German Narratives of Women's Divine and Demonic Possession and Supernatural Vision 1555-1800: A Bibliography
- Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature & Culture
- University of Nebraska Press
- Volume 16, 2000
- pp. 241-257
- View Citation
- Additional Information
German Narratives of Women's Divine and Demonic Possession and Supernatural Vision 1555-1800: A Bibliography Jeannine Blackwell Introduction Possession: the use of a human body by supernatural forces, divine or demonic, to display a message for the chastisement, edification, and inspiration of others. Since recorded history, possession has included a range of physical symptoms, behaviors, and speech patterns that marked the possessed one as an outsider, possibly the vessel of God or the devil (Walker 5-7; Kieckhefer). The possessed writhed on their beds; contorted their limbs; ate needles, pieces of iron, and knives; vomited them up again; sweated blood; spoke in tongues; invented spontaneous songs, sermons, and exhortations; spewed curses at enemies of God or the devil; fell into death-like trances; and displayed superhuman strength. They spoke, chanted, and screamed words given them by an interior god or devil. They had visions of delight and horror. The stories of women's divine and demonic possession from the early modern era might not at first blush provide core texts for today's feminist scholars. Scholarly reservations about a feminist reading of possession are numerous and well-founded. To begin with, women certainly were not the only ones who fell into possession, although in my experience they represent a substantial majority of the narratives in early modern Germany (see some corroboration by Midelfort). In addition, the possession narratives are not authored by women: in virtually all cases, their stories were told enthusiastically by their masculine religious advocates , and then distorted by their orthodox enemies. The events related in these stories, to the modern mind, stem from a hodgepodge of socioeconomic dysfunction, class warfare, religious bigotry, early modern fraud and libel, mental illness, the outcomes of physical abuse and disease, and simple self-aggrandizement on the part of the participants. Women in German Yearbook 16 (2000) 242Possession Narratives: A Bibliography That hodgepodge, however, is still timely even today, when one considers the discourses used by, about, and against women on the margins of a given society. From the Reformation to the present, these discourses have taken on an ideological urgency, invaded popular print and other media, and set up a fascinating antagonism between the learned class (mostly male) and a group of often powerless and uneducated women who make "unapproved" claims to spiritual transcendence. In so doing, these women circumvent the religious, economic, and educational hierarchies of their societies. They also disquiet educated women of the socio-economic elite, who participate only in the "approved " or orthodox systems of transcendence or else are iconoclastic solely in the private sphere. The clash of discourses is a fruitful ground for feminist scholars to begin examining women's contested place in the public sphere. The stories of possession add to the rich mix of life-storytelling by and about early modern women, as society moves ever closer to a confined and privatized feminine behavioral ideal. With the even more vituperative and deadly discourse of witchcraft, and the privatized and emotive language of the introspective Bekenntnis (confession), possession discourse gave women words for the expression of Hingabe, surrender, which would become a key concept in the later feminine ideal. But it also made poor and uneducated women into the voice of a just, angry, and very public God, and as such, it was a moment of spontaneous, if confused, empowerment for them, encased in a fear-inducing biblical legend. Possession was different from witchcraft, mysticism, and religious devotion, although many of the same scriptural and behavioral arguments were used against women in each of these venues. Possession was not criminalized as was witchcraft, and thus there was little legal discourse on it until the eighteenth century (Kurella). Frequently, ministers and the public agreed that possession was not a punishment for the possessed individual, but a test by either God or the devil for the faithful around her-how strong was their belief? In other instances, the devil spoke through the possessed woman, naming the names of "true" witches. When counter-accusations ensued, the boundary between possession and witchcraft disappeared. Ministers, legal scholars, and later Enlighteners often tried to dismiss instances of possession as fraud or theft. Thus although not a crime, possession put women...