16.02.06, Dendle, Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England

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Craig Davis

The Medieval Review 16.02.06

Dendle, Peter. Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2014. pp. xvi, 304. ISBN: 978-1-58044-169-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Craig Davis
Smith College

Rather than focusing upon the eloquent "epic" devils of Old English biblical poems like Genesis B or Christ and Satan, or the wordless revenant Grendel in Beowulf, who is described in language usually reserved for the feond mancynnes ("enemy of mankind") Lucifer, Peter Dendle has chosen to study the "medical" demons that were understood to inflict manifold diseases of body and mind on man or beast among Anglo-Saxons during the seventh through eleventh centuries. These are the maleficent "elves" and "dwarves" and flying "worms" adduced in therapeutic manuals and recipe collections like Bald's Leechbook (mid-tenth century) and the Lacnunga "Remedies" (ca. 1000). These compilations contain prayers, spells and prescriptions, mainly in Latin and Old English, but also a few garbled fragments of Old Irish and Greek, as well as fossilized reflexes of presumed Celtic or Germanic incantations and healing magic adapted from traditional folk medicine. In the famous "Nine Herbs Charm," for instance, a former pagan divinity is invoked against some kind of serpentine assailant, whether for a real or imaginary case of snakebite:

Sudden stitches or more prolonged pains could be diagnosed as the result of roving spiritual enemies who shot or thrust invisible darts into the patient:

Such charms help us to understand how Anglo-Saxons conceptualized some diseases--especially pains--as a form of supernatural attack, but the spells and potions intended to relieve the patient normally depict that person merely as wounded by these discrete projectiles from afar or penetrated by unseen serpents in particular body parts, rather than "possessed" in any complete or personally culpable sense by demons. In the early eighth-century Vita Guthlaci and the two vernacular poems based upon it, for instance, St. Guthlac is overwhelmed by demons in his fenland retreat and even carried off to Hell, but these cannot occupy his body or command his soul. The kind of personality disorder, where a demon is depicted as speaking through the possessed subject, is reserved for the genre of hagiography and usually only implied in certain formulas of ritual exorcism. Saints' lives, in particular, construct a situation clearly designed to give their titular protagonists an opportunity to demonstrate their spiritual power by rebuking and expelling demons. Such dramatic scenes feature prominently in some Old English poems like Juliana and in many prose saints' lives in Old English and Anglo-Latin. In any case, depictions of demonic intrusion and exorcism surviving from Anglo-Saxon England mostly derive from Latin learned traditions, Dendle argues, which in turn are ultimately modeled on biblical and older prototypes. The extent to which these instances of demon possession played a significant part in the experience of ordinary Anglo-Saxons during the early Middle Ages thus remains unknown. Vernacular and Anglo-Latin texts all simply replicate the conventional formulas of ecclesiastical genres to dramatize the salvific power of the Church and its ministers to protect its flock from supernatural evil. We simply do not know what was happening on the ground at Anglo-Saxon healing shrines and other therapeutic venues, since our three sole sources--saints' lives, liturgical texts and medical books--"are each mostly closed textual worlds, responding to other texts within the tradition but showing little awareness of the perspectives of competing genres" (253).

Dendle reviews the historical backgrounds to Anglo-Saxon demon possession in his first chapter, mentioning but not seeking to uncover its roots in prehistoric shamanism, or Old European or Indo-European religious traditions, but rather summarizing the much better recorded, even elaborate demonologies of literary and epigraphic sources from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant that were influential upon early Jewish thought. He then reviews the dramatic confrontations with demons depicted in the New Testament and lives of the Desert Fathers during the first few centuries CE as the most influential model of demonic infestation and exorcism in early Latin Christendom, Merovingian Gaul, Carolingian Francia and Anglo-Saxon England. Dendle notes that healing shrines in England during the Anglo-Saxon period became noted more for their cures of blindness and paralysis than for demon-possession or other spiritually induced ailments, at least if the hagiographic depiction of such healings are understood as a roughly accurate reflection of the frequency of actual events.

Dendle assesses the Anglo-Saxon medical and liturgical responses to supposed demonic activity in his second chapter, including works like the eleventh-century Leofric Missal, and the conditions that were thought to reveal the presence of demons and call for ecclesiastical or secular professional intervention. His third chapter covers the many scenes of confrontation with demons depicted in Old English or Anglo-Latin saints' lives. In Chapter 4 Dendle considers more systematically the neurological and behavioral pathologies that may have been construed as demon possession in the early Middle Ages, noting that that except for a brief period in early Northumbria and East Anglia, evidence for demonic activity in Anglo-Saxon England is rather thin and attenuates yet further through time. Most of the surviving narrative depictions are located far away in other times and foreign places: Roman Judea in the Old English Gospels; late antique Gaul in the miracles of St. Martin, Italy in Pope Gregory's Dialogues and Ælfric's Passion of St. Apollinaris; India in Ælfric's Passion of St. Thomas.

In fact, it is not at all clear to Dendle precisely what motor control and psychiatric disorders were interpreted as "functional demon possession" in Anglo-Saxon England (249). The medicinal recipes rarely trouble to specify symptoms as explicitly as they do ingredients. Even the "Nine Herbs Charm" quoted above does not seem to be an antidote to snake's venom per se, but rather some other conceptually analogous affliction. Since the concoctions prescribed were pharmacologically neutral or ineffective in any case, it is difficult to deduce what ailments precisely they were intended to relieve. Dendle does suggest, however, that some psychological benefit may have been derived from a kind of placebo effect. That is, the treatments tend to "naturalize" the supernatural sufferings of the patient since these afflictions were formally recognized as susceptible to medical treatment. This normalization of neurological disorder may have had a calming effect upon the patient, he suggests, at least for minor psychosomatic illnesses, and also possibly helped to shield the victim from the hysterical fear or opprobrium that certain alarming symptoms like epileptic seizures or Tourette's Syndrome might have inspired in others with their ungainly spasms, spittings, retchings, involuntary curses and blasphemies.

Dendle thus sees the ecclesiastical construct of possession and exorcism, whether it was experienced as a frequent historical phenomenon or not, as a progressive innovation in Anglo-Saxon culture, one which tended over time to override the traditional attribution of supernaturally induced illness and death to human agents like witches and sorcerers rather than to invisible demonic enemies. It is not clear to this reader that the distinction Dendle draws between diabolical malice and the agency of hostile human adepts was quite as sharp in the Anglo-Saxon mind as he seems to assume. Many sources simply lump together spiritual beings like wælcyrian--"valkyries," a term used to gloss Gorgons and Furies in Latin texts--with wiccan and unlybwyrhtan--"witches" and "poisoners." Hægtessan were supernaturally evil women--"witches," "hags," or "furies"--whether human or demonic. The spells quoted above thus embrace several possibilities for the precise ontological identity of the pestiferous agents, but these could clearly include human actors. A tenth-century law of Æthelstan prescribes the death penalty for "witchcrafts and sorceries and lethal spells, if death is occasioned thereby". [3] A widow from Ailsworth was drowned at London Bridge in 1016 for practicing just the kind of voodoo, pin-sticking sorcery that is imagined in the charm for sudden pain quoted above, while her complicit son fled into outlawry. [4] An old charm preserved in Lacnunga was intended to rectify the fertility of one's fields, especially if the land had been spoiled by sorcery, invoking the power of the old quasi-personified earth mother in its Christianized version:

It is thus not clear to what extent the attribution of supernatural harm to demonic rather than human perpetrators really helped to shield marginalized women and other socially vulnerable individuals or groups believed to be in league with the Devil from becoming the targets of persecution. Yet, Dendle notes that the three extant Anglo-Saxon genres which explicitly adduce demonic activity--hagiographical, liturgical and medical texts--all treat demoniacs themselves--people with serious psychiatric or physiological problems--seriously, that is, not as dangerous spiritual enemies or contagious threats to the community as a whole, but as suffering human victims with salvageable eternal souls in need of comfort, healing and relief. A demonic explanation for behavioral disorder or psychological aberrance thus served, Dendle believes, at least as a partial social prophylactic for those so afflicted, even during periods of social tension and group conflict. Indeed, the few claimed instances of demonic presence during this period in Anglo-Saxon England do not seem to correspond to times of particular anxiety or stress. Dendle suggests that this more therapeutic approach to demonic intrusion is based upon a New Testament template, where Christ as the Good Physician is depicted as sympathetic to the plight of demoniacs. The Lord's example deflected blame from victims to the invisible agents of their distress, thus promoting a more tolerant attitude toward of a number of congenital, motor control and psychiatric disorders. Conditions like epilepsy or Tourette's Syndrome would not have been unknown in Anglo-Saxon England, Dendle surmises from the modern statistics of their frequency in populations at large, but were probably rather rare in the actual experience of most people living out their lives within a small circle of acquaintances in rural villages. Nonetheless, almost all Anglo-Saxons would have been aware of the possibility of demon possession through the many saints' lives they had heard throughout their lives, even though such events, like miracles in general, may have been atypical. Malicious demonic activity might frequently have been feared or suspected in many cases that lacked other apparent explanation, just as diabolical temptation was automatically assumed as a factor in sinful moral choices. But the explicit assumption of a demonic presence seems to have been rarely invoked as an ongoing feature of Anglo-Saxon religious behavior, especially as the Roman Church and its authority became more securely and deeply institutionalized in the lives of ordinary folk. The Church had few spiritual rivals to challenge its influence by casting out demons and thus needed no regular demonstration of its own. In the face of this growing ecclesiastical hegemony, Dendle concludes that "demon possession (the unconscious adoption of deliberative behaviors, such as assuming an alternate persona) was quite rare, if not virtually absent, in Anglo-Saxon England" (249).

The quality of scholarship demonstrated in this monograph is impressive. It is thorough in its coverage of literary and textual evidence, up-to-date in its review of current medical literature on the neurological symptoms that might have been interpreted as demon possession, and measured in its conclusions, which are largely negative. It seems that we have very little evidence for demon possession and exorcism as a common feature of religious experience in Anglo-Saxon England, even though it remained such a prominent part of the Christian Anglo-Saxon thought-world--a result this reader did not at all expect. Despite its eye-catching title and provocative, even somewhat lurid subject matter, Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England is a work of mature, comprehensive and careful scholarship.



1. Elliott van Kirk Dobbie (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems (The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, 6; New York: Columbia University Press; 1942), 119-120.

2. Dobbie (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, 122-123.

3. F. L. Attenborough (ed. and trans.), The Laws of the Earliest English Kings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), 130-131.

4. A. J. Robertson (ed. and trans.), Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), 68-69.

5. Dobbie (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, 117-118.

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