The Dispossessed: Brian Levack’s “The Devil Within”

May 3, 2013

    IT WAS IN NOVEMBER of 1565 that Nicole Obry of Vervins, France, first became possessed. Sixteen-years-old, recently married, and illiterate, she had never really caused any trouble to anyone until that autumn, when she was visited by the spirit of her deceased grandfather, who entreated Nicole and her family to undertake a series of pilgrimages on his behalf so as to rescue his soul from Purgatory. When Obry’s family proved unable to do as commanded, the teenage girl became temporarily deaf, blind, and mute. Her body alternated between periods of rigid paralysis and limp torpor. Upon examining her, Friar Pierre de la Motte was immediately convinced that it was not her grandfather but the Devil who had invaded her body.

    De la Motte, in collaboration with the bishop of Laon, began his exorcism of Obry. According to church regulation, exorcisms are to be conducted privately, but in this case the Devil himself commanded the bishop to conduct the exorcism in public. (Exorcism manuals usually recommend complying with demons’ requests whenever possible, so as to expedite their expulsion.) And so a stage was erected, upon which the bishop, the friar, and the possessed girl performed a bizarre drama for the benefit of some 10,000 onlookers.

    During the three-month ordeal, Obry’s body underwent paroxysms and seizures, as well as local and generalized paralysis. The bishop put questions to her in four languages (French, Latin, German, and Flemish); Obry answered in French and also in Flemish, a tongue she had never spoken before. She also, according to reports, revealed secrets and sins of the various onlookers, prompting many of them to spontaneously confess. Soon it became clear that Obry was in fact possessed by not one but thirty separate demons; one report described a “black beast” that crawled from her mouth when she was administered medicine. The only thing that would quiet her was the appearance of the Eucharist.

    In the centuries since the Obry exorcism, the overwhelming question for secular historians has been: what really happened here? Obry’s possession was noteworthy for the sheer density of the crowds it drew; no matter what one thinks of the reliability of Early Modern sources, there were enough witnesses on hand to verify the basic details of the drama unfolding in Laon. But Obry’s ordeal was by no means an isolated incident. Tens of thousands of cases of demonic possession and exorcism were recorded throughout Christian Europe, starting in earnest in the early 15th century and peaking some 200 years later. If we take the overwhelming documentary evidence at face value, it would seem that medieval Europe was seized by a mass epidemic of witchcraft and demonic possession. But of course no one (or almost no one) today can take those reports at face value, saturated as they are with prejudice, misogyny, ignorance, and paranoia.


    One standard historiographical practice has been to assume those once thought to be afflicted with demonic possession or cursed by witches were actually suffering from various physical and mental illnesses. Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 silent film Häxan (one of the earliest full-length documentaries) begins with a lecture on the history of witchcraft, followed by re-enactments of witches’ Sabbaths, demonic possessions, and subsequent trials and executions of witches, ending with a segment suggesting that medieval Europe’s paranormal pandemic was more likely the result of psychiatric conditions, notably hysteria. “In 1920,” Christensen’s film concludes, “we don’t burn old, poor, and hysterical women; we put them in institutions; and if they’re rich enough, in clinics where the therapeutic shower has replaced the torture chamber.” In the ensuing decades, the range of retroactive diagnoses has been extended to a plethora of diseases: those once believed to be cursed by witches or possessed by the Devil have been variously reclassified as sufferers of epilepsy, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, ergot poisoning, and Disassociative Identity Disorder (DID, also known as multiple personality disorder).

    But while much of this retroactive explanation of the phenomenon of exorcism has been compelling, it’s not entirely sufficient. For one thing, even this wide range of diagnoses by necessity ignores descriptions of the more supernatural aspects of possession: the copious vomiting of foreign objects, for example, or the levitation. Nor do they account for how an illiterate peasant girl from Vervins would suddenly be able to communicate in Flemish. Witnesses at the time would see little distinction between the vomiting of snakes and the vomiting of profanity, both being equally plausible symptoms of possession. Even discounting the obvious frauds (many of whom were unmasked at the time), attempting a thoroughly scientific diagnosis of the demoniac means, inevitably, picking and choosing among reported symptoms, and selectively ignoring those that don’t fit contemporary medical criteria.

    An even more fundamental problem with this argument is the relative instability of our own modern etiological categories. DID has only existed as a diagnosis since 1994 (with the publication of the DSM-IV), and the disorders that predated it, including the once-commonplace melancholy and hysteria, have all been discredited. If these diagnostic categories can barely survive the two decades between one edition of the DSM and the next, how can we assume that even the latest categories will apply to a set of unreliably described symptoms from four to six centuries ago?

    Brian Levack’s The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West offers the latest attempt to find a way to explain this curious and unfortunate episode in Western civilization. The book is a kind of sequel to Levack’s well-known and well-regarded The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, which has gone through three editions since its original publication in 1987. The demonic possessions Levack discusses here are related to the material covered in in his earlier study (since witches were often accused of causing possessions), but since demoniacs were generally considered blameless victims, the religious, legal, and epistemological concerns this time around are substantially different.

    Right from the start, Levack breaks with tradition by dismissing medical and psychiatric explanations, claiming that they fail to account for all the known symptoms that fell under the rubric of possession. “For example,” he reasons,

    the argument that demoniacs were victims of Tourette’s syndrome might serve as a plausible explanation of the compulsive, involuntary cursing, blasphemies, and twitching of demoniacs, but it says nothing about their feats of abnormal strength or those episodes in which the demoniacs did not utter profanities. In a similar vein, the regurgitation of alien objects, when not deliberately faked, might be diagnosed as the medical disorder known as allotriophagy or pathological swallowing, but such vomiting of alien objects was always just one sign of an apparent possession.

    These ex post facto explanations are also problematic because they’re so clearly ahistorical. Psychiatric diagnoses, Levack notes, “suffer from the assumption that pathological or abnormal behaviour in all societies and at all periods of time can be attributed to the same psychopathological syndromes or complexes.” Psychiatric models consistently fail to be useful for understanding historical phenomena, he contends, because “they use models derived from the observation and treatment of people living in the modern era to explain the mentality and anxieties of people living in a very different historical period. More seriously, they fail to recognize the cultural specificity of illnesses, especially those that have a mental or psychic component.”

    Instead, Levack proposes that demoniacs like Nicole Obry, along with their exorcists and the communities that witnessed their possessions, were all following an unconscious cultural script. Discounting both disease and fraud as inadequate explanations, Levack instead contends that “a more comprehensive understanding can be gained by viewing demoniacs as well as all those who participated in the effort to cure them as performers in religious dramas. Whether unconsciously or not, they were playing roles and following scripts that were encoded in their respective religious cultures.” His thesis is that demoniacs, by assimilating published reports of other possessions and subtle cues from exorcists and other authorities as to how they were expected to act, became unwitting actors who came to embody — to, as it were, be possessed by — a whole host of cultural anxieties and taboos. All of these possessions, Levack writes,

    not just those that were feigned or otherwise volitional, were theatrical productions in which the demoniacs and also their families, neighbours, physicians, pastors, and exorcists played their assigned roles. All these participants in the drama of possession acted in the way that members of their religious communities expected them to act.

    The reason that instances of possession spiked during the late Middle Ages, Levack argues, is because that was the high-water mark of Christian religious belief in Europe. “Demonic possession is a social construct, based on a widely shared belief in the possibility that a maleficent spiritual being can cause [abnormal or pathological behavior]”; without that widely shared communal belief, demonic possession simply doesn’t happen. In medieval and early modern Europe, a “reciprocal relationship was established between possession and exorcism on the one hand and dramas that exploited such themes on the other.” Levack describes venues such as Laon, with its massive crowds on hand for Obry’s exorcism, and Loudon (where similar throngs gathered in 1634 to see the exorcisms of nuns bewitched by the disgraced priest Urbain Grandier) as “in effect, open-air theatres.”

    One of the anchors that Levack returns to throughout The Devil Within, and which makes for perhaps the most compelling aspect of his thesis, is the difference between Catholic and Protestant possessions. Were we really only dealing with examples of various mental illnesses, one would theoretically expect to see the same kind of manifestations everywhere, regardless of religion. But, as it happens, Protestant possessions looked markedly different from Catholic ones, which suggests that demoniacs were culturally conditioned to act in certain ways, depending on which behaviors were most transgressive in their respective religions.

    Behind the spectacle of Nicole Obry’s exorcism, for example, was the bishop of Laon’s attempt to prove the truth of Catholicism to the local Huguenot population. Thus the importance of the Eucharist as the only thing that would quiet Obry. As Levack notes, the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation “became the acid test of Catholic allegiance; so much so that Protestants in England were required to take an oath rejecting it in the seventeenth century.” Protestants, who generally held that all miracles ceased with the Apostolic age, were accordingly far more skeptical of possessions; when they did perform exorcisms, they eschewed the sacred objects like crucifixes that Catholic exorcists preferred. “Protestants,” Levack notes, “considered such material objects magical and sources of false worship; what was sacred in Protestantism was the Word of God. Protestant demoniacs, therefore, reacted negatively to the presence or the reading of bibles; not so much the physical books themselves, but to the Word they embodied.”

    Protestant exorcisms also lacked the sexual dimension that often accompanied Catholic possessions: “Whereas Catholic demoniacs often entertained sexual fantasies, made sexually suggestive gestures, and accused the witches who caused their possession of enticing them sexually,” Levack notes, “Protestants rarely described sexuality as a central aspect of their possession experience.” This has to do with how sins are hierarchized in the respective faiths, he explains: Catholicism singles out sexual misconduct (sins of the flesh) as a matter of particular concern, whereas for Protestants these are equal to all manner of other sinful behaviors. Either way, the fact that demons seemed to modulate their modes of possession depending on the faith of the community they terrorized would seem to suggest that what we’re really witnessing here had to do, fundamentally, with the performance of social roles.


    Perhaps the most harrowing moment in The Devil Within occurs in its preface, where Levack, almost as an aside, explains the reason he began his research:

    My interest in this subject began in 1972 when my wife, Nancy, and I cared briefly for a four-month-old foster child whose teenage parents had severely beaten him. When this infant was committed to our care, he had suffered numerous broken bones, including a fractured skull, which had caused him to experience recurrent seizures. He also had cigarette burns on different parts of his body. When we asked how this infant could have been subjected to such extreme physical abuse, we learned that family members had come to the conclusion that he was possessed by the Devil and decided therefore to use physical force to expel the evil spirit.

    Torturing demoniacs (as opposed to witches) has always been rare, but it’s not unheard of. Michel de Montaigne described an exorcist he witnessed in 1581 beating a suspected demoniac, “dealing the poor wretch heavy blows with his fist, and spitting in his face,” and in 1661 the Spanish Jesuit Thomas Sanchez argued that, while it was superstitious to use torture to directly expel the demon, it was legitimate if torture was used to “wound the pride of the demon and persuade him to vacate the human body voluntarily.”

    The fact that such a practice persisted into the 1970s is a heartrending illustration of how ignorance and superstition can continue to have grave consequences for innocent victims. Further, it highlights what is probably Levack’s most valuable point: that these demonic possessions didn’t simply disappear at the dawn of the Enlightenment, like cockroaches scurrying away at the flick of a light switch. There was a gradual tapering off, true, but it was not a process with a definite beginning or end, and there was no abrupt change in Western thinking about the validity of possession and exorcism. “The difficulty with the scholarly discussion of such developments,” Levack cautions,

    is in large part the result of efforts by historians and social scientists to identify a process of secularization in this complex transformation of human thought and action over the course of centuries. Such an analysis can easily lead to the belief that the emergence of a more secular society has followed a linear, progressive path and that at some particular juncture a secular age dawned.

    Of course, this was far from the case. While the Industrial Revolution’s “disenchantment of the world” brought with it a fairly sharp curtailment of stories of possessions, there remains still today among certain communities a fear of demonic possession, which has very real consequences. Perhaps most notorious of the more recent incidents is the tragic story of Anneliese Michel, a West German girl who, after failing to respond to modern psychiatric treatment, was subjected to a year-long series of exorcisms in 1975–76, during which time she hardly ate, and which led ultimately to her death at age 23 from dehydration and malnutrition. (Her parents and two priests were later convicted of manslaughter due to negligence.)

    But the fact that the most compelling moment in Levack’s book comes in its preface, after the list of illustrations and before the acknowledgements, also points to the great weakness of The Devil Within. Despite Levack’s extraordinary knowledge of the subject and his 40 years spent researching this area, his book is strangely bloodless, devoid of any real imaginative power. He eschews any attempt to actually recreate these possessions through writing, in favor of schematic, systemized breakdowns. Heavily footnoted and documented, the book nevertheless goes pages at a time without providing a direct quote from a source or any attempt to convey the uncanny horror and power that these events had for their participants and witnesses. The presumption throughout is that the reader is either already familiar with the details of the multitude of cases that Levack discusses, or simply doesn’t care very much about the particulars. This strategy works fine for a book like The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, which is marketed more as an undergraduate textbook than a work of scholarship, but anyone not willing to take Levack at face value may find his disinterest in presenting primary sources frustrating.

    Nor will anyone predisposed to view this history in terms of gender find a great deal of engagement with the subject in The Devil Within, despite the fact that many of the examples here involve men demonstrating and reinforcing their power via the physical bodies of women (as in the case of Obry’s exorcism, where her writhing, hysterical body was used as to demonstrate the “proof” of Catholic exorcism and theology). These exorcisms often had an explicit sexual component (including cases of nuns describing rape at the hands of “devils,” who were more probably male clergy who were above reproach), but Levack is interested in the sexual power dynamics only insofar as they highlight differences between Catholic and Protestant ritual. The wider cultural ramifications of these performances, and the impact they had on the evolution of sexuality and patriarchy, are left for the reader to infer.

    The Devil Within ultimately sent me back to the various books on witchcraft and demonology I’ve collected over the past few years, mainly published in the years 1920 to 1960: the three-volume Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, begun by Henry Charles Lea in the 1890s and edited by George Lincoln Burr and Arthur Charles Howland, finally published in 1939; Kurt Seligmann’s The History of Magic (1948); and above all the extremely problematic but fascinating books by Montague Summers. These books are far from rigorous in a scholarly sense, but they offer far more direct translations and primary documents than Levack does alongside their dubious hypotheses. Among the stranger documents that exist in the long history of Europe’s witchcraft and demonic epidemic is the contract with the Devil supposedly signed by Urbain Grandier (the priest accused, and ultimately executed for, bewitching several nuns in Loudon, France). Even knowing that it was likely forged by Grandier’s accusers, the document is unsettling, alien in its otherness: the byzantine symbols and strange scratchy characters of undecipherable script. One need not believe in the reality of Satan to sense that whoever produced this document exists on the other side of some great divide from our own time, and that any attempt to commune with such a mind can only be partial and unsatisfying at best.

    Which is not to say we shouldn’t keep at it. Historians have a duty to continue to try to understand the riddles left by the past, to decipher the illegible scrawls and to make some attempt to account for these bizarre epidemics that plagued Europe for centuries. But perhaps we should be less sanguine about our current theories, and about our ability to synthesize and summarize and explain away the past. Perhaps, instead, we should stand back and allow its own harrowed and harrowing voice to come through — be it Flemish or French or Latin, demonic or counterfeit or hysteric.


    Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith.


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