Sunday, April 7, 2013

Demonic Possession in the Renaissance

Along with the great witch scare of the 16th and 17th centuries went a related explosion in demonic possession. Of course demonic possession is an ancient idea and appears in the Bible, but so far as we can tell it was not common in the high Middle Ages. It appears in conversion narratives, performed by the saints who converted heathens, but not so much afterward. For the 16th and even more the 17th centuries, though, there are hundreds of well-documented, high profile cases and many more obscure ones. Now Brian Levack, a thorough and accurate if not very imaginative historian, has a new book, and Josephine Livingstone has a review:
The key to the “popularity” of possession in early modern Europe, he says, is that it was a great spectacle. This is why films about possession work: possession is about agency but also humankind’s tendency to put on a show. Possession, in short, is very watchable.

“Demoniacs as well as all those who participated in the effort to cure them,” he writes, should be regarded “as performers in religious dramas.” In the early days of the church, exorcisms were intended to convert the audience, becoming a tool for disseminating demonological thought. Demonology held that the devil exists and only the one true (Catholic) church can help you keep him out of your body. As a PR exercise for a church competing among churches, it was hard to beat.

Exorcisms involved a cast of “families, neighbours, physicians [and] pastors.” They were “directed” by the exorcist and drew large audiences: one 1632 exorcism at Loudun was witnessed by 25,000 people, the equivalent of a full home crowd at Wigan Athletic. They were public entertainment. The demoniac was cued to begin and end their antics. The exorcist wore a costume and carried props. The exorcist could follow one of many published scripts. The demoniacs themselves read accounts of other possessions or witnessed them.
The thing that bothers me about most modern accounts of possession and exorcism is that the historians don't pay enough attention to how real and scary demons are to believers. Certainly there was cynicism and fakery in the Renaissance; many cases were exposed as frauds at the time. But even the fraudsters believed that demonic possession was possible, in a way that most modern academics do not. This may have been theater, but it was theater in which God and Satan truly appeared and struggled over human souls.

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