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Exorcism and Enlightenment

Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Exorcism and Enlightenment
    Book Description:

    In the late eighteenth century, Catholic priest Johann Joseph Gassner (1727-1779) discovered that he had extraordinary powers of exorcism. Deciding that demons were responsible for most human ailments, he healed thousands, rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic. In this book H. C. Erik Midelfort delves deeply into records of the time to explore Gassner's remarkable exorcising campaign, chronicle the official efforts to curb him, and reconstruct the sufferings of the afflicted.

    Gassner's activities triggered a Catholic religious revival as well as a noisy skeptical reaction. In response to those who doubted that he was really casting out demons, Gassner marshaled hundreds of eyewitness reports that seemed to prove his exorcisms really worked. Midelfort describes the enormous public controversy that resulted, and he demonstrates that the Gassner episode yields important insights into the German Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, the limitations of eighteenth-century debate, and the ongoing role of magic and belief in an age of scientific enlightenment.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13013-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-10)

    In December of 1774 wonders were reported in the little Franconian town of Ellwangen, situated in the broad, pleasant valley of the Jagst River northeast of Stuttgart. The town was the proud seat of the imperial prince provost of Ellwangen and his high noble canons, and a refuge for the embattled former members of the Jesuit Order. Two centuries earlier some of Germany’s fiercest witchcraft trials had taken place in Ellwangen, and now the devil seemed to be on the rampage again. Beneath her gray stone walls, in the imposing castle and in a house exempt from the jurisdiction of...

    (pp. 11-31)

    Gassner was not the only one dabbling with the world of demons in the mid-1770s. In the South German, Upper Swabian town of Langenegg a poverty-stricken, guilt-ridden woman, Maria Anna Schwägelin, lay miserably confined in a spital for the poor. Orphaned early in life, she had abandoned her Catholic faith in order to marry a Protestant from Memmingen, but the marriage plans were broken off. She became increasingly convinced that in betraying her faith, she had left herself open to the assaults of the Evil One. Crippled, she began to wonder if her troubles were caused by the devil. A...

    (pp. 32-58)

    Johann Joseph Gassner found himself and his religious movement embroiled in a web of tense relations involving many of the most powerful Catholic forces in the Holy Roman Empire. He was originally doubted and expelled by the cardinal prince bishop of Constance, Franz Konrad von Rodt; favored and supported by the prince bishop of Regensburg, Anton Ignaz von Fugger; blocked by the elector of Bavaria, Maximilian III Joseph, but supported by the counts of Hohenlohe and by Duke Ludwig Eugen of Württemberg, brother of reigning Duke Karl Eugen; criticized by the archbishops of Salzburg and Prague; and finally stopped by...

  7. three HEALING
    (pp. 59-86)

    To judge from the countless little portraits that circulated in the 1770s, Father Johann Joseph Gassner was a short, plump, cleanshaven man of modest demeanor. When he dealt with the devil, however, he became vehement and, some said, physically forceful as he touched, stroked, grasped, and finally even wrenched the affected limbs of those who sought his help. From 1774 to 1776 he and his “wonder cures” became a major topic of Enlightened debate in Germany and provoked reflection on a wide range of topics, especially on whether the devil really intervened in the world as a physical force or...

    (pp. 87-117)

    In March of 1775 the physiognomist and Zurich pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater wrote to Johann Salomo Semler, the great theologian of Halle, imploring him to investigate the miraculous healings of Gassner, about whom Lavater had been reading for several months. Lavater did not choose Semler at random or only because he was already well known as one of Germany’s leading theologians, a founder of “neologist” interpretation, an approach to Scripture that started with the assumption that the Bible was a human document, to be understood within a historical context. Many Lutheran readers would have also recognized Semler simply asthe...

    (pp. 118-142)

    When we consider the form of the Gassner controversy, one remarkable feature stands out: the unbridled joy several of the combatants felt in laughing at their opponents. The lust for laughter was not quite legitimate in the eighteenth century, however. Critics adopted medical analogies to condemn the barbarous ferocity, the “furor” of the satirist, his blood lust for revenge or for conquest. Moralists in Germany condemned satire and allied forms of criticism as failures of neighborly love, and made it hard to claim that one had only the welfare of one’s foolish antagonist at heart.¹ And yet the claims of...

    (pp. 143-148)

    In the end it was easy enough for an emperor and a pope to stop an obedient priest from abusing or overextending his priestly powers of exorcism. It was, however, an entirely different matter to eradicate or even curtail the belief in evil spirits among a population where such ideas were deeply rooted and seemed to explain so much. Even Protestants discovered that the Gospels were resistant to Enlightened demythologizing. It slowly dawned on some advanced thinkers that just as Jesus had actually believed in an imminent apocalypse, a return to this earth that some of those who heard him...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 149-210)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 211-219)