Saints and the Demoniacs: Exorcistic Rites in Medieval Europe (11th – 13th Century)
By Marek Tamm
Folklore, Vol.23 (2003)
Introduction: In medieval society one of the main functions of a saint was healing people. Similarly to Christ, whose contemporaries were awed by his ability to cure the sick, the medieval saint was expected to have an ability to perform miraculous healings. Hagiographic literature clearly indicates that health was the most called for miracle: people turned to saints not as much for the blessing of soul but because of physical ailments.
Exorcising the demoniac played a significant role among the remedial procedures of a saint. Firstly, it was the most spectacular evidence of the saint’s magical powers: in medieval times exorcism was the conditio sine qua non of sanctity. Secondly, as I will indicate below, those demoniacs at an early age were regarded as reliable witnesses of the presence of sanctity: demon, who was forced by the saint to affirm his powers through the voice of the possessed, was an influential authority to a medieval man.
In practising exorcism a saint was also involved in the general struggle against Satan. The body of a possessed formed a sort of a battlefield between the forces of heaven and hell. Every single act of exorcism performed by a saint was a part of the eternal struggle between Satan and God.
Following the tradition of Gospels, the earliest life stories of saints (vitae) discuss numerous incidents of exorcism. In the Life of St. Anthony, written down by Athanasius († 373), the Egyptian saint freed many possessed from under the Satan’s malignant influence, Sulpitius Severus († ca 420) describes three episodes of exorcism in his Vita sancti Martini, and finally, Pope Gregory the Great († 604) in his Dialogi accounts numerous stories of exorcism, which we will encounter in recent hagiographic and sermonic literature.4