- Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France
Sarah Ferber's incisive, well-written, and exhaustively researched monograph is a fascinating addition to the field of early modern history. It appears at a time when the publication of a host of new texts has signaled a renewal of scholarly interest in the role of diabolic possession in the premodern world: Philip C. Almond, Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England: Contemporary Texts and their Cultural Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Nancy Caciola, Discerning Sprits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003); J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (Philadelphia: [End Page 85] University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); Dyan Elliott, Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004); and Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Ferber's important contribution to this burgeoning scholarship offers a compelling paradigm for understanding the centrality of possession and exorcism to early modern Catholicism as she elegantly synthesizes the findings of a previous generation of scholars (among them D. P. Walker, Robert Mandrou, Michel de Certeau, and Erik Midelfort). Indeed, she finds not only that demons were "good to think with," as Stuart Clark has so magisterially demonstrated, but also that thinking about demonic possession and exorcism had profound implications for the institution of the church, post-Tridentine reform, and the role of the sacred in Catholic practice.
Why was it, Ferber asks, that exorcism of the possessed suddenly flowered in the middle of the sixteenth century? Catholic reformers of the late medieval period, anxious to root out popular superstitions, had warned that the practice blurred the lines between the holy and the unholy, promoted vanity and excess, and that exorcists ran the risk of being fooled by—or drawn into league with—the devil. Yet despite a veritable chorus of critics as well as deep ambivalence within the ranks of the church, the practice of exorcism expanded rapidly after 1550. Ferber argues that the revitalization of exorcism in Catholic France was driven by a widespread perception that the devil was at work in the world. This growing fear of the devil underpinned a trio of historical trends or "predisposing conditions" that fueled a century-long expansion of the ancient rite: the social, doctrinal, and political upheavals of the Wars of Religion; an upsurge in witch trials; and new forms of affective spirituality. In the context of these roughly sequential (if frequently overlapping) trends, Ferber examines some of the most famous cases of possession in early modern France, as well as some of the heretofore lesser known.
At a time when schism and Satan appeared to be wreaking havoc in the world, Ferber contends in the first section of her book, there was little consensus about how to deal with either. The Wars of Religion exacerbated a deeply felt need to fix certainty that religious authorities could not adequately provide. As a consequence, French Catholics increasingly turned to devotional practices that confirmed divine approbation of their cause. Public exorcism of the possessed proved to be the most powerful of such forms, for it demonstrated the power of the Catholic Church, its priests, its sacraments, and its rites to vanquish the devil and convert his minions, the Huguenots, back to the true faith. With the support of religious and secular elites, the [End Page 86] practice of exorcism, and the uses to which it was put, began to expand. Despite the respectability that exorcism acquired in the second half of the sixteenth century, Ferber is careful to underscore how institutional and individual ambivalence toward demonic possession and exorcism persisted throughout the early modern period. The authenticity of possession, she writes, was weighed on a case-by-case basis—and such verdicts never went unchallenged.
During the Wars of Religion, Catholics exploited the possibilities that public exorcisms of demoniacs such as Nicole Obry offered for...