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Are outbreaks of demonic possession best explained by the benefits for the possessed or their exorcists?
The 15th to 17th centuries, during which cases of diabolic possession rose, reached their peak, and gradually fell into decline, presented great religious and political upheaval across Europe, which in some ways was internalised and 'dramatised in the body itself' 1; possession became an accepted cultural phenomenon which expressed the anxieties and fears of contemporaries, many of whom believed in a soon to be fulfilled apocalyptic prophecy. Though this was one, almost universal, aspect of possession which embedded it as 'an accepted feature of social life'2, many cases were not just a straightforward expression of contemporary concerns. For the 'possessed' and their families, a case of demonic possession could be used to bolster personal ideology, using the supposed 'demons' as a mouthpiece through which their own convictions could be relayed, or to target enemies and opponents they may have in the community. For the exorcists, successful exorcisms could be used in a similar fashion, also offering both parties the chance to portray themselves as the 'godly victim'3 and the righteous saviour.
Still, though possession as a concept was known to be real, this did not mean each individual case was accepted without scepticism. For both the possessed and their exorcists, being exposed as fraudulent was not unheard of, and could have deadly consequences, also reinforcing the ideology and political stance of those, like Richard Bancroft and Samuel Harsnett in England, who prevented the deception of fraudulent possessed peoples and their exorcists. Overall, it is difficult to determine which party benefited more from a successful exorcism, given the potential to be denounced as a fraud was far from rare, and could ultimately benefit the Church or state more than any of the parties actually involved in the exorcism.
If diabolic possession is to be defined, in terms of Christian belief, as when 'a demonic spirit invades the body of a human being, assumes control of its physical movements, and alters its personality' 4, it then grants several opportunities to the possessed to 'violate cultural norms with impunity' 5, link personal opponents to the malevolent cause of their condition, or strengthen their own beliefs and ideology through the word of the 'demon'. The 1633-40 mass possession of the Ursuline nuns of Loudun exhibits each of these explanations, at least in part. Individual cases of possession were more commonly seen, but mass possession can be viewed as a uniquely female phenomenon 6, thus effectively illustrating why one may use possession to personal ends. For women in a nunnery, it is not difficult to imagine high levels of sexual repression, a lack of emotional connection, and prevention of discussion,
and it is possible that 'being possessed by demonic spirits enabled some nuns to participate in a
1 Roper, Lyndal, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Religion and Sexuality in Early Modern Europe (pg. 172),
2 Clark, Stuart, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (pg. 391), Oxford University
3 Dixon, Leif, Demonic Possession (Lecture), Examination Schools, University of Oxford, 21/05/2019 4 Levack, Brian P., Possession, witchcraft and the law in Jacobean England (pg. 30), in Brian P. Levack (Ed.),
New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic and Demonology: Volume 3, Witchcraft in the British Isles and
New England, Routledge (2001)
Levack, Possession... (pg. 31)
Sluhovsky, Moshe, The Devil in the Convent (pg. 1381), The American Historical Review, Vol. 107, No. 5
(December 2002), pp. 1379-1411 (34 pages), Oxford University Press 1
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