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Possessed by the devil? A very public dispute in Utrecht.

No phenomenon reveals the otherness, the alien quality of early modern culture as dramatically as reputed cases of demonic possession. Previously a rare and rather marginal phenomenon, demonic possession became a new plague in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Physically the affliction manifested itself in recurrent fits, convulsions, foaming at the mouth, difficulty eating and drinking, bug-eyes, and extreme contortions of the body. Verbally demoniacs sometimes ranted incoherently; other times, their words were offensively clear to those around them. Speaking with the supposed voice of the devil, demoniacs uttered blasphemies and obscenities, denied fundamental Christian dogmas, and mocked figures of authority. Defying all norms and conventions - social, cultural, even physical - demoniacs were disturbing figures in their own age and to this day exercise a certain fascination by virtue of their strangeness.

Explaining the behavior of reputed demoniacs has always posed a challenge. Modern historians offer a variety of explanations, ranging from the psychohistorical approach of John Demos, who argues that demoniacs were mentally ill, to the purely cultural analysis of Carol Karlsen, who, inspired by anthropology, sees demonic possession as a "status reversal ritual."(1) Even in the early modern period itself, reputed demoniacs could be ambiguous figures to their contemporaries, who had at their disposal a range of possible interpretations for the behavior of the afflicted, with genuine possession being only one. Of the other possibilities recognized by contemporaries, illness was perhaps the most common: some apparent demoniacs were diagnosed as melancholic, epileptic, or hysterical while others were thought to be mad and were locked up in a madhouse or consigned to family care. These two alternative diagnoses were problematic, though, since it was believed that a devil might choose a person who was mad or ill to possess, seeking in this way to hide his own presence.(2) A more cut-and-dried matter was fraud: some people who claimed to be demoniacs were judged to be pretending for the sake of gain. Such gain might take the form of alms; less tangibly, reputed demoniacs might enjoy the enormous amounts of sympathy and attention they received. A fourth possibility was that the demoniac was indeed possessed, but by a good spirit - perhaps even by the Holy Spirit - rather than a devil. This interpretation was put forward with some frequency by the demoniacs themselves, who suggested that they were in fact instruments of God, the bearers of a divine message, usually calling for repentance and conversion.(3) Finally, it happened on rare occasions that observers suspected the apparent demoniac to have submitted voluntarily to the devil, rather than having been occupied forcibly by it. In that case the person was actually a witch, guilty of a heinous spiritual crime.

How then did contemporaries judge whether an apparent case of possession was genuine? As historians have long realized, early modern elites were agreed upon a set of four criteria. Three of the four amounted to the same thing: testing whether the reputed demoniac had superhuman powers attributable only to a devil. The first expected power was the ability of the demoniac to "speak in tongues," that is, to speak and understand a language the demoniac had never learned. Thus people with little education were often tested to see whether they could understand Greek or Latin. The second power was clairvoyance, the ability to know things about distant or secret events. The third was extraordinary strength, that is, strength beyond what was considered physically possible for the person being tested. If an adolescent girl, for example, manifested a strength expected only of a burly adult male, she satisfied this criterion. Other physiological symptoms could prove genuine possession as well if they were equally unnatural. Finally, demoniacs were expected to express horror and revulsion at sacred things: for Protestants chiefly the words of the Bible; for Catholics the consecrated host, holy water, the agnus dei, and other objects. This last criterion was believed to offer some of the clearest proofs of possession, for example, alternating holy water and ordinary water to see whether the demoniac reacted only to the first.

Historians disagree in their interpretations of such testing. Some see it as having a systematic or even proto-scientific character. Erik Midelfort, for example, notes that such tests involved the collection of empirical data and the keeping of individual case histories. In their use of such methods, Midelfort argues, clerics were remarkably "ahead" of medical doctors.(4) Similarly, Cecile Ernst credits exorcists with having written the first extensive psychiatric case studies.(5) In an intriguing parallel, Michael MacDonald has found that in England, healers who drew upon astral magic for their diagnoses and cures of the sick tended to work more systematically and keep more careful records than strict Galenists.(6)

Other historians, by contrast, emphasize how such tests yielded results that reflected the interests and preconceptions of the testers. D. P. Walker, for example, has shown how Catholic priests in France used tests for possession as vehicles of confessional polemics. When a French demoniac showed horror and revulsion at a relic, priests trumpeted this reaction as proof that, contrary to the assertions of Huguenots, a sacred power really did inhere in the relic. In this way, priests used demoniacs to sway public opinion and convert wavering Protestants back to Catholicism.(7) Their pious enthusiasm inclined them to accept uncritically the genuineness of a possession. Similarly, Robert Mandrou has spied a conflict in France between credulous Catholic clerics and skeptical medical doctors, with the latter group tending as much as possible to seek natural causes for the behavior of reputed demoniacs. In so doing, doctors were expanding the boundaries of their own competence.(8) Piety, however, did not necessarily lead to credulity; it could equally prejudice the results of tests for possession in the direction of disbelief and skepticism. Such was obviously the case for those Anglican ministers who believed that by the sixteenth century the "age of miracles" had long past.(9) More surprisingly, the same assertion holds also for the representatives of certain movements or tendencies within Catholicism, or so, at least, Alison Weber has argued in regard to the Spanish theologian Diego Perez de Valdivia, and Fernando Cervantes has claimed the same for officials of the Inquisition in Mexico.(10)

Whichever of these interpretations contains more truth, they are all problematic in suggesting that only a small elite group was involved in evaluating and labeling the possessed. Without exception, they portray clerics as playing the lead role in this social drama, with doctors their only serious rivals. Mandrou concedes an important role to French magistrates beginning only in the second half of the seventeenth century; other historians, concerned with the earlier period, attribute no important role to them at all. More seriously, non-elites appear in their accounts purely as spectators, in Walker's vision the passive objects of propagandistic manipulation. Communities seem ready to accept whatever determination the learned experts make. Even the possessed abandon their own assertions of a "good" possession when taught better by their superiors.

What follows is a narrative that does not conform at all to this social dynamic. It concerns a pair of apparent demoniacs, Mayken Huberts and Clara Gelaudens, who lived in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Their behavior in 1603 prompted a vehement dispute over the genuineness of their purported possession, and of other demoniacs' possession as well. Over the course of this dispute, large and varied segments of Utrecht's population weighed in with opinions and emotions. Catholics and Calvinists, neighbors, deacons, magistrates, the provincial estates, and crowds of Utrechters all became involved - not to mention the possessed themselves, who stubbornly defended their views. The result was a complex interaction in which groups from diverse social strata struggled to influence one another, each claiming to understand the phenomenon of possession better than the others.

Ultimately, then, the following narrative reveals less about demonic possession per se than about the nature of public discourse in an early modern city. To be sure, such isolated microhistories have limited value in the quest to determine what was normal in early modern European society. Nevertheless, by revealing realities hitherto unrecognized, however limited in time or place, they can offer a crucial corrective to historians' generalizations. What this micro-history suggests is, first, the prominent role of non-elites - especially relatives and neighbors of the possessed - in interpreting and labeling abnormal behavior. This point was made over a decade ago by Michael MacDonald in his study of insanity in England; that it applies also to demonic possession has not previously been recognized. This point suggests in turn a broader one: under certain circumstances non-elites could wield considerable cultural authority. In particular, when a community's elites were divided or uncertain, as they were about possession, a terrain opened up in which diverse segments of the community, including women and the poor, could maneuver effectively for influence. They wielded this influence by shaping what one might call, with certain caveats, "public opinion." Finally, the course of the Utrecht dispute suggests that this public opinion could sometimes be a potent force, demanding a response from elites and circumscribing the courses of action available to them. Historians have long recognized the power of such opinion to force action upon the authorities in exceptional situations, such as grain riots and tax rebellions; they have been slower, however, in recognizing discursive conflict as an ongoing part of social life in the early modern period.

Although it climaxed in 1603, the dispute in Utrecht about demonic possession went back at least to 1595. In that year an anonymous pamphlet appeared from the press of Salomon de Roy, a Utrecht publisher, entitled Short and true account of the wonderous attack and deliverance of David Wardavoir, velour-maker, [which] occurred in Utrecht, put into verse for the consolation of all persons being assailed.(11) This pamphlet told the story of a poor man who successfully fought off a series of demonic attacks through his firm faith in Jesus Christ. Its author compared the tormented David to two Old Testament figures: "Like Job did he patiently suffer, / And like David against the hellish Goliath come into the field / defeated the same with God's Word and fiery prayers." Each stanza of the verse narrative ended with a moral printed in Roman letters to make it stand out: "Through a firm faith all Satan's tricks are dispelled," says one; "The devil is always defeated through God's Word," says another; "Man can accomplish nothing without God's grace," a third. Satan threatens David with death, tempts him with wealth and power, pulls all his hair out, invites him to kill himself, even takes the form of Christ and tries to mislead him. But like the good "Christian knight" that he is, David fights off Satan with "the shield of faith" and "the sword of the spirit," accepting nothing and refusing to worship the Evil One. The only aid David receives in this battle is from his "brothers" in faith, who read Scripture to him day and night. When the battle is over and David has won, these brothers sing psalms of praise to God, and the author of the pamphlet calls upon his readers to reform their lives and abandon Satan.

As its preface makes explicit, this pamphlet was a piece of Reformed polemics with two chief purposes. One was to refute the claims being made by Dutch Catholics that priestly exorcism had actually cured David. According to the author, David's case had become known far and wide; Catholics in Amsterdam were even singing songs about it, and their mouths had to be stopped. The second purpose was to present an efficacious Reformed alternative to Catholic exorcisms. David, says the author, should serve "as a mirror and example, [for] he was delivered not through conjurations, as is the usage among the exorcists, but by God's grace through a constant faith."

This was a controversial message in the context of Utrecht's religious scene, for like the rest of the Dutch Republic, Utrecht was a community divided in its beliefs. To be sure, the Republic was officially a Reformed nation and had been so since the revolt against Spain. Nevertheless, its inhabitants included Catholics, Lutherans, Mennonites, and a host of sectarians as well as Calvinists. They also included a great many people with no strong ecclesiastic affiliation at all. This extreme religious pluralism distinguished the Republic from the rest of western Europe.(12) Although it never led to violent conflict, it did make for a lively competition among the churches, for recruits and for legitimacy. This competition had a direct impact on cases of demonic possession in the Netherlands, just as it did in France and England. In France, Catholics staged elaborate exorcisms before great crowds to advertise the power of their priesthood.(13) In the Republic, as in England, elaborate public exorcisms were not possible since Catholic worship was formally outlawed and had to be conducted behind a veil of privacy. Nevertheless, Catholic exorcists were active in a host of locales, including Utrecht and its surrounding countryside.(14) In this context, cases of possession inevitably became laden with confessional polemics; they became occasions for the various churches to prove the unique blessings and powers bestowed upon them by God.

Polemics aside, however, Dutch Protestants often suffered from a gnawing uncertainty about the efficacy of their own Protestant treatments of possession. For this reason too, the story of David Wardavoir carried a pointed, controversial message. As Keith Thomas has suggested, Protestant churches of every cast put their members in a difficult bind: on the one hand, none of them denied the possibility of demonic possession; on the other, they all refused to offer their members the strong counter-magic that the Catholic Church offered people for use against possession and witchcraft. Protestant ministers instead treated the possessed through a regimen of fasting and prayer. At the same time, the ministers acknowledged that this regimen had no automatic efficacy. "A clergyman," Thomas notes, "could no longer command a spirit to depart; he could only entreat God to show his mercy by taking the devil away."(15) This acknowledgement of clerical impotence flowed directly from fundamental tenets of Protestantism, yet clearly it left popular demand unsatisfied. In England, Thomas shows, many members of the established Anglican church had recourse to soothsayers and white witches when suffering from an affliction or difficulty. That Dutch Calvinists did the same is reflected in the records of Amsterdam, which show that the Reformed consistory disciplined ninety-one church members for this offense between 1578 and 1700.(16) On occasion, when confronted by an obdurate demon, Dutch Calvinists even had recourse to Catholic priests. In 1603, for example, Utrecht's magistrates removed a possessed girl from the municipal orphanage and sent her to a convent in the city. What was this but a tacit admission by a Protestant authority "that the Catholics could cure people of this sort" better than their own ministers?(17) A similar occurrence took place in Doesburg in the latter half of the seventeenth century: a Calvinist couple sent their daughter to a convent after she claimed to be able to see and convey messages from the wandering spirits of the dead.(18)

Confessional polemics and Protestant uncertainties shaped the climate of opinion about demonic possession throughout the Dutch Republic. In Utrecht, however, a unique factor exacerbated Protestant uncertainties and created an explosive situation - the presence from 1599 of a Reformed minister named Johannes Bergerus. Claiming to see devils active all around him, Bergerus heightened Utrechters' fears of demonic activity. At the same time he presented himself as the answer to Protestant uncertainties, proclaiming his own immense powers to cure the possessed. So central a role did he play in what follows that a few words are necessary about his life and character.

Originally from Bavaria, Johannes Mauritius Bergerus had been a Franciscan monk and a Lutheran pastor before becoming a Reformed minister.(19) Before coming to Utrecht, he had ministered to a series of small congregations in the Dutch province of Groningen. Each of these posts he had lost by committing some egregious impropriety: womanizing, lying, neglecting his duties, using abusive language, disobeying his classis (the regional organ of church government, equivalent to the Scottish presbytery). Aggravating his offenses, Bergerus also had a blind faith that he could get away with anything. His last post in Groningen he simply abandoned, writing scurrilous verses about members of the congregation on the walls of the pastor's house before departing in the middle of the night. Eventually the Groningen provincial synod disciplined and barred him from the ministry. Not one to give up, however, Bergerus then left the north for Zutphen, in Gelderland, where he convinced a minister to write him a misleading attestation. With it he set out in search of a new post.(20)

Utrecht's authorities knew that Bergerus's attestation was faulty. They also received a full description of Bergerus's earlier behavior from the president of the Groningen synod. That they appointed him anyway reveals much about the state of Utrecht's Reformed church. Since the beginning of Utrecht's Reformation in the 1570s, Calvinist reformers had faced stiff opposition from a group of people known as Libertines. These Libertines were not members of a rival denomination but claimed to be Reformed Protestants. Nevertheless, like the so-called Libertines of Geneva, they opposed the use of ecclesiastic discipline to enforce Calvinist norms of morality and orthodoxy. Such Libertines could be found throughout the Netherlands, but nowhere did they have more power than in Utrecht. In the 1590s they dominated the city completely.(21) Ensconced in both the city council and the Reformed consistory, they appointed Bergerus despite his known record. Utrecht's Calvinists protested the appointment vehemently. Led by the deacons and sextons, they held meetings, submitted remonstrances, and mobilized their brethren in other cities to bring pressure to bear on Utrecht's rulers. All their efforts, however, had no effect.

In his new post, Bergerus not only continued his prior pattern of scandalous behavior; he added a new element to it (or at least one not mentioned in connection to his earlier career): the exorcizing of the possessed. As far away as Amsterdam and Delft, Calvinists became aware of this and were horrified. In 1602 a minister in Amsterdam heard from a Utrecht friend that Bergerus was busy healing the possessed and boasting of his successes from the pulpit. "He [Bergerus] prays, he reads, he rails at the devil to the point that he sweats: 'den schelm die moest heraus,'" Bergerus shouts (the author capturing the authentic Germanism of the man from Bavaria). Bergerus boasts that "he has punched the devil in the maw with his fist."(22) The annals of Franciscus Dusseldorp, a Catholic priest then living in Utrecht, offer additional information. Dusseldorp exultingly recounts Bergerus's unsuccessful attempts to exorcize one woman. It "seemed to persons standing near as if he [Bergerus] cast out a devil, which he removed like tadpoles coming out from the woman's mouth, yet to no effect, for the next day that woman was tortured by the demon more severely than . . . ever." After a second unsuccessful attempt, the priest recounts, Bergerus tried a different approach. In November 1602 some peasants captured a wolf and brought it to the provincial estates to claim a bounty. Bergerus convinced the estates to let him have the heart and right eye of the wolf to use "as a remedy for people possessed by the devil, as he himself said."

Obviously, Dusseldorp was a hostile witness, and the details of his description of Bergerus's exorcisms cannot be confirmed. Nevertheless, at no point do other sources contradict Dusseldorp's account of the dispute, and on many points they accord with the latter perfectly. Taken together, the surviving documents make two things clear: first, that Bergerus was not using the exorcism rite of the Catholic Church, an elaborate ritual that included the invocation of saints, the sprinkling of holy water, the lighting of candles, and the wearing by the demoniac of a priestly vestment, the stole; neither was Bergerus confining himself to fasting and prayer. In fact, Bergerus's attempts at exorcisms constituted just one part of a larger "medical" practice of sorts, one that relied heavily on what the deacons of the Reformed church denounced as "godless and superstitious remedies . . . having no basis in nature or reason but much more in magic."(23) One such remedy, for bewitchment, ran as follows: "Take thrice-three teeth of a dead-man's head, pulverize them and make a fumigation from them, and vomit; take the witch's excrement and put it in one of your shoes and put it [i.e. that shoe] on the other, wrong foot." When eventually Bergerus was disciplined and removed from office, he himself admitted to the main part of this prescription.(24) Other remedies ascribed to Bergerus (though denied by him) included a sort of paralysis-inducing poison and burying some herbs in the earth to cure epilepsy - a clear instance of sympathetic magic.

Anathema to Utrecht's Calvinists, scorned even by his fellow Libertines, one may surmise that Bergerus was using magic to shore up his very precarious status. His boasted expertise at curing the bewitched and the possessed gave him a unique power and special following among the Reformed. He presented an alternative, both to the Reformed treatments whose efficacy was so uncertain and to the Catholic rituals that were so clearly unorthodox.(25) To the Catholic priest who followed his doings, though, Bergerus's practices were simply "ludicrous" and only highlighted the very weakness of the Protestant side that Bergerus was attempting to counteract. The enthusiasm of many Protestants for Bergerus's exorcisms was an implicit admission that they recognized the power of casting out demons as a mark of the true church. Their sorrow, when Bergerus failed, openly showed "how great a sign they themselves [the Reformed] considered . . . the power of the church against demons . . . however much they strove to make light of it in favor of the preaching of the word."(26) Once the two churches were competing on the same ground, there would be no question that the magic of the Catholic Church was stronger.

Bergerus's fellow ministers understood this point. Not only did they regard Bergerus's activities as a scandal, bringing Utrecht's church into disrepute; they also saw such activities as undermining their attempts to wean their flock away from a reliance on magic. Bergerus undermined their efforts to associate magic with Catholicism and thus to stake out for their own church a religious high ground, an enlightened dependence upon God's grace alone. Bergerus's colleagues responded to this quandary not only by denouncing Bergerus's activities, but by calling into question the genuineness of the possessions he was claiming to cure. Utrecht's senior and most influential minister, Johannes Gerobulus, denounced both the possessed and their exorcizers from the pulpit as frauds. Three other ministers adopted an equally skeptical attitude. Not that they denied the reality of possession altogether: in the same year one woman appeared on the books of the deaconry as receiving alms because she was "being assaulted by Satan."(27) Nevertheless, Bergerus's activities clearly made his colleagues in Utrecht more outspokenly skeptical about possession than they would have been otherwise.(28)

Into this highly-charged atmosphere entered our two women, Clara and Mayken, whose claims to demonic possession brought the wider dispute to a head in the autumn of 1603.(29) Clara and Mayken were sisters-in-law, married to brothers who earned a precarious living as linen weavers; the two couples lived together in the poorest neighborhood of the city. Like so many other cases of possession previously studied, those of Clara and Mayken display interesting psychological dimensions. Both women showed signs of depression: Mayken admitted a temptation to commit suicide, and she and Clara both thought they heard voices telling them to kill their children. (It is interesting to note that both women dated the beginning of their affliction to when they were pregnant). Both women, who attended Reformed sermons on a regular basis, also seem to have been rebelling unconsciously against their own piety. Clara, for instance, was sitting at home singing a psalm with her husband when "her tongue was pulled back down her throat by the enemy" so that she could not speak; instead she started to laugh and puff up her cheeks. When a stranger came to the door of Mayken's house one winter evening, Mayken greeted him saying "friend, God give you and all Christian people who have been washed in the blood of Christ a good evening." When Mayken and her husband realized (from the red face, leather clothes and pout as they explained later to the city court) that the stranger must have been a devil, the couple fell immediately to prayer. Even so, Mayken would later complain that she had been unable to "say her prayers" for five years.

Clara and Mayken gained widespread recognition as genuine demoniacs long before Utrecht's clergy or magistrates became involved in the case. Clara herself, it seems, was the first to suggest that their ailments had a demonic origin. Mayken's husband, Henrick Toenisz van Weerden, recounted in 1603 how his wife had first "gotten the passion" six years before, but that he had always thought his wife had simply had "a falling sickness" (i.e., epilepsy). In 1602, however, his wife was reading aloud a work of religious edification to Clara when the latter interrupted her, saying "if you . . . had such faith, my comrade would not have had any power over you, and would not have been in you for so long; he has now been in you for five whole years." Family and neighbors soon adopted Clara's diagnosis, defending it with an ardent conviction when questioned later by the authorities. A lodger with the family, for example, swore to the city sheriff that he had seen both sisters lying stiff, without breathing, for five and more hours in a row. In his own presence and that of three neighbors, he said, Clara one time had lain on the ground "as stiff as a piece of wood and spun around like a whetstone." He could not conceive of an explanation, he said, other than demonic possession. Indeed, he had once heard the devil even speak to him directly through the mouth of Clara, taunting him, saying "bird, go whither you will, I'm going get you before you reach home, you're going to shit in your pants."

Recognition as genuine demoniacs brought the women sympathy and aid: as of October 1603 their families were receiving weekly alms from the municipality. Though the amount of these alms is not noted in the surviving sources, it was probably comparable to the fifteen stuivers per week received by another female demoniac from Utrecht's Reformed deaconry - a substantial amount, certainly equal to whatever a weaver's wife might have contributed to the family budget had she been fit to work.(30) Such recognition, however, also brought fear. Complaints reached the magistrates that the women were roaming the streets terrifying people, including pregnant women, who, it was said, might miscarry as a result. To satisfy public demand, the magistrates ordered Clara and Mayken's husbands to keep them indoors, on pain of forfeiting their alms.

About a week later minister Gerobulus preached his sermon against the false possessed. This challenge elicited a violent response from the two women. Immediately after the sermon they ran to the minister's house, dashing their heads and hurling their whole bodies against its door. Later they returned several times to repeat the act, saying they were ordered to do so by a great man. They also went to the Stadsplaats, the focus of civic activity in Utrecht located in front of city hall; there they made a great ruckus, shouting especially at two other skeptics, Jonker Johan van Zuylen, the city sheriff, and minister Johannes Lindenius. Van Zuylen responded by locking up the women in jail. This act, however, only provided the women with an excellent public forum, for the jail was part of city hall and through its windows the two women could be heard laughing and barking and singing. Crowds formed in front of the jail for three days in a row. Alarmed, the magistrates decided to put the women in the jails' torture chamber, where presumably they would not be heard. According to Dusseldorp, the women hereupon made a ferocious, supernatural wailing that terrified the magistrates so much that they quietly released the women.(31) An account by the sheriff merely notes the release, offering no explanation for it.

Consciously or not, Clara and Mayken had aggressively manipulated public opinion, creating a wave of support - and fear - strong enough to overwhelm the ministers' skepticism. With the skeptics on the defensive, their husbands now filed an extraordinary petition with the municipal court. In this petition they accused minister Lindenius of blasphemy and slander for having denied the reality of their wives' possession. By calling them frauds, they claimed, Lindenius had damaged the honor and reputation of their wives. The husbands asked the court to order Lindenius to stop his pronouncements and to assess him the hefty fine of twenty-five gold reals if he failed to do so. They further asked the court to appoint a committee to investigate the entire matter. The husbands wanted "the truth of their wives' grievous passions [passien] discovered, and those who grievously slander us properly punished."

This action for slander was unique. On the one hand, early modern historians have noted many cases in which persons accused of witchcraft sued their accusers for defamation of character. This was one of the few effective defenses against such an accusation, and its use is documented in England, New England, Scandinavia, and Spain as well as the Netherlands.(32) It is unheard-of, by contrast, for the supposed victims of occult forces to bring a defamation suit, as they did here, against the skeptics - against those who denied the reality of their bewitchment or possession. The suit was doubly bold for being brought by poor lay folk against a minister who would ordinarily be assumed to have a far deeper understanding than they of matters demonic. To make their suit all the more effective, the husbands rallied the support of their neighbors. No fewer than eleven male neighbors sigred at the bottom of the husbands' petition, testifying to its accuracy and supporting it.

In the face of such pressure, the city council convened. Granting the husbands' request, it authorized the court to investigate the matter carefully but to use "all civility and politeness." One aspect of the petition the court was completely ignored - a request by the husbands that minister Bergerus assist the court in its investigation. Though this heavy-handed maneuver failed, one can still appreciate the husbands' cunning in trying to make sure that the court's technical expert be someone who believed firmly in possession. Indeed, as the husbands knew, Bergerus was an enthusiastic supporter of their suit. He himself had tried to cure the women using his wolf's eye, a tomcat's heart, and other magical objects. When the husbands filed their suit, it was accompanied by a statement from Bergerus that read: "I, Berger van Ebersbergh, testify, as minister of God's Word in this city of Utrecht, that with great effort I have visited and comforted the above-named persons in their afflictions multiple times, both day and night; and [I] have only been able to conclude that the temptations and torments they suffer are from the Evil Spirit. Those who say otherwise must prove such with good argument." Thus like the plaintiffs themselves, Bergerus sought to place the burden of proof squarely on the skeptics. In so doing, he threw down the gauntlet to his fellow ministers.

In one sense this alliance between the possessed women and Bergerus is hardly surprising: after all, both wanted to convince magistrates and public that the possession was genuine. From a different perspective, however, the alliance seems quite remarkable since it brought together some devout lay people - people who were oppressed, even, by their piety - with a minister notorious for his immorality. Bergerus was a "Libertine" in the worst sense of the term: not just an opponent of ecclesiastic discipline, but a licentious flouter of public norms. Perhaps Bergerus encouraged people to see demonic activity around them, not only through his utterances and magical practices but through his very presence in the ministry. To the pious and strictly orthodox, he may subconsciously have represented the evil within - within Utrecht's church but also within themselves. Mayken, in fact, claimed to have seen the devil three times in her parish church, once in the very form of Bergerus!

So the court took testimony from Bergerus but did not use him as its chief expert. Instead it requested three other ministers, among them the skeptic Lindenius, to visit Mayken at her home and examine her. The ministers relied on one of the standard tests for possession, the ability to speak in tongues. Lindenius spoke in Latin to a colleague, who then asked Mayken to translate. She refused to, although she asserted that she knew what had been said. Shifting immediately to the offensive, Mayken then accused Lindenius of being a Mennonite. This she supposedly knew through clairvoyance since she denied ever attending a Mennonite gathering. Understandably, the ministers rejected the assertion. Thus, from their perspective Mayken had failed the test. Indeed, the ministers reported to the city court that they had found evidence of fraud: just before Mayken went into her "passion," they saw her husband wink and heard him mumble something to her. To the ministers, this behavior constituted proof positive that the couple was conspiring to fool everyone.

From start to finish the magistrates showed great uncertainty about how to diagnose or handle the women. They had jailed Mayken and Clara, only to release them; they had ordered the court to investigate, but to do so with civility and politeness. The estates had even given Bergerus his wolf parts. What the magistrates really wanted, however, was for the husbands of the demoniacs to keep their wives indoors where they would cease to "scandalize" their neighbors. Thus order would be restored and the magistrates would have satisfied public demand. Unfortunately, the husbands proved incapable or unwilling to do so. On this score too the magistrates showed great uncertainty. For a time they jailed Mayken's husband, deeming him culpable for not keeping her indoors; then they released him, apparently convinced by his expressions of helplessness and terror. Now, having heard the ministers' testimony, the court summoned Mayken and examined her itself.

The questions that the court put to Mayken were probably drafted for its use by one of Utrecht's skeptical ministers. They came headed by a denunciation of Mayken and Clara for having blasphemed against God, profaned his holy ministry, and fooled "many pious simple folk, who out of kindness and innocence have contributed to [their deceit]." By implication, the questions raised three possibilities: that Mayken was truly possessed, that she was faking, or that she was a witch. To distinguish between the first two, the court asked Mayken whether she was ever clairvoyant or could speak in tongues. It also sought to ascertain whether anyone besides Satan had taught her to behave and speak as she did "in her passion (as they say)." The parenthetical phrase shows Utrecht's elites uncomfortably adopting the popular terminology for Mayken's affliction. Although the court did not call in a doctor to examine her, it asked at length about Mayken's physical state. It expected her, if she was not a fraud, to show disturbed eating and sleeping patterns, among other symptoms. Finally, eight questions explored the possibility that Mayken was a witch. Not only did the court ask whether she had concluded any contracts with the devil; it also asked "whether Satan had presented or shown to her any licentiousness in word or deed, or any appearance of physical presence or co-mingling." This question is notable, given how rarely references to sex with the devil appear in Dutch witchcraft trials. Whoever drafted the court's questions suspected Mayken of being evil.

Unfortunately, Mayken's answers did not resolve the magistrates' doubts any which way. At this point, the magistrates questioned Mayken's husband about his winking and mumbling, which he denied. This proved the turning point. After the ministers who had examined Mayken confirmed their observation of the wink, the court became distinctly hostile towards the plaintiffs and at one point threatened Mayken's husband with torture to elicit a confession from him. Clearly it was leaning toward a judgment of fraud. Nevertheless, in the end the magistrates convicted no one. Instead, they ordered the husbands once again to keep their wives indoors and threatened to put the women in the madhouse if they were found once more on the street. As the verdict suggests, madness too was a possible diagnosis - or, to put it more accurately, treating the women as mad was another possible manner of handling them. And so the case ended. What happened later to Mayken and Clara we do not know, for they are not mentioned again in any surviving source.

What, then, does this tale tell us? First of all, that demonic possession was a highly-charged, emotional issue about which many different social groups - not just the elites - had opinions and concerns. Inquiries by magistrates and tests applied by experts to determine the genuineness of a possession were not conducted in a social vacuum. They were part of a struggle to shape public opinion, a struggle in which experts and elites could not take their authority for granted, but rather needed to assert it.(33)

As previous historians have shown, demonic possession was an issue laden with confessional connotations, and yet official church dogmas offered few fixed reference points concerning it. Protestant and Catholic leaders both believed in the possibility of possession; in a particular case, though, either could be believers or skeptics, a situation that encouraged uncertainty and divisions. The dispute in Utrecht highlights the social consequences: the failure of Utrecht's elites to promulgate a uniform, official credo opened up a terrain in which diverse segments of the urban community were able to maneuver for influence over others. Public opinion became a potent force, one that the magistrates felt compelled to respond to, for whoever shaped it had real power. Not only do our sources reflect this struggle to shape public opinion; they themselves were written as instruments of its conduct.

This struggle was so consuming that it seems to have determined Utrechters' behavior and judgments more than any other factor. In other words, in the absence of firm dogmatic anchors, the positions people took on demonic possession seem to have depended primarily upon how they wished to position themselves vis-a-vis others in the community. That held most obviously for the rival religious leaders - Bergerus, his colleagues, and their Catholic counterparts. The same observation holds also for Mayken and Clara. Through their possession, the two sisters-in-law gained an authority not otherwise accorded to women - and poor ones at that. Speaking with the voice of the devil - a male voice - they could directly challenge their own ministers and dramatize the presence of evil within Utrecht's Reformed church. For their husbands what seems to have mattered most was the honor and reputation of their families. Their standing in the community, as well as the alms they received, depended on those qualities. Meanwhile, to the neighbors the entire episode constituted primarily a "scandal," that is, a rupture in harmonious social relations caused by the offensive action of an individual (or in this case, of two individuals). Their chief concern was to see the scandal "removed," which could be accomplished simply by preventing the demoniacs from frightening people. However they were diagnosed, if Mayken and Clara continued to move about freely behaving like demoniacs, nothing from the neighbors' perspective would really be resolved.

As for the magistrates, the ruling they eventually made was intellectually ambiguous since it left unclear whether they deemed the women lying, mad, or genuinely possessed. Perhaps they were unable to reach a definitive judgment. Ultimately, though, such a judgment concerned the magistrates less than resolving the dispute and bringing to an end a dangerous series of public clashes of opinion. Not that they could fashion unanimity: the term "public opinion" is a convenient shorthand, but at no time was there one universally-accepted opinion about these possessions.(34) What the magistrates could and did do was restore order, reduce the level of tension within the community, and, most importantly, assert their own role as final arbiters of conflict and dispensers of justice.


1 Demos, 97-131; Karlsen, 222 ff., esp. 248 and 341 n. 66. Midelfort, 1984, 113-45, seeks a middle way between the psychohistoric and the purely cultural, calling possession a distinctive form of madness, a "cultural idiom" that shaped the behavior and psychic experience of the mad.

2 D.P. Walker, 11-12.

3 Ibid., esp. 17, 21-22, 29, 54, 58, 77; Midelfort, 1989, 99-119.

4 Midelfort, 1984, 124, 135.

5 Ernst, 8, 129-33.

6 MacDonald, 28-30, 163-64.

7 D.P. Walker, esp. 4.

8 Mandrou, 153-312.

9 D.P. Walker, 61-73; Thomas, 484-86.

10 Weber, 221-34; Cervantes, 51-69.

11 Cort ende warachtich verhael vande wonderlicke aenvechtinge en[de] verlossinge van David Wardavoir, Trijp-wercker/ geschiet binnen Utrecht. In dichte gestelt tot vertroostinghe van alle aengevochte personen.

12 Deursen, 231-318; Enno van Gelder; Gijswijt-Hofstra, 9-129; Schilling, 197-250; Zilverberg.

13 D.P. Walker, 19-42, 75-77; Ernst, 32-80, 85-113.

14 Algemeen Rijksarchief The Hague, Oud-Synodaal Archief 73, 1: f. 122; Gemeentearchief Utrecht, Stadsarchief II 2236, f. 23v (21 Feb 1607); Leeuwenberg, 151, 162 ff.

15 Thomas, 479.

16 Roodenburg, 137, 205-27.

17 Fruin, 226.

18 Frijhoff, 241.

19 Dooren, 186, n. 1.

20 Algemeen Rijksarchief The Hague, Oud-Synodaal Archief 73, 1: ff. 8-9, 21-26; Reitsma and Van Veen, 1:275-76, 286, 290, 4:79, 86-87, 91.

21 Kaplan.

22 Janssen and Van Toorenenbergen, 147.

23 Gemeentearchief Utrecht, Archief der Kerkeraad der Nederlandse Hervormde Gemeente 2, 16 Jan 1605.

24 Ibid., 23 Jan, 13 Feb 1605.

25 In this respect a certain parallel exists between the activities of Bergerus and those in England of John Darrell, a Puritan minister who performed numerous widely-publicized exorcisms in the 1590s. Not that Darrell used such colorful and controversial means of dispossession as Bergerus; for the most part he confined himself to fasting and prayer. Nevertheless, Darrell's activities, like those of Bergerus, were meant to provide an efficacious Protestant alternative to Catholic exorcisms. Indeed, the activities of Darrell and a few other Puritan ministers offered the only ecclesiastic alternative to Catholic exorcism available in England since the Anglican episcopacy refused to sanction any form of dispossession at all. In this context, Darrell's claim to cast out demons may also have been an attempt to shore up the status and authority of the Puritan party, which had recently suffered an important defeat within Church of England politics. Thomas, 483-84; see also D.P. Walker, 52-73.

26 Fruin, 308.

27 Gemeentearchief Utrecht, Stadsarchief II 1315, 1603/04.

28 Unfortunately, the state of research makes it impossible to compare Utrecht's ministers in this regard to those of other Dutch cities. For one minister's impression of his colleagues, see Stronks, 208-09. The Calvinist ministers of Geneva, at least, as well as English Puritan ministers, accepted a great many possession cases as genuine. Monter, 1976, 59-60; D.P. Walker, 52-73; Thomas, 483-87.

29 Except where noted, the following account is based on Gemeentearchief Utrecht, Stadsarchief II 2244, packet 33.

30 Gemeentearchief Utrecht, Stadsarchief II 1315, 1603/04.

31 Fruin, 326.

32 Thomas, 446; Karlsen, 45-46, 63, 79-80, 91; Waardt, 1987, 38; Monter, 1990, 429; Henningsen, 220; Waardt, 1987, 61, 67; Blecourt, 75-80.

33 The only previous study to focus on the interpretation of an apparent possession by non-elites is A.M. Walker and Dickerman, 535-54.

34 In this respect and others, I am using the term "public opinion" in a looser sense than the one that emerged in the late eighteenth century in association with what Habermas, 89-102, has called the "bourgeois public sphere." One of the chief contentions of this essay, however, is that, within urban communities such as Utrecht, such a thing as public opinion did exist and have political force well before the eighteenth century.


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Author:Kaplan, Benjamin J.
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Date:Dec 22, 1996
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