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Florence Chave-Mahir: L'exorcisme des possédés dans l'Église d'Occident (Xe-XIVe siècle) (= Bibliothèque d'Histoire Culturelle Du Moyen Âge; 10), Turnhout: Brepols 2011, 464 S., 16 Farbabb., ISBN 978-2-503-53355-1, EUR 85,00
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Rezension von:
Dries Vanysacker
Catholic University of Leuven
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Ralf Lützelschwab
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Dries Vanysacker: Rezension von: Florence Chave-Mahir: L'exorcisme des possédés dans l'Église d'Occident (Xe-XIVe siècle), Turnhout: Brepols 2011, in: sehepunkte 13 (2013), Nr. 1 [15.01.2013], URL:

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Florence Chave-Mahir: L'exorcisme des possédés dans l'Église d'Occident (Xe-XIVe siècle)

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The author especially tries to demonstrate that the period from the tenth century to the fourteenth century - amidst the conversion of the Gentiles during the High Middle Ages to the epidemics of witchcraft during the fifteenth century - was not a quiet period in the history of exorcisms. Rather, it was a melting pot in which conditions were ripe for the emergence of an independent liturgical book (ritual) for exorcisms; it was also a time when many other verbal actions within this apostolate could be considered as other forms of exorcism. By way of an introduction, eight chapters, six appendices and exquisite illustrations, the author leads us across the fascinating landscape of the medieval exorcism.

First of all, she defines the ritual of exorcism as a milestone in which the reintegration of the individual - which is altered by the presence of the devil - takes place. The liturgy of exorcism in the tenth-century Roman-Germanic pontifical was a collection of old formulas, which were usually derived from the liturgy of baptism. The incantations adopted an active form, recalling Christ's action in the world and against the devil. They managed, without excessively naming the demon, to give back to the possessed his or her identity as servus Dei. The therapeutic dimension of these formulas, already present in baptism and the anointing of the sick, created both a congruency and a rivalry between medicine and the Christian religion.

Various conditions must be met in order to guarantee the effectiveness of these ritual words. One such condition is that the formula should be expressed by an individual with authority recognized by both the ecclesiastical institution and the community of believers, and a person free from any diabolical disease and free from all sin. The priest and the bishop, both invested with such power, were gloriously embodied through the hagiography of the saints. Prestigious exorcists sometimes included women because holy women are called to work miracles. Among the few examples of female exorcists, the figure of Hildegard von Bingen stands out. She performed an exorcism that is documented in various sources, and a liturgical ordo was eventually written for the occasion. The exorcisms in the Lives of the Saints are nothing but examples and models that were inspired by the Gospels. They certainly reflect the liturgical practices, but they also fed a collective medieval ideology of exclusion and reintegration, together with the great imaginary visions such as paradise and hell, purgatory and the devil.

The possessed person is a figure that is not present in everyday life, but rather an individual who exhibits severe behavioural disorders and fits a well-known profile. He or she is regarded as one possessed by the devil. The sources - hagiography, iconography, preaching, and polemical and theological discourses - place the possessed person as the opposite of a model Christian. The texts aim to make the possessed person an individual, one with a fracture that leaves him or her open to the devil. This gap is sometimes caused by a disease, and is exacerbated by sin or an environment in crisis. It is like the possessed is hyper-sensitive, which tensions of Christianity appear in his or her body and leaves him or her vulnerable to a diabolical attack. This inhumanity / animality makes him or her a suitable victim and a catalyst of all the excesses of the branding, such as anti-heretical discourse demonstrates, registered in a long polemical tradition. It is also during this period, especially in the thirteenth century, that the possession itself is specifically feminine. The figure of the possessed woman comes into play two centuries later: the woman is no longer the victim of the devil but the consenting partner; a counter-society is built around the witch. Finally, above all there is a metaphor that is used in anti-heretical polemics for the possessed. That is, the followers of the devil are possessed with demons. The preachers, for their part, are not afraid to return the simple view that the sinner is crazy if he or she refuses to confess his or her sins. Therefore, iconography often depicts the demon literally leaving the possessed and revealing their physical pain while gaining salvation.

After the possession, the exorcist recites the words of the liturgy, returning the victim back into a fragmented being. This reconciliation of the individual and his or her recognition of being a servus Dei may have an impact on the entire religious community to which he or she belongs and contribute to its unity, just as the reconciliation of deviant groups contributes to the preservation of the unity of the Church. The cohesion of a community can be strengthened in the eventual outcome. This is clearly demonstrated in the detailed example of what happened within the Dominican Order.

An exorcism is a spectacular moment, perfectly put together, and plays the role of catalyst for problem solving. The theatre of the exorcism, proposed in hagiography, is indeed a time of confrontation between two sets of words. It concerns the words of the saint, who exorcises the demon to leave the victim that it occupied, and the words of the devil. During the interrogation, it is not the possessed who speaks, but the Other that is within him. The interrogator acknowledges the devil and proclaims the truth of the Church, namely the principal dogmas concerning heaven, hell and the sacraments.

The prescribed words pronounced by the possessed person, who plays the role of the one who speaks the truth, contain various stylistic elements that make it believable. Ambiguities, contradictory opinions, blasphemies and reproaches are displayed by the believer in order to remember that it is the devil and no one else that produces these truths, which, in the mouth of the master of lies and magic, is a sign of his submission to the order that has been given to him. The exorcism is both a command and a prayer to God through the words repeated by devil: in a lively and pedagogical way, but also playful in manner, the devil is reminded of the elements of faith. The battle is only a facade, serving as a spectacle and valorisation of the saints. The sacred exorcist and the devil therefore maintain the same discourse. Hence, the possessed person unexpectedly surfaces as a perfect countermodel, a kind of point of departure, well controlled by the Church, in which he or she is able to reveal the truth; the words used can lead heretics to complain, and they sometimes serve as a useful instrument of the Church in its vast undertaking of cohesion.

According to the author, this process of reintegration and unification of the individual, stemming from the community of believers and Christianity itself, would not have happened without the new circumstances that arose in the thirteenth century by the actuation of the words of the ritual. A rare number of new books and formulas were found in the German-speaking region, which was a kind of laboratory for the devising of such texts in the West. This characteristic can be explained on the basis of the fertility of the region in the production of liturgical books, the important place of the blessings that in fact worked and perhaps on the basis of the presence of early deviance, identified in the twelfth century by reformist clergy in the Cologne region. The period of Catharism in Cologne - during the years 1160-1180 - coincides precisely with the tradition of the great exorcism of Hildegarde von Bingen, which, by the number of testimonies that confirm this, exceeds all other documentations. By determining that this possessed woman was indeed exorcised probably help in designating the heretics in the Life of Eckbert von Schönau, as there is a very strong correlation between exorcism and the fight against heresy in this region. Finally, it is in this region that one of the first - if not, the first - Ritual of Exorcism is produced two centuries later. But the fertility of the Germanic region in terms of the formulas of exorcism might have another explanation. As opposed to the relative weakness of liturgical sources relating to exorcism, other sources allow us to understand how the phenomenon at that time was spread and multiplied in other representative domains.

An in-depth study of new religious practices, which surfaced or was renewed in the thirteenth century, allowed other effective words against the devil to be put in the spotlight, language that was not typical for an exorcism. A sermon that explains the Gospels and reduces ignorance, a confession that a sinner confesses and an inquisition that searches for heresy are all various ways to use words that track down the devil and cause him flee. In all these cases, it seems that the Church fulfils a unique purpose: namely, putting an end to confusion and restoring unity that is threatened by abnormalities and fragmented by schisms. The Church does this by condemning the evil embodied in the devil. However, according to the sermon, preaching and prosecution, in one way or another, were also a forms of exorcising evil, while integrating and including each of those parts into a whole and without having to practice an actual exorcism. The expulsion of the devil, sin and heresy is tantamount to the elimination of everything that turns away from the faith, which is promoted by the clergy. The fact that the process of exorcism is present in all these activities indicates a central place in the immense undertaking of control of society by both the Church and the State exercised during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In this sense, the author knows very well how to contextualise them. This is a must for any medievalist!

Dries Vanysacker