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Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe

Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe

By Nancy Caciola

Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol.42 (2000)

Introduction: In the late thirteenth century, Ida of Louvain scandalized her community. The daughter of a prosperous wine merchant, Ida already had refused marriage and become a recluse in a small cell within her parents’ home. One day, however, it seemed that she went mad. Casting aside even the simple clothes she now wore, Ida wrapped herself in a dirty rag and draped a mat over her shoulders for warmth. Aggressively seeking out the most crowded plazas and market places, she preened and “strutted about if mad or a fool, offering a monstrous spectacle of herself to the people.” Townspeople murmured that Ida was in a frenzy, out of her mind; eventually she was tied up to prevent her from harming herself or others.

What compelled Ida to act in this way? If we believe her hagiographer’s testimony, it was a divine revelation. According to Ida’s vita, her radical behavior was traceable to a vision she had just received, the first of many to come. In Ida’s vision, a pauper approached her recluse’s cell and stood before her face; he then reached out his hands and peeled back the skin of her chest, revealing her heart. The pauper climbed inside Ida’s heart and took up residence there, enjoying her “hospitality.” This is why Ida suddenly conceived a frenzy for such an abject—and visible—kind of poverty: she was divinely possessed, inhabited by the poor Christ.

The tale unveils a profound tension in the history of religious laywomen in the later Middle Ages. Whereas Ida and her hagiographer considered her state to be one of internal possession by the divine spirit, outside observers considered her “insane and frenetic,” a malady that was frequently attributed to demonic possession. Indeed, her external symptoms of dementia, frenzy, trances, convulsions, and episodes of strange bleeding precisely mirrored the behaviors characteristically reported of demoniacs at this time. Nor was Ida alone in being the object of such suspicions: accusations of demonic possession were quite a common response to women claiming divine inspiration in the later Middle Ages. Medieval communities struggled mightily over how to decide whether an inspired woman was possessed by the Holy Spirit or an unclean spirit. Although (as I shall argue below) Ida’s vision of the pauper entering her heart might have suggested a beneficent interpretation of her behaviors to a medieval audience, ultimately this vision was internal and private, hence unverifiable. From the external vantage point of the observer, Ida’s behavior appeared pointless and disordered. Parading through the plazas while proudly modeling rags was taken as an “in-your-face” gesture by Ida’s contemporaries, an indication that something was deeply wrong with her, rather than a sign of divine illumination. As I will demonstrate, this very same ambivalence of reception characterizes the careers of many women whose names populate the pages of recent monographs and articles about medieval feminine piety. Such women were frequently viewed with deep suspicion, even repugnance, by their surrounding community, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or both.

Click here to read this article from the Universities of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

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