Witchcraft and the Occult, 1400-1700
Demonic possession

The hanging of a possessed peasant woman:
Rappresentatione della Passione (Florence,1520)
A belief in demonic possession is embedded in Christian tradition from the earliest days.  This had not been a feature of ancient Judaism.   Those Hebrew Scriptures known as the Old Testament contain few references to demonic possession, and none at all to exorcism.  There was certainly a deep hostility towards all forms of magic: "There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer." (Deuteronomy 18.10-11)  However, the only references to evil spirits invading humans are found in three stories, those of Abimelech (Judges 9), some prophets (1 Kings 22) and Saul (1 Samuel 16, 18 & 19). In each case, it was God who specifically sent an evil or lying spirit to torment individuals.

During that phase of Judaism which succeeded the writing of the canonical Old Testament, there developed a belief in the Devil and in other fallen angels, partly as a result of influences from neighbouring cultures.  This is to be found expressed in some of the books of the so-called Apocrypha, written in the second century BC.  For example, Tobias, the son of Tobit, is advised by an angel on how to conduct himself during his wedding night in order to deal with the demon Asmodeus, infesting his bride:  "And as he went, he remembered the words of Raphael, and took the ashes of the perfumes, and put the heart and the liver of the fish thereupon, and made a smoke therewith. The which smell when the evil spirit had smelled, he fled into the utmost parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him." (Tobit 8.2-3)  The Book of Enoch, now not generally regarded as canonical, contains lengthy discussion of the origin and fate of demons.  This is the source of the notion of fallen angels.  It was quoted extensively in both the New Testament and Christian apocrypha, and its ideas strongly influenced many of the Church Fathers.  Thus, the early Christians had a pervasive belief that demonic forces were constantly to be battled, and stories of Jesus casting out demons feature prominently in the Gospels.  In Acts, the apostles cast out demons.  The other New Testament texts make no mention of the topic.

Since the competing views of possession and dispossession during the early modern period always cited biblical texts, it may be useful to summarize what the early Church believed. In the Bible, victims of possession are never held responsible for their situation. There are no references which imply that their possession was caused by some sin in their life. None of the victims were criticized for having allowed themselves to become possessed.  The case of the Gadarene swine (Matt. 8.30) indicates that animals could be possessed. Various passages refer to possession of a single individual by multiple demons. Luke 8.30 describes a man possessed by an army of demons: "My name is Legion, for we are many."

Demons could grant special powers to people. In Acts 16.16, a woman was given the power to foretell the future by her indwelling evil spirit.  This is an unusual example, however, as usually demons are described as harmful. Luke 9.39 apparently describes a case of epilepsy caused by a demon. Luke 11.14 describes dumbness caused by a demon. Luke 13.10-13 describes a woman unable to straighten her back because of a evil spirit.  Two characteristics that continued to be ascribed to possessing demons in the early modern period are worthy of note: demonic speech through the mouth of the possessed, frequently mentioned, and superhuman strength (Mark 5.4).   The early Church saw evil spirits as characterized by varying degrees of wickedness (Matt. 12.45).

Dispossession was generally straightforward. With one exception, Jesus or an apostle simply ordered the evil spirit to depart, and the demon immediately complied.  However, Jesus' disciples were unable to rid a boy of an evil spirit that was apparently causing the child to be both mute and epileptic. Jesus cured the child: "This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting." (Mark 9.29; cf. Matt. 17.21)  This text was to be crucial for Protestant critics of the Catholic ritual of exorcism, who argued that prayer and fasting was the only biblically authorized method of dispossession.

The power to dispossess could remain in items used by the apostles: "So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them." (Acts 19.12)  However, when a group of Jews attempted to imitate Paul and use the name of Jesus to accomplish dispossessions, they were attacked and stripped naked by the possessed man. (Acts 19.13-17)  This passage suggests the danger of dealing with demons, as well as recognition that dispossessions had to be carried out in the name of Jesus, by believers.  No specialized ministry of exorcism is described among the apostles, and there is emphasis on the faith required to make the cure succeed. (Mark 9.18)
                                                [I am grateful to Eric Schimmel C.S.C. for comments on the section above.]


A prominent mark of the early saints was their capacity to resist demonic temptations, especially notable in the life of St Antony, by Athanasius.  By doing battle with demons, the saints acquired power over them and were then able to cast them out of others.  On one occasion, Antony rebuked a demon that was infesting a young nobleman.  When he was attacked by the possessed man, Antony told his companions, "Do not be angry with the young man, for he is not responsible but the demon in him."  From Byzantium to Northumbria, the lives of many saints are characterized by an early experience with demons, often in some wild place, followed by a career that was notable for the power to expel demons.  For the society that succeeded the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, deserted ruins and wildernesses were everywhere outside the towns, places that were feared as the haunt of ghosts and evil spirits.  Monasteries too were noted for demonic visitations, and magicians were held to attract evil spirits by their activities, even if they did not conjure such visitation themselves.  Medieval moral literature is full of cautionary tales about conjurers being seized by powerful demons whom they could not control.

The Church Fathers would have no truck with Greek notions of good daemones, such as the one who guided Socrates, unless they could be understood as God's angelic messengers.  St Augustine was especially vehement in his denunciation of all dealing with demons, whether by divination or conjuration.  In this, the early Church participated in a widespread fear in Late Antiquity of all forms of magic, no matter how seemingly trivial.  The contribution of the theologians was to attribute all magical efficacy to demons, although they may have intended to lessen the extent of the harsh imperial punishments inflicted on magicians.

From the beginning, casting out demons is associated with evangelical activity.  The demons sometimes testify to the power of the saint and the Gospel orally, but even if they do not the dispossession provides ample evidence of the efficacy of the saint's ministry.  Not all saints are characterized by such work, but the preachers often are.  However, there is no suggestion of the prolonged theatrical exorcisms of later centuries.  Throughout the lives of the saints, it is their calm power that is emphasized.  St Martin of Tours, for example, "touched no one with his hands, and reproached no one in words, as a multitude of expressions is generally rolled forth by the clerics; but the possessed being brought up to him, he ordered all others to depart, and the doors being bolted, clothed in sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes, he stretched himself on the ground in the midst of the church, and turned to prayer."

With the introduction of the symbol of the Tau Cross (T) as the predominant sign of Christianity during the late second century, first as a small manual gesture and then gradually in iconography, the use of a physical cross or a gesture became central to the act of dispossession.  According to Gregory of Tours, in his Vitae Patrum, Gregory, bishop of Langres, "had the possessed come to him, and without touching them but simply making on them the sign of the cross, he ordered the demons to leave without a word.  Immediately these demons, hearing his command, set free the bodies which their malice had enchained."  When he was absent, others were able to accomplish the same effect by making the sign of the cross with his staff.  Such use of the cross was justified with reference to the magical powers of the rod of Moses, in Exodus.  The sacraments and sacramentals also came to be viewed as instruments of power, especially chrism (exorcized olive oil and balsam) and holy water (exorcized salt and water).  After the development of the cult and feast of Corpus Christi in the thirteenth century, the consecrated host assumed the premier position among these.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) comments, "One of the most remarkable effects of sacramentals is the virtue to drive away evil spirits whose mysterious and baleful operations affect sometimes the physical activity of man. To combat this occult power the Church has recourse to exorcism and sacramentals."

St Francis of Assisi was famous for his expulsion of demons from Arezzo, one of the events in the saint's life that was commemorated by Giotto in a series of frescos, at the end of the thirteenth century.  (Larger image)  St Bernardino da Siena, the most celebrated Franciscan preacher of the early fifteenth century, was famous for his casting out of demons, as can be seen in the scenes from his life depicted in the right-hand background of Pinturrichio's painting of the burial of St Bernardino.  Such noted saints, filled with divine charisma, could cast out demons by their mere authority.  Lesser mortals were obliged to rely upon the ritual of exorcism.  This evolved gradually, and was clearly related to both mystical asceticism and ritual magic.  In late medieval manuscripts, there is instruction for how to prepare for the rite, as for the performance of magic, by remaining chaste for three days, by having one's hair and beard cut, by bathing and wearing clean clothes.  These extraordinary measures clearly indicate the degree of purity expected of an exorcist or magician.  Among the formulas for discovering a thief or silencing enemies, one finds the techniques for expelling demons.  One tried and tested method involved writing words from the beginning of St John's Gospel on a parchment, scraping the letters into a bowl, and administering them to the demoniac with holy water.  The demon would be conjured to reveal how he might be expelled, just as sometimes preachers would compel demons to vouch for the truth of the Gospel.  Such techniques were employed until the regularization of the procedure in the Rituale Romanum, published under Pope Paul V, in 1614.

Latin text of the exorcism ritual from the Rituale Romanum
English version, slightly modernized theologically  (N.B. This is not the new ritual of 1999.)


Although the boundaries were sometimes blurred, especially in hotly contested cases, there were three demonic states which each had different implications.  These states were defined piecemeal, so that there was not always a great deal of agreement on precise definitions, but they were broadly understood by most of the people concerned.  Historians, however, have not always understood.  They have either lumped them all together as "hysteria", a medical diagnosis that is now defunct in the United States but which is supposed to be equivalent to the contemporary diagnosis known in English as "suffocation of the mother", or else they have lumped them all together as "possession", and imagined that they are employing contemporary terminology.  Thus, Michael MacDonald discusses the case of Mary Glover in terms of "possession", even though virtually no one mentioned that possibility at the time because the contest was between a diagnosis of bewitchment and one of hysteria.  Carol Karlsen, discussing New England cases, does not differentiate between direct possession and bewitchment.

The problem is that historians "know" that possession and bewitchment are impossible.  They therefore tend to favour those contemporaries who diagnosed fraud or disease, disregarding the extent to which those diagnoses were just as politically constructed as demonological ones were.  In England under the Stuarts and in France, except during the reign of Louis XIII, the state and its agents, whether religious or medical, had good reasons to seek to discredit possession cases, as the propaganda wars which they engendered tended to be politically disruptive.  It is therefore necessary to clarify how things stood during the period of the witch trials of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  This will enable students to listen to the texts for distinctions and confusions which have escaped many professional historians.  There were five possible diagnoses for extraordinary symptoms:

1.) Direct demonic possession: total control of the afflicted, body and soul; involuntary, but only permitted by God if there was some invitation to the Devil by the afflicted; no speech trustworthy, so any accusations of witchcraft to be ignored; extraordinary physical and verbal phenomena, as a result of demonic control; this diagnosis often replaced (3); if the possessed was seen as having been fully responsible, this might in some contexts lead to execution, as in the picture at the head of this page.

2.) Direct demonic obsession: a rarely diagnosed condition, involving control over body alone, without any third party; the classic case was Jesus being transported by the Devil to be tempted.  Occasionally used in the case of exceptionally pious people, such as Father Surin during the Loudun aftermath.

3.) Indirect demonic obsession: known in English as "bewitchment", this involved the Devil being sent at the instigation of a third party to afflict some relatively innocent victim, although obviously Providence would have to be permitting this for some reason; only the body was supposed to be affected, although sometimes extraordinary utterances might occur; usually distinguished from possession not on the basis of symptoms but on the relative credibility of accused and accuser, in terms of status and piety.

4.) Hysteria, or "suffocation of the mother": an affliction of the womb, causing derangement of the intellect; of obscure and disputed causation, once believed by physicians, and still by some laymen, to be caused by the wandering of the womb; this causal theory largely discredited, as it depended on a weak grasp of anatomy and a pre-classical Greek belief that the mind was in the midriff; not stigmatized, as hysteria was later to become, but difficult to treat successfully.  In males, epilepsy might be diagnosed.

5.) Fraud: this is an accusation made more commonly by historians than it was at the time, as in the case of Anne Gunter discussed by James Sharpe, the Salem afflicted as discussed by Bernard Rosenthal, and a series of cases discussed by D.P.Walker, in his Unclean Spirits; often linked to disease diagnoses, as a partial explanation; sometimes diagnosed in contentious cases, usually for political reasons.

With the rising apocalyptic fears of the late fifteenth century came a fresh invasion of the demonic into the lives of Western Christians.  The art of the period is populated with demons, as in the woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer and in the Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1515) of Matthias Grünewald, where fantastic monsters persecute St Antony.  (full image)  Catholics and Protestants demonized one another during the early Reformation.  Everyone demonized Anabaptists and other sectaries, a tradition that was followed right through to the condemnation of the Quakers, the French Prophets and the Methodist enthusiasts.  Given the feverish level of rhetorical contestation, it is far from surprising that the power to cast out demons became a major weapon in the confessional conflict.  Accordingly, there was an increase in cases, which was attributed to the nearing of the end times: "...woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short." (Rev. 12.12)

During the sixteenth century, there was a great increase in cases of possession, as perceived by contemporaries, especially in Germany, where Protestants and Catholics lived in close proximity and constant competition, and in France during the Wars of Religion.  Both sides attempted to show that theirs was the one true religion, as demonstrated by their inheriting the apostolic power to cast out demons.  Catholics and Lutherans continued to use and refine the rite of exorcism; Calvinists insisted that it was a superstitious innovation and employed prayer and fasting, citing the gospels.  Catholics were especially keen to demonstrate the power of the consecrated host to perform miracles; Calvinists denied the Real Presence and insisted that the age of miracles had ceased with the passing of the apostles.  Both sides tried to use dispossession as propaganda, often by interrogating the demonic voice in ways that bordered on magical conjuration.  Of the many documented examples, a few will have to suffice here.

In France, Françoise Fontaine was believed to have suffered demonic possession in 1591. Her testimony and subsequent treatment reveal a distinction made between witches, who voluntarily entered into a pact with the devil, and the possessed, whose connection with the devil was involuntary. Fontaine displayed evidence of being both, and she was treated with compassion and moderation. Her case was apparently not used for political or religious propaganda, somewhat unusually, perhaps because of her uncertain status.  In several other French cases of possession and exorcism involving girls or young women, such as those of Nicole Obry, Nicole le Roy, Marguerite Obry, and Martha Brossier, Catholic anti-Protestant propaganda demonstrated that the Eucharist and priests were capable of exorcising the possession.  Some of these cases became the site of intense medical and religious contestation.  French exorcism controversies and demonological literature stemmed largely from particular political events, starting with the religious wars in the 1560s. Pro-papal Catholic zealots, including Jesuits, Dominicans, and Capuchins, used demonic possession and its exorcism as propaganda against both Protestants and Gallican Catholics. Writers such as Pierre de Bérulle, Michel Marescot, Jean Bodin, and Claude Pithoys wrote important texts on the subject. Less evident during Henri IV's reign, public exorcisms reappeared after 1610.

A contemporary case in Utrecht involving two apparently demoniac adults, Mayken Huberts and Clara Gelaudens, turned out rather differently, demonstrating the importance of local considerations. The tale of these two sisters-in-law reveals that demonic possession was a highly charged, emotional issue about which many social groups, not just the elites and power brokers, had opinions. The magistrates handed down a verdict which convicted no one. They leaned toward a judgment of fraud, but ordered the husbands to keep their wives indoors and threatened to commit the women to the madhouse if they appeared again on the streets of the city. While the verdict did not determine that the women lied, were mad, or were genuinely possessed, the verdict did restore order, reduce tension, and assert the magistrates' role as arbiters of conflict and dispensers of justice.

In 1610 and 1611, two Ursuline novices underwent an exorcism in southern France, in a notorious case that laid the foundations for the possessions at Loudun. In the spring of 1611, their confessor, Father Louis Gaufridy, was condemned of witchcraft and rape by Dominican inquisitors and burned at the stake by state officials. The Dominican inquisitors found Gaufridy guilty of causing the Ursulines to be possessed by demons, and of luring the young women to caves where they participated in illicit activities. Rather than accepting the role of victim, the Ursulines, working together, accomplished the miraculous: public exoneration and reintegration into their religious community accompanied not only by a reclaimed stature as women religious, but by an elevated stature. Through an intricate interplay of accusation and expiation, carefully worked through the demons that possessed them, the Ursuline novices rehabilitated themselves as virtuous women religious.

The situation in Italy was somewhat different from that in France, because of the absence of any significant Protestant movement.  The Vita e Processo di Suor Virginia Maria de Leyva Monaca di Monza (1985), edited by the Centro Nazionale di Studi Manzoniani, presents the complete documentation of the case of Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva in 1607-08, which was used by Manzoni in I Promessi Sposi. The history is to be seen in the context of the Counter-Reformation and the problem of women forced to become nuns. Demonic possession was one form of revolt against repression, while a few nuns expressed their revolt more directly, and the impulse toward mysticism, seen as an embracing of the good to guard against the temptation of evil, was a different face of the same historical reality.  As elsewhere in Europe, the situation of the "living saint" in Italy was perilously close to that of the witch or demoniac.

In 1634, Margherita Roera, allegedly possessed by the devil, was interrogated by her uncle, Father Pietro Antonio Ballada, a friend of the Inquisitor Girolamo Robiolo. Under interrogation, she alleged that Duke Victor Amadeus I of Savoy was under the spell of prime minister Lelio Cauda, who had bewitched the sovereign to maintain his power. The monarch had the woman examined by exorcists and physicians, who decided that she had been simulating possession. Roera, Ballada, and Robiolo were arrested. Later two of Cauda's enemies, Gian Tommaso Pasero and Baldassare Messerati, were accused of urging Ballada to instruct the woman, with the Inquisitor's consent; Cardinal Maurizio, brother of Victor Amadeus, appeared to have been implicated in the scheme. The arrest of the two religious provoked a protest from the Holy See, and the trial went on until 1638. Despite the Vatican intercession, Ballada was condemned to life imprisonment, Roera to public beating, Pasero and Messerati to forfeiture of  their properties, and Robiolo lost the office of Inquisitor.


Although medical explanations in terms of melancholy, "suffocation of the mother" (i.e. hysteria), or epilepsy made considerable inroads into the preternatural explanations of prodigious symptoms, in terms of bewitchment or possession, there was no explanation of what we might call "mass hysteria" that was compatible with orthodox Galenic medicine.  If most diseases were disorders of the individual constitution, only a few being seen in terms of contagion, there was no convenient way to understand or treat diseases that passed from one person to another in a moment.  This was why medical explanations were not readily applied to the Throckmorton children in England, the possessed nuns of Loudun, in France, or the afflicted accusers at Salem.  To my knowledge, only one author suggested the possibility of hysteria being transmissible, the Catholic natural philosopher Sir Kenelm Digby FRS (1603-1665).

In his "Discourse of the Power of Sympathy", Digby offered an explanation in terms of occult sympathies, comparing the transmission of the hysterical passion with the sympathetic sounding of a lute string, when another lute is plucked.  He was highly eclectic in his thinking, which enabled him to blend mechancal and neo-Platonic explanations.
    "I have known a very melancholy woman, which was subject to the disease called the Mother, and while she continued in that mood she thought herself possessed, and did strange things, which among those that knew not the cause passed for supernatural effects, and of one possessed by the ill spirit; she was a person of quality, and all this happened through the deep resentment she had for the death of her husband.  She had attending her, four or five young gentlewomen; Whereof some were her kinswomen and others served her as chamber-maids.  All these came to be possessed as she was and did prodigious actions.  These young maids were separated from her sight and communication, and not having contracted yet such profound roots of the evil, they came to be all cured by their absence; and this lady was also cured afterwards by a physician, who purged the atrabilious humour."

In the frontispiece of the Tractatus Physico-Medicus de Incantamentis by George Abraham Mercklini (1715), a relatively late treatment of such topics, we see prominently in the foreground a demoniac vomiting a stream of frogs while being exorcised.  Many other demonic activities are also displayed.  Larger image.  Although Catholic exorcisms continued throughout the eighteenth century in some European countries, they were not widely publicized unless the affair went seriously wrong.  In England, a few clergymen and physicians started to explain even the biblical healings in medical terms, from the late seventeenth century onwards.  Among Low Churchmen and nonconformists, this position increasingly supplanted the supernaturalism of Robert Boyle, Henry More, and Joseph Glanvill.  A few High Churchmen and Methodists continued to believe in bewitchment and possession phenomena being spiritual rather than medical problems, but most clergymen treated such beliefs as mere imaginings, leaving their afflicted parishioners without religious resources.  There was a major revival of exorcism in nineteenth-century France, as a move against the growth of anti-clericalism and secular rationalism.  The response to this was the development of psychological explanations, with Charcot and his disciples using past cases of demonic possession to justify their theory of hysteria.


Nancy Caciola, "Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe",  Comparative Studies in Society and History 42 (2000) 268-306 [PDF file]

Barbara Newman, "Possessed by the Spirit: Devout Women, Demoniacs, and the Apostolic Life in the Thirteenth Century", Speculum 73 (1998) 733-770

Brian P. Levack, "Possession, Witchcraft, and the Law in Jacobean England." Washington and Lee Law Review 52 (1996) 1613-40.   Law Library K27 A57

Anita M. Walker and Edmund H. Dickerman, "The haunted girl: possession, witchcraft and healing in sixteenth-century Louviers", Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History 23 (1996) 207-218     DC 1.W48a

Anita M. Walker and Edmund H. Dickerman, " 'A woman under the influence": A case of alleged possession in sixteenth-century France", Sixteenth Century Journal 22 (1991) 535-554      D 1.S5

Moshe Sluhovsky, "A divine apparition or demonic possession?  Female agency and church authority in demonic possession in sixteenth-century France", Sixteenth Century J. 27 (1996) 1039-1055    D 1.S5

Kathleen R. Sands, John Foxe: Exorcist (minister-performed exorcisms in sixteenth-century England)", History Today,  Feb. 2001

Benjamin J. Kaplan, "Possessed by the Devil? A Very Public Dispute in Utrecht", Renaissance Quarterly, 49 (1996) 738-759.

M. Marshman, "Exorcism as Empowerment: A New Idiom", Journal of Religious History, 23 (1999) 265-281   [PDF file]

Lana Condie, "The Practice of Exorcism and the Challenge to Clerical Authority", Access: History 3.1 (2000) 93-102   [PDF file]

Corinne Rickert,The Case of John Darell: Minister and Exorcist (Gainesville, 1962) BX 5199.D225 R5

Vincenzo Lavenia, " 'Cauda, tu seras pendu': Lotta politica ed esorcismo nel Piemonte di Vittotio Amedeo I (1634)", Studi Storici 37(1996) 541-591

David Harley, "Mental illness, magical medicine and the Devil in northern England, 1650-1700", in R. French and A. Wear, eds., The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1989)

Benoît Garnot, Le Diable au Couvent: Les Possédées d'Auxonne (1658-1663) (Paris, 1995)

David Harley, "Explaining Salem: Calvinist psychology and the diagnosis of possession", American Historical Review, 101 (1996)