The historian Philip Almond describes 1550-1700 as ‘the golden age of the demoniac’. There are a lot of reasons, one of the biggest being the Reformation. Demoniacs had been important in the days of the early church, when church fathers were trying to build a new religion in an environment of borderline (and sometimes outright) hostility. On the other hand, as D P Walker tells us in his book Unclean Spirits, by the middle ages there were no more pervasive threats to subvert. Christianity was the ruling religion of Europe, and those heretics who did exist could be hunted directly by fire and the sword.
This led to a somewhat differing attitude to demonic possession during the middle ages. Theological orthodoxy held that since demoniacs could be constrained to speak the truth, they should be allowed to do so. After all, since demons were fallen angels, they could tell people important information about heaven and hell, and about the true mechanics of their own religion. Some demoniacs, like Christina the Astonishing, even attracted followers who saw them as divine figures in their own rights. (Christina herself was considered a saint, her saint’s day was July 24th).
The Reformation changed all that: suddenly there was another religious threat in Europe, and people on both sides used demonic possession to subvert the narrative. Protestants took from the Gospel of Mark the line “And he said to them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting”, and used it as justification to revile Catholic exorcism rituals as nothing but black magic.
In return, Catholics used huge, public exorcisms, along with miracles, to prove the truth of their religion(although, John Calvin once proved that a “Saint’s Armbone” in Switzerland was a mummified stag penis), with works such as those by Del Rio and Kramer squarely defending ideas such as witchcraft and possession.
This was a time when demonic possession existed in a particular ‘sweet spot’ for political religion. It was common, but sufficiently rare as to be so exciting. Artfully combined, these elements produce a piece of religious theatre that people will travel for.
Public Exorcism in Rome
Rome seems to have been a hotbed of public exorcism in the 16th century. Joachim du Bellay’s 93rd sonnet in his Les Regrets depicts a lascivious priest attempting to exorcise a hysterical teenage girl who is contorting herself into agonising shapes as her exorcist ‘tests’ her nipples and belly for the presence of demons – which is particularly reminiscent of a late 16th century propaganda pamphlet in England where the Catholic priest Edmund Campion (hiding in England at a time when Catholicism was illegal) was said to have ‘exorcised’ a young girl by putting the bone of a saint in ‘some orifice of her body’ (almost certainly her mouth, but the pamphlet is deliberately suggestive of somewhere else, and describes the priest fondling her legs, belly and breasts to get the devil out of them).
The cloth merchant Lesaige, according to Gladys Dickinson, saw a woman exorcised for over an hour in 1518, in a public ceremony at St. Peter’s in Rome, which is nothing compared to Michele de Montaigne who saw an exorcism in 1581 where the exorcist raved abuse at a possessed man, “dealing the poor wretch heavy blows with his fist, and spitting in his face”, then making the excuse that the man was one of the worst demoniacs the priest had ever seen, and that a public exorcism the previous day had gone much more smoothly, but hadn’t been so well attended (and that one demon had been displaced, but a second demon had stepped into its shoes and obscured the priest’s success).
One Englishman, passing through Loreto in 1594 writes of a Roman exorcism, “As I walked about the church, behold in a darke Chappell a Priest, by his Exorcismes casting a divell out of a poore woman: Good Lord what fencing and truly conjuring words he used! How much more skilfull he was in the divel’s names… If he had eaten a bushel of salt in hell: If he had been an inhavitant thereof, surely this Art could never have been more familiar to him. He often spake to the ignorant woman in the Latin tongue, but nothing less in Tullies phrase and at last the poore wrtreche… confessed her selfe dispossessed by his exorcisme.”
Exorcism in England
Even English Exorcisms could become public events. Anti-Catholic tracts, such as the Anti-Campion tract mentioned above, might be depicted as sexually deviant necromantic ceremonies conducted in private, but English Protestantism was sorely divided. On one hand, the official Church held no particular interest in dispossession, but the radical puritan factions assembling amongst the ranks of the poor and middle classes felt quite differently.
Tired of what some perceived as the corrupt and sinful Church of England, many puritans, or The Godly as they were sometimes known, believed that the power of Protestant exorcism through simple compassionate prayer and fasting (as directly referenced by the Gospel of Mark) was ultimate proof of their superiority and the rightness of their religion.
This meant that when one of their number became possessed, it could become a hugely public spectacle for those with puritan ideals (and, probably, some general gawpers).
In 1574, Robert Brigges, a London Lawyer, went through a series of depressive episodes that led to his first suicide attempt and subsequent demonic possession.
Brigges’ devil, none other than Satan himself, would afflict him daily, taking away his sight and paralysing him, but leaving him able to speak so that he could narrate his debate to onlookers. Bystanders gathered in greater numbers every day, first testing his affliction by pricking and pinching his flesh, and then by touching his eyeballs to prove his strangely astral state.
Some came day after day to watch Brigges, paralysed and blind, debating with the devil for hours on end, debating the popular theological issues of the day. Some demoniacs became so popular that they would have to relocate to a larger venue: Marion Gibson’s work on the exorcist John Darell shows that both of his ‘greatest hits’, Thomas Darling and William Somers, had to be relocated to larger premises for exorcisms due to increased demand.
So there we have it, if you find yourself anywhere in 16th century Europe, you have options: buy some of the amazing silks, take in a play by William Shakespeare, or see if you can catch an exorcism.