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Demonic Possession, Vulnerability, and Performance in Medieval French Drama

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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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4. Effacing Demons: Storytelling, Healing, and Ritual

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Effacing Demons

Storytelling, Healing, and Ritual

Following the heuristics of anthropologists who studied possession in non-Western contexts, medievalists and early-modernists point out that demonic possession is a matter of cultural constructionism. The act of possession involves primarily a process of formation of personal identity: the demoniac performs her condition following certain scripts encoded in her socio-religious environment.1 These scripts are subjected to evaluation from the part of those witnessing such acts of possession. Moreover, both demoniacs and exorcists learn these scripts and, in the case of the former, even have a “drama coach” who tells them how to perform the symptoms of possession.2 Such a constructionist model of possession can definitely help us recognize certain discursive patterns according to which the subjectivity of the demoniac is shaped. However, as the previous chapters have shown, this model does not account for the fact that possession is essentially a spectacle of illness centered around a vulnerable and unique body endowed with an agential capacity which manifests itself both at the level of language and embodied knowledge. As we have seen, the scripts of possession consisting of certain gestures, vocabularies, and collective embodied reactions function with a greater degree of emotional flexibility than the type of controlled behavior that social constructionism allows. Furthermore, from psychologists and medical anthropologists3 we also learn that a body dominated by physical and mental distress has its own embodied ← 101 | 102 → story to tell. Such...

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