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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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3. Sensorial Encounters with the Possessed


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Sensorial Encounters with the Possessed

In his hagiography of Ludgard of Aywières (d. 1246), Thomas of Cantimpré (d. 1272) mentions the case of a nun who becomes possessed.1 The nun’s condition drew Ludgard’s attention who, together with another religious official, Brother Simon, prayed for the nun. While praying, both Ludgard and Brother Simon became frightened by the symptoms of demonic possession that the nun displayed:

…the nun’s hands and limbs contracted with an overpowering rigidity, and her mouth was closed so firmly that it could not be opened at all, not even with a knife. Seeing this, they [Ludgard and Brother Simon] were shaken by an appalling fear and, bending their knees in prayer, they entreated the Lord for mercy for such a great torment.2

The somatic bodily changes that a possessed person typically suffers such as the stiffness of the limbs trouble ordinary people and provoke fear, anxiety, and, ultimately sheer disgust. The same attitude persists several centuries later when a theologian such as Johannes Nider underlines the horror experienced by those who look at the possessed: “those possessed by or familiar with demons develop deformities in their eyes, face, and gestures [which are] horrible for other men to look at.”3 The act of looking at the face of the possessed has ← 81 | 82 → therefore a Medusa-like effect upon the viewer who finds himself or herself in a peculiar state of horror,...

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