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The Oxford English Dictionary provides two primary definitions of the word cult, one religious in nature, the other secular. A cult may be defined as a "relatively small group of people having (esp. religious) beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister," or as "a collective obsession with or intense admiration for a particular person, thing, or idea" that is not inherently sacred.1 This essay examines the case of Mary-Catherine Cadière, who attracted cults in both senses of the term during the long eighteenth century.

In 1728, eighteen-year-old Mary-Catherine Cadière chose as her primary spiritual advisor Father Jean-Baptiste Girard, a forty-seven-year-old Jesuit priest in great demand as a confessor among women. Within a year after their spiritual relationship began, Cadière began to suffer from fits and convulsions, to show evidence of stigmata on her body, and supposedly to perform miracles. Soon, she had gathered a cult following of people who believed her visions and proclaimed her destined for posthumous canonization. As Cadière's fame grew, church officials became suspicious, and she was moved to a convent near Toulon. Initially, Girard continued to visit her, but, eventually, his visits tapered off, and Cadière came forward to lodge a complaint. Girard, she claimed, had raped her repeatedly, and, by preaching the doctrine of Quietism and breathing into her mouth, had bewitched her into experiencing visions. Girard denied the affair entirely, [End Page 257] and he accused Cadière of demonic possession and witchcraft. After much wrangling over jurisdiction, the state brought both up on charges, Cadière of witchcraft, false testimony, and defamation, Girard, of rape, spiritual incest, and abortion. The trial dragged on for almost a year; ultimately, the magistrates returned a split verdict: twelve judges voted in Cadière's favor, twelve in Girard's, and both were acquitted. Two years later, Girard died. Cadière disappeared from the annals of history.

The Girard-Cadière trial was a huge cultural event in France, infamous for its salacious content and political implications; Jason Kuznicki argues that the trial was artificially prolonged by the Jansenists to embarrass the Jesuit order.2 Cadière meanwhile attracted a sizeable cult following of devotees who prayed to her as one would a saint, insisting that she was a conduit for the divine. Small crowds would gather outside her home to hear her visionary pronouncements, and the nuns at Toulon reportedly collected her bath water for use in healing rituals.3 Here, then, is a cultural moment in which female prophecy was taken seriously by many as a source of religious truth.4

Critics such as Mita Choudhury and Stéphane Lamotte have analyzed French reactions to the Girard-Cadière trial, but British reactions have been largely ignored by modern scholars.5 Cadière attracted a very different sort of cult following in England. Between 1731–32, fifteen separate trial accounts were released, some of which were reprinted as many as eleven times, and reissued as late as 1893. Some of the pamphlets were pornographic in intent, reporting in painstaking detail Girard's alleged indecent acts.6 Others served as anti-Catholic propaganda, part of a long-standing tradition of attacks describing Jesuits as sexually violent monsters.7 Still others sought to comment on the British political moment. The Cadière trial occurred only a year after Sir Robert Walpole engineered the pardon of Colonel Francis Charteris for rape, and some authors looked to capitalize on the resultant outrage by referring to Girard as the "Great Man."8

Cadière simultaneously gained a cult following among authors of the period; the religious devotion of Cadière's French followers is replaced in England by literary celebrity. Henry Carey's The Disappointment, Henry Fielding's The Old Debauchees, and the anonymously authored ballad opera The Wanton Jesuit, all performed in 1732, transformed Cadière from criminal defendant to stage heroine. Later in the century, Gothic novelists, too, drew upon her story; Girard and Cadière find literary counterparts in Ambrosio and Antonia of Matthew Lewis's The Monk.9 Each of these authors stripped Cadière of her prophetic voice, reducing her to a semi-fictional construct. Here, dedication to a religious figure is redirected into unsacred forms of cultural fame, an example of what Megan Gibson describes elsewhere in this forum as "the secularization of religious devotion."10 [End Page 258]

The image of Cadière as a prophet reemerges, however, in Mary Shelley's 1823 novel Valperga: or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. Critics have usually read Shelley's Beatrice as an analogue to Joanna Southcott, the laundress who rose to prominence in the first decade of the 1800s by printing her elaborate religious prophecies.11 But, Southcott was in her fifties when her work first saw print, and there is no hint of sexual violence in her writings. Beatrice, the eighteen-year old beauty who inspires a significant following, only to fall into seizures and heresy after a prolonged sexual assault, actually has much more in common with Cadière than with Southcott. In Beatrice, Shelley restores the prophetic aspect of Cadière's voice, treating female prophecy as simultaneously empowering and proof of powerlessness. She gains a cult following of devotees, but her physical suffering symbolizes her inability both to protect her bodily autonomy and to express in words the experience of sexual assault. Valperga also merges in Beatrice the two forms of devotion that Cadière had attracted. She is at once an object of religious worship and a human woman whose secular celebrity leads directly to her violation.

To examine reactions to the Cadière-Girard trial is thus to gain new insight into literary representations of female prophecy. It also reveals the slippage between religious and secular forms of devotion in the long eighteenth century, especially as they migrate between cultures and nations. The international reach of the trial offers insight into the ways in which English authors coopted Catholic devotion for secular purposes and transformed a French saint into an English literary icon.

Jennifer L. Airey

Jennifer L. Airey is associate professor of English at the University of Tulsa, specializing in literature of the long eighteenth century. She is the author of The Politics of Rape: Sexual Atrocity, Propaganda Wars, and the Restoration Stage (2012) and has published articles on authors such as Wycherley, Dryden, Centlivre, Robinson, Dacre, and Haywood. She is the editor of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, the first scholarly journal devoted solely to the study of women's literature.


1. "cult, n." OED Online. December 2016. Oxford Univ. Press., accessed 09 March 2017.

2. Jason Kuznicki, "Sorcery and Publicity: The Cadière-Girard Scandal of 1730–1731," French History 21, no. 3 (2007): 289–312.

3. For descriptions of Cadière's cult, as well as Girard's alleged crimes, see Anonymous, The Case of Mrs. Mary Catherine Cadiere (London: J. Roberts, 1732); Anonymous, A Compleat Translation of the Memorial of the Jesuit Father John Baptist Girard (London: J. Millan, 1732); Anonymous, The Defence of F. John Baptist Girard, Jesuit (London: J. Roberts, 1731); and, Anonymous, Memoirs of Miss Mary-Catherine Cadiere (London: J. Isted, 1731).

4. A tradition of female prophecy did exist in France. See Anne Llewellyn Barstow, "Joan of Arc and Female Mysticism," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 1, no. 2 (1985): 29–42.

5. See Mita Choudhury, The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint: A Tale of Sex, Religion, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century France (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2015); and, Stéphane Lamotte, "Le P. Girard et la cadière dans la tourmente des pièces satiriques," Dix-huitième Siècle 39, no. 1 (2007): 431–53.

6. For discussion of court documents as a "peculiar genre of eighteenth-century erotica," see Peter Wagner, "The Pornographer in the Courtroom: Trial reports about cases of sexual crimes and delinquencies as a genre of eighteenth-century erotica," in Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain, ed. Paul-Gabriel Boucé (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1982), 120.

7. See Jennifer L. Airey, The Politics of Rape: Sexual Atrocity, Propaganda Wars, and the Restoration Stage (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2012).

8. See, for instance, Anonymous, The Tryal of Father Jean-Baptist Girard, on an accusation of quietism, sorcery, incest, abortion, and subornation (London: J. Isted, 1732).

9. For discussion of the trial's influence on Lewis, see Diane Long Hoeveler, The Gothic Ideology: Religious Hysteria and Anti-Catholicism in British Popular Fiction, 1780–1880 (Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 2014). Charteris, a Scottish soldier who amassed a fortune through gambling and speculation, earned the enmity of the public for his abuse of women. He was charged with rape several times over the course of the 1720s and pardoned twice, the second time resulting in a substantial financial "gift" to Walpole.

10. Megan Gibson, "Cult," this volume.

11. See, for instance, Orianne Smith, Romantic Women Writers, Revolution, and Prophecy: Rebellious Daughters, 1786–1826 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

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