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The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West

Rab Houston considers a study of 'demonic possession' across early modern Europe

Published: September 10, 2013 at 11:38 am
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Reviewed by: Rab Houston
Author: Brian Levack
Publisher: Yale
Price (RRP): 25


The 16th and 17th centuries were the ‘golden age of the demoniac’. In an era of religious, social and political upheaval, many thousands of people, commonly young, female, and Catholic, thought themselves seized by Satan. They convulsed, talked in tongues, egested foreign objects, and blasphemed. So strange seems their behaviour and so bizarre their stories that it is hard for modern readers to conceive of the possessed as anything other than sick in mind or body.

To this fascinating and complex topic Levack brings the forensic clarity and good sense of a legal historian, coupled with a sympathetic understanding of the impact of profound changes during the Reformation and its aftermath. Ideas about possession pervaded early modern life, being the province not only of theologians, practical divines and physicians, but also moral and natural philosophers, dramatists and poets. The way in which the possessed described their condition, and in which they were represented by propagandists and exorcists, differed between faiths. Clergy employed in expelling evil spirits also used quite different strategies, depending on their denomination. All demoniacs knowingly or unwittingly engaged in theatrical performances that were highly influenced by their religious beliefs and practices.

Deeply immersed in the literature, Levack offers a comprehensive study of possession and exorcism, exploring and explaining not the fringe, but the spiritual, intellectual and cultural core of early modern Europe and colonial America. Of course, some demoniacs were frauds and some may have been epileptics or lunatics, but this is far from the whole story. Indeed, much of the book’s success depends on suspending judgment and accepting that contemporaries truly believed in possession by demons. Levack carefully avoids lumping together all the puzzling beliefs and practices of the period; instead, he dissects and differentiates mindsets, rituals and behaviours.

As befits the author of the standard work on early modern European witchcraft, he does this most clearly when distinguishing witches from the possessed. Both phenomena came out of a belief in the interpenetration of the natural and supernatural worlds, but possession was involuntary, whereas witchcraft was the result of a conscious desire to manipulate the forces of evil against people and property. Levack’s measured anatomising of possession and exorcism avoids sensationalism without losing any of the subject’s intense allure.

Ranging widely across authority, spirituality and sexuality (among much else), his meaty volume is eminently readable. At the same time he sets out the context of the 16th and 17th-century explosion of exorcism, relating the turmoil and tensions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to demonic beliefs since antiquity and thus creating a rounded picture of evolving mentalities. In the 18th century, faiths turned against extreme manifestations of religiosity, causing reported possessions to decline. Yet reason did not completely triumph, and the book concludes with intriguing comparisons with possessions allegedly still taking place in the modern world.


Rab Houston is author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008)


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