victims of hallucinations or trickery. His argumentation is, however, limited to considerations of a purely scientific order: absence of any verifiable document establishing the reality of the levitation phenomena, comparison with the trickery of Indian fakirs making spectators believe that a child is able to climb a rope that they have thrown into the air: in fact, this trick does not resist photographic testing, which proves that the witnesses were toys of a creator of illusions… which is in itself a pretty good trick.
In fact, Lhermitte explains most of the exceptional gifts of this saintly maniac by the faith of the witnesses, exorcists, doctors or other believers… The people present at these seances are so convinced of their prodigious character that they are ready to believe the miraculous thesis for which Elisabeth has prepared them in advance. The doctor writes that, apart from the fact that
“hysterics are endowed with remarkable gifts of observation and intuition comparable with that of animals when it is a question of fooling, of deceiving, of mystifying”,
this shows that the young woman was highly intelligent, which is also solidly established by the rest of her life.
Generally, the great hysterics are also mentally retarded. When their attacks are over, they fall into a state of apathy, or even stupor, which is typical of certain types of insanity. During the attacks, they often exhibit a lot of indecency or scream absurdities.
This is not the case with Elisabeth, who, in her comportment, remains always strangely decent and professes, in diverse languages, subtle theological truths…
From 1626, she becomes the prestigious founder of a religious order the “Refuge”, dedicated to repentant prostitutes and girls locked up on the King’s order (lettre de cachet) for their immoral lifestyle. She is surrounded by a real mystical court, frequented by numerous prominent Jesuits, which forms the heart of a secret congregation. Its members communicate with each other via a coded language, which is hidden from the superior religious authorities.
Thanks to the famous medals blessed by Elisabeth, the Refuge collects enormous sums of money and soon develops branches as far away as Provence which she administers with authority and competence. At the same time, the congregation of the “medallists” undertakes, at her instigation, a secret campaign for the regeneration of the Church, notably installing the reiteration of baptism: we are now in total heresy!… The illuminism of the group was also centred on the sexual problems which had for so long devastated the heart and body of their inspirer. All of Elisabeth’s disciples said that they were persecuted by succubus demons whose exploits, seen as “mortifications”, were commented in detail by the congregation’s adepts.
Suddenly, in 1644, at the end of a long enquiry by the ecclesiastical authorities, the “medallist” priests are ordered, under threat of excommunication, to break off all ties with Elisabeth de Ranfaing. Rome’s judgement annihilates all the dreams of the Refuge’s founder, who survives only a few months after her disgrace…
Jean Vartier, in a book consecrated to Elisabeth’s case, maintains that, not only did she do nothing to save Doctor Poirot from the stake, but that her biographers were unable to find that she had cried one tear of regret over the ashes of the one who had loved her passionately and disinterestedly…
This attitude may seem strange for a saint. But it is difficult to judge in terms of the absolute. Andre Breton says that
“everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain spiritual point from where life and death cease to be seen in contradiction with each other”.
Effectively, what could the existence of poor Poirot weigh against the formidable challenge that this mystical woman had set for herself, for the carnal part of her being? Until her death, which came early, no-one could have accused her of having the least complacency for her body. We may find this excessive, even sick. Elisabeth’s contemporaries judged it differently. When she died, thousands of Lorraine people, persuaded of her sainthood, tried to tear a little piece of material from the deathbed which, by the way, gave off an exquisite odour. From her heart, locked up in a silver reliquary, a balsamic liquid seeped for a long time, and appeared to operate many miracles.
Her cause of beatification was started and the miracles were corroborated. It was the excesses of the “medallists” which finally prevented her from being a new Catherine of Sienna or an Angela of Foligno…
Her mortuary mask, of troubling beauty, is still visible at the Maison de Secours in Nancy. It is next to the washing beetle which she used to beat the prostitutes who hesitated to whip themselves as hard as she did herself…