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  • The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West by Brian P. Levack
  • Moshe Sluhovsky

Brian P. Levack, possession, exorcism, witchcraft trials, early modern Christianity, demons, demonology

Brian P. Levack. The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp.xii + 346.

The Devil Within is the most comprehensive discussion of demonic possession and exorcism in early modern Europe to date. The book covers all of Western and Central Europe, and addresses the configurations of demonic possession and exorcism in both Catholicism and the different Protestant denominations. As such, this is a first-rate overview of a topic that is both important from theological, historical, and psychohistorical perspectives and “sexy” in its voyeuristic appeal. Levack’s main concern is the motivations of possessed individuals (and to a lesser degree those of the exorcists), and he frames his discussion around questions of reliability: Were possessed people really possessed? Did exorcism really work? How can we, readers who believe in modern science and medicine and in the nonexistence of demons, comprehend stories of possession and make sense of them historically?

The book is organized thematically, each chapter addressing one of these questions. Chapter 1 discusses the many traditional marks of possession, reminding us that they were both physical and psychological. Possessed people vomited objects and convulsed, but also spoke languages they had not known prior to their possession and had clairvoyant powers. The emphasis on the complexity of symptoms is important for Levack’s argument that demonic possession was too difficult to be faked and too complex to be equated with any modern physical illness. Following Nancy Caciola and others, Levack argues that all possessions were theatrical performances in which the demoniacs, their families and neighbors, their physicians and exorcists all played assigned roles. Possession was a social drama, and the rest of The Devil Within is devoted to understanding the different components and circumstances of this drama.

Levack addresses both the Whats and the Whys. Chapters 2 and 3 set possession within Christian theology from the time of Jesus, the exorcist, to the development of scholastic demonology. Possession was often understood as a sign of coming apocalyptic events, and it is therefore not surprising that [End Page 113] the religious anxieties of the early modern period paralleled a dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of possession. He also reminds us that there was no space within the Christian tradition to deny the existence of demons. Even the harshest critics of demonic possession and exorcism and the most skeptic Christian voices in the eighteenth century argued that a specific case of alleged demonic possession was, in fact, physical illness or fraud. They challenged the validity of this or that diagnosis, never the possibility of demons taking possession of human beings or of the power of exorcists (in the Catholic tradition) or prayers (in the Protestant articulations) to expel demons.

Chapter 4 is the book’s most important contribution. In this chapter, Levack offers a systematic comparison of Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinist understandings and methods of possession and exorcism. While the Catholic Church has an arsenal of proven methods to expel demons at its disposal, among them a highly developed liturgy, holy objects and shrines, and demon-professionals (exorcists), the Protestants, who rejected the power of material objects and the claims of exorcists, invented a new method of dispossessing demoniacs. They employed personal prayers and fasting, which meant relinquishing the stage to Catholics to perform more dramatic exorcisms. Levack even argues that “there is little doubt that the success rate for Catholics was much higher than for Protestants” (p. 110). A more nuanced way to present the case, I believe, is to argue that Catholics performed more dramatic exorcisms and were better in promoting them, thus attracting public attention to possessions, while Protestants, for whom possession was often associated with personal guilt, often invested more efforts in keeping possessions and exorcisms private.

Discussing etiologies, Levack argues, convincingly, that attempt to reduce possession to natural, organic diseases have been the most common secular framework for explaining demonic possession. He challenges this view by comparing possession to both early...


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pp. 113-116
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