Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism

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From 1400 through 1700, the number of reports of demonic possessions among European women was extraordinarily high. During the same period, a new type of mysticism—popular with women—emerged that greatly affected the risk of possession and, as a result, the practice of exorcism. Many feared that in moments of rapture, women, who had surrendered their souls to divine love, were not experiencing the work of angels, but rather the ravages of demons in disguise. So how then, asks Moshe Sluhovsky, were practitioners of exorcism to distinguish demonic from divine possessions?

Drawing on unexplored accounts of mystical schools and spiritual techniques, testimonies of the possessed, and exorcism manuals, Believe Not Every Spirit examines how early modern Europeans dealt with this dilemma. The personal experiences of practitioners, Sluhovsky shows, trumped theological knowledge. Worried that this could lead to a rejection of Catholic rituals, the church reshaped the meaning and practices of exorcism, transforming this healing rite into a means of spiritual interrogation. In its efforts to distinguish between good and evil, the church developed important new explanatory frameworks for the relations between body and soul, interiority and exteriority, and the natural and supernatural.

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Editorial Reviews

Natalie Zemon Davis
“Moshe Sluhovsky’s fascinating study links spirit possession, exorcism, and mystical practice in early modern Europe. Women and men, healers and priestly exorcisers are caught up in a new quest for truth and introspection as they try to figure out whether these dramas of body and soul come from the devil or God. A stunning feat of scholarship and interpretation.”
Stuart Clark
Believe Not Every Spirit achieves something very rare—it gives entirely new shape to a vast historical subject. Encompassing the spiritual and physical dimensions of Catholic religiosity and the divine and diabolic causalities at work in both, it reinterprets the myriad experiences and beliefs of visionaries, mystics, demoniacs, exorcists, and inquisitors over three centuries. The key to Moshe Sluhovsky’s ambitious and compelling argument is the concept of the discernment of spirits, in his hands both a sophisticated hermeneutics for the reading of religious texts and arguments and a key to understanding the lives of individual men and women in states of possession. This is a sensitive, compassionate, and profoundly original book.”
Barbara Diefendorf
Believe Not Every Spirit offers a new and fruitful approach to the problem of spirit possession in early modern Europe. While a number of historians have written about the dramatic cases of demonic possession that troubled European convents, none has addressed why, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the diagnosis of demonic possession was attached with increasing frequency to spiritually minded women. This is the problem that Moshe Sluhovsky takes up, and he does so with great success.”
Catholic Library World - Lucien J. Richard
"This is a very scholarly book. It is a model of how an important element of a religious tradition needs to be examined. It is highly recommended not only for its content but also for its method."
Books and Culture - Daid Martin
"This study of mysticism and possession in early modern Europe is a model of scrupulous scholarship, not only on account of its detailed scrutiny of a very complex historical literature in half a dozen languages, but on account of its refusal to apply reductive frameworks at the expense of the integrity of the data."
H-Net - Marc R. Forster
"Sluhovsky has written an excellent study of possession and mysticism in early modern European Catholicism. His elegantly written and clearly argued book . . . points scholars in some new directions in understanding the meaning of demonic possession."
AAR Book Reviews - Rudolph M. Bell
"A sprawling, energetic, deeply researched book, one that glides happily to and fro among salacious tidbits and big historiographical assertions. . . . One of the book's major objectives, thoroughly achieved, is to persuade us that early modern people widely if not uniformly accepted spirits, good and evil, as routine participants in their daily lives. . . . The entire book merits close reading by a wide audience interested in the history of Western Christianity."
The Historian - Robert Fastiggi
"An exceptional piece of historical scholarship and highly recommended for historians of early modern Catholicism."
Religious Studies Review - Gordon James Klingenschmitt
"Highly recommended for researchers of French and Roman early modern Catholic demonology."
Journal of Modern History - Susan Rosa
"Any short summary can give only a limited account of the argument presented in this well-documented, rigorously historicized, ambitious, and thought-provoking contribution to the cultural history of antinomian spirituality."
Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft - Nancy Caciola
"A highly stimulating and enjoyable read. Extensively researched, clearly written, and carefully argued, Believe Not Every Spirit is the definitive study of early modern possession and discernment."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226762821
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Moshe Sluhovsky is professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and visiting associate professor at Brown University.

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Read an Excerpt

Believe Not Every Spirit Possession, Mysticism, & Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-76282-1

Chapter One Trivializing Possession

Let us start with two anecdotes. A pamphlet praising the local shrine of Treille, in Flanders, recorded that in 1634 a miracle took place "in the body of Marie de Lescurie, daughter of Jacques and Jeanne de la Fosse from the parish of Saint-Étienne in the city of Lille, twenty-seven years of age, who, after having been afflicted with diverse and strange illnesses for seven or eight years, and [due to] the complete lack of results of the cures applied by physicians, it was recognized finally that her suffering could not derive from any natural cause, but was due to a malevolent and evil spirit. With the permission of the bishop of Tournai, it was decided to proceed to exorcisms." It took a novena of prayers and exorcisms in the shrine of Notre-Dame de la Treille to expel the possessing demon. Just a few years later, an entry in a Book of Miracles that recorded the miracles of the Virgin of the shrine of Eberhardsklausen, in the Rhineland, documented a similar recovery: "In the year 1642, the 12th of November, Matthiess, sixteen-year-old son of Nikolass Pützen, a townsman of Merl, was beset by an unfamiliar, furious mania that it was widely held that it was caused by evil spirits. The youth, his arms rigidly contracted, with paralysis of the face, foaming of the mouth, and with irrational appetite, shouting [and] howling terribly, broke off the Agnus Dei, [and] behaved so inhumanly that many imagined that he was possessed by an evil spirit, since he also became fully dumb and mute. Hence the parents, after futilely seeking advice many times, took their last refuge to the Mother of Jesus, rich in mercy, at Eberhardsklausen with the promise of a pilgrimage and of [a donation of] wax. Upon which the mad youth immediately came back into possession of his reason, began to speak, and became healthy in all ways."

At the earliest stages of Marie's illness, it was assumed that organic causes were responsible for her condition, and physicians administered natural medicine for her affliction. It was their failure that led to the suspicion that there must be a diabolic cause for her condition. Young Matthiess's furious mania combined both physiological and mental symptoms, and it is likely that he, too, had been examined by physicians and had been exorcised by the local priest at Merl, who had given him the Agnus Dei prior to his pilgrimage to the Marian shrine. Both cases, I would argue, were typical of the dynamics that characterized most diabolic possessions and exorcisms in early modern Europe. A person who was assumed to be possessed by demons was taken to a healer or to a healing site, where healing practitioners performed their assigned job and cured the afflicted person. Importantly, both cases were recorded only in the ledgers of the local shrines in which they occurred. The matter-of-factness of the events themselves and the prosaic nature of the entries represent the mundane character of the traditional form of diabolic possession in premodern Europe. In fact, we do not even know what passed during the exorcisms, which techniques were used by the exorcists, and, in Matthiess's case, how long the expulsion lasted.

The purpose of this chapter is to trivialize diabolic possession and to show the banality of such cases in early modern Europe. This, in opposition to a tendency in the historical literature to present occurrences of diabolic possession as dramatic events, which were allegedly rare as much as they were sensational. As I shall argue in this chapter, demonic possession was originally a catch-all term that was used in premodern times to describe all sorts of both physiological and psychological afflictions, the causes of which were not self-evidently organic, or afflictions that failed to respond to standard naturalist medical cures. Starting in the late Middle Ages, however, the diagnosis of possession was expanded to include disturbances that had their origins as well as their manifestations solely in the soul. This widening of the scope of possession was a response to unprecedented growth of ecstatic behaviors that characterized both divine and diabolic possessions. With more people claiming direct interactions with the divine, self-described visionaries, prophets, and prophetesses were scrutinized more and more thoroughly by the church. More often than not, they were found to be possessed by malevolent, rather than divine spirits.

While the experience of possession itself was always one of pain and agony, being diagnosed as possessed gave meaning to the individual's sufferings and hopes for recovery. A diagnosis of possession made sense. It was familiar to both the laity and clerics from numerous previous cases that had been recorded in the Bible and in lives of saints, and from previous and similar events that many early modern Europeans witnessed firsthand. Possession was an idiom that was a part of the cultural vocabulary of early modern people. It was therefore easily appropriated and shared by the demoniac herself, her family and neighbors, as well as by the lay and clerical healing experts or the theologians who partook in the diagnostic and healing processes and in the curing ceremonies that followed. As a rule, it was only once physicians of the body failed in their curative attempts that physicians of soul intervened, offering an alternative healing technique, the essence of which was the performance of ritual and invocation of superior powers. But given the shortcomings of premodern medicine, almost all afflictions could ultimately be attributed to a demonic appropriation of the human body. Thus, the boundaries between natural and supernatural causalities and between physiological and psychological symptoms were completely porous.

The Bible itself gave credence to an understanding of demonic possession as a state that at first glance cannot be distinguished from other forms of illness. The casting out of evil spirits and the healing of diseases are regularly spoken of together: "He gave them authority over unclean spirits ... and they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them" (Mark 6:7-13; cf. Matt. 4:24; Acts 5:16). Possession could manifest itself in purely physiological symptoms but could also include psychological signs, two categories that, in and of themselves, made little sense for premodern people. Both ailments that we, today, would identify as "purely" physiological or organic and psychological and pyschopathological disorders that modern medicine would ascribe to mental illness or to chemical disturbances in the brain (such as epilepsy or depression) were earlier diagnosed as resulting from demonic invasion.

A definition of demonic possession as a term that could apply to all sorts of afflictions both affirms and challenges common explanations of diabolic possession. First and foremost, it ignores the Catholic Church's own current definition and description of what constitutes possession. Prior to the creation of mandatory etiological and diagnostic rules for the exorcism of possessing demons and the compilation of an authorized Roman Rite in 1614, however, the church did not hold a clear view concerning the essence, the causes, and the characteristics of demonic possession. Overlapping, and at times contradictory, definitions and explanations abounded. Theologians and physicians disagreed among themselves regarding the nature of possessing identities; what constituted a possession and how to distinguish demonic from "natural" affliction; whether a specific case presented enough signs indicating that it was, indeed, a case of possession; whether natural remedies should be used (and if so, which); whether prayers and invocations of saints sufficed to deliver the possessed or whether a full exorcism was necessary; and, finally, assuming a rite had to be performed, which liturgy should be used. There was also no agreement on the most basic theological issues, among them whether diabolic possession was a divine retribution for some previous sinful act committed by the demoniac or whether people became possessed due to bad luck; who was qualified to perform exorcism; and whether exorcism succeeded ex opere operato or only ex opere operantis. The complex and fascinating process by which the Catholic Church established orthodox answers to these questions stands at the heart of this book. In this respect, the use of a posteriori definitions such as "prescribed rite" or "mental illness" is counterproductive and even misleading. An expansive, rather than restrictive, definition, like the one offered here, situates diabolic possession within the polysemic matrix of diverse experiences and practices that shaped attitudes toward possession; the nature of both the human body and the human soul; the relations among the human, the divine, and the demonic; and the demarcation between the natural and the supernatural.

Whether it took place in the body or in the soul, diabolic possession in early modern Europe afflicted many more women than men. This trend corresponds to an almost universal overrepresentation of women among the possessed in most societies, as anthropologists and cross-cultural ethnopsychologists have repeatedly pointed out. In Europe, as in many other societies, the association between women and physiological and psychic suffering was part and parcel of the cultural imagination. According to early modern medical theory, women were considered moist and cold, and hence more prone to "contaminations" and "impressions." Their imagination was presumably more active, while their intellect was weaker. Women were assumed to be less rational and to have less control over their bodies. They were therefore viewed as more easily tempted and deluded, serving as a convenient gateway for Satan. Early modernists also believed that women's sexuality was insatiable, and that their wombs might wander into their brains and cause hysteria. All of these notions rendered women more susceptible to the influence of spirits, be they demonic, disembodied, or angelic. Thus, the idiom of possession, based as it was on an entire set of misogynistic assumptions, created spiritual possibilities for women at the same time that it suspected them. As we shall see throughout this book, it was the paradox of women's susceptibility to both diabolic and divine spirits that increased anxieties concerning possessions and led, by the seventeenth century, to new and restricted definitions of both possession and exorcism.

Put differently, just as symptoms of afflictions needed to be diagnosed prior to a definition of possession, possessing spirits themselves needed to be discerned. Possession indicated an involuntary encounter between a human being and a spirit of an undefined nature. The large majority of medieval and early modern theologians argued that the possessing spirit was likely to be an angel or a fallen angel (a demon), but even this assertion was not above doubt. Among the laity and some clergymen, alternative traditions were also common. Some theologians and many laypeople held that spirits of the dead could also come back to haunt and (more rarely) possess humans. And while orthodoxy had it that most apparitions of and possessions by the dead were demonic deceptions, a confusion concerning the identity of possessing entities was common enough. The importance of this point cannot be overstated, because this hesitancy concerning the identity of possessing entities-were they deceased, demonic, or divine?-shaped many of the cases, as the two following examples from sixteenth-century France demonstrate.

In 1527 Anthoinette de Grollee, a nun in the reformed convent of Saint-Pierre in Lyon, felt that somebody was lifting her veil and kissing her while she was asleep. More kisses followed on succeeding nights, and, together with growing noises that were heard from the nun's room, they alarmed the abbess to suspect the presence of a spirit. Anthoinette was the first to hypothesize that she was being disturbed by the disembodied spirit of her good friend Alis de Tissieur. The latter was among the nuns brought into Saint-Pierre following its reform. Alis was never happy there and got depressed and, worse yet, was given to "abandoning her honor at any time." She left the convent but continued to live dangerously, her body becoming diseased and deformed. In 1524, blind, ugly, and partially paralyzed, Alis repented and asked the Virgin if she could be buried in her beloved convent. Alas, she died on the road and was buried without a funeral or prayers.

Years earlier, while Alis was still in the convent, she befriended the young novice Anthoinette. Now, almost ten years later, Anthoinette suspected that her friend had come back from the afterlife to ask for help in getting her last wish fulfilled. Once the spirit was conjured to tell the truth, Anthoinette's suspicion was confirmed. The abbess then brought Alis's bones into the chapel, but before the nuns had time to rebury their deceased ex-sister, violent noises of knocking disrupted the prayer. In the meantime, a rumor spread in Lyon that a nun was possessed, and the bishop of Lyon and Father Adrien de Montalembert were called to advise whether the encounter between Anthoinette and Alis was a case of possession by a demonic spirit or an apparition by a revenant, and given the diagnosis, what the best way to deliver the spirit would be. Sensational news travel fast, and early the following morning, when the two clerics tried to make their way in to start their exorcisms, four thousand people blocked the gates to the convent. Was Alis's spirit residing inside Anthoinette's body or was it wandering around the convent, they wondered. "I was charged with composing the ceremonies, exorcisms, conjurations, and adjurations that one should use to discover the pure truth of this spirit," Montalembert explained. Note that the exorcism was not intended to cast out Anthoinette's demon but merely to discern its nature. Yet Montalembert had to admit that there were no clear rules to distinguish the souls of the dead from evil spirits. Avoiding risks, the bishop then started to exorcise both the church itself and Anthoinette, but loud knocks from underneath the ground prevented him from pursuing the ceremony. Ordering the nuns to chant the entire book of Psalms and to confess, he left. The nuns spent the following days praying, and only when their task was completed did the bishop resume the exorcism. At this stage, the bishop was treating the entity within Anthoinette as if it were a demon. He cursed and adjured it in Latin and had Montalembert translate the adjurations into French for the benefit of the huge crowd that was present just outside the walls: "You, destroyer of truth, listen to our pronouncements against you frauds. God commands you to leave this place." The bishop then excommunicated the demon and forbade it to come back, cursing it with eternal damnation (F iiii-G ii). Then Alis's bones were brought into the church. Anthoinette (and her spirit) were placed opposite Alis, and the bishop renewed his interaction with the spirit. Now, however, his first question was whether it was the spirit of the deceased sister, to which the spirit answered "yes." It then went on to recognize the bones as its own (I i-I ii).

As a disembodied and wandering soul rather than a demon, the spirit then conversed with the bishop, offering different types of knocks for positive and negative answers. Alis's spirit confirmed the existence of guardian angels and recounted its own encounter with the devil himself. It affirmed the existence of purgatory and asserted that prayers, alms, good works, fasts, pilgrimages, and indulgences were all beneficent for the salvation of souls. In all of these answers, she "contradicted and condemned the damned assertions of the false heretic Lutherans." The spirit also confirmed the sacrality of Catholic holy days such as Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and feasts connected with the Virgin Mary. On all of these dates, it instructed, based on its firsthand knowledge of the working of purgatory, sins are remitted and souls in purgatory get time off from their suffering. The edifying discourse over, Anthoinette (or was it Alis's spirit?) knelt in front of each nun and asked forgiveness, while the bishop ordered a set of absolutions and prayers to deliver Alis from purgatory. A month later, Alis appeared one last time to Anthoinette, announcing that due to the nuns' prayers and the Virgin's intervention, her sojourn in purgatory was shortened, and she was soon to depart to paradise.


Excerpted from Believe Not Every Spirit by MOSHE SLUHOVSKY Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgements ix
Introduction 1


1: Trivializing Possession
2: The Prevalence of Mundane Practice
3: From Praxis to Prescribed Ritual


4: La Spiritualité à la Mode
5: Contemplation, Possession, and Sexual Misconduct


6: Anatomy of the Soul
7: Discerning Women


8: The Devil in the Convent
9: Conclusions


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