By Brian Levack
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Extra resources for The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West
Cultural performance The two explanations of demonic possession that have held the greatest appeal for ‘rational’ minds—disease and fraud—do not by themselves provide a satisfactory explanation of what was really happening during early modern European possessions. Fraud may provide a persuasive explanation for a limited number but hardly for all of those that took place. Disease might render certain symptoms of possessions, especially those evident in their initial stages, intelligible, but neither physical nor mental illness can explain all the things the demoniac said or did.
The narratives of early modern possessions do not support such a premise. Many appear to have originated involuntarily, when the demoniac simply began to display abnormal, unnatural, or pathological symptoms. Those might very well have had medical or psychological causes, which were also unlikely to have been volitional. It is true that demoniacs or their family members might then have seized that opportunity to feign additional symptoms, but such an intervention does not mean that the entire possession was counterfeit.
87 These abnormal somatic symptoms of possession may be termed physiopathological. A similar criterion of abnormality characterized the verbal and behavioural signs of possession, such as speaking in previously unknown foreign languages, clairvoyance, and the public violation of conventional standards of conduct. These symptoms can also be classified as pathological, in the sense that they deviated from established practices. Verbal and behavioural symptoms of possession, as opposed to those that are physiological, may be termed psychopathological.