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  • Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages
  • John W. Coakley
Nancy Caciola. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages.Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi + 327.

In Discerning Spirits, Nancy Caciola considers the apparent similarity between the behaviors of saintly women and those of female demoniacs in the last centuries of the Middle Ages. She argues (1) that those behaviors constituted a “loosely unified data set” (p. 23)—that is, they were fundamentally similar and distinguishable from each other only by the different constructions placed upon them by social groups that had a stake in the women’s reputations—and (2) that the constructions themselves followed an identical structural pattern, determined by the concept of “possession”: just as demoniacs were seen as possessed by demons, so saints were seen as possessed by the divine.

The bulk of the book elaborates these theses, on the basis of sources that include hagiographies, chronicles, liturgies, and scientific and theological texts. The behaviors that appear as the common denominator in stories about the women in question include physical symptoms such as swelling, frenzy, or trance, and the exercise of “intellectual gifts” such as the power to prophesy or discern the secret sins of others. The notion that it was the penetration of some outside spirit, good or ill, into the women’s bodies that produced these signs and gifts rested on the widely shared notion of women as “deformed males,” who, since they were by nature more “open” or “porous,” and since in them the image of God was, at best, partially present, were more susceptible than men to being entered by forces from outside themselves. The divine (the Holy Spirit) would make its way to the heart (as shown, for instance, by the supposed discovery of replicas of the instruments of the Passion in the heart of the putative saint Clare of Montefalco [d. 1308] when her body was autopsied), though demons could only lodge in the bowels and reproductive organs; but in either case, it was a matter of penetration from without. In themselves, the women’s behaviors were but a “cipher”; it was their public that, sharing those fundamental cultural assumptions about women, de-ciphered the behaviors to establish what sort of spirit was doing the possessing. These judgments could vary. Thus the trances and prophecies of the beguine Sybilla of Metz (fl. ca. 1240) were eventually proven to be [End Page 79] frauds, but not before several groups of admirers, including the local friars and the bishop himself, had become convinced of her holiness. Thus, too, the Italian lay penitent Margaret of Cortona (d. 1297) became posthumously the patron saint of her town and of the Franciscan Third Order, but in her lifetime had detractors even among the Franciscans, some of whom seem to have suspected that she was a demoniac. And the beguine Elizabeth of Spalbeek (d. 1316), famous both for her imitation of the Passion and for prophesies concerning a scandal in the French royal court, was viewed variously as a saint, a false prophet, or a political pawn. All these cases, as Caciola shows, involved complex social forces that surrounded the woman in question and determined the often contradictory evaluations of her behavior.

Among scholars, Caciola is not alone in calling attention to the similarities that underlay female behaviors that were evaluated in contrasting ways. Peter Dinzelbacher has explored the behavioral parallels between high-medieval holy women and late-medieval witches in Heilige oder Hexen? Schicksale Auffälliger Frauen in Mittelalter und Frühneuzeit (Zürich and London: Artemis & Winkler, 1995). Dyan Elliott, in her Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004), has discussed at length the practice of discernment of spirits, placing it in the context of the development of a culture of inquisition that had its roots and expression in the opposition to heresy and the emerging institution of sacramental confession—a development that was underway well before Jean Gerson and others, around the time of the Great Schism, wrote treatises that called almost all charismatic female behavior into doubt. Caciola too...


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