As the movie The Exorcist will show you, demons are a problem to this day. Modern clerics in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church still treat people who believe they’re possessed by demons (for the purposes of this blog I should state that I don’t care whether they really are possessed or not, I write about history not the paranormal).
However, demons could be a real problem if you were living in Medieval Europe. In fact, the idea that demons can get you killed is absolutely incontrovertible – in London of 1725 a drunk died of exposure in a well because neighbours ignored his cries for help, believing he was a demon. Not only that, but in 1597 Alice Goodridge, accused of sending a demon to possess Thomas Darling, died in prison awaiting trial for witchcraft.
Interestingly, though, those possessed by demons (demoniacs) occupy a more ambiguous status in the bible. Although John 8.44 describes The Devil as “a liar and the father of lies”, demoniacs in the Gospel were among the first witnesses to Christ, and often showed a clearer understanding of divine truth than the apostles. In fact, Christ himself was accused of being a demon, and of “casting out demons by the prince of demons.”
Literature from the medieval period showed a growing fascination with the demonic, especially verbal duels and other confrontations between clerics or saints and the possessed.
Saints Casting Out Demons
In Hagiographies demons were encountered more often than angels, and presented a major hazard in the world of men. They could possess humans. Lactantius, in the Divinae Institutiones, writes: “since spirits are subtle and not to be apprehended, they penetrate the bodies of human beings and work secretly in their entrails, undermining strength, exciting sickness, terrifying the mind with dreams and shaking the understanding with frenzy.”
In fact, the explosion of demons is one of the earliest tasks of the saints, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In one story, the Bishop of Hamburg cast out a possessing demon with a fragment of the shrine of St. Winnoc, and forced the demon inside the possessed man to admit the Saint’s power. Another demon came back to a woman it had possessed, not unlike tales of a demon coming to the prison cell of a woman being tried and interrogated for witchcraft in the North Berwick witch trials of 1592.
Just as those tempters come to tell their charges to be strong and resist interrogation, like the Berwick Witches, when one demon was expelled at the Shrine of St. Gebhard of Constance, he came back to his former victim that night, saying “Oh, my beloved vessel, why have you behaved so wickedly towards me, spurning me, your ancient inhabitant, and breaking the faith that you have long kept with me, for that seducer Gebhard, who has expelled me from you? Come back, I beseech you, come back to me, for it is not right that you should receive another in your vessel instead of me; I ask you not to refuse me the long, and so loving, cohabitation I had with you.”
In the story of the saint, the woman who had been dispossessed was strong enough to send her demon away once and for all, and it never returned again.
In fact, some saints seemed to specialise in casting out demons. A man called George brought his possessed son to the tomb of St. Gebhard and the boy was instantly cured, and in another callback to witchcraft (something that would certainly prepare medieval Europeans for the idea of shapeshifting witches) demons are frequently portrayed as appearing in the form of animals: lions, vultures, black dogs or Africans. They might even appear as a huge flock of malevolent birds, blocking out the sky.
In fact, only a saint or a hallowed object like the cross could clear the victim through divine force:
In the 11th Century Liber Miraculorum of St. Foy the author says, “through [the saint’s] power unclean spirits are driven out of possessed bodies again and again. These spirits are tormented, tortured and beaten with invisible whips until they are expelled, and then they cry out with great shouts that she should stop tormenting them. And these shouts are not all alike. Some of the evil spirits cry out in human fashion, others roar in the manner of lions or pigs, while others eject their serpents’ tongues with hisses as they are drawn forth from afflicted bodies through the merits and powers god conferred on Saint Foy.”
Demons AS Saints
In the earliest books of Exempla demoniacs are already making pronouncements on spiritual matters. The story told by Caesarius shows us a knight who hears his wife is having an affair with the village priest. He persuades the cleric to go to where a known demoniac live. The priest, in fear, pretends a call of nature in a stable to avoid facing the demoniac who says in German that he knows nothing of the priest, and then in Latin “he was justified in the stable”. The Latin speaking shows the man really is possessed.
The language used to describe demon preachers was often similar to the rationale used to justify women saints: “Weak Women” were said to be gifted with prophesy because they had been “chosen by god to confound strong men.”
There were also demons mimicking the power of Saints. In Thomas de Cantimpre’s Life of Christina the Astonishing, he makes no bones that her friends and contemporaries took her to be possessed. Her body came back to life after her “first death” and ascended to the rafters of the church. Thomas himself writes that Christina’s body was an undead thing, not a saintly one, and that it was constrained by prayers and compelled to descend by a priest.
Christina was bound with iron chains and broke free at least three times because of her supernatural strength, before she fled the company of humans and started living in treetops and on the roofs of churches like a gargoyle.
Thomas writes that she threw herself into roaring fires and boiling cauldrons, howling terribly; she hung herself from gallows and tortured herself on the rack; lamented in the graves of dead men; stood for days in the icy Meuse until a priest abjured her and tried to exorcise her again:
“She wept and twisted herself and bent herself backwards and bent and rebent her arms and fingers as if they were pliable and had no bones…” and “cried out as if in childbirth and twisted her limbs and rolled about on the ground with a great wailing.”
Even at 73, Christina was seen more as a figure of terror than sanctity:
“No mortal at that time could restrain her when she longed to go into the wilderness. When she returned no one dared greet her, no one dared ask her anything. Once she returned in the evening and passed above the ground right through the middle of a house like a spirit, and people could scarcely tell whether a spirit of a material body had passed by…”
Finally, Saints weren’t the only ones who could fight demons. Claude Lecouteux writes of a process to make a magical ring that fights can remove a demon from someone who is possessed, found in Sloane manuscript 29/332 at the British Library:
“Look for a small stone on which the face of a man is depicted. Have a silver ring made in the name of the one for whom you are working. When the stone is set in the ring, put on a white vestment and go to an empty house and consecrate the ring with water and wine between two lit candles. You shall do this three times at dusk. When entering the house, say: ”I come in peace to visit this dwelling”. Pronounce the following names over the ring: iandispar reffna. Dardaneus. Effreinel. Sarbuniel. Gatintya. Panzarenus
“On the third day, a spirit will come forth and you will take great pains to avoid speaking a word to it. It will take the ring. When you return the next day, you will find it in its place. You will pick it up and keep it wrapped in a red cloth in a clean place… when you fasten it around the neck of a possessed person, he or she will heal the that very same day.”
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