Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages / Edition 1

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Trance states, prophesying, convulsions, fasting, and other physical manifestations were often regarded as signs that a person was seized by spirits. In a book that sets out the prehistory of the early modern European witch craze, Nancy Caciola shows how medieval people decided whom to venerate as a saint infused with the spirit of God and whom to avoid as a demoniac possessed of an unclean spirit. This process of discrimination, known as the discernment of spirits, was central to the religious culture of Western Europe between 1200 and 1500.Since the outward manifestations of benign and malign possession were indistinguishable, a highly ambiguous set of bodily features and behaviors were carefully scrutinized by observers. Attempts to make decisions about individuals who exhibited supernatural powers were complicated by the fact that the most intense exemplars of lay spirituality were women, and the "fragile sex" was deemed especially vulnerable to the snares of the devil. Assessments of women's spirit possessions often oscillated between divine and demonic interpretations. Ultimately, although a few late medieval women visionaries achieved the prestige of canonization, many more were accused of possession by demons. Caciola analyzes a broad array of sources from saints' lives to medical treatises, exorcists' manuals to miracle accounts, to find that observers came to rely on the discernment of bodies rather than seeking to distinguish between divine and demonic possession in purely spiritual terms.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Caciola brings to light lesser-known but textually documented visionaries of the Middle Ages, along with the big names, in her study of the fine line between 'delusional' and 'devotional' behaviors. In discussing these medieval women's behavior and writings, she highlights the fact that gender was often the factor that determined whether one was considered demonically or divinely possessed. . . . Caciola provides a perceptive piece of historical scholarship on a topic of great interest to religious studies and women's studies collections."—Library Journal 15 September 2003

"Discerning Spirits is clearly an important contribution to the study of medieval culture, demonic possession, sainthood, and women's history. Caciola has a strong command of Latin, French, German, and Italian as witnessed in the numerous translations dispersed throughout the text. The footnotes provide excellent bibliographic information for those interested in the notion of discernment. Ultimately, the work succeeds in laying out a framework for the discernment of bodies associated with divine and demonic possession, especially among women."—Lisa Mora, Comitatus, 2004

"This book is a thoughtful and rich exploration of an important aspect of medieval religious culture. Discerning readers interested in spirituality, gender, or conceptions of the body in the Middle Ages will be well rewarded."—Michael D. Bailey, American Historical Review, June 2004

"The point of departure for this remarkable and bracingly refreshing book on female spirit possession in medieval France, Italy, and the Lowlands is the observation that divine possession and demonic possession manifested themselves in almost identical ways in the human body"Through trance states, raging, levitation, irruptions on the skin, through prophecy, visions, and the like. . . . The author has a remarkable gift for language and an obvious delight in the well-chosen word; her sentences crackle with energy and shine with a luminous clarity. Occasionally flashes of brilliances in the phrasing—e.g., the way Caciola refers to 'the tinsel glamour of false sainthood'—linger in the mind long after the reading is done. Discerning Spirits is a masterful achievement."—William Layher, Renaissance Quarterly

"The groundbreaking work on exorcism manuals and the impressive range of sources handled throughout the book are particularly noteworthy. Moreover, the striking visual evidence is clearly presented, lucidly analyzed, and tightly interwoven with the rest of the argument. Scholars, graduate students, and even advanced undergraduates interested in the history of women, the church, and the body will profit from reading Discerning Spirits."—Sean Field, Speculum, April 2005

"Nancy Caciola explores the deep misogyny in medieval culture as it appears in the treatment of female demoniacs, in clerical reactions to women's extraordinary piety, and in the literature on discernment of spirits. She traces the ambiguous boundary between sainthood and demonic possession. And she shows with unusual clarity how thinking about these matters developed in the specific circumstances of later medieval culture. Discerning Spirits will fascinate readers interested in sainthood, possession, women's history, and medieval culture generally."—Richard Kieckhefer, Northwestern University

"In thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe, theologians and preachers could not decide how to interpret the behavior of certain inspired women who experienced trances and ecstatic states: were they possessed by the devil or filled with the Holy Spirit? With no objective criteria for 'discerning spirits'—evaluating the soul based on outward appearances—it was generally accepted that the signs were ambiguous and the nature of the women's souls uncertain. By exploring the historical record, Nancy Caciola helps us understand that the strict opposition between Good and Evil is not an intrinsic aspect of religious and political discourse. Such a book is urgently needed today!"—Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, author of Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society

Library Journal
Caciola (history, Univ. of California, San Diego) brings to light lesser-known but textually documented visionaries of the Middle Ages, along with the big names, in her study of the fine line between "delusional" and "devotional" behaviors. In discussing these medieval women's behavior and writings, she highlights the fact that gender was often the factor that determined whether one was considered demonically or divinely possessed. Medieval mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen herself defined her age as the "effeminate age," in which foolish clerics fell prey to what she viewed, somewhat hypocritically, as self-dramatizing, deluded female visionaries. Using medieval hagiographies as well as hostile depictions, Caciola challenges scholarly notions of saints and demonics, finding this divide neither self-evident nor "natural," since saints can also be heretics, pseudo-prophets, and the possessed as well. She focuses on visionaries such as Catherine of Siena, Brigit of Sweden, and Hildegard of Bingen, though one might wonder at the silence on Joan of Arc, a visionary who clearly transgresses gender expectations for her age (which ultimately solidifies her martyrdom) in political as well as religious ways. Still, Caciola provides a perceptive piece of historical scholarship on a topic of great interest to religious studies and women's studies collections. Recommended for academic libraries.-Sandra Collins, Duquesne Univ. Lib., Pittsburgh Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Introduction 1
Pt. I "A Protracted Disputation"
1 Possessed Behaviors 31
2 Ciphers 79
Pt. II Spiritual Physiologies
3 Fallen Women and Fallen Angels 129
4 Breath, Heart, Bowels 176
Pt. III Discernment and Discipline
5 Exorcizing Demonic Disorder 225
6 Testing Spirits in the Effeminate Age 274
Index 321
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