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The Demonic Side of Witchcraft.

Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. By Nancy Caciola. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. xvi + 327 pages.

Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. By Walter Stephens. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xv + 451 pages.

Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England: Contemporary Texts and their Cultural Contexts. Edited by Philip C. Almond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. x + 405 pages.

Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750. Edited by Marion Gibson. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. xiii + 270 pages.

Perennial interest in late medieval and early modern witchcraft, whether of America, England, Scotland, or continental Europe, has for decades insured that university and commercial presses each year produced a modest but constant flow of books dealing with the subject. But while it sometimes seems, as a result, that nothing new can possibly be left to add to our understanding of the cultures and social circumstances in which belief in witchcraft took root, or the sex/gender issues that help explain the prevalence of women among identified witches, or the attitudes toward witchcraft of the Catholic and early Protestant churches, a changed emphasis is coming to dominate recent scholarly conversations about witchcraft. Beginning with Stuart Clark's monumental Thinking with Demons and continuing with Armando Maggi's 2001 study, Satan's Rhetoric, (1) scholars now examine the spiritual half of the witchcraft equation: not the women who were labeled witches but the demons who interacted with and in some cases possessed those women.

"Demonology" might seem a more appropriate rubric than "witchcraft" under which to group at least three of the titles under review, but that label would be equally misleading. These works are particularly interested in the materiality of demons rather than demonic hierarchies or religious theories about the spirit realms. In the world they recuperate, demons and spirits interact with humans, either by possession and subsequent exorcism or by establishing a relationship with human witches. In fact, witches and demons are almost inevitably linked in the early modern period because, as Philip Almond points out, most demonic possessions for which exorcisms were performed were "the outcome of bewitchment by a witch" (10). (2) Three of the four books considered here are primarily interested in the nature, speech, and presence of angelic or demonic spirits as evidenced by their interaction with humans, and the fourth includes primary materials which document the involvement of spirits in witchcraft.

Nancy Caciola's study deals far more with possession by spirits than with actual witchcraft. Its author asks how an angelic spirit might be distinguished from a demonic when a human host was "possessed." Beginning in the late twelfth century, a period characterized by growing urbanization and by the laicization of religious life, Caciola finds an increasing number of lay women claiming to be divinely possessed. Their claims posed a dilemma for the Church and its defenders. After all, one of the devil's most notable characteristics was his ability to deceive. It therefore seemed crucial to determine how a possessing spirit could be tested to determine its true nature. Caciola begins her book by examining this "discernment" problem, looking at the similar behaviors exhibited by those said to be demonically or divinely possessed and at the dissimilar historical weight carried by the two sets of claims: "Demonic possession was an ancient category attested in scripture, whereas claims to divine possession were novel, appearing for the first time in a widespread way in the late twelfth century. This chronological disjunction rendered demonic possession the more 'reliable' category, making it the more likely explanation for unusual or extreme behaviors in the minds of many contemporary observers" (24). Possessed women often could not themselves tell what or who inhabited their bodies. Even if they claimed to be vessels of divinity, they might be trying deliberately to arrogate to themselves importance and power or they might be genuinely deceived. To the society around them fell the responsibility of discerning the nature of the women's possession and of responding appropriately to it. How society in general and the Church in particular dealt with that dilemma is the story Caciola tells.

The second part of her book, devoted to theories of the material body, investigates why women were more vulnerable to or suitable for spirit possession than men and explores exactly how and where these possessing spirits occupied the female body. Contemporary theorists believed that demonic spirits inhabited different places in the female body from angelic spirits and thus that its location in the female body might be a criterion for discerning whether a spirit were angelic or demonic. In practice, however, since observers could not penetrate the body to view the spirit's location, the problem of discernment remained troublesome despite newly developed physiological theories. "[T]he behaviors themselves were ambivalent, the individual displaying them was a cipher, and the process of discernment depended upon the social negotiations of outside observers. The fifteenth century, however, saw a negative shift in the understanding of these behaviors, particularly when they were exhibited by uncloistered, unmarried women. Now, immoderate possessed behaviors increasingly came to seem demonic in character" (314).

These last two sentences form the basis of the final section of the study, Caciola's discussion of exorcism accounts and discernment treatises that assume that possessing spirits will almost certainly be demonic. Why, after all, would the Holy Spirit choose the weak and vulnerable body of a woman through which to speak? The possessors of such laywomen must be demons.

Even as she presents the various arguments and strategies in the discernment debates that were waged for nearly three centuries, Caciola also advances a thesis about medieval culture's awareness of the growing power and influence of women on the Church and its ambivalent response to extraordinary female piety. Her evidence for this claim begins with the epigraph to her book's introduction, Hildegard of Bingen's statement, "In truth, this is an effeminate age." Caciola discusses the feminization of a religious culture in which masculine leadership had faltered, leaving women to find their own spiritual path. Possessed by the Holy Spirit and speaking prophetically, laywomen claimed to know God's will and proclaimed it to others. Brigit of Sweden and Catherine of Siena, who both attained sainthood in this period, gave angel-inspired counsel to popes and papal advisors. Some medieval commentators went so far as to claim that these two women were at least partially responsible for the great papal schism of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. According to Caciola, such perceived female influence led, in the deeply misogynistic fifteenth century, to the persistent claim that women through whom spirits spoke were not saints but instead possessed by demons: "The same behaviors that once had rendered possessed women ciphers, betokening either divine or demonic possession according to the interpretation of the audience, now were seen as clues to the indwelling of unclean spirits only" (313). From this identification of the spirits that possessed laywomen as certainly demonic, it is only a short step to laywomen who voluntarily associate with demons and thus are witches.

Caciola has time only briefly to suggest in her final pages the work to be done to connect her study of the discernment of spirits to the witchcraft treatises that flooded Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The book would have been stronger had she pursued this connection further, perhaps omitting much of her discussion of the material female body and its peculiar vulnerability to possession. That discussion sorts awkwardly with her more narrative chapters; it is the least original part of her study; and in view of her conclusion that, despite theories about how and where a demonic or angelic spirit might possess a woman, this knowledge ultimately did not solve the problem of discernment in individual cases, it offers far more detail than a cul-de-sac requires. This quibble aside, Caciola's well-written book is an informative contribution to discussion of the relationship of spirits to the women they possessed.

Walter Stephens picks up where Caciola leaves off, with the witchcraft treatises of the mid-fifteenth century. His study has a single, powerful thesis: "Although witchcraft treatises discuss maleficium in detail, their primary concern was the demonstration that demons are real" (18). Stephens carefully analyzes anecdotes from various witchcraft treatises, arguing that witchcraft theorists hoped to demonstrate through their recitation of physical details, especially those describing the copulation of witches with demons, that demons actually existed. Explaining how theorists interpreted witchcraft trials, Stephens shows that the witches themselves were treated as expert witnesses who could, especially under torture, provide first-hand testimony that physical contact and interaction with demons regularly occurred. Facing growing skepticism about the reality of the spirit world, intellectuals vehemently defended the existence of witchcraft and the physical interactions of witches and demons. If the demons that interacted with witches were real, then God himself must also be real.

Contesting the claims of feminist criticism that witchcraft was essentially misogynistic and demonstrated a cultural fear of the feminine--a position which undergirds much of Caciola's argument--Stephens denies that misogyny was anything but an accidental offshoot of the drive for knowledge about the spirit world. "IT]he literate men who developed the theory of witchcraft were not driven by misogynistic motivations of a sort familiar to feminist criticism," he writes (32). "Because most women were illiterate, their sexuality was the only trait that literate men could imagine bringing them into contact with demons. Since women's sexuality was defined as passive, women were imagined as being dominated by demons rather than controlling them [as male necromancers claimed to do].... [A] woman who confessed to being ravished by a demon was testifying to the existence of a suprahuman presence that left her no choice but to believe in its reality" (53).

Stephens bolsters his claims by a detailed analysis of the composition of the Malleus maleficarum (1487), showing that the often discussed and reprinted misogynistic passages of this influential witchcraft treatise were added as an afterthought when its author (for "convenience" [33] Stephens refers only to Heinrich Kramer as its author) saw a need to explain why demons chose women rather than men with whom to copulate. He believes that the treatise was written primarily to highlight and confirm the reality of demons, its vilification of women merely subsidiary to this central concern.

Having addressed this tricky issue (but surely without having the last word about it), Stephens then discusses in detail characteristics of demons who interacted with witches. He examines the views of Augustine and Aquinas on demonic reality, noting that Augustine--primarily responsible for the idea that all spirits or daemons were really evil demons--effectively argued against the possibility, discussed by Caciola, that possessing spirits might be angelic. When, centuries later, the religious turmoil of early modern Europe helped to provoke increased skepticism, claims for witchcraft and evidence of demonic corporeality grew stronger and more detailed. In a chapter richly illustrated with graphic representations of demon/witch sexuality, Stephens discusses in detail demonic copulation. He argues that the determination of judges and other interrogators at witchcraft trials to extract such details even after witches had confessed to maleficium is evidence that most of these "elite" magistrates were more interested in demons than in the women accused of witchcraft.

Stephens devotes several chapters to characteristics of witches and the acts with which they are associated: their ability to fly; their power to commit maleficium; their desecration of the sacraments, particularly the eucharist; their murder of infants; their association with cats; their ability to steal penises and to induce impotence. Stephens carefully teases out the role of corporeal demons in each of the behaviors attributed to witches. These actions, verifiable in the physical world (children died, cats associated with old women, men became impotent), particularly interested witchcraft theorists because they "prove" the reality of demons. A chapter deals with experiments on witches--dunking them in ponds to see whether they would float; forcing them to anoint themselves in preparation for flying--conducted not because examiners feared that witches had obtained special powers from demons but because they hoped that they had.

Stephens's final chapters discuss necromancy and exorcism as alternative ways of interacting with demons, thus combating the period's skepticism about the spiritual world. One might assume that exorcism, during which the exorcist spoke directly with the indwelling demon, might have been considered more satisfactory as evidence of demonic presence than the witches' second-hand accounts of interaction with demons. But exorcism produced little physical evidence. Stephens discusses at length an exorcism which Kramer, author of the infamous Malleus maleficarum, performed on a Bohemian priest. The priest was possessed by a demon that interfered with his life only when the priest attempted to enter a holy site or to receive the sacraments. Kramer interviewed the priest at length, spending several weeks taking him to holy places in Italy. He wished to observe the demon's responses, one of which was to speak in Italian, a language unfamiliar to the Bohemian. Stephens, fascinated by Kramer's first-hand account of his attempts to exorcise the priest's demon, resorts to modern psychological theory to explain the case.

He traces Kramer's intellectual development from his intense interest in the exorcism of the Bohemian priest to his later preoccupation with witchcraft. He suggests that this trajectory is common for those intellectuals who theorized about witchcraft. "In their personal lives, intellectuals like Kramer may never have acknowledged or even noticed the skepticism that drove their researches from exorcism into necromancy, and, finally, into witchcraft. But in their writings, doubts shine brightly through the language that they used and the experimental situations that they described. Doubt was present from the beginning of necromancy and grew throughout the time during which witch-hunting was becoming established" (348).

Stephens's explanation of the shift in emphasis from exorcism to witchcraft in the fifteenth century differs somewhat from Caciola's. But clearly he does not tell the whole story of why witchcraft treatises proliferated in the early modern period. Only a paragraph or two, for example, concern English witchcraft trials and treatises, where maleficium was often the sole accusation made against a witch. Features of European witchcraft trials, such as reports about the witches' sabbath, flying, and demonic copulation, were rarely present at English witch trials. Stephens fails to address this anomaly. Why were English witchcraft theorists less concerned than their continental counterparts with the relationship between witches and demons?

Stephens attempts to link exorcism, necromancy, and witchcraft by implying development from one to the other. Yet, as Almond's collection makes clear (and as Stephens acknowledges but sometimes appears to forget), exorcism and necromancy coexisted with witchcraft, although both were sometimes overshadowed by the graphic and titillating details of the witchcraft trials. However attractive, Stephens's proposed developmental link is not fully convincing.

Almond's anthology reprints in modernized form nine English accounts of demonic possession and exorcism from the period 1550-1650. With one or two minor exceptions (explained in footnotes), they are reprinted without cuts and with a typeface and page layout which retains "the spirit of the originals" (x). An introduction to each account places it in historical context. Almond meticulously cross-references wherever he sees evidence that the details of one exorcism are borrowed from earlier exorcism accounts. Yet Almond does not explain or indicate in a scholarly apparatus how he has transformed these texts for the modern reader: "A little to my surprise, the modernisation of these texts became a much more complex task than I had envisaged. It was an exercise in translation and interpretation and much less one of mere cosmetic work" (x). Lacking specific information about what "interpretation" Almond has provided, his modernized versions cannot be confidently used as if they were edited versions of the original texts. This lack of specificity vitiates the usefulness of what is otherwise an important and well-considered selection of texts.

That selection includes exorcism accounts by writers with very different perspectives on demonic possession. Some wish to convince readers that the demonic possessions they record were genuine. Others are highly skeptical of the performances of the demoniacs they have witnessed. Still others write to expose fraud. From the case of Alexander Nyndge in 1573 to that of the Muschamp children in 1650, Almond's collection presents variations on a single theme: young men and young women are possessed; some are relieved by exorcism, others are not; most but not all of those possessed are Puritans; all but one claim to be possessed as the result of witchcraft; several cases result in the executions of witches; in others, the possessed admit to counterfeiting their symptoms (sometimes only after the execution of those they had accused as witches). Almond's collection brings together materials that enable the reader to think about the interplay among exorcism, possession, and witchcraft from a number of angles. An index and bibliography add to the usefulness of the volume.

In his introduction, Almond reflects on what may be learned from encountering these accounts together. He explains how to differentiate possession from medical problems (many of these cases, first diagnosed as illness, were only later understood to be possession). He also discusses the religious debates among Anglicans, Puritans, and Catholics about possession and exorcism, and touches on the relationship between witchcraft and possession; the possibility of divinely inspired possession; the signs and symptoms of possession; and the problem of fraudulent possessions. Most interesting is his analysis of the possessed themselves. Almond demonstrates that possessed behaviors followed certain patterns whether performed by male or female, young or old, Catholic or Protestant. But the preponderance of those possessed were young.
   Possession by the Devil then was a culturally available means by
   which children and adolescents, and especially young women,
   escaped their subordination. They expressed their powerlessness
   in the only way available to them--through their bodies. In so
   doing they were empowered.... The worst excesses of their
   rebelliousness could be excused and laid at the Devil's door. But
   they were often vessels, not only of the demonic, but also the
   divine. To the extent that they resisted the demonic powers and
   strengthened the faiths of others, they were exemplars of faith
   and piety. They manifested within themselves both angry
   rebellion against social norms and passionate adherence to them.
   (26)


Issues of discernment surrounded possessions; it was necessary to determine whether the possessing spirit was angelic or demonic and also whether the "victim" was a fraud. As was true of the discernment debate Caciola discusses, it fell to society itself to determine, with the help of both exorcists and skeptics, whether possession and witchcraft were really present. As the seventeenth century wore on, society's verdict was more and more frequently "fraud," and claims of possession gradually diminished. Almond's collection makes vivid a time, however, when credible demons were spoken and reckoned with.

While Almond's anthology has modest goals, Marion Gibson's anthology is far more ambitious--and far less successful. Intending "to give a picture of how diversely witchcraft was understood by a wide range of people in ... 'Old and New England' in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries "(ix), Gibson includes selections from English laws on witchcraft and other legal documents from both England and America, excerpts from witch trials, sections from English witchcraft treatises, bits of drama and poetry from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, materials from American witch trials and demonologies, and selections from Restoration essays skeptical about witchcraft. Probably intended for use in a university course on witchcraft, or perhaps for general readers with an interest in witchcraft, the volume is inadequate for either purpose. Its texts are mercilessly cut and pasted. Gibson prints, for example, forty lines from book 1 of The Faerie Queene, after a page of editorial commentary. She concludes her brief flirtation with Edmund Spenser with a summary: "The reader learns of Fradubio's fate with horror, for the disguised witch Duessa is now the companion of the unsuspecting Redcrosse Knight ..." (152). Leaving Spenser at this point, Gibson immediately moves into her commentary on twenty-six lines from Ben Jonson's The Masque of Queenes.

The organization of the volume, although Gibson tries to explain it in her introduction, often seems arbitrary. For example, excerpts from Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) are printed immediately after sections from George Gifford's A Dialogue concerning Witches and Witchcraftes (1593) even though Gibson writes in introductory remarks on Scot that "Scot's arguments juxtapose interestingly with those of George Gifford. Although Gifford wrote after Scot ... [Scot] would very likely have defined Gifford as a 'witchmonger"' (76). Excerpts from literary texts are collected in three separate chapters. "Stage and page--witches in literature" contains bits from Thomas Middleton's The Witch, William Shakespeare's Macbeth, and John Ford, Thomas Dekker, and William Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton, as well as the Spenser and Jonson fragments mentioned above. An intervening chapter on demonic possession includes part of the exorcism treatise of the Boy of Burton and a section from Edward Fairfax's A Discourse of Witchcraft. Gibson returns to dramatic fragments in a chapter entitled "Learned Men and Magic" which contains a few scenes from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and The Merry Devil of Edmonton. A final literary section, "Magic and Money," reprints bits from Thomas Heywood's The Wise Woman of Hogsdon and Jonson's The Alchemist. I find it difficult to understand why nondramatic texts are included in a chapter entitled "Stage and Page" and why dramatic texts also appear in other chapters. Fragments of literary texts glued together with more lines of editorial summary and commentary than lines from the works themselves have little function. Gibson's cut version of the exorcism of the Boy of Burton--the full version is reprinted in Almond's anthology--makes clear the severity of her disservice to nonliterary as well as literary texts.

Cornell University Press, which produced a beautiful and carefully edited book for Caciola, did not do well by Gibson (though the blame may rest elsewhere; the volume was printed in Great Britain where it was published by Continuum). The text exhibits errors in proofreading, in grammar, and in simple continuity on almost every page. One cannot recommend this book as a classroom text because it models the kind of carelessness from which students ought to be dissuaded.

Such an anthology, better thought through and better edited, might have served a worthwhile purpose. The sections on legal documents in England and America are informative and reprint materials not easily accessible to a general reader. Similarly, the witchcraft treatises are well chosen and would have been informative had they been less mutilated. Did the compiler perhaps want to write a comparative study of English and American witchcraft and settle instead for a collection of snippets from the primary materials that would have been its basis? Gibson hints at such a desire at the conclusion of her introduction: "The texts in the volume should be read more or less in the order in which they appear, as the introductions build on one another to give a picture of the range and development of views on English and American witchcraft (xiii). Perhaps the volume would offer more coherence if readers ignored the reprinted texts altogether and just read the editorial material. Gibson's bibliography is a helpful starting place for those new to witchcraft studies.

Joint consideration of these four books raises questions not fully answered in their pages. What specific features of demons and witches account for the relationships among demonic possession, demonic seduction, and witchcraft? Why do some demonic spirits possess, while others copulate with, humans? Why are the young those most often possessed, while the old are those most frequently accused as witches? What roles do demonic (and angelic) spirits play in the European cultural psyche in the medieval and early modern periods? How are we to understand the many forms of commerce and conversation, criminal or otherwise, that appear to have broken the borders between the human and spirit worlds in the periods we study? Efforts to answer questions such as these will insure continuation of scholarly debate and the flow of books on witchcraft and demonic possession.

(1.) Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997), and Armando Maggi, Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001).

(2.) Another recent study of exorcism, however, deliberately excludes bewitchment from consideration; see Hilaire Kallendorf, Exorcism and its Texts: Subjectivity in Early Modern Literature of England and Spain (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003)
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Title Annotation:Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages; Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief; Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England: Contemporary Texts and Their Cultural Contexts; Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750
Author:Traister, Barbara H.
Publication:CLIO
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Words:4069
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