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  • Sleeping with the Enemy: The Devil in Dreams in Early Modern Spain
  • James S. Amelang (bio)

On January 17, 1897, a young and as yet unknown Viennese physician wrote a colleague about a potentially disturbing fact: that the psychiatric problem on which they were working had been thoroughly researched and even published long before their efforts. Those responsible for the scoop were medieval Inquisitors. By developing the doctrine of demonic possession, the Church’s judges had anticipated the “theory of a foreign body and the splitting of consciousness” the two medical men had located in cases of hysteria. The Viennese doctor was, of course, Sigmund Freud, and the recipient of his letter was his closest friend, the Berlin physician Wilhelm Fliess (Freud, 1985, pp. 224–226). Their correspondence is well known as one of the best sources for the reconstruction of the early phase of psychoanalysis. Freud’s letter on the parallels between demonic possession and hysteria—and for that matter between the analyst and the inquisitor—is also interesting for another reason: it contains the first mention of the devil in his work.

Freud’s next letter, dated January 24, moves the subject of the demonic one step further. This time he mentions witches, as well as their judges, whose “harsh therapy” he claims to “understand.” Not only does Freud bring up the notion of a “primeval devil religion with rites that are carried on secretly,” but he also links stories told by certain of his patients to the confessions of witches. In his view, details of witch mythology [End Page 319] are easily explained by reference to sexual imagery or experience. Thus the witches’ broomstick “probably is the great Lord Penis”; the sabbath recalls children’s collective play (also presumably sexual in part); night flight belongs in the same category as hysterical attacks. Freud seems to be grasping at ideas, and is not sure what to make of all this. Hence his hesitant reference to past and present hysteria as a “remnant of a primeval sexual cult,” perhaps of Middle Eastern origin (p. 227). He goes on to tell Fliess that he has ordered a copy of the famous fifteenth-century demonological treatise known as the Malleus Maleficarum. Clearly, he is eager to learn more about witches and their master.

The devil and witchcraft appear in Freud’s writings at a crucial juncture, immediately prior to his abandonment of the “seduction theory” (see pp. 278–282). This was his earlier belief that patients’ avowals of sexual experience reflected real-life trauma, which invariably occurred in their childhood. Freud’s reluctant shift to the opposite point of view—that instead of actual experience what patients revealed through their narratives were fantasies attached to diverse and conflictive love-objects—was, as he later told it, a fundamental breakthrough that led to the birth of psychoanalysis (Freud, 1925[1924]; Ginzburg, 1989). Moreover, as is well known, the book that launched the new science that emerged from such hard-won discoveries was a treatise on the interpretation of dreams.

Whether Freud perceived a linkage between the devil and dreams is not that clear. Indeed, what strike us are not the allusions to witches and the devil in Freud’s early thought. After all, demonic possession had been a central concern of Jean-Martin Charcot, the famous specialist in hysteria with whom Freud had studied in Paris in the mid-1880s and for whose work he always expressed strong appreciation. Charcot had long explained earlier cases of demonic possession in women as hysteria. Not surprisingly, several of his students carried out research on the history of possession and edited texts such as the autobiography of Jeanne des Anges (mentioned below). In fact, Freud himself remarked Charcot’s interest in witchcraft trials and possession in a tribute he published in 1893 (Freud, 1893; see also Showalter, 1977; Ferber, 1997; Midelfort, 2002). No, what [End Page 320] is truly surprising is the fact that for all intents and purposes Freud never returned to this theme. I do not know if he ever got around to reading the copy of the Malleus Maleficarum he ordered.1 It has been suggested he did read W.E.H...


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pp. 319-352
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