Possession (Exorcism, Demoniacs)


2.a. Inhabited and controlled by a demon or spirit; lunatic, mad. Freq. predic.
1577, Meredith Hanmer, Aunc. Ecclesiastical History – “By nature possessed and frenticke” (vii.xxx.142)
1525, Henry Bradshaw, Lyfe St. Radegunde – “Howe blessyd Radegunde delyuered a woman possessyd with a fynde from daunger and payne to helth and prosperite” (18).
B. n. A possessed person or thing; esp. (with the and pl. concord) people possessed by a demon or spirit as a class; lunatics, demoniacs.
(All biblical passages or references, e.g. Jesus at Capernaum)

1.a. The action of exorcizing or expelling an evil spirit by adjuration or the performance of certain rites; an instance of this.
1400, Cleanness – “Sorsers & exorsismus & fele such clerkes” (I.1579)
1450, Life of St. Cuthbert – “Be Ϸe vertu of exorcisme” (3815)
1.†b. improperly. The action of calling up spirits; the ceremonies observed for that purpose; conjuration. Obs.
1430, John Lydgate, The Troy Book (Hist. Troy) – “But moste she wrought by nycromancye with exorsismes and conjuracions” (I.v)

2.b. In general current use: An evil spirit; a malignant being of superhuman nature; a devil.
1398, J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomew de Glanville De Proprietatibus Rerum – “For Demon is to vnderstonde knowynge And the deuyll hyghte soo for sharpnesse..of kyndely wytte” (ii. xix.45).
a1400 Cov. Myst. (Shaks. Soc.) “Blow flamys of fer to make hem to brenne, Mak redy ageyn we com to this demon” (399).

1.a. Possessed by a demon or evil spirit.
c1386, Chaucer, Summoner’s Tale – “I hold him certeinly demoniac” (532).

B.n.1. One possessed by a demon or evil spirit.
c1386, Chaucer, Summoner’s Tale – “He nas no fool, ne no demoniac” (584).
1483, William Caxton, tr. Caton – “And helyth the demonyackes or madde folk” (viijb).


In a society which closely associates internal sins with external disabilities, whether it is blindness with spiritual blindness or deafness with spiritual deafness, we can say that there seems to be something uncanny about demonic possession. Demonic possession implies not only a barrier against the words of God or the light of God, but a complete loss of agency in the subject. Demonic possession was a diagnosis that could be applied to any kind of behavioral oddity, whether it was more severe in its manifestation, seen in epileptic fits, or somewhat benign, seen in changes of personality, tone of voice, or even automatic writing. The uncertain or uncanny nature of possession derives directly from the fact that it is difficult to determine. Events similar to epileptic fits are completely unexpected by an unfamiliar audience, and it can incite fear when one who is familiar in appearance in all normative terms yet has moments of bodily convulsions.

The uncertain nature of possession can be seen in The Book of Margery Kempe, when the monk tells her “eythyr thow hast the Holy Gost or ellys thowhasat a devyl wythin the, for that thu spekyst her to us it is Holy Wrytte, and that hast thu not of thiself” (I,13). Many people who come in contact with Kempe accuse her of being possessed, whether it is due to her epileptic fits or her visionary statements on the nature of God and Heaven. Kempe might have been fortunate enough in having her narrative canonized, yet we can only imagine how many other women might have been accused of demonic possession while making claims similar to Kempe’s.

Another example of demonic possession can be seen in John Gower’s description of mob mentality in Visio Anglie. What initially begins with a transformation of the mob of peasants to animals is exacerbated by descriptions of the mob as active agents of Lucifer, which implies that the mob has lost their control and agency to the Devil. The word “demonyak” can be found at the end of the Somonour’s Tale (2292), and the translation to the Broadview edition is madman, which presents the vast range of contexts demonic possession was used in.

Further Reading

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell UP, 2003. Print.

Caciola, Nancy. “Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe.”
Comparative Studies in Society and History 42.2 (2000): 268-306. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.

“Monsters.” Learning Medieval Realms. British Library, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

Kadie Groh and Can Ozgu, The George Washington University