Exorcism and Enlightenment


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Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany

H. C. Erik Midelfort

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In the late eighteenth century, Catholic priest Johann Joseph Gassner (1727–1779) discovered that he had extraordinary powers of exorcism. Deciding that demons were responsible for most human ailments, he healed thousands, rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic. In this book H. C. Erik Midelfort delves deeply into records of the time to explore Gassner’s remarkable exorcising campaign, chronicle the official efforts to curb him, and reconstruct the sufferings of the afflicted.

Gassner’s activities triggered a Catholic religious revival as well as a noisy skeptical reaction. In response to those who doubted that he was really casting out demons, Gassner marshaled hundreds of eyewitness reports that seemed to prove his exorcisms really worked. Midelfort describes the enormous public controversy that resulted, and he demonstrates that the Gassner episode yields important insights into the German Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, the limitations of eighteenth-century debate, and the ongoing role of magic and belief in an age of scientific enlightenment.

H. C. Erik Midelfort is C. Julian Bishko Professor of History and Religious Studies, University of Virginia. He is the author of numerous award-winning books, including A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany and Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany.

"This study of demonic possessions and exorcisms in the era of Enlightenment redefines our understanding of the way in which natural philosophy, medicine, and religion began to diverge after centuries of being intertwined. Midelfort raises his sights beyond the details, showing us that the Gassner controversy was a critical moment in the Western quest for an understanding of the self, and for mastery over the evils that bedevil every individual and society."—Carlos Eire, Yale University

"Midelfort ably shows how Gassner's story opens up a number of interesting avenues about how we think about the history of the Enlightenment in Germany. . . . Midelfort, in his highly readable account of a particular debate, shows how the well-chosen micro-study can illustrate broader themes. Both student and teacher can learn much from it."—Andrew C. Thompson, History

"This often riveting book is a micro-historical study of credulity and reason in the German Enlightenment of the late 18th century."—Steven Ozment, Weekly Standard

"Erik Midlefort . . . has produced a fascinating study of an immensely popular eighteenth-century exorcist, Johann Joseph Gassner. . . . He seeks to understand how Gassner's cures actually worked, and traces the extensive public debate that erupted over Gassner's exorcisms. . . . Midlefort . . . brings great erudition to this study. . . . This fascinating study reminds us of the complexity of cultural developments in the eighteenth century. The clash between superstition and reason, tradition and modernity and religion and Enlightenment turns out to have been riddled with confusion and contradictions. Gassner's story is full of the kinds of ironies that Midelfort has always so effectively presented."—Marc Forster, H-Net Reviews - German

"This is a marvelous book that opens up a completely different view on so many themes, and on enlightenment and medicine not least."—Simon Schaffer, Cambridge University



“A gem of a book and a wonderful advertisement for the principle that one episode can often tell us a lot more than any general survey can.”—Stuart Clark, author of Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

"Interesting reading, well written, and entertaining. It is meticulously researched, but not tediously constructed. . . . It is not necessary for the reader to be an expert on the multiple folds of German intellectual life in the eighteenth century in order to enjoy this book. Midelfort makes clear who the major players were and what positions they took in the controversy. But, if the reader is already familiar with the cast of characters, such as Lavater, Sterzinger, and Gassner himself, the reader will enjoy this excursus all the more."—Jane P. Davidson, Sixteenth Century Journal

"[Midelfort] gives a richly detailed account of Gassner's activities, and uses the Gassner phenomenon as a point of departure from which to examine the enlightenment itself. . . . A nuanced account of a popular yet underresearched exorcist."—Edward T. Potter, New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century

"Midelfort uses the Gassner-streit as a magnifying prism through which to examine the social and sectarian dynamics of early modern Germany, both between the Protestant north and Catholic South, but also between the 'Josephinian' centralizing reform and traditional ecclesiastical and abbatial independence claims within the still robust Hapsburg empire. A colourful cast of characters is brought berfore our eyes as the forgotten glory and long-hidden cultural riches of this multifaceted political reality . . . is brought convincingly back to life."—The Heythrop Journal

"Fascinating. . . . Eorcism and Enlightenment is a book to be highly commended for its tactful treatment of Catholicism. Midelfort presents with complete fairness, even when he does not share, the beliefs of Gassner and his followers."—Anne Barbeau Gardiner, New Oxford Review

“… this is a delightful little book that should be of interest to anyone studying (or teaching) the eighteenth century … The Midelfort explicitly compares phenomena of the late eighteenth century to such present-day issues (such as placebo cures, popular religiosity, and political divisiveness) makes the book even more accessible to students." - Benjamin Marshke, Central European History, Vol. 42

"[A] superb book."—Peter A. Morton, American Historical Review

 Selected as one of the finalists for the American Academy of Religion’s 2006 Awards for Excellence.

ISBN: 9780300106695
Publication Date: July 28, 2005
240 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
3 halftone illus. + 2 maps
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