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Demonic Possession, Vulnerability, and Performance in Medieval French Drama


Andreea Marculescu

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.

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1. Medieval Theologians Facing the Possessed


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Medieval Theologians Facing the Possessed

As an object of knowledge, the medieval notion of demonic possession is the result of a plurality of socio-intellectual discourses shaped by particular historical concerns and ecclesiastical anxieties. Vocabularies of possession, causes, symptoms, or even remedies are, therefore, contingent upon the manner in which the relation between the demonic and the divine, the material and the spiritual, and the interior and the surface of the body were fashioned out.1 This chapter will trace the history of possession by insisting on those nodal points which made possible the shift from a particular model of possession revolving around the inner physiology of the demoniac to one in which the focus is on the somatic symptoms of possession surfacing on the skin. While the former model echoes theological and medical preoccupations regarding the relation between soul, spirit, and body, the latter, emerging during the late Middle Ages, is part of a larger systemic theological discourse directing attention towards female spirituality and modes of assessing, validating, and, ultimately, controlling it.2 ← 27 | 28 →

Demoniacs, Demons, and Aerial Creatures in Early-Christianity

While the biblical context provides exemplary demoniac figures and the spiritual framework to interpret the demonic attacks upon humans, early-Christian theological figures are preoccupied in defining the morphological structure of demons as non-material creatures and the technicalities of their interactions with humans. Some of the questions they ask are: Who are the spirits? How do...

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