Peter Dendle

title.none: Klaniczay and Pócs, Communicating with the Spirits (Peter Dendle)

identifier.other: baj9928.0701.007 07.01.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Peter Dendle, Pennsylvania State University, Mont Alto,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Klaniczay, Gábor and É Pócs. Communicating with the Spirits. Demons, Spirits, Witches Vol. 1. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2005. Pp. vi, 295. $39.95 963-7326-13-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.01.07

Klaniczay, Gábor and É Pócs. Communicating with the Spirits. Demons, Spirits, Witches Vol. 1. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2005. Pp. vi, 295. $39.95 963-7326-13-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Peter Dendle
Pennsylvania State University, Mont Alto

The first of a promised series of three volumes, this collection of twelve essays (including the Introduction) presents a diverse and colorful panorama of some of the research currently conducted on spirit possession, demon possession, and witchcraft by a variety of scholars from a number of critical perspectives. Forty-three articles are to appear total in the three volumes, the full tables of contents already appearing in volume 1 (pp. 15-17). The results so far, if a little motley, nonetheless present valuable contributions and set the groundwork for an important collection.

There is an unevenness both in the level of scholarship and in the background perspectives of the contributors, though this also lends the collection a certain vibrancy and sometimes allows for surprises. One contributor informs us that the ancient and medieval tendency to use young (pre-pubescent) boys for scrying into crystal balls or other reflective surfaces probably increased their chances of success (!), vaguely alluding to some late nineteenth and early twentieth century studies for putative modern corroboration (226, 230). Elsewhere, a professor emeritus takes gratuitous potshots at a doctoral dissertation--written twenty years prior, in another country--for being long and without substance (244). Most of the essays are not like this, however.

Among the more notable contributions is Nancy Caciola's "Breath, Heart, Guts: The Body and Spirits in the Middle Ages." This builds on her work elsewhere on discernment of divine (or ecstatic) communion from demonic possession (especially her 2003 monograph, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages). From the twelfth century onwards in Western Europe, there was a rise in the number of women claiming to have mystical, ecstatic experiences; at the same time, there were also an increasing number of female demoniacs. Caciola summarizes some of the physiological models that were employed in the course of the dialogue surrounding these phenomena, such as the distinction between the soul (anima), which is immaterial, and the vital spirit (spiritus), which is a refined fluid produced in the left ventricle and circulated throughout the body. Demons wishing to take up residence within the body can only do so by virtue of the "open spaces" or "caverns" (34, here citing Caesarius of Heisterbach and Rupert of Deutz). In this sense, the female body was perceived as more essentially porous than the male body: thus it offers more opportunities to both good and evil spirits in its "elemental 'openness'" (22, here citing William of Auvergne). Caciola's is a refreshing approach--though her compelling line of enquiry is only touched upon briefly in this essay--that at once illuminates medieval approaches to spirit possession while raising a host of new potential questions.

In a similar spirit, Renata Mikolajczyk follows with "Non sunt nisi phantasiae et imaginationes: A Medieval Attempt at Explaining Demons." Mikolajczyk outlines the rationalist model of explaining putative cases of demon possession, according to the thirteenth century Polish scholar Witelo of Silesia. In his De causa primaria penitentiae in hominibus et de natura daemonum, Witelo applies contemporary physiological paradigms of sense and perception to conditions such as phrenesis, mania, melancholy, and demonic visions. Mikolajczyk concludes, "his text is quite unique among other medical works in dedicating an entire treatise to solving the question of the existence and nature of demons from a predominantly medical point of view" (48). To be sure, some curious corollaries of this attempt come out as well: for instance, forms distorted by phlegmatic humors may appear to Europeans as white (hence, as angels), but may appear as black (hence, as demons) to those inhabiting the southern regions, such as Moors, while the reverse is true for forms blackened by an excess of melancholic humor (43). Mikolajczyk's essay thus draws attention to a little-known treatise that nonetheless offers an important perspective on medieval notions of self, perception, and the mechanics of demonic visions.

Moshe Sluhovsky, in "Discerning Spirits in Early Modern Europe," helps round out the scholarly accounts described by Caciola and Mikolajczyk by providing insight into the social context surrounding possession. Though discussing a slightly later period, many of Sluhovsky's comments are surely applicable to medieval possession and demonic visions (and modern ones, for that matter) as well. Examining such treatises as Girolamo Menghi's Thesaurus Exorcismorum (1608) and Francesco Maria Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum (also 1608), Sluhovsky considers the increasing suspicion with which women's mystical visions were held by church authorities. He concludes, "The individual's social standing and her relations, her patronage networks, reputation, local politics, and other social, moral, and political non-theological variables continued to play a major role in the discernment of spirits" (55)--that is, in deciding, for any particular case, whether a woman was having a genuine ecstatic experience of the divine or was being deluded by the devil.

The centerpiece of the collection, perhaps, is Éva Pócs' "Possession Phenomena, Possession-Systems: Some East-Central European Examples." This is the longest and the most systematic essay, providing a categorical overview of the various forms and cultural interpretations of possession phenomena in Central and South Eastern Europe. These are possession types that occur also in Western and Northern Europe, to various extents, and so offer a useful complement for more traditional accounts of European possession. Pócs considers, for instance, possession by the dead (ancestors), by fairies, by demons in various guises (e.g., illness demons, incubi), by animal spirits, by the devil, and by divine rather than demonic sources, in constructing the landscape of possible trance states and their interpretations. She blends wide reading with her own ethnographic data collected in Hungary, resulting in a much richer kaleidoscope of folkloric responses to possession and to the demonic than traditional ecclesiastical models will usually admit. In this way, Pócs' overview can be of great potential value for researchers of possession in Western Europe or indeed in any time or place wherein popular beliefs must be sifted from among official ecclesiastical sources.

In "How Waldensians Became Witches: Heretics and their Journey to the Other World," Wolfgang Behringer argues that fifteenth century beliefs related to the witches' Sabbath--especially those traceable back to Valais, Vaud, and Savoy--are not simply the myopic inventions of paranoid inquisitors and church apologists, but do reflect certain spiritual practices too far outside the mainstream for ecclesiastical acceptance. Provincial holy men may have professed to be able to intercede between the living and the dead, for instance, on behalf of the local peasantry. Behringer concludes: "The identification of witchcraft and Waldensianism has not been the mere result of a labelling process. It was rather certain elements in the practice of Waldensianism that made such a transformation plausible" (182). The discussion is carefully situated in the context of an ongoing scholarly debate over whether or not there were actual practices behind the accusations that led to the deaths of thousands.

Other contributions include Peter Buchholz, "Shamanism in Medieval Scandinavian Literature"; Roberto Dapit, "Visions of the Other World as Narrated in Contemporary Belief Legends from Resia"; Sophie Houdard, "Mystics or Visionaries? Discernment of Spirits in the First Part of the Seventeenth Century in France"; Tok Thompson, "Hosting the Dead: Thanotopic Aspects of the Irish Sidhe"; and Christa Tuczay, "Trance Prophets and Diviners in the Middle Ages." A final essay by Rune Blix Hagen ("The King, the Cat, and the Chaplain: King Christian IV's Encounter with the Sami Shamans of Northern Norway and Northern Russia in 1599") provides a compelling historical account of a Danish nautical adventure in which early modern rationalism collides with mariners' superstitions and shamanic sorcery. The intriguing narrative here translated and situated in cultural context has all the elements of a folk tale, but it is no bedtime story for children.

The collection thus covers a wide sweep of time periods, geographic regions, and disciplinary approaches. This may be a strength or weakness depending on a given reader's purpose, but the reader must shift gears considerably from one essay to the next. The sheer diversity of angles brought to bear on the problem of trance and possession in pre-Modern Europe, however, itself represents a valuable contribution, reminding us of the layered, multivalent nature of the topic. This series (Klaniczay and Pócs, eds. Demons, Spirits, Witches, of which the current collection is Volume 1) is part of a broader trend in which the vital and dynamic scholarship of Eastern Europe is being made increasingly available in Western European languages, and made increasingly accessible through wider, more visible distribution. Communicating with the Spirits represents a solid example of why this is both desirable and necessary.