Brian P. Levack, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2013. £25, ISBN 978-0-300-11472-0 (hardback), pp. xii + 346
Reviewed by: Francis Young, June 2014
The literature on demonic possession in early modern Europe is vast, as the length of Brian Levack’s bibliography for The Devil Withintestifies, and any attempt at a history of possession is ambitious in the light of the competing theories that have been circulating since the 1970s. The Devil Withinis doubly ambitious in its attempt to tell the story of Catholic and Protestant possessions concurrently in the same volume. Since the work of D.P. Walker in the 1980s, historians have tended to deal with Catholic and Protestant demoniacs in separate studies. However, a synthesis of the kind that Levack provides is undoubtedly needed in a field where too many scholars have a tendency to develop theories based on a specific regional case or cases and ignore the wider picture. Levack tackles head on the question that is often the ‘elephant in the room’ in discussions of early modern possession: what was actually happening to these people in terms that a twenty-first-century reader can understand? I do not share Levack’s confidence that this question can be answered in any satisfactory way, but he is right to ask it, given that demoniacs and exorcists exist in the contemporary world as well as in the pages of history. This directness of approach lends a certain freshness to Levack’s account of a much-trodden area of cultural history.
The Devil Withinis avowedly a history of possession in the early modern period in the first instance, yet Levack also includes a consideration of possession in the early church and takes the narrative forward into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and even the present day. Levack’s overarching argument is not, as he acknowledges, a new one: possessed individuals in early modern Europe were consciously or unconsciously performing religious roles that were consciously or unconsciously fed to them by exorcists and others (pp. 29–30). This reading of possession avoids excessive functionalisation of demoniac-type phenomena and is compatible with a variety of reasons whypeople took on the role of demoniac. Levack follows Stuart Clark, Sarah Ferber and other historians in what has now become an orthodoxy in the field, and seems undeniable, by arguing that the explosion of demonic possessions in early modern Europe was linked to apocalyptic anxieties.
In other ways, however, Levack challenges orthodoxy. His critique of feminist scholars who identify possession as a female phenomenon while ignoring possessions in other marginalized groups will no doubt prove more controversial. He argues that youth and social status were just as important as gender in determining someone’s designation as a demoniac (pp. 184–90). Furthermore, Levack is critical of the view that early modern female demoniacs, such as the nuns of Loudun, used possession as a means to subvert their subordinate position. In contrast to medieval demoniacs, early modern possession victims come across as unsuccessful in any attempts they may have made to gain ‘prestige and respect’ (p. 185). Whether or not this conclusion is the right one, it illustrates the potential benefits of Levack’s decision to treat the history of possession from late antiquity onwards. It allows him to judge early modern possession against the ‘big picture’ of possession throughout history, a feature lacking in other studies.
It is evident that Levack’s primary interest is in the physical phenomena of possession, and The Devil Withinis at its best when it deals with the medico-psychological history of demoniacs. Levack’s account of changing attitudes to possession in the Eighteenth Century and the influence of the school of Charcot in nineteenth-century Paris (pp. 123–33) is especially impressive, and an important contribution to current literature on possession and exorcism in English. The Nineteenth Century has hitherto been virtually uncharted territory as far as scholarship on possession and exorcism has been concerned. Levack’s concurrent treatment of Protestants and Catholics does not prevent him from recognising theological diversity within the Catholic tradition, albeit his characterisation of Jansenists as ‘French Catholics who subscribed to some Calvinist doctrines’ (p. 219) is simplistic and potentially misleading. Levack is admirably sensitive to the subtly differing approaches to possession adopted by the Protestant sects.
Levack chooses to include the Apostolic period (the first and second centuries CE) in what he calls ‘Christian Antiquity’, leaving a significant gap in his historical account between the third and thirteenth centuries (pp. 32–55). Apart from a few solitary references to the work of Peter Brown on demoniacs in late antiquity, Levack leaves this period uninvestigated. One justification for this omission (apart from the need to make some sacrifices in a comprehensive history of possession) is the relevance of the Apostolic period to early modern commentators. Levack repeatedly sets his investigation of possession in the Apostolic era in the context of early modern use of early Christian precedents. However, it was during Levack’s neglected millennium that liturgical exorcism came into being, and he does nothing to account for this phenomenon. Indeed, the subtitle of Levack’s book, ‘Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West’, suggests a book that will give equal weight to possession and exorcism. Just one chapter (‘Expelling the Demon’) is devoted to exorcism, briefly considering the motivation and identities of the exorcists, the methods they employed and the reported effectiveness of exorcisms. Levack devotes just ten pages (pp. 100–10) to the words and techniques used by exorcists. In the light of Levack’s overarching argument that demoniacs were performing according to scripts provided for them by exorcists, it is surprising that he does not consider at any point what the content of those scripts, the liturgical texts of exorcism, actually was.
The scope of Levack’s book is very broad, taking in exorcism as well as possession, Russian Orthodox as well as Protestant and Catholic accounts of possession. Nevertheless, Catholic possession accounts dominate the narrative, and among these demoniac nuns occupy a prominent place. They include the nuns of Aix and Louviers (p. 67), the Dominican Jeanne Fery (pp. 128–31), the Theatine Abbess Benedetta Carlini (pp. 149–50) and the Discalced Carmelite Margaret Mostyn (pp. 173–74). In spite of the predominance of Catholic accounts, Levack also includes a very brief consideration of possessions in Jewish communities (pp. 167–68). Levack’s account of possession and exorcism in the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries is the first attempt by a historian to deal with this period, and he is able to draw valuable comparisons between the contemporary situation and other periods in the history of possession. However, he depends to a large extent on Matt Baglio’s journalistic account of the training of an American exorcist, The Rite(2009), rather than engaging directly with the works of contemporary Catholic demonologists such as Corrado Balducci, Gabriele Amorth and José Antonio Fortea. Levack states inaccurately that Fortea is a Latin American exorcist (he is Spanish).
It is surprising that Levack does not engage with some of the most important scholarship on exorcism in languages other than English, such as Elena Brambilla’s study of changing attitudes to exorcism in the eighteenth-century church, Corpi Invasi(2010), Florence Chave-Mahir’s seminal study of medieval exorcism L’Exorcisme des Possédés dans l’Eglise d’Occident(2011) and Andrea Nicolotti’s comprehensive Esorcismo Cristiano e Possessione Diabolica tra II e III Secolo(2011), which has superseded much of the previous scholarship on exorcism in the early church. Monika Scala’s comprehensive study, Der Exorzismus in der Katholischen Kirche: Ein liturgisches Ritual zwischen Film, Mythos und Realität(2012) probably appeared after Levack’s book went to press.
Despite these gaps, The Devil Withinis at present the best single-volume introduction to the history of possession in English, with the possible exception of Moshe Sluhovsky’s Believe Not Every Spirit(2007). Levack’s most important achievement has been to expand the horizons of future scholars of possession in the early modern period, for whom this book will undoubtedly be required reading. By putting early modern exorcism in a longer historical perspective, Levack has done a valuable service to scholarship and advanced understanding of this dark but increasingly traversed byway of history.