Challenging the cliche that possession signals physical or mental illness, Brian Levack argues that demoniacs are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts.
The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in Christian West by Brian P Levack (Yale)
Reviewed by Peter Lewis, Daily Mail
This is an age when many people no longer believe in God, so how likely is belief in the Devil? Not very, you might think. You would be wrong. In recent decades, there has been a considerable rise in cases of possession – allegedly by the Devil or his demons – in Christian Europe and the US.
The Roman Catholic Church has been especially concerned with it. In 1999, the Vatican issued a revised ritual for exorcism. Training courses in exorcism were begun in Rome. Every bishop was told to appoint an official exorcist. They were kept busy. One Italian priest claimed to have personally performed 70,000 exorcisms. Meanwhile, the secular public went in for possession in a big way. The Exorcist, originally a novel published in 1971 based on a true case, has twice been filmed.
None of this compares with the 17th century when whole convents of nuns showed symptoms of possession and mass exorcisms were popular public spectacles. This book, by a professor from the University of Texas, is mainly concerned with that period, when the number of people ‘possessed’ rose to the thousands, including the inmates of 50 French convents and many more in Germany and Italy, where an entire village near Rome was possessed.
Possession is as old as the New Testament where Jesus is recorded as casting out devils as one form of healing. It was widely accepted that the Devil could enter into people’s bodies and manipulate them. Often the victims claimed to be taken over by several demons whose names they knew. Seven was a favourite number and Beelzebub a common name (it means Lord of the Flies).
What did demons do to bodies they possessed? The commonest symptoms were convulsions, rigidity of limbs, unnatural strength, bruising and blisters, swollen faces, bulging eyes and stomachs. Victims were hurled to the ground, or pricked painfully by pins. There was vomiting of sharp and bizarre objects - commonly pins and needles (the record being 200 pins) but also nails, coins, glass, lumps of coal, stones. In one case, the Devil exited from the mouth in the form of a toad, in another as an eel 18in long. Copious liquids, in one case 24 chamber pots of blood, were brought up. Or so it was claimed.
Changed speech was common. The possessed would blaspheme in deep altered voices or speak languages that they didn’t know. Much more rare was levitation. Some nuns were raised from the ground and floated horizontally. One of the most famous cases was that of the Ursuline nuns of a convent at Loudun in France, who floated along with their Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne, during exorcism. They answered questions in Latin and Greek, Spanish, Italian and Turkish. They also bent over backwards so far that they could lick the floor.
Their priest-confessor, about whom they clearly entertained sexual fantasies, was accused of witchcraft. He was burned at the stake. The Devils of Loudun became the subject of a book by Aldous Huxley and a film by Ken Russell. Cases of possession became rare in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Victorians were more interested in spiritualism. Then came a new revival from the Sixties onwards - especially among the Pentecostal sects of America.
Several of the symptoms of ‘possession’, we would now recognise as illness. Convulsions and fits would now be recognised as epilepsy, blaspheming as Tourette’s syndrome, rigid muscle spasm as chorea or hysteria, alternating voices as multiple personality disorder. There was also anorexia - some claimed that their devils forbade them to eat. The outbreaks in nunneries might have been hysteria brought on by sexual tensions, possibly aided by the seduction of nuns by priests - or vice versa.
But even discounting heavily for natural explanations, it is hard to account for those cases where several symptoms occurred together. And what about levitation - also reported in several psychic cases…
Review in The Times Higher Education supplement: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/the-devil-within-possession-and-exorcism-in-the-christian-west-by-brian-p-levack/2003525.article
Review on History Today: http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2013/05/possession-and-exorcism-christian-west
Review in The Tablet (pay walled): http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000384/booksandart