Nicky Hallett,Witchcraft, Exorcism and the Politics of Possession in a Seventeenth-Century Convent: ‘How Sister Ursula was once Bewitched and Sister Margaret Twice’ Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007.

Nicky Hallett,Witchcraft, Exorcism and the Politics of Possession in a Seventeenth-Century Convent: ‘How Sister Ursula was once Bewitched and Sister Margaret Twice’ Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007, ISBN 0 7546 3150 8, £55 (hardback) 212

Reviewed by Caroline Bowden; Royal Holloway, University of London, December 2007.

This is the second volume to be published this year derived from Nicky Hallett’s research in the archives from the English Carmelite convents founded in the seventeenth century at Antwerp and Lierre in Flanders. The first, Lives of Spirit, (reviewed on the H-WRBI list, 24 July 2007) based on what Hallett defines as ‘life-writing’ revealed the abundant sources illustrating the lives of a group of early modern women that have been hardly known to scholars. Not only are the ‘lives’ illustrative of daily life in a convent, but they richly develop the spiritual and cultural activities of its members.  I have mentioned the importance of Hallett’s earlier work, partly to set the context of this second volume of documents and the surrounding commentary which is more narrowly focussed on the lives of two sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth Mostyn who joined the English Carmelites and the extraordinary events which took place at Lierre 1649-51. Two earlier versions of the life of Margaret Mostyn have been published based on Edmund Bedingfield’s account.[1]While the visitation of the convent and specifically Margaret Mostyn by devils is included in the texts, neither of them refers to the exorcism that appears in the documents published and discussed here by Nicky Hallett.

Margaret and Elizabeth Mostyn professed at Antwerp in 1645. The extraordinary journey they undertook from their home in Shropshire to the continent via Weymouth, then besieged by parliamentary troops, is graphically described as part of their autobiographical writing preserved in the convent. It illustrates the sort of courage shown by many women seeking to follow their religious vocation in this period. The accounts of Margaret’s early life in the convent describe how having been a healthy young woman, the years following her profession saw a physical collapse till she became skin and bones. According to these accounts she was tormented by devils who left physical marks on her body. As in her earlier book, Hallett interweaves several different versions of the ‘life’ and avoids repetitions by omitting portions of texts. While the editorial decision is justified on the grounds of space, it does mean that these particularly challenging texts require close attention and cross referencing. Hallett treats the contemporary accounts of Sister Margaret’s possession sensitively: as she points out, it was already a controversial issue at the time.

Sister Margaret kept notebooks recording her spiritual life and the difficulties she experienced after her afflictions began in 1649. She remained obedient to the advice of her confessor, the Jesuit Edmund Bedingfield in attempting to deal with what they both saw as the signs of the devil. Hallett briefly discusses attitudes to witchcraft, possession and exorcism in early modern Europe in order to set Bedingfield’s decisions and his explanations of the events of the exorcism of 1651 in context. It was a difficult time for the convent: cases of possession were likely to attract ill fame and deter potential recruits. For instance, the incidents at the Ursuline convent at Loudun, France in the early 1630s had led to notoriety for the sisters. What is unusual in these documents from Lierre is that we have several versions of the narrative from those at the centre of the drama and witnesses within the convent: some written at the time of the exorcism and others around the death of Sister Margaret in 1679. These voices complicate the account while at the same time they reflect the layers and versions of events that were expressed or understood at the time. Those in authority in the convent including Margaret’s sister, (known in religion as Ursula), were aware of the potential impact of the story if it got out and the advantages of keeping it hidden.

The role of Edmund Bedingfield, confessor to the Carmelites at Lierre for more than thirty years is central to the accounts. He wrote two versions of Margaret Mostyn’s experiences. The first, a document of 74 pages, was written in Latin about the time of the exorcism and intended for the bishop of Antwerp: in fact the man who had been responsible for appointing him to the convent in the first place. This account starts as a conventional spiritual autobiography but it is soon clear that the bewitching and possession of the sisters and subsequent exorcism is to be the main focus with an unprecedented level of detail. He describes the physicality of Sister Margaret’s whole experience of possession, for example, emphasising the flinging out of her arms, spitting, biting his finger and vomiting. He went on to describe the exorcism that he carried out, giving us the names of 300 devils and the characteristic each represented, some of which were particularly relevant to nuns. For instance, Lephitus caused laughing during choir; while others could be more generally applicable, Palmus led to the desire of superiority. We are told that the report was never made public, although Sister Margaret requested that the exorcism should be known. Further layers to the narrative are added by the versions of the life of Sister Margaret (now described as Venerable Mother), written immediately following her death, including one consisting of 164 pages by Edmund Bedingfield. These versions represent to subsequent generations her good, even saintly, qualities as Prioress but without mentioning the exorcism of 1651: that part of the narrative is simply omitted.

We are left with many questions regarding the role of Edmund Bedingfield in these events and his relationship with the nuns at Lierre. Nicky Hallett gives us the version of his life probably written by Sister Ursula who was elected Prioress on the death of her sister. This covers Bedingfield’s life prior to joining the Carmelites as well as his time as Chaplain. She praises his care for them, mentions the influence of Sister Margaret’s conversations, emphasised his fine qualities and the regret of the community at his passing. However, at the same time we may note that some of his activities as Chaplain were unusual: for instance the fact that he touched Sister Margaret’s face and visited her bedchamber to hear confession albeit with a witness. He gives us the names of witnesses to add weight to his version of key events, but we know little of his motivation either for carrying out the exorcism or for writing about it in the way he did.

Nicky Hallett has in this book found challenging documents which raise many questions that will continue to exercise readers on many levels: for instance about gender relationships in the convents: the nature of possession and exorcism: about female self-writing: and Carmelite spirituality. This is the first time that issues of possession and exorcism have been raised in regard to early modern English convents. Hallett treats texts that could be read as representing sensational events with academic rigour, balance and sensitivity. That there are few clear answers in this book is perhaps to be expected: it tests the reader and repays the close attention that is needed to seek out a narrative thread on which to pin complex layers of meaning. It deals with issues that were controversial at the time and are still challenging. Nicky Hallett has opened discussion based on solid contextual research and raised key issues while shedding new light on aspects of life in an early modern English Carmelite convent.

[1]H J Coleridge, The Life of Margaret Mostyn….by Edmund Bedingfield,London, Burns & Oates, 1878: Anne Hardman, Mother Margaret Mostyn, Discalced Carmelite, 1625-1679,London, Burns, Oates & Wasbourne, 1937.