Book review: The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West

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Lazy assumptions are overturned in a study of how Europeans tried to exorcise their evil spirits

The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West by Brian P Levack

Yale University Press, 352pp, £25

The Rev Thomas Thomson, the father of the poet James Thomson who wrote The Seasons and Rule Britannia, died in 1718, in peculiar circumstances. He had been called upon to perform an exorcism at Woolie, near Southdean in the Scottish Borders. In the middle of a prayer he was struck on the head by a ball of fire “which he attributed to diabolic agency”, and died a few days later. Brian Levack does not include this story in his fascinating book on the history of demonic possession, and with good reason: his focus is strictly on exorcism in as much as it pertains to removing a demonic spirit from a human victim – and Thomas Thomson was attempting to remove a ghost from a building. But the odd death of Thomas Thomson does conform to some of the other factors which Levack expertly analyses: how Protestants and Roman Catholics differed in their approaches to exorcism and possession and how belief in such phenomena lasted well into the “Age of Enlightenment”.

Levack has produced a compelling and intriguing book, where “possession” is the pinhole through which the wider changes – secularism, scientific understanding, the role of women in the church – can be seen in sharper focus. And yes, it mentions Linda Blair – although thanks to Professor Levack I now know that the famous head-twisting can be traced back to accounts of the possession of the Goodwin children in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1688.

Levack’s thesis is that previous historical investigations into the idea of demonic possession have tended to rationalise it away by two methods. The “demoniac” to use the term of the time is either a fraudulent opportunist (and there certainly were those who fall into that category) or someone suffering from a disease – epilepsy, hysteria, chronic depression, Tourette’s Syndrome and dissociative personality disorder being advanced as the “real” reason. As he argues, neither can explain, satisfactorily, all the descriptions given of possession. It may be that the individual who vomits pins and pieces of clinker is suffering from allotriophagy or pica, but that does not explain speaking foreign languages. It may be that some were chancers (as they are in Ben Jonson’s Bartholemew Fair) but that does not explain why others attempted suicide to rid themselves of the evil spirit ruining their lives. Levack offers “cultural performance” instead. To my knowledge, no atheist has ever claimed to be possessed by the Devil. The stories sufferers were told and the narratives they were exhorted to believe mattered. That those stories were often contradictory, polemical and a ruse makes the book’s thesis even more interesting.

The Church has a problem with demoniacs. Christ expelled demons from individuals five times. He told the apostles to go out and do likewise. Biblical authority, whichever variation of ecclesiastical governance you subscribe to, endorses the duty of the Christian to expel demons from suffering individuals. But the actual method of exorcism is less clear. Mark, Matthew and Luke all record the healing of the “moonstruck” young man whom the disciples could not cure; Jesus says “howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting”. Protestant exorcists took this as a paradigm for exorcism, in contrast to the elaborate rituals set out in the Roman Catholic Rituale Romanum; which they claimed were more akin to magical conjuring than theological healing. Close analysis of Biblical texts created more problems: the demons in Capernaum and Gadarene both acknowledged Jesus as God – how could early modern exorcists square this with the idea that the demon was the “Father of Lies”, and his pronouncements were not to be trusted? As Levack shows, there was a kind of liturgical arms race surrounding exorcism. It was a powerful and useful element of propaganda for the Counter-Reformation – at Loudun, in 1634, when 17 Ursuline nuns were supposedly possessed, there were 25,000 spectators to the exorcism. Likewise, when Martin Luther failed to exorcise a girl from Meissen, Jesuits were quick to claim that this proved the inefficacy of Protestantism. Levack is astute on the differences: the Roman Catholic Church had a whole array of potential devices – using relics, tying the sufferer with chasubles, laying on the consecrated host – that Protestantism lacked. The number of potential “cures” meant that fewer Catholic demoniacs succumbed to religious despair. On the other hand, it is conspicuous that Lutheran and Calvinist possessions rarely mention sexual fixations, while it is a prominent feature of Catholic accounts of possession (as in Loudun, where the sexual element was crucial, especially in its subsequent aesthetics recreations – Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, Penderecki’s opera, and, er, Ken Russell’s film, The Devils).

Looking closely at the accounts of exorcisms, it becomes evident that there is no clear-cut division between superstitious religious believers and rationalists. Although thinkers such as Hobbes, Spinoza and latterly Charcot and Freud were of the opinion that possessions could be attributed to either fraud or illness, it was central to the practice of exorcism that natural causes – whether impersonation or sickness – should be ruled out before exorcism.

Levack shows that demoniacs were treated more sympathetically than those accused of witchcraft. Thomist theology maintained that the devil could possess the body but not the soul – the victim was essentially innocent. Calvinists were more strict; to them possession was a sign that the sinfulness of the victim was the chink through which the devil slipped. Again, the Roman Catholic victims tended to recover more frequently than the Protestant ones.

Although the book is mostly concerned with the early modern period, the final chapter brings the story up to date. There is a blurring between witchcraft and possession nowadays, with tragic consequences: recent cases of child abuse and even murder where the parents or adults believe they are “ridding” a child of demons are sufficient proof. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI instructed all dioceses to have at least one exorcist, and the Vatican offers course for aspirant exorcists (although Levack shows that the laity often took on the role, particularly outwith the Roman Catholic church).

This is a nuanced and precise study, and as such overturns many lazy presumptions of both religious and secular thinkers. It ought to inspire more research: what was the precise cultural background, in terms of books, images and plays, which fed into the “theatrical” possession? Jeanne des Anges, the mother superior at Loudun, claimed she was possessed by “Asmodeus, Zabulon, Isacaaron, Astaroth, Gresil, Amand, Leviatom, Behemot, Beherie, Easas, Celsus, Acaos, Cedon, Alex, Naphthalim, Cham, Ureil, and Achas”. Where did these names come from? Mystery plays? The Apocrypha? Secular romances? Her own imagination? Prompting by the exorcist, who may have been au fait with books like The Lesser Key of Solomon and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum? Tracking down the specifics could greatly enhance our understanding of the early modern religious imagination.