The Devil Within


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Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West

Brian P. Levack

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A fascinating, wide-ranging survey of the history of possession and exorcism through the ages

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the era of the Reformation, thousands of Europeans were thought to be possessed by demons. In response to their horrifying symptoms—violent convulsions, displays of preternatural strength, vomiting of foreign objects, displaying contempt for sacred objects, and others—exorcists were summoned to expel the evil spirits from victims’ bodies. This compelling book focuses on possession and exorcism in the Reformation period, but also reaches back to the fifteenth century and forward to our own times.
Entire convents of nuns in French, Italian, and Spanish towns, 30 boys in an Amsterdam orphanage, a small group of young girls in Salem, Massachusetts—these are among the instances of demon possession in the United States and throughout Europe that Brian Levack closely examines, taking into account the diverse interpretations of generations of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, physicians, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians. Challenging the commonly held belief that possession signals physical or mental illness, the author argues that demoniacs and exorcists—consciously or not—are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts.

Brian P. Levack is John E. Green Regents Professor in History, University of Texas at Austin, and author of the best-selling book The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. He lives in Austin, TX.

'It is to Brian Levack's immense credit that he neither apologises for nor explains away his subject. With a cool objectivity, he reveals lucidly and persuasively why demonic possession made perfect sense in early modern culture, and how both exorcists and alleged victims assumed roles in a culturally-prescribed and richly meaningful drama. The Devil Within takes seriously the supernatural world-view of our ancestors, yet avoids any misplaced sympathy for it.' - Malcolm Gaskill, author of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

‘Brian Levack surveys the whole history of demonic possession and exorcism in the West from classical antiquity onwards, ranging widely in several languages. He avoids sceptical efforts to say what demonic possession "really" was (fraud? mental illness? epilepsy? patriarchal bullying? priestcraft?) and differentiates for the first time the forms of possession characteristically found among Catholics and the Reformed. This is a most valuable contribution and by far the broadest and most interesting comparative study of demonic possession that I have ever read.’ – H.C. Erik Midelfort, author of A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany

'A marvellous work of scholarship and synthesis. Brian Levack's reading of demonic possession as "cultural performance" offers a subtle and convincing account of this most painful and challenging phenomenon. The scope and clarity of this study will make it essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the subject.' - Darren Oldridge, author of The Devil: A Very Short Introduction

'Brian Levack has pulled off another feat of synthesis and calm evaluation. As in his book on the witch-hunts, he has examined a vast array of material, written with absolute clarity and fairness, and guided us safely through one of the most treacherous topics of early modern history. The overall argument - that demonic possession was rooted in religious culture, rather than being a mere pretence or illness - restores a powerful sense of agency to those affected and gives meaning to their bizarre behaviour. It also makes this book an invaluable guide to religious communities during times of division, conflict, and stress. Ranging as it does over time, across Europe, and among the confessions, one could not wish for a more comprehensive or more measured treatment of a perennially fascinating and revealing topic.' - Stuart Clark, author of Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

“Riveting [and] readable . . .  must-reading for students of history, psychology and religion.” —Publishers Weekly

“Brian P. Levak, a distinguished historian of early modern witchcraft, now sets exorcism in a long historical perspective, providing the most comprehensive and scholarly overview of the theme yet published...Underpinned by deep and empathetic learning, and an enviable knowledge of the sources, Levack’s cultural “script” theory of possession and exorcism is an attractive one.”—Peter Marshall, Times Literary Supplement

‘His book provides students of the murky world of possession with an invaluable resource, in terms of both providing analysis and explanations of witchcraft, and detailed reference for further reading… The book is then a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in the history of witchcraft, possession, and the relationship between official theology and popular forms of religious belief.’—Anna French, OUP English Historical Review.

“An extremely ambitious study.”—Hilaire Kallendorf, The Historian
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 in the Western Europe Category.
ISBN: 9780300114720
Publication Date: April 23, 2013
360 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
16 pp b/w illus.