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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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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...

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