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Demonic Possession Revision Notes

History Notes > Witch-craft and witch-hunting in Early Modern Europe (OS8) Notes

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Demonic Possession
Possible questions

Why were the possessed so often thought to be victims? (2016)
What factors were most important in determining the power relationship between demoniacs and those who sought to cure them? (2018)
For whom was the idea of 'positive demonic possession' plausible?
In what circumstances did fears about witchcraft and demonic possession overlap? (2015)
What were the difficulties in discerning demonic possession? (2014)
Were understandings of demonic possession and exorcism the most significant example of protestant and catholic divergence? (2017)

What was demonic possession?

Brian P. Levack: possession is when 'a demonic spirit invades the body of a human being,
assumes control of its physical movements, and alters its personality'
Symptoms of possession may include contortions, great strength, clairvoyance, vomiting of foreign objects, insensitivity, and speaking in strange tongues or voices
As a supernatural phenomenon it could be linked to witchcraft, and some cases did see witches as the cause of the possession
- I.e. Urbain Grandier of the Loudun possessions who was executed on charges of witchcraft as he was believed to have begun the possession by signing a demonic pact
The distinction between witches and demonic possession was then that witches were believed to have made a conscious, 'formal pact with evil' (Heinrich Kramer) while possession was involuntary, thus often making the possessed 'godly victims' (Leif Dixon) who had not sinned
Possession could only be caused upon the command of God or a witch (and witches' power was believed by some to also be allowed by God)
Possession reached its peak in the 16th / 17th centuries in the period after the Reformation,
referred to as 'the golden age of demoniacs' (Brian P. Levack)


Exorcism can be defined as the invocation and controlling of possessing demons using prayer and sacred texts
Catholic and Protestant / Puritan rites for these rituals may differ
Catholic exorcism

Catholicism is a very symbolic denomination, often employing religious iconography such as crosses during exorcisms, and carrying out the ritual 'in the name of Jesus Christ' (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Only an ordained priest with express permission of a bishop can carry out a formal exorcism
Several exorcisms may be used to expel a demon
'The exorcist recites prayers according to the rubrics of the rite, and may make use of religious materials such as icons and sacramentals' (Rituale Romanum, 1614)
Protestant / Puritan / Lutheran exorcism

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