The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West by Brian P. Levack
Alec Ryrie on a persuasive account of demoniacs and how society perceived and dealt with them
Thomas Darling, a 13-year-old boy from Burton-on-Trent, was typical enough. In 1596, he began to suffer from a variety of alarming symptoms that were and remain hard to explain. Convulsions, bodily contortions, frothing at the mouth: epilepsy, perhaps? But the fits were triggered by, for example, hearing a particular verse from the Gospel of St John being read aloud. And vomiting, which is hardly unusual, although vomiting up devils is; but in any case it is not a symptom of epilepsy. Nor are visions in which the sufferer is persistently troubled by a green angel and a green cat.
As Brian Levack’s book documents, the history of Western Christianity (indeed, that of most of humanity) is full of stories such as this: often individual, specific and circumstantial, and enormously difficult to interpret. What unites them and forms the subject of his book is the diagnosis given at the time: demonic possession. Darling’s parents and ministers blamed an old woman (who had facial warts and was therefore a witch). She had told the boy he would go to Hell after he had farted near her.
Such an explanation won’t wash nowadays, although that may say more about us than it does about our demon-afflicted forebears. Is demonic possession really such a silly idea? When people begin behaving as if they are no longer in control of themselves, it’s reasonable to wonder who has taken over. We now use the word “subconscious” to describe the legion of demons (and angels) we each carry with us; it comes to much the same thing. And who is to say that exorcism is any less effective than classic Freudian psychoanalysis? It’s certainly quicker and cheaper.
Levack looks at the classic rationalisations (which were widely used by contemporaries): mental or physical illness, or deliberate fraud. And he shows that they can explain away some possessions, but not all. His own overarching explanation is cultural scripting. Those who told stories of possessions fitted them to the expected pattern. And sufferers themselves, once they suspected (or were told) that they were possessed, knew how to play the part. It could be deliberate fraud, but equally it could give shape to their troubles. For mental illness is as culturally shaped as any other mental phenomenon.
So all demoniacs were actors, and many of them were their own audience. Again, isn’t that true of all of us? If possession is culturally scripted, so is everything else we do.
Indeed, this book’s disappointment is that this, its central argument, is a little banal. Most of us working on this subject already thought in these terms, although I have not seen it spelled out so thoroughly before.
There are, moreover, further dimensions that receive shorter shrift here. Where there were confessions of deliberate fraud, Levack is too ready to believe them. Those confessions, too, had cultural scripts to follow, scripts that rarely acknowledged the no-man’s-land between searing honesty and deliberate deception where most people spend most of their lives. I’d have also liked to see something on prayer, a fundamental arena of possession, about which he says nothing directly. And given that historian Gary Waite’s groundbreaking work has tied witch-hunting convincingly to fear of Anabaptist heresy, and that Anabaptism was itself seen as a form of demonic possession, I’d like to know how that community fits into this story.
But I’m grousing. The argument of this wonderfully readable and lucid book is only a framework, which allows Levack to give a comprehensive and detailed account of this extraordinarily durable cultural phenomenon, in all its everyday freakishness. It will become the subject’s indispensable encyclopedia.
The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West
By Brian P. Levack
Yale University Press, 352pp, £25.00
Published 28 March 2013
Review originally published as: What power compelled them? (2 May 2013)
Alec Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity, Durham University. He is author, most recently, of Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (2013).