Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Lesbian Nuns Puking Nails"

A Renaissance bishop casting out demons.  Image stolen from Al Mohler, of all people.
That is the least forgettable image in a Prospect review of Brian Levack's new book, The Devil Within, a history of demonic possession, and exorcism therefrom, in the Christian West.

The real takeaway, however, is this thought:
Like witch-burning, demonic possession feels “medieval” in our contemporary imagination but it didn’t actually happen with any regularity in the medieval period. Rather, Levack shows how demonology persisted into the era of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, when one thinks of science and rationality beginning to shine light on the darkness.
Just so.  We're well acquainted with the history of witch trials, which were in fact discouraged by Church law from antiquity through the late Middle Ages, and only came into their own during the period of the Renaissance and Reformation.   (Much of our time in college was taken up with this stuff, which helps to explain why we are unemployed today).

The natural conclusion, and one much in vogue among witchcraft scholars in the 1980s, is that witch trials arose out of a pervasive anxiety connected to destabilizing social change.  This change is not merely the rise of Humanism and Protestantism, although those were indeed destabilizing, but also changes in the age of marriage and the number of unmarried women, as well as changes resulting from the first hints of capitalism and a rising middle class.  Like fundamentalism today, it was a reactionary movement passing itself off as a conservative one, even though it did not seek to conserve a genuine heritage.

To extend the study beyond witchcraft (about which Levack has written a previous book) to possession and exorcism is one of those brilliant ideas that seems obvious after somebody else thinks of it.  One principal difference appears to be that, while witch trials were spread fairly evenly over Roman Catholics and Protestants on the continent -- having been rare in Britain -- exorcism is said to have been principally a Roman Catholic affair.

As reported in the review, Levack takes a different tack, less sociological and more anthropological.  He describes possession and exorcism as public rituals that express the needs and beliefs of the surrounding culture, in the same sense that a coronation does or, more aptly, a modern politician's drama of sin and repentance.  This sounds extremely promising.

We are a little uncertain about some of the specifics, however -- but this may have less to do with Levack's scholarship than with the limitations of the reviewer, a grad student named Josephine Livingstone.  At one point, having described the public, practically festival, exorcisms typical of the 17th century, she says blithely, "But we all know what goes on in a Catholic exorcism," and lists as her authorities a string of Hollywood movies.  It is not clear whether Levack imagines that movies are a good guide to historical practices or Livingstone does, but in either case the idea is mistaken.

Indeed, Livingstone has a great deal to say about horror movies.  She believes that Levack has handed her the key to understanding, say, Children of the Corn and other "psychological dramas that go heavy on the religion and that feature supernatural children."  This seems unlikely.

More problematic still is this paragraph:
Levack explains [the rise of exorcism in the 16th and 17th centuries] by highlighting the rise of nominalism in the early 15th century, the view that “an inscrutable, arbitrary God might give the devil great latitude in the world for reasons unknown to humankind.” Popular apocalyptic thought—the strong suspicion that the final battle between good and evil was under way—made possession seem reasonable, even expected. The devil (or his attendant demons) taking control of your body was like the forces of evil saving seats at the cinema by putting coats on them.
Really?  Is that what nominalism was?  Because we were fairly convinced that it was, and remains, the philosophical rejection of Platonic universals, pioneered in the fourteenth century by William of Ockham.  While we do not doubt that somebody with a New Historicist bent might capably bring together nominalism, theodicy, and apocalypticism, they are not related in any immediately obvious or intuitive fashion.  As it stands, this paragraph is gibberish.

Nonetheless, this book sounds extremely interesting, not only to medievalists and but to anybody with an interest in the ways that a society in turmoil creates public rituals.


Anonymous said...

Hi - grad student who wrote the review here. I hope you can forgive the very compressed representation of nominalism in the piece, which is down to a combination of space limitations and the limitation of the commercial audience's interest in historical detail. The sequence of argumentation is a reproduction of what's in the book.

As far as the film stuff goes, it's just my opinion! Levack labours the point of The Exorcist movie quite heavily. I didn't give a 'good guide to historical practices' regarding exorcism, because I think that readers ought to buy the book for that.

I'm very glad you appreciated the point on assumptions about the medieval period - that, too, was my main takeaway from the book. Thanks for reading the review and I hope you do read the book - it's very good.

Father Anonymous said...

Thanks for the note. Even more importantly, thanks for writing the review that drew Levack's book to my attention. It sounds terrific, and I hope to read it as soon as I can.