The Devil And Exorcism In The Medieval Mindset

The Devil And Exorcism In The Medieval Mindset
Copyright © Photograph by Mantheniel

The first imagery of demons, the Devil, possession and exorcism was rather primitive. Moreover, this interaction with the Devil was somewhat simplistic, as it occurred either through simple dialogues or through attempts to cast him away as a result of favourable emotional communication. In time exorcism became formalised rituals under the purview of the clergy.

Beginning in the third-century A.D., exorcisms were performed by persons ordained to carry out these tasks by way of hirotesie. After the fourth-century A.D., exorcist priests officially became professional exorcists, a tradition that has been maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, but not in the Orthodox tradition. After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 313 A.D., measures were taken against Paganism. In 325 A.D., Constantine personally lead the the First Council of Nicaea, while the Christian Church thrived throughout the Empire. Simultaneously, new superstitions emerged, along with new adorers of Satan, while the fathers of the early Christian Church seemed to have foreseen the situation. Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, for instance, denounced some forms of the cult of the Persian God Mithra, in which he recognized “the deceits of the Devil who imitates some divide realities.” Origen, likewise, points out in his work Contra Celsum “the various demons upon the earth, to whom different localities have been assigned, each one bears a name appropriate to the several dialects of place and country.”

The perception of exorcism changed with the beginning of the medieval period. The emergence of “the other religion”, that is; popular religion, in which believers deviated from the canonical practice imposed by the church, creates the expectation of an immediate divine presence in the world. A psychology of miracles is born, a particular frame of mind engrained in the popular religion which survived unchanged to the present day. This popular religion, nascent during early Middle Ages, is characterised by magical patterns of thought and behaviour expressed in various superstitions referring to certain days of the week, people, and animals that were associated with harmful outcomes. Part and parcel of these “popular religions” were incantations and exorcisms practised in sacred or damned places.

The documentary records surviving from the Middle Ages are so overwhelmingly rich with examples of these “popular religions” that some scholars turn away from them, considering them unreliable. Along with general lines, a theological and cultural model of Antiquity perpetuates itself at least until the beginning of the medieval times. Latin and Byzantine authors patterned their thought upon the same ancient culture, as both Christian theology and spiritual literature have drawn on the same legacy of ancient Christian tradition.

Alongside these superstitions grew another idea of evil in the world. Famous authors of the Middle Ages, from Pope Saint Gregory I in the West to Saint John of Damascus in the East, have articulated a “philosophy of evil.” Pope Saint Gregory I concluded, starting from the prologue of the ‘Book of Job’ that demons act only with God’s permission, while the power of the rebellious angels is also made possible by divinity. Moreover, Pope Saint Gregory I attempted to give a divine interpretation of natural disasters, asserting that when calamity struck it was God’s punishment of sinful people and not the work of the devil. Placing divine punishment and human sinfulness at the root of epidemics that ravaged the medieval world, Pope Saint Gregory I thus tried to counter the popular explanation embraced by the masses which considered Satan as responsible for these calamities. As Nikos Matsoukas emphasised, “the conception according to which Satan was the cause of the outbreak of plagues, which was showing a paralysing fear among people, was determining most people to resort to typical or improvised exorcisms.”

The year 1054 was a milestone in the changing conceptions of exorcism. The Great Schism between the West and East determined the emergence of new approaches towards the cases of demonic possessions, foreshadowing the articulation of new imaginary structures concerning demons and exorcisms. Roman Catholic theology viewed demonic possession as the outcome of the departure from the canonical principle of good Christian practice. Anyone who deviated from official religious practice could be suspected of being possessed or in contact with demons or Satan himself. The list of characteristics that could suggest the presence of demons — the demonic possessive symptomatology — was slowly established. In 1580, Jean Bodin wrote the infamous handbook for hunting down witchcraft. Guy Patin’s allegation that Jean Bodin wrote the handbook only to demonstrate that he believed in witchcraft is an example that cannot raise too many questions since it is impossible to either confirm or reject his accusation. The famous ‘Rituale Romanum’ was in use by Catholic exorcists by 1614.

During the famous witch trials of the second half of the 1500’s, inquisitors firmly believed in the idea of contracting with the Devil. In 1584, a case of witchcraft made waves in Baden-Baden, Germany, in which the judge had tried to find out if a pact had been signed by the accused and the Devil, and if so, had she signed with her blood or with ink. Countless times, judges pronounced the accused as guilty. This was the case with N. Remy, who sentenced between two and three thousand “witches” to the stake between 1576 and 1606. In the same period, the zealous activity of Archbishops Carlo Maria Viganò and Federico Borromeo led to the systematic persecution of the Devil’s allies in the Lombardy’s Alps, in Italy. Moreover, in 1645, in Essex, East of United Kingdom, two witch-hunters, inquisitors John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins extensively used torture, considered to be the best method of extracting information, to force out confessions. In general, torture or the threat of torture greatly increased the number of people accused of witchcraft. The confession made in 1631 by Jesuit priest Friedrich Spee is indicative in this sense. Torture, he deplored, “has brought to the surface unprecedented malefic drives not only in Germany but all nations were resorting to it. If we have not yet confessed we are all witches, this is because we have not yet been tortured.” One thing is beyond doubt, namely that under torture or even under the threat of torture, any confession can be easily extracted. In the United Kingdom, torture was less put to use in comparison to continental Europe, but there were nevertheless situations when people presented themselves out of their free will and denounced themselves to judges. There were also cases in which people confessed their incredible relationship with the evil spirits. Perhaps the most intriguing category is represented by those who, denying the most compelling of evidence, were stubbornly confessing crimes they did not commit. These spontaneous confessions were accepted by the judges only if they were put down in writing and translated in their familiar language, that is, in the language of demonology. In this regard the declaration of an enlightened inquisitor is illustrative. Alonso de Salazar Frias tried to demystify witchcraft in the Basque country by signalling the importance of collective psychology of sermons in influencing people’s demonological imagination. He claimed that people could fall prey to credulity by listening to the sermons delivered by monks such as was the case in Olagiie, near Pamplona, even if the confessions referring to nocturnal gatherings and witches flying through the air were provoked by the edict of pardon issued in 1611.

A cause célèbre of demonic possession, as revealed by the documents of the time, occurred at Loudun, France, in the year 1633. The demons invasion of the abbey where the poor Ursuline nuns were living gained instant fame due to the newly introduced ritual of exorcism. In contrast to previous times, at Loudun the exorcisms were put to show in the public square, visible to everyone who wanted to take part in the spectacle. The history of this exorcism reveals other interesting aspects, shedding light upon the political and religious stakes of the affair, as well as pointing to the possible existence of common psychic disorders. The one called to exorcise the nuns of Loudun was Father Jean-Joseph Surin. He was a devoted Jesuit, a professional exorcist who rose to the occasion. His only problem was that the Devil turned against him, according to the letter he sent to Father d’Attichy, a fellow Jesuit from Rennes, dated May 3rd, 1635. The Infernal Devilish Trinity, made out of Leviathan. Lucifer, and Belzebuth troubled Father Jean-Joseph Surin, who confessed that “I have very little freedom of action. When I desire to talk, I am forced to remain silent; I cannot take part in the communion; at the table, I cannot lift a bite to my mouth; during confession I forget all of my sins suddenly; and I feel the devil hovering over me as if he is at home. When I wake up, he is already here; at the morning prayer, he cast away the thought from my head as he wishes; when my heart starts to open up, he fills it with anger; he puts me to sleep when I desire to remain awake; and in public, speaking through the mouth of that possessed woman, he brags that he is my master, and I cannot argue against…” Probably because, impelled by the demons, as well as based on what he had written in his letter to Father d’Attichy, Father Jean-Joseph Surin jumped from the window and broke a leg. Papini considers this a clear example of demonic possession.

Adopting a more sceptical stance than Papini, it may be suggested that even the departure of the demons a couple of decades later cannot constitute solid proof that in the case of Father Jean-Joseph Surin one is dealing with a categorical case of demonic possession. The French historian Michel de Certeau, himself a Jesuit scholar as well as a Catholic theologian, investigated the curious case of Loudun and advanced his interpretation. Michel de Certeau pictured the image of a society that expels its anxieties caused by these events to the “theatre of the possessed and the exorcists,” suggesting that it is possible that the imagination of those who believe in demonic possession create similar effects as in the case of Loudun.

Do you have a particular subject you are passionate about you would enjoy seeing covered by one of our staff writers? We would like to reach out to our readers and take your suggestions into account for future articles. We invite you to leave a message for us in the comment section below stating what subjects you would be thrilled to read in future articles. If you also have some constructive criticism about this article we would be happy to read your feedback in the comment section.


Click here to post a comment

Leave a Reply

Bulletin Insider

Subscribe to the mailing list and get interesting updates through the inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

Privacy Preference Center


These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems. They are usually only set in response to actions made by you which amount to a request for services, such as setting your privacy preferences, logging in or filling in forms. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the website will not then work. These cookies do not store any personally identifiable information.

_ga, _gat, _gid, __qca
_ga, _gat, _gid


These cookies may be set through our website by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other websites. They do not store directly personal information but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

_gat, __gads


These cookies allow us to count visits and traffic sources so we can measure and improve the performance of our site. They help us to know which pages are the most and least popular and see how visitors move around the site. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. If you do not allow these cookies we will not know when you have visited our site, and will not be able to monitor its performance.



These cookies enable the website to provide enhanced functionality and personalisation. They may be set by us or by third-party providers whose services we have added to our pages. If you do not allow these cookies then some or all of these services may not function properly.


Close your account?

Your account will be closed and all data will be permanently deleted and cannot be recovered. Are you sure?

Get the Bulletin Insider delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to our bulletin and get exceptional updates and brainstorm promotions

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.