- Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany
Once upon a time, scholars were sure that the Reformation had "disenchanted" the world. Max Weber said so, after all. By casting aside saints' relics and sacramentals, Protestant theologians seemed to have undercut the "magic of the medieval church" and created a more modern and "rational" form of religion. Then we noticed the inconvenient truth that witch-hunting had continued and, in fact, had reached its height during the Reformation era. The Scientific Revolution seemed the next obvious period to locate disenchantment and the clear transition from a magical and spirit-obsessed premodern world to empirical, rational modernity. The closer one looks at early modern science, however, the less it appears to have marked an absolute break from other contemporary modes of thought. But the Enlightenment, at least, with its goal of crushing all superstitious "infamy," seemed reassuringly [End Page 220] and reliably modern. Did not Enlightenment philosophes openly deride belief in spirits, demons, and occult powers of every ilk? Do they not sound so very much like us?
Of course they do, and especially so when we only listen to those aspects of Enlightenment discourse that conform to our ideas of what modernity should sound like. Scholars of magic and superstition are only beginning to attend seriously to other strains of thought evident in this period. Martin Pott and now Sabine Doering-Manteuffel writing in German, and Owen Davies, Willem de Blécourt, and David Allen Harvey writing for Anglophone audiences, among others, have begun to expose other aspects of eighteenth-century intellectual developments and their lasting effects on modernity. Theology and other areas of religious thought, and also "magical" and "occult" thinking, remained important for far longer than we typically imagine, and the era of Enlightenment was characterized by far more diverse developments than just the philosophes' confident decrials of all infamy. With this valuable book, Erik Midelfort, long known as an expert on early modern German witchcraft, adds his voice to the recharacterization, or at least complication, of what the era of Enlightenment really meant in Europe.
His story centers on Johann Joseph Gassner. From 1774 to 1776, in Ellwangen and Regensburg and many other locales across southern Germany, this Catholic priest performed hundreds of exorcisms and ritual healings. His actions garnered tremendous popular attention, drew crowds, and sparked intense debate among both Catholic and, surprisingly, Protestant intellectuals. Finally, his controversial practices became too unsettling to too many powerful people, and in 1776 Pope Pius VI put an end to the whole business by transferring him to an out-of-the-way parish and forbidding him to perform any more public exorcisms. Midelfort sees Gassner as an important example of alternate Enlightenment trends that scholars far too often ignore. Importantly, however, although certainly any number of "enlightened" authorities opposed Gassner, Midelfort never presents him as an oppositional figure to "the Enlightenment." Rather, he argues that Gassner was as exemplary of his age as was Voltaire or Rousseau, Kant or Goethe. He uses the Gassner affair to illuminate normally unseen aspects of the Enlightenment, and to cast certain known aspects of the eighteenth century in new light.
The first point Midelfort makes (in his first chapter) is that Gassner was no holdover from an earlier age. He was, in fact, not really a traditional exorcist, and the rites he performed, although ultimately including the Rituale Romanum, differed from traditional exorcisms. The people he cured did not exhibit classic signs of possession, such as speaking in tongues or demonstrating knowledge of secret or far off affairs. Rather, they were sick or injured [End Page 221] in some way. Gassner had first to demonstrate that their illnesses were caused by demons, or at least that their suffering was exacerbated by demonic forces. He did this by testing his patients in a number of ways, among others by commanding their pain to increase, before finally casting out the demon. Midelfort presents this as a method of...