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Reviewed by:
  • Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism
  • Nancy Caciola
Moshe Sluhovsky . Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. x + 374.

Meticulously researched and thoughtfully composed, Believe Not Every Spirit investigates the nexus of demonic possession, ecstatic mysticism, and spiritual discernment in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France, Spain, and Italy. At the same time, the book is also a study of bodies and of gender constructs in early modern Europe, for each of these nominally "spiritual" phenomena was, of course, manifested in fully embodied ways—usually in a body that was female. Hence, the book sets an ambitious agenda, but it succeeds admirably in tracing the interconnected evolutions of these constructs.

In the Introduction, Sluhovsky writes, "in an ideal world, each page in the central chapters of this book . . . would have been divided into three columns, one devoted to exorcism, one to discernment, and one to mysticism. This synoptic configuration would have given the inherent interconnectedness of the three narratives a visual and a spatial representation" (p. 9). Wisely rejecting such a laborious presentation as unworkable, Sluhovsky instead divided his text into sequential, rather than simultaneous, parts. Each of the subsections presents its own chronological narrative for the theme under consideration, with later sections inscribing their own trajectories upon the ones presented earlier. The effect is a slow, yet effective, buildup of information, [End Page 227] analyses, and ideas. Yet, Sluhovsky's first organizational impulse was an apt one, for his themes are both deeply intertwined and intrinsically co-evolutionary. Extricating these topics from one another has the benefit of achieving greater clarity for the twenty-first-century reader, but comes at the cost of losing precisely that sense of indeterminacy that propelled the debate over the discernment of spirits, bodies, possession, and mysticism in the early modern period. Sluhovsky, ever-conscious of this paradox, navigates admirably between the authorial obligation to guide the reader through the material, and the imperative of honoring its inchoate and emergent character. As he writes, he wishes not to translate possession for the benefit of the modern reader, but to "resucitat[e] . . . its otherness and its humanness" (p. 10).

Part 1, containing three chapters dedicated to demonic possession and exorcism, takes issue with current historiography by emphasizing the predictable, even boring, frequency with which such phenomena occurred in the early modern centuries. Aside from a few propagandistic texts describing particularly extreme demoniacs and their dramatic confrontations with exorcists, the vast majority of possessions were unremarkable occurrences that appear in the textual record as "trivial," "banal," and "mundane." I found this to be a fascinating recontextualization, insofar as it emphasizes the ubiquity of the supernatural during this time period—though I wonder whether Sluhovsky perhaps overcorrects in this instance. Possession, however common, could still be wrenching for the victim and her family, although exorcisms must often have provided a diversion for crowds of spectators in an age when entertainment and public action were largely overlapping categories. These are minor quibbles, however. Over time, Sluhovsky goes on to suggest, possession was increasingly "spiritualized." By this he means that the location of the possessing spirit was, with ever greater frequency, identified as inhabiting the soul rather than the body. By the seventeenth century, "the 'spiritualized' form of diabolic possession dominated exorcismal and other theological writings on the topic" (p. 31). Exorcism, meanwhile, evolved from being a quotidian healing event enacted by a wide variety of practitioners using diverse methods, to a regulated and prescribed ritual after the publication of the Roman Rite in 1614. From this point, suggests Sluhovsky, the further evolution of exorcism over the course of the seventeenth century was toward its use as a probative rite in cases of disputed spiritual inspiration, for the spiritualization of demonic possession inevitably tended toward a conflation of demonic with mystical experience, which likewise took place within the soul.

The second part of the book takes up this thread by addressing mysticism, the "positive" counterpart to the demoniac's "negative" form of spiritual [End Page 228] seizure. Here, Chapters 4 and 5 recount major developments in the forms of spirituality...


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