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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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2. The Voice of the Possessed


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The Voice of the Possessed

The Burgundian chronicler Jean Molinet (d. 1507) recounts that during the Easter ceremony of the year 1491, a strange event took place in a reformed Augustinian convent situated near the small town of Cambrai in northern France. According to the ecclesiastical authorities called upon to interpret the case, Molinet relates, several of the nuns residing in the convent displayed extremely bizarre behavior. They rolled their eyes, jumped in the air, and spoke in tongues. One of them sang a song in a hideous voice while another had sexual encounters with the devil that took the shape of her confessor with whom the young girl had already been in love.1 Upon examination of the nuns,2 the churchmen reach the conclusion that the nuns are possessed:

Aulcuns espritz ou ennemys diabolicques se logerent en ung monesteres de religieuses refourmee de l’ordre de Sainct Augustin. Il y avoit illec environ cent femmes bien renommees de tres devote et honeste conversation; mais plusseurs d’icelles furent successivement traveillies et vexes tant horriblement (…) [one of them] disoit des choses merveilleuses, incredibles et espovantable a ceulx qui l’interroguoient, detordoit les membres de son corps, sautoit en l’air, contournoit ses yeulx fort estrangement et espouvantoit ung chanson de sa tres hideuse voix.3

[Some spirits or diabolical enemies found shelter in a reformed convent of the order of Saint Augustine. There were there about one hundred women known...

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