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Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West

By Ronald Hutton | Posted 21st May 2013, 11:20
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The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West
Brian P. Levack
Yale University Press  xii + 346pp  £25

Brian Levack has long been established as one of the leading authorities on witch trials and witch beliefs in early modern Europe and so is an obvious person to turn his attention to the allied, and sometimes overlapping, phenomenon of apparent demonic possession. The result is an excellent study, covering most of the western half of Europe and the whole period from the ancient world to the present. Though it concentrates on the early modern epoch, largely because that was the one in which cases of such apparent possession peaked, it provides both a deep historical context for those cases, stretching back to biblical times, and a summary of the continued manifestation of the phenomenon until the present.

Indeed, a marked increase in both claimed possessions and exorcisms of them since 1970 adds a topical value to the book and the richness of its research, covering a wealth of primary texts as well as studies by historians in four different languages, provides ample material for its conclusions.

These conclusions are, above all, that demoniacs are essentially actors in religious dramas, so that their paroxysms and other disturbing symptoms, and the responses of exorcists, are performances. This is emphatically not taken to mean that most have been fraudulent, as the majority of those who claimed to be possessed had nothing to gain from pretending to be so and much to suffer as a result.

Just as strong an argument is made against the idea that those who claimed to be possessed were mentally ill: some clearly were, but for most the episodes of possession were temporary experiences, which manifested according to fairly standard, culturally-conditioned modes of behaviour rather than random dementia. Moreover they occurred in epidemics, as members of a group succumbed one by one. Instead, Levack ascribes the phenomena to acute religious anxiety, which would explain their particular frequency in the early modern period when the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had raised such anxiety to an unusually high pitch. It is of a piece with this analysis that Levack shows that the treatment of apparent possession differed sharply between different confessional groups. Catholics fought it with elaborate panoplies of consecrated objects and with complex rites and liturgies and were less inclined to blame the demoniacs for their condition. Protestants preferred to follow biblical precepts by relying on prayer and fasting and Calvinists in particular were likely to blame the condition of the sufferers on their own sins. Unsurprisingly, Catholic demoniacs were much more common and were, in addition, mostly women and especially nuns, because of the stronger tradition of mystical female piety in Catholicism.

There is much that is inherently attractive about this approach. It fits the prevailing interest in culture as a set of modes of performance and in religious belief as an independent force in human affairs rather than an expression of economic and social forces. It also converges with an enhanced recent recognition of the character of the early modern period as one in which fears of and an interest in the supernatural, although based on much earlier traditions, were expressed with a new frequency and intensity. As Levack notes, cases of demonic possession rose and fell in proportion to accusations of witchcraft.

This is a book which reinforces the idea of the period between 1500 and 1700 as an ‘age of anxiety’, while making a significant contribution to religious history, and especially to the understanding of Christian religiosity.

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol and author of Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2011).


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