- Demonic Possession, Vulnerability, And Performance In Medieval French Drama by Andreea Marculescu
Marculescu’s study discusses the phenomenon of demonic possession in and around the thirteenth century in a society that believed the presence of God manifests itself in myriad ways, some of which appear undeniable—“miracles”—while others remain ambiguous. Medieval religious authorities insisted that the feeble, impressionable human mind might not always be able to distinguish between extraordinary phenomena engineered by the deity and very similar phenomena that could just as well be the work of the devil, the ultimate trickster. The Church itself had a vested interest in encouraging the faithful to remain prudent about what appeared to be divine interventions: well into the eighteenth century, reminders were issued that only clerics could establish the difference between the holy and the diabolical.
Indeed, Marculescu begins by establishing the fact that the possessed—usually a woman—was not entitled to define herself as such; that determination had to come from theologians, who were of course always men. This initial gendering of the phenomenon provides one angle that the book revisits on several instances, notably by tying the medieval “demoniac” to the nineteenth-century “hysteric,” figures that, Marculescu argues (after Foucault), are different products of a similar process of cultural construction. Late medieval French theatre provides a rich corpus of texts that address this issue through fiction, primarily in the context of passions and mystères, plays dealing with the life and death of Jesus and various saints. In these plays, Marculescu points out, the possessed appears both as a figure of [End Page 327] transgression and as someone to be healed, just as “other disabled . . . . bodies who are part of a collective network of care” (9). The fact that possession was being staged—as opposed to merely described in a text—caused some concern, as corporeality posed a particular problem for theologians. Moreover, while these plays emanated from genuine piety, the Church remained wary of representations it did not fully control. As production of passions and mystères reached an acme in early sixteenth-century France, a legal ordinance brought it to a halt, partly because the performance of live actors (human bodies) on stage was deemed improper in rendering scriptural complexities. Marculescu offers a critical survey of such productions insofar as they involve cases of possession illustrating what the author calls “dyadic bodies, in which suffering is both individual . . . and shared” (17).
The first chapter, “Medieval Theologians Facing the Possessed,” provides much-needed theoretical background on the official stance of the Church towards the highly problematic phenomenon of possession, a stance distorted in the better-known narratives of witch hunting. Marculescu reviews the patristic tradition from its earliest sources, starting with Tertullian (second–third century CE), in order to show how Church dogma evolved through diverse speculation on what demons and spirits are and how they might interact with humans, considerations which at times intersected with medical and philosophical ones. Indeed, medieval theology was not merely built on scriptural material, but borrowed freely and heavily from pagan sources (notably Aristotle and Galen). Consequently, the Catholic model of demonic possession that developed over ten centuries reflected a large swath of Western cultural tradition not limited to religious orthodoxy. Additionally, theologians did not speak as a single voice and occasionally contradicted one another. In fact, a single coherent position was not reached until the fifteenth century, a Golden Age in the ecclesiastical confrontation of demons, heralded by the publication of the notorious Malleus maleficarum in 1486. At that point, the focus had shifted from wondering how a demon could possibly inhabit a human body to studying the external manifestations of possession, “almost in a forensic manner” (41), and particularly in women, who sometimes claimed to be under the influence not of an incubus, but of the holy spirit. While prescientific medical theory claimed that women were physiologically prone to mental illness and other maladies, theology adopted the view that their alleged spiritual illuminations were suspicious.