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The Devil Within

The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    The Devil Within
    Book Description:

    In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the era of the Reformation, thousands of Europeans were thought to be possessed by demons. In response to their horrifying symptoms-violent convulsions, displays of preternatural strength, vomiting of foreign objects, displaying contempt for sacred objects, and others-exorcists were summoned to expel the evil spirits from victims' bodies. This compelling book focuses on possession and exorcism in the Reformation period, but also reaches back to the fifteenth century and forward to our own times.

    Entire convents of nuns in French, Italian, and Spanish towns, 30 boys in an Amsterdam orphanage, a small group of young girls in Salem, Massachusetts-these are among the instances of demon possession in the United States and throughout Europe that Brian Levack closely examines, taking into account the diverse interpretations of generations of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, physicians, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians. Challenging the commonly held belief that possession signals physical or mental illness, the author argues that demoniacs and exorcists-consciously or not-are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19538-5
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  5. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  7. CHAPTER 1 Making Sense of Demonic Possession
    (pp. 1-31)

    During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the reading public in Europe was treated to a steady diet of stories describing the extraordinary behaviour of people who were said to have been possessed by demons. The unfortunate victims of these attacks, usually referred to as demoniacs, reportedly experienced violent convulsions, their limbs stiffened, and they demonstrated extraordinary physical strength. Their faces became grossly distorted, their eyes bulged, and their throats and stomachs swelled. They experienced temporary loss of hearing, sight, and speech, vomited huge quantities of pins, nails, and other materials, spoke in deep animal-sounding voices, suffered various eating disorders, and...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Possession and Exorcism in Christian Antiquity
    (pp. 32-55)

    A study of demonic possession in the early modern period must begin with the biblical accounts of the exorcisms performed by Christ. The main reason for this starting point is that both Protestants and Catholics appealed to these biblical texts to prove the reality of the phenomenon they were observing in their own day. Biblical possessions and exorcisms also provided scripts that demoniacs and exorcists followed in the religious theatre of possession. The account of Christ’s exorcism of a boy with a ‘dumb spirit’ in Mark 9: 17 had such an emotional impact on the young Augustinian monk Martin Luther...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Possession in Christian Demonology
    (pp. 56-80)

    The widespread belief that demons could invade human bodies and seize control of their physical and mental faculties was an essential precondition of the surge in the number of possessions in early modern Europe. If theologians had not subscribed to this belief, ecclesiastical authorities would not have devoted as much attention as they did to demoniacs; preachers would not have given sermons on the subject; and large public exorcisms would not have taken place. Possessions would still have occurred in local communities, as they had throughout the history of Christianity, but a large wave of possessions, often described as an...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Expelling the Demon
    (pp. 81-112)

    The expulsion of demons from human bodies, often referred to as exorcism, was an essential component of the possession experience. Although its purpose was to heal demoniacs, the procedure more often than not aggravated their symptoms, allegedly agitating the demons within and causing the demoniacs greater suffering. The demons were said to have tormented their victims more severely as they vacated their bodies than at any time during their occupation. During exorcism the voices of the demons speaking through their victims became louder and more fearful than ever before. When the demons departed they were often described as ugly creatures,...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Demonic Possession and Illness
    (pp. 113-138)

    The claim that demoniacs were ‘really’ suffering from a medical condition that had ‘natural’ causes—from an organic disease or a mental illness—has been the most consistent secular, rationalist analysis of demonic possession since the period of Christian antiquity.¹ This interpretation of demonic possession has served the purposes of sceptics from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, and it has continued to serve the purposes of psychiatrists in the past one hundred and fifty years. It has also appealed to biblical scholars who have refused to accept a literalist interpretation of the exorcism narratives in the New Testament....

  12. CHAPTER 6 The Performance of the Possessed
    (pp. 139-168)

    The most fruitful way for modern scholars to make sense of demonic possession is to see it as a theatrical performance that reflected the religious cultures of the demoniac, the community, and the exorcist. Others have of course seen possession in very different ways. To those who believed in the existence of the Devil and his ability to intervene in the natural world, the violent seizures, contortions, swellings, and blasphemies were clearly the work of the Devil, and if they had any doubts about the Devil’s ability to make human beings act in this way, they could have been reassured...

  13. CHAPTER 7 The Demoniac in Society
    (pp. 169-190)

    The argument of the last chapter is that possession reflected the specific religious culture in which it occurred. Demoniacs were following scripts that were encoded in their religious cultures. This was true regardless of whether these victims of diabolical torment were deliberately faking possession or had experienced a physiological, neurological, or psychic disorder. But possessions took place in, and were influenced by, the social environments in which they occurred. To extend the analogy with the theatre, religious culture provided the roles that demoniacs played in the sacred drama of possession, but their social relationships with family members and neighbours help...

  14. CHAPTER 8 The Demoniac and the Witch
    (pp. 191-214)

    Demonic possession and witchcraft, as they were understood in the early modern period, were two distinct but related activities. Possession was the alleged occupation of a human body by one or more demons that resulted in the person’s loss of control over his or her physical and mental functions. Witchcraft was the infliction of harm or misfortune by means of a magical power that the witch was believed to have acquired from the Devil. In most cases it was believed that the witch had acquired this magical power by concluding a pact with the Devil. In some cases the witch...

  15. CHAPTER 9 Possession in the Age of Reason
    (pp. 215-239)

    Until about 1700, the number of cases of demonic possession and the number of witchcraft prosecutions tracked each other fairly closely. They had risen hand in hand, especially as witches were increasingly held responsible for sending the demons into the bodies of the possessed. In the seventeenth century, when witchcraft prosecutions entered a long period of decline, the number of possessions also began to shrink. Growing scepticism regarding the authenticity of many instances of demonic possession, especially those in convents at Loudun and Louviers, contributed to this decline in witchcraft prosecutions, most notably in France.¹ In Catholic Germany a new...

  16. CHAPTER 10 Possession: Past and Present
    (pp. 240-253)

    The mass possessions at Morzine, Verzegnis, Plédran, and Jaca in the late nineteenth century were the last of their kind. These epidemics resembled much more the large contagious possessions of the seventeenth century than the smaller, individual possessions that had taken place throughout the history of Christianity. In the twentieth century individual possessions still took place, although in significantly reduced numbers. They continued to resemble the possessions that had taken place since early modern times. The only difference between the two most widely publicized cases in the early twentieth century is that they took place in locations where few if...

  17. CHAPTER 11 Conclusion
    (pp. 254-265)

    Although we shall never know how many European men and women were possessed during the early modern period, by the end of the sixteenth century possession had reached very large and possibly unprecedented proportions. Possessions became so frequent in these years that William Monter called the seventeenth century ‘the golden age of the demoniac’.¹ Even if we exclude the possessions that occurred in the context of large healing campaigns, on the grounds that those demoniacs did not display many of the classic signs of their affliction, we know that the number of demoniacs reached into the thousands. Further evidence that...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 266-313)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 314-335)
  20. Index
    (pp. 336-346)