Why are we so obsessed with tales of demonic possession and exorcism?by Josephine Livingstone / April 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
Like gout and marrying cousins, demonic possession and exorcism belong to that category of things that one thinks of as having been around forever. They are familiar, part of our everyday language: I’m facing my demons, he’s exorcising the past, she’s running around like a woman possessed. When something becomes a metaphor in this way, it begins to hide its strangeness from us. Brian Levack’s new history of demonic possession in the Christian West, The Devil Within (Yale, £25), succeeds in making possession strange again. He shows that exorcism isn’t just a good metaphor for rehab but rather a historical activity, which had its heyday in 16th and 17th-century Europe.
As you might expect, The Devil Within is full of great stories. In 1619, a nun called Benedetta was asked why she had engaged in a variety of—sadly unspecified—sexual practices with another nun named Bartolomea. Benedetta explained that she had been possessed by a beautiful male angel called Splendiletto. During an ecclesiastical investigation of her claims, Benedetta sometimes spoke in the voice of Splendiletto, leading the investigators to suspect, understandably, demonic rather than angelic possession. Another passage recounts the story of another nun possessed at Auxonne in 1658, who hoisted a heavy marble vase full of holy water using just two of her slender fingers. There is also the 1620 case of William Perry, a 12-year-old boy who claimed to be possessed, but who was exposed as a fake when he was caught mixing his urine with ink to make it blue.
By focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries as the high-point for possession, Levack makes a surprising argument. Like witch-burning, demonic possession feels “medieval” in our contemporary imagination but it didn’t actually happen with any regularity in the medieval period. Rather, Levack shows how demonology persisted into the era of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, when one thinks of science and rationality beginning to shine light on the darkness.
Levack explains this by highlighting the rise of nominalism in the early 15th century, the view that “an inscrutable, arbitrary God might give the devil great latitude in the world for reasons unknown to humankind.” Popular apocalyptic thought—the strong suspicion that the final battle between good and evil was under way—made possession seem reasonable, even expected. The devil (or his attendant demons) taking control of your body was like the forces of evil saving seats at the cinema by putting coats on them.