Demonic Possession, Vulnerability, and Performance in Medieval French Drama

by Andreea Marculescu (Author)
©2018 Monographs X, 148 Pages
Series: Medieval Interventions, Volume 4


Just like the modern hysteric, a figure that catalyzes clinical vocabularies confirming medieval theological anxieties, the demoniac has been considered an "anomalous" and "abnormal" manifestation of womanhood. Incapable of self-governance, both linguistic and corporeal, the medieval possessed is placed in the category of the pathological. The symptoms of possession are part of a multilayered discourse coined by medieval theologians, authors of exempla, hagiographers, and natural philosophers. The subjectivity of the demoniac becomes, thus, a fetishistic construction which allows medieval male intellectuals to ponder questions about demons, the supernatural, and the human body. Demonic Possession, Vulnerability, and Performance in Medieval French Drama advocates for an affective and ethical framework of reading the vocabularies of possession in which the demoniac’s convulsions, contortions, shrieks of pain, and snapshots of disarticulated language are not conceptualized as "pathological" but as a model of intercorporeality built around modalities of sensuous exchange between the bodies of both the possessed and of those whom she comes in contact with. Can we think of a corporeal agency of the "anomalous" body of the possessed independent of reason and articulated language? What happens when such distorted bodies enter zones of visual, haptic, and aural contact with abled-bodied individuals? Can possession be considered as a producer of a sensuous type of knowledge that alters the way sovereign subjects perceive themselves? Taking as primary sources a series of late-medieval French Passion Plays and hagiographical plays authored by poetic and religious figures such as Arnoul Gréban, André de la Vigne, Eustache Mercadé, and Jean Michel, this book argues that the lyrical capaciousness of the plays as forms of narrativized poetics allows us to understand demonic possession as a series of bodily narratives of pain, of healing, of witnessing, and, ultimately, of vulnerability.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Medieval Theologians Facing the Possessed
  • 2. The Voice of the Possessed
  • 3. Sensorial Encounters with the Possessed
  • 4. Effacing Demons: Storytelling, Healing, and Ritual
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →



Writing a scholarly monograph involves a very great deal of solitary work. Yet I would not have been able to accomplish this project without the help, advice, and encouragement of my academic mentors and friends from both Europe and the US. This monograph has grown from my dissertation which I defended at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 2011. I am very grateful to my advisor, Stephen Nichols, for the unique ways in which he has always known how to challenge me intellectually and professionally. His mentorship over the years has been central to my formation as a scholar. I also wish to thank him for welcoming my work into the series he is directing at Peter Lang. At Johns Hopkins, Walter Stephens has been a great mentor from whose knowledge on medieval and early-modern demonology I have benefited tremendously. Other faculty members at Hopkins—Elena Russo, Wilda Anderson, Bill Egginton, Gabrielle Spiegel, and Herbert Kessler—have inspired and challenged my work in significant ways. At Harvard, Virginie Greene has been a constant source of support and inspiration. Her optimism and sense of practicality are contagious. I am grateful to Jane Newman, a wonderful pedagogue, scholar, and mentor, who has made me feel extremely welcomed in the UC Irvine community and shown a great deal interest in my work. At University of Oklahoma, Sufang Ng, Kenneth Hodges, and Joyce Coleman have shown a great sense of hospitality and provided priceless advice about the structure of this book. ← vii | viii → I am also grateful to Lupe Davidson for being an understanding chair who has accommodated my needs to finish this book manuscript. My mentors in Europe have been quintessential in shaping my background as a medievalist. I am particularly grateful to Gabor Klaniczay (Central European University), Marco Mostert, René Stuip, and Rob Meens at Utrecht University. I would like to thank Piroska Nagy in particular for the help and interest she has taken in my work.

Various people have commented certain portions of this project and offered advice about it at various stages: Moshe Sluhovsky, Michael Meere, Kathleen Long, Noah Guynn, Jody Enders, Mary Franklin-Brown, Irit Kleiman, Darwin Smith, Jelle Koopmans, Carol Symes, Sylvaine Guyot, and Janet Beizer. Accomplishing this project would not have been possible without the fellowships and travel grants I have received in these past few years. I have been fortunate enough to have been awarded a fellowship from the American Council for Learned Societies which granted my time and resources to accomplish the research for the monograph. A travelling grant from the Medieval Academy of America has allowed me the necessary resources to present my work at various international conferences. The initial research for this project was facilitated by a short-term fellowship from the Singleton Center at Johns Hopkins University. I thank Cristopher Celenza for his support. I have presented parts of Chapter 3 at Columbia Seminar on Affect Studies. I am grateful for the feedback I have received from the conference participants. Portions of Chapter 2 have already been published as “The Voice of the Possessed in Late Medieval French Theater,” in Voice and Voicelessness in the Middle Ages, ed. Irit Kleiman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 139–52. I am grateful to Palgrave Macmillan for allowing me to include this article in my monograph. I would also like to thank the editorial team at Peter Lang for their patience and support.

My fellow colleagues and friends have been a real joy to talk to about both “work” and “life.” Special thanks for a good conversation and a good laugh to Karen and Chris Manna, Valentina Denzel, Doreen Denski, Andy Pigot, Tania Zampini, Julie Roy, Diana Jorza, Stephanie Goyette. I particularly thank Emine Fisek for her camaraderie. Her expertise as a performance studies scholar together with her kindness and humor have been invaluable. In Paris and Brussels, Dana Herskovits and Raluca Painter, respectively, have offered me hospitality and friendship. In Bucharest, my dear friends Adriana Teculescu, Monica Cozac, Elena Alexe have helped me whenever I needed it. Special thanks to Anima and Diwpen Baishya and Kapil (Bronti) Baishya and Darshana Sreedhar Mini, my extended family in India and the US, who have welcomed me in their lives. My good thoughts are also directed towards my aunt, Rodica Guran, who has ← viiii | ix → always supported me in my choices and whose story of deflecting Romania in the summer of 1973 to embrace political exile I hope to write about one day.

Last but not least, this monograph would have not been possible at all without the constant love, support, and trust that my parents—Mariana and Gabriel-Radu Marculescu—have always shown to me no matter the circumstances. My partner, Amit Baishya, has surrounded me with his love, humor, encouragement, immense erudition, and gastronomic talent making the whole writing experience much easier. His help has been invaluable from discussing with me theoretical complexities about biopolitics and secularism to correcting my “Frenchified”/“Romanian” English and commenting extensively on my prose. Our black lab girl, Sushi, has made my days lighter and filled them with joy. I dedicate this monograph to my parents, to Amit, and to Sushi. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →



In Western thought, the possessed has an identity as a subject that does not have the property over her speech and, hence, lacks the cognitive capacity to say who she is. Paraphrasing Arthur Rimbaud’s idea regarding the ontological impossibility of command over one’s own mode of thinking1 (“on me pense” [I am thought] as the poet says) Michel de Certeau2 states that the possessed is always spoken for or about but never speaks herself. Rimbaud’s “on me pense” [I am thought], argues de Certeau, becomes the demoniac’s “on me parle” [I am spoken]. Two mediums are involved in such locutionary acts that efface the identity of the possessed as producer of such idioms: demons, and those who assess both her linguistic performance and her convulsions and catatonic states. Indeed, demons “speak” through the possessed subjects and render her discourse “incoherent” and “incomprehensible,” while the masculine authorities consisting of theologians, judges, or doctors assess, classify, and analyze her idiom and convulsionary bodily states and formulate diagnoses. Michel Foucault3 argues that the epistemological impetus of scrutinizing the identity of the possessed through the theological and the medical gaze leads to an inscription of the possessed within the realm of the pathological. This means that the demoniac becomes part of disciplinary discursive techniques through which her body enters a space where all symptoms of possession—ranging from the disarticulated voice, convulsions of the flesh, ← 1 | 2 → to catatonic states—become an object of analytical scrutiny. If in premodern Europe, such scrutiny was largely the prerogative of the theologians, starting with the 18th century, argues Foucault, the convulsionary flesh of the possessed becomes the prototype for madness and other nervous illnesses that culminate in the “invention of hysteria,” to use Georges Didi-Huberman’s turn of phrase.4 This is a narrative teleology—from possession to hysteria—that first needs to be presented and confronted if the possessed has to emerge from within the folds of discourse as an insurgent subject. This teleological approach will be contrasted with other ways of conceptualizing the bodies of the possessed formulated by medieval historians and scholars. However, both teleological and (a variety of) historical approaches efface the actual corporeality of the possessed. Reinscribing the effaced body of the possessed will be the first task of this introductory chapter.

Indeed, the 19th century witnesses the flourishing of a complex body of medical literature on hysteria5 in which medical figures of the time analyze psycho-somatic and even moral causes together with potential treatments for hysteria. Among these, Paul Richer (1849–1933), professor of artistic anatomy, his mentor, Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893), neurologist at the Salpêtrière,6 and Charles Richet (1850–1935), Nobel-prize winner in physiology of medicine in 1913 and president of the French Eugenics Society,7 see a direct connection between medieval and early-modern cases of possession and hysteria.8 The hysteric’s poses, convulsions, attacks, attitudes passionnelles and verbosity find a non-scientific correlation in earlier manifestations of possession. Whereas in the case of pre-modern possessed, it’s the devil that provokes them, in 19th century medical discourse, they are the result of neurological disturbances9 diligently analyzed, described, photographed, collected, and transposed into what Didi-Huberman calls “a spectacle of illness.”10 In it the hysteric becomes not only a pathological and forensic object, but is simultaneously constructed as a “vehicle” that externalize the desires of the gazer, and helps him foreground and legitimize a plethora of scientific questions.11 Within the space of this medical gaze, the persona of the hysteric is reduced to a body of knowledge through which “she fatally interrogated the viewer’s gaze, crudely interrogating the fantasmatic meaning of his “scientific position.”12 In fact, as Janet Beizer puts it, the hysteric, alienated from her body whose surface is simultaneously captured and produced through painful experiments and medical observations within the parameters of the medical discourse, is a fetishistic object that ventriloquizes the voices of the male figures who examine her.13

The claim the 19th century hysteric is a simple avatar of the pre-modern possessed has been problematic for medievalists and early-modernists who have ← 2 | 3 → emphasized the need to interpret earlier acts of possession as part of the pre-modern social and religious concerns. In this respect, Brian Levack finds Jean-Martin Charcot’s interpretation of symptoms of demonic possession under the umbrella of hysteria medically vague. Levack claims that hysteria was used to designate many psychoneurotic diseases with different etiologies.14 Hysteria, argues Levack, is, just like demonic possession, a cultural construct that, nonetheless, can account for “explaining a limited number of symptoms of the possession, preferably those evident when the afflictions began.”15 Indeed, for a series of historians who analyze late medieval and early-modern forms of spirituality, demonic possession is a matter of cultural performance. In displaying the pathological symptoms of possession, the demoniac, Levack points out, follows particular scripts encoded in the religious culture to which they belonged.16 In a similar vein, Moshe Sluhovsky17 and, before him, Nancy Caciola18 argue for the same performative character of demonic possession through which the demoniac conveys a particular social construction of her identity together with the collective assessment that such performance triggers.19 In this respect, Caciola refers to the body of the demoniac as a cipher that is carefully assessed according to theological and medical discursive strategies regarding the notion of demonic possession.20 What is at stake for medieval authorities, Caciola argues, is to interpret a series of symptoms such as catatonic states, convulsions or contortions as being signs of either demonic or divine possession.21

Whether the 19th century hysteric is a medicalized version of the medieval and early-modern possessed is ultimately, in a Foucaldian perspective, a matter of how some forms of knowledge produce particular subjects and how “effects of truth are produced within discourses which in themselves are neither true nor false.”22 In other words, to use a Foucauldian vocabulary, the subjectivity of both the hysteric and the possessed are contingent upon particular disciplinary mechanisms which are themselves the product of local and temporal hegemonic narratives.

What they have in common, I argue, is the way in which the figure of the possessed with its avatar, the hysteric, is advanced to legitimize such truths. Just like the 19th century doctors, medievalists and early-modernists place the possessed within a hermeneutic system. The body of the demoniac is objectivized and assigned an interpretative value in itself within the space of specific sites of discourse formation such as confessions, trials, demonological and medical treatises. Moreover, the bodily surface of the demoniac “matters” only as long as it conveys theological and medical concerns and anxieties centered around various issues such as discernment of spirits, psycho-physiological differences between ← 3 | 4 → males and females, the material presence of demons and angels and their interactions with humans. In this respect, Amy Hollywood, taking inspiration from psychoanalysis and feminist thought,23 reaches a similar conclusion that Janet Beizer and Didi-Huberman do when asserting that the hysteric is a male fetishistic construction.24 Hollywood argues that the body of the medieval female mystic/demoniac is a site over which opposed discourses between the clergy and the laity, orthodoxy and heresy are inscribed.25 The mystical body, points out Hollywood, would help confirm male clerical assumptions and subjectivities about gender difference and theological knowledge. Nevertheless, argues Hollywood, the same bodies, rendered powerless, different, and exposed to an omnipresent other, have the potential to be threatening to male subjectivity and authority.26

In fact, the later Middle Ages witnesses a proliferation of theological works which coin, at times, forensic methods and vocabularies to counteract such threatening impetuses by discerning how certain bodily symptoms are signs for divine and not demonic possession. This strict control over the somatic reactions that female saints, mystics, demoniacs, and even witches display lead to what Dylan Elliott calls the pathologization of female spirituality27 involving the “naturalization of the supernatural.”28 What is at stake here, argues Elliott, is the ingrained physiological difference between men and women whose bodies are porous, softer, more humid and, hence, humorally different.29 This particular constitution makes them prone to imagination and, thus, to dangerous, that is, demonic, supernatural influence.30 Therefore, the nature of such influence had to be filtered through the grid of criteria derived from theological writings about the nature of spirits, the way they impact bodies and faculty of the souls such as imagination, and the manner in which those being in states of rapture, trances, or mystical ecstasy report to male confessors about these experiences. Jean Gerson (d. 1429), Henry of Langestein (d. 1397), and Peter d’Ailly (d. 1420) are among the theologian-scholars who, inspired by the scholastic method of inquisitio and questio, designed vocabularies and frameworks to assess and, ultimately, control female spirituality.31 Starting with the 14th century, the possessed is captured within this network of “clerical quibbles,” to use Elliott’s phrase,32 in which her condition is dissected and forensically examined in order to establish whether her speech and physical symptoms fall into the category of demonic or rather divine revelations.


X, 148
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. X, 148 pp.

Biographical notes

Andreea Marculescu (Author)

Andreea Marculescu is Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, and from 2012–2014 was an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at Harvard University. Marculescu is a co-editor of Affective and Emotional Economies in Medieval and Early-Modern Europe (2017). She has published articles in Critique, Mediaevalia, Literature Compass and other collected volumes on the interconnection between medieval theater and the larger fields of medieval demonology.


Title: Demonic Possession, Vulnerability, and Performance in Medieval French Drama
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159 pages