Frog in your throat?

Terry Eagleton

  • The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West by Brian Levack
    Yale, 346 pp, £25.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 11472 0

Early modern Europe was awash with cases of demonic possession. Thousands of men, women and children conversed in languages of which they had no knowledge, tore at their own flesh and uttered blasphemies and profanities. They vomited vast quantities of nails, pins, blood, feathers, stones, coins, coal, dung, meat, cloth and hair, and grunted and barked like animals. Some of them writhed in convulsions, floated above the ground or demonstrated preternatural physical strength. Their eyes bulged, their limbs stiffened, their faces became grossly distorted and their throats and stomachs grew monstrously swollen. A number of them lapsed into trances, foresaw the future or disclosed secrets it was hard to see how they could have possessed.

In the late 17th century, a Franciscan friar pulled a large toad out of the mouth of a female demoniac, while the head of a young Scotsman pivoted front to back, a rather less impressive circuit than that of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. One woman vomited a live eel, followed by 24 pounds of various substances twice a day for two weeks. (With admirable judiciousness, Brian Levack, the author of The Devil Within, warns that ‘the veracity of such reports can be questioned on a number of grounds.’) Some young women’s limbs grew so stiff that the efforts of several muscular men proved insufficient to bend them, while others could arch their backs like gymnasts, occasionally licking the floor as they did so. Some men and women levitated (Catholics proved more proficient at the practice than Protestants); others threw the process into reverse, gaining so much weight that they were impossible to budge.

A late 17th-century German demoniac is reputed to have coughed up four hundred chamberpots’ worth of blood. Some of the possessed were said to have abstained from food and drink for months or even years. Others jabbered away in Latin, Greek or Hebrew, while an illiterate Italian woman quoted verses from the Aeneid in the original. Since demons were thought to be fallen angels, they manifested the high intelligence with which God had endowed all angelic spirits, and had, presumably, a sound grounding in the classics. In Catholic countries, those in the grip of Satan spat on crucifixes, trampled on the communion host, railed at priests and insulted the Virgin Mary. As in The Omen, they reacted to sacred objects with terror and revulsion. Possessed nuns made lewd sexual gestures, pulling up their skirts and engaging in behaviour that according to one commentator ‘would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothel in the country’. Rather less lasciviously, the bewitched young women of 17th-century Salem made foolish speeches, crept under chairs and crawled into holes.

It was believed that the human body was porous, and that the evil spirits who gained access to it roamed around its inner cavities at will, indiscriminately attacking organs. The highest number of demons ever to invade a human body was said to be 12,652, all of whom assumed simultaneous occupancy of a 16-year-old German girl in 1584. More frequently, the Devil took up residence himself rather than delegating tenancy to his subordinates. He could do this, however, only with the permission of God, which raised the theologically embarrassing question of why the Almighty should allow the tongues of innocent young women to swell until they hung down to the tip of their chins.

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