The Penguin Book of Exorcisms 
edited by Joseph P. Laycock.
Penguin, 336 pp., £12.99, September 2021, 978 0 14 313547 0
Show More
Show More

MartheBrossier, a provincial demoniac, had caused a stir in Orléans and Cléry before being brought to Paris in 1599. Her sponsors, probably members of the zealous Capuchin order, timed her arrival for just before Easter, when Lenten devotions among the Catholic faithful were nearing their climax. Furious at Henri IV’s edict of toleration for his Protestant subjects, the Capuchins saw in Marthe a propaganda opportunity: a woman’s body overrun by devils was a perfect symbol for a body politic infested with heresy. Henri, for his part, accused the Capuchins of ‘carrying muskets on their habits’ and hungering for religious war.

Happily, the demon that had possessed Brossier was of the Capuchin way of thinking. Questioned during Brossier’s public appearances, it claimed that the Huguenots were of the devil’s party (Protestants might have reflected that the devil was the father of slanders). These appearances were dramatic affairs, with the exorcist-impresario interrogating the spirit at length. Endowed with the supernatural knowledge of fallen angels, Brossier did not limit herself to anti-Huguenot invective, answering questions from the crowd about the whereabouts of parents’ souls or lost husbands, as well as pronouncing on hidden sins – especially those of any vocal doubters.

It is perhaps perverse to be struck most of all by the publicness and theatricality of such demons. In the wake of The Exorcist, we tend to think of demonic possession as a private affliction, with remedies – religious or psychiatric – also applied behind closed doors. Thirty years before Brossier’s demoniac career began, another possessed woman, Nicole Obry, was exorcised on a scaffold at Laon; contemporary pamphlets reported an audience of twenty thousand. Building a stage requires money and time, and a calculation that the investment can be recouped. How did audiences approach these spectacles? Some might have understood them as akin to the shows put on by itinerant entertainers or the sermons given by mendicant preachers, others as a sign that the last days were approaching, or had already arrived. Some hoped witnessing a supernatural event might grant them religious certainty, confirming their faith amid the turbulence of the Reformation. The events must have been familiar enough that the usual pattern of an exorcism would be known, but still strange enough to attract a crowd.

Brossier came closer than any previous demoniac to political power and the forces vying for it: the king, the diplomats of the Church, the aristocracy, the demagogues and the crowd. Fear of contagious mass enthusiasm meant that her time in Paris was spent in increasingly restricted spaces – private chapels and prison cells – where prelates and doctors pricked her with pins or tried to exorcise her. The king’s physician, Marescot, mocked her apparent ability to turn her possession on and off at will, and the flimsy proofs offered by her defenders. Stinking fumigants – the most famous recipes in exorcists’ handbooks included hefty doses of asafoetida – were burned under her nostrils. She was forced to lick the floor as a sign of submission to the exorcist. Her body became a vehicle for a power struggle between groups of powerful men. The doctors eventually gave their verdict, though some dissented: ‘Nihil a Daemone: Multa ficta: A morbo pauca.’ As the Englished pamphlet put it: ‘Nothing of the Deuill: Many things counterfeited: and a few things of sicknesse.’

Brossier’s story features in The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, which gathers 37 accounts from ancient Assyria to the 21st-century United States. In his introduction, Joseph Laycock remarks on the common incidence of exorcism across cultures: it is nearly as ubiquitous as the belief in spirits itself. The phenomena addressed by exorcism vary, and so do the means by which it is attempted. Sometimes possession is closely linked to physical illness, sometimes to spiritual malady or social delinquency. Not all cases involve the degrading physical treatment to which Brossier was subjected; other exorcists inveigle, bargain with or bribe their demon antagonists. Some simply ask them what they want. The anthology ranges far wider than the stereotype of the Catholic priest waving a crucifix at a vomiting teenage contortionist: it also includes Protestant accounts of deliverance, mischievous fox spirits from China and Japan, and a fascinating semi-improvised exorcism performed by a Vodou priestess (Vodou treats possession as a predictable and often positive spiritual phenomenon). The Christian tradition predominates, but Laycock doesn’t include the extemporised charismatic exorcisms that are increasingly popular today in the US and the global South. His texts are almost all witness accounts, though there is a quotation from one of the oldest Catholic prayers of exorcism – ‘I conjure thee, thou old Serpent!’ – on the cover.

Few of Laycock’s witnesses are entirely sure what they’re seeing; sceptics as well as believers abound. Exorcism has many theatrical qualities, which are sometimes explicitly embraced in non-Christian examples: illusion is the domain of spirits. Among Christians (as Stephen Greenblatt has observed) these qualities are more problematic. Mimetic art – especially theatre – has troubled many Western thinkers, Christian or otherwise. Christianity is founded on a series of truth claims – the gospel, the saving act, the Church’s access to supernatural knowledge – and mixing these claims into a theatrical display is a precarious business. In its golden age, exorcism was a ritual with all the trappings of theatre, but what was happening was taken to be real in a way theatre was not. Exorcists were eager to produce bodily signs, as if to shake off the taint of rhetoric: bloody crosses on the forehead, names of saints marked on the hand, contortion, levitation, the vomiting of pins. But it’s hard to abjure the theatrical by means of a coup de théâtre, however realistic – a fact many Protestant sceptics seized on with delight.

We know little about the motives of demoniacs. Almost no first-hand accounts of the experience of possession exist. The actions and utterances of possessed women – the most famous cases all involve women, though men and children suffer possession too – survive only through the reports of confessors, exorcists, political sponsors or pamphlet controversialists. None is disinterested. The absence of direct testimony is unsurprising: these women’s prominence depends on their effacement. Nobody was interested in Brossier until the devil spoke through her. Feminism has found a powerful symbol in the witch – though not always on solid grounds. Few if any women thought of themselves as witches, though that didn’t prevent them from being named and murdered as such. Demoniacs, who did exist, are less easily reclaimed, perhaps because of the air of deceit that hangs around them. They are ambiguous women, sometimes sincere, sometimes fraudulent, often abused.

We know more about Brossier than most. A letter survives from one of her neighbours imploring the bishop of Paris not to trust her. The unmarried daughter of a family fallen on hard times, her demoniac fits had started as an exercise in mimicry, after a spate of possessions and a witchcraft trial in a nearby town. She had studied pamphlets about Nicole Obry’s exorcism three decades earlier, perhaps attracted by an engraving showing thousands gathered around her scaffold, with tiny black flying devils lurking in the cathedral vaults. Brossier had form: she had once tried to escape to a convent; another time she cropped her hair short and tried to run away dressed in her father’s clothes. Much of her story could be drawn from a particularly bleak farce. In Paris a cunning bishop arrived to test her, opening a heavy tome and chanting at her in Latin. Brossier writhed in devilish pain at what she believed to be sacred words: ‘Arma virumque cano …’ But the bishop was merely reciting the incipit of the Aeneid. ‘Multa ficta.’

Brossier may have been a fraud, but what led her down this path? Did she – consciously or otherwise – weigh up the choice between life as an unmarried daughter and the celebrity that might come, however risky, from being possessed? Was her possession ever genuine on a subjective level, even if she did repeat it later out of economic necessity? Each of her three attempts to escape her ordinary life alienated her from her body in some way: the prospective vow of chastity as a nun, disguising herself as a boy, and then giving her body over as a vehicle for struggle with the devil. Might she have tried to find some autonomy in this final act, only to find herself robbed of it, as men argued over what her body meant, degrading and torturing her to prove their point? Her silence supplies few answers. Humiliation in Paris did not, it seems, deter her. She and her father did not return home: she can be found performing as an itinerant demoniac in Milan in 1600, perhaps a more congenial atmosphere than France. After that, she vanishes from the record.

Christianity cannot leave exorcism behind. Jesus practised it, and in each of the synoptic gospels he commissions his disciples to do the same – the historian Peter Brown suggests it was the ‘most highly rated activity’ of the early Church. The ancient Mediterranean was populated by wandering holy men and charismatic healers, for whom exorcism was something between medicine and miracle. Church leaders who are inclined to a more cerebral, spiritualised and abstract faith often treat exorcistic revivals as atavistic, uncomfortable with the gauche literalism of lay passions and fearful of the abuses that can be perpetrated under its rubric.

The major Christian denominations exercise pastoral prudence when presented with a claim of possession. Bishops are supposed to exhaust psychiatric and scientific routes before authorising exorcism. In small charismatic churches ‘deliverance’ exorcisms take place – addressing, among other things, ‘demonic’ homosexuality. Numbers are hard to come by, and subject to inflation. Despite the general hostility of the episcopate, exorcists have occasionally found champions: the eccentric Zambian archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, a Catholic, conducted mass exorcisms, though it was his dereliction from priestly celibacy that led to his being defrocked. Unequivocal papal support for exorcism has been rare since Leo XIII (r. 1878-1903), an enthusiast for cocaine-infused tonic wine and 19th-century QAnon-style hoaxes, who believed that France – possibly all of Europe – was in the grip of a Satanist cabal.

The ancient texts in Laycock’s anthology suggest that early Christians inhabited a highly animate cosmos, like their pagan contemporaries. Spirits were everywhere, but found in particular concentration in wastelands and deserts, where they ensnared monks and ascetics. The multitudinous daimones of late antiquity, which could be encountered in a variety of dispositions, became in Christian teaching more exclusively hostile. ‘Their business is the ruin of man,’ Tertullian declared. They hang around like ‘a blight in the breeze’. There is an obvious analogy between a saint subduing demons in the wilderness and the evangelistic work of an early Christian. Evangelism entailed an epistemic war against pagans: not only were they idolatrous and sinful, they were also deceived about the nature of their gods and their role in the world. Martin of Tours, a charismatic healer and exorcist, insisted on identifying the demons he exorcised as Jupiter or Mercury – the latter, he said, was a source of frequent and special annoyance.

Exorcism does present certain theological problems. Some are of mostly antiquarian interest: how material are spirits, and how do they affect the world? Can more than one spirit occupy a body at the same time – and where does the soul of a demoniac go? Prelates worried about the exorcist’s aura of spiritual power, since the effectiveness of the rituals was thought in some degree to depend – unlike the Mass – on the sincerity and fervour of the person administering them. Personal charisma is a dangerous thing. And there was a whiff of sulphur around exorcists, a fear that the dividing line between exorcism and a more illicit form of contact with spirits might be rather fine and easily crossed. This taint attached to certain clerics well into the 20th century. In 1928, the Tory diarist Chips Channon visited Montague Summers, a dubious churchman who had published an English translation of the Roman rite of exorcism. Summers enticed Channon upstairs to his private chapel, full of ‘blatant images’, where he spanked him over an altar with his slipper (red, with a large buckle).

Erasmus’s wry tale of a would-be exorcist gulled by pranksters is a key to this anthology’s account of the long tradition of scepticism about exorcism. A self-important but credulous parish priest is tricked into performing an exorcism by tall tales of an unlaid ghost and buried treasure; there are mysterious lights, wailing and even a letter from the gratefully exorcised soul in purgatory. The tale also provides rare evidence of the way exorcism was conducted before its standardisation by the Church in the early 17th century: the first thing Erasmus’s exorcist does, like any self-respecting necromancer, is to draw a magic circle on the ground and enhance it with protective amulets. This detail affords a glimpse of the clerical underground and its traffic in magical manuscripts, some of which would have been of particular interest to ambiguous spiritual specialists like exorcists.

Christian theology​ teaches the omnipotence of God and the ultimate vanity of the devil’s boasts, but the world implied by exorcism can seem barren of divine grace. If the name of God is enough to cast out demons, why the high-stakes drama of exorcistic ritual? Why do demons often sneer at exorcists? Why, when they depart, do they so frequently return? Scholars who treat exorcism as a public performance of religious scripts see in all this a dramatic, public affirmation of the reality of evil and damnation. Others see demons as proof of a bleaker, more Manichaean world, with divine omnipotence in local abeyance.

Histories of exorcism often try to explain the apparently anomalous survival of the practice into the Age of Reason. Sarah Ferber, the author of the finest study of Brossier and other early modern French demoniacs, cites the use of an exorcism manual in a legal case from 1993; Brian Levack’s cultural history of exorcism, The Devil Within (2013), derived from his experience of fostering a child survivor of exorcistic abuse. High-profile outbreaks of possession tend to occur at moments of cultural turbulence, and it is tempting to imagine that a demonic voice utters unpalatable truths or expresses forbidden thoughts. Levack shows that the possessed rarely deviate from their confessional scripts: Catholics are possessed by spirits which recognise the Church’s claim to spiritual power and Protestants as heresiarch colleagues, and vice versa. Some of the most compelling cases in the Penguin anthology are drawn from the colonial period and concern moments when the religious arm of imperialism found itself in conflict with indigenous, animist beliefs. A young woman exorcised near Durban in 1906 performed feats of levitation that Laycock suggests might be considered ‘truly extraordinary’. Though a pupil at a Christian school, she seems to have retained a familial belief in spirits, as well as a pragmatic belief in the possibility of making agreements with them, which horrified her exorcists. Her symptoms matched those of early modern demoniacs; one of her exorcists, describing the ‘weird fire’ in her eyes, among other more obviously dramatic signs, wrote of his time in her company that ‘There you learn to believe.’

Ferber and Levack caution modern readers against the search for a rational psychiatric truth that will ‘explain’ exorcism. Historical explanation and significance can be found in the traffic between exorcist and demoniac, in the content of her speech, the reaction of spiritual and temporal authorities and the response of the crowd; transhistorical psychiatric diagnoses can blot these out. If we are inclined to invoke mental disorder, then (as Ferber suggests) the men who forced Marthe Brossier to lick the floor might also require diagnosis. It is modern vanity to imagine that medicine discovered the connection between psychic distress and possession only after Freud. Early modern physicians were perfectly capable of understanding spirits not only as the cause of malady but as being specially attracted to a tormented psyche. ‘Cerebrum melancholicum est sedes daemonum’: ‘The melancholic brain is a chair of estate for the Devil.’

Since Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons was published in 1997, scholarship on early modern demonology has been more interested in the internal coherence of belief systems than in questions of reality. This is a historically scrupulous approach, immensely enlightening yet somehow unsatisfying. Possession turns on truth-claims that are made through the body of the demoniac, and are so dramatic that nearly everybody in the vicinity has a stake in what is ‘really’ going on. It would be strange if the only person not to wonder about their veracity were the modern reader.

The meaning drawn from exorcism depends on which kind of case is given the spotlight. A pious fraud like Brossier foregrounds questions of truth and motive, or the political machinations of her sponsors. Other cases seem more straightforwardly to be a matter of hucksters preying on wounded seekers of spiritual reassurance, while subjectively ‘genuine’ cases are better understood as part of a more general history of altered states of consciousness. Colonial stories seem especially relevant to us today, conveying a sense of things lost in the violent collision between imperialism and indigeneity. Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun (1952), an account of the mass possession at Loudun in the 17th century, was perfectly tailored to postwar anxiety: it features the moral derangement of crowds, violent idealism manipulated by political cynics, the demons given life by sexual repression, and – perhaps the only aspect that dates it – the hope that reason, psychoanalytic or otherwise, might dispel or at least domesticate these terrors.

The Devils of Loudun was adapted as a play, an opera and a notorious film. Jeanne des Anges, the convent prioress, has a posthumous reputation as an erratic, easily manipulated hysteric. Her real career is more interesting, and more ambiguous: after her exorcism she acquired a reputation as a holy woman in whose body the devil had been conquered. She had been visited by a personal angel and transported into ecstasy. Called on to verify other potential ecstatics, she would often raise doubts about their sanctity, perhaps with an eye on her own market share. In such cases possession appears as just one point on a continuum of extreme spiritual experiences that an individual might undergo in the span of a lifetime.

Those who do not value a good night’s sleep can listen to recordings of Anneliese Michel, a Bavarian teenager exorcised repeatedly in 1975-76. Michel spoke in the voices of Judas, Cain, Nero, Hitler, a renegade priest called Fleischmann. As Monica Black has documented in A Demon-Haunted Land (2020), exorcisms and accusations of witchcraft were common in a postwar Germany struggling to account for the evil of apparently normal friends or neighbours. Michel was intensely pious, intensely vulnerable, intensely disturbed; she came to believe that her possession was a form of expiatory suffering for the sins of others. The recordings were made by one of the two priests exorcising her, and became public when they were put on trial with Michel’s parents for negligent homicide. She had died from malnutrition after her last exorcism. She weighed thirty kilograms and the ligaments in her knees had ruptured as the result of repeated genuflection. Asked in 2005 if she regretted requesting the exorcism, Michel’s mother said no: God had told them to do it, and her daughter had died atoning for others’ sins. The devil speaks in many tongues, the exorcism books say.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences