Home / Culture / Esotericism / Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession

Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession

Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession
© Photograph by Jessica Lafont

In the late thirteenth-century, Ida of Louvain scandalized her community. The daughter of a prosperous wine merchant, Ida of Louvain already had refused marriage and become a recluse in a small cell within her parents’ home. One day, however, it seemed that she went mad. Casting aside even the simple clothes she now wore, Ida of Louvain wrapped herself in a dirty rag and draped a mat over her shoulders for warmth. Aggressively seeking out the most crowded plazas and marketplaces, she preened and “strutted about if mad or a fool, offering a monstrous spectacle of herself to the people.” Townspeople murmured that Ida was in a frenzy, out of her mind; eventually she was tied up to prevent her from harming herself or others.

What compelled Ida of Louvain to act in this way? If we believe her hagiographer’s testimony, it was a divine revelation. According to Ida of Louvain’s vita, her radical behaviour was traceable to a vision she had just received, the first of many to come. In Ida of Louvain’s vision, a pauper approached her recluse’s cell and stood before her face; he then reached out his hands and peeled back the skin of her chest, revealing her heart. The pauper climbed inside Ida of Louvain’s heart and took up residence there, enjoying her “hospitality.” This is why Ida of Louvain suddenly conceived a frenzy for such an abject-and visible-kind of poverty: she was divinely possessed, inhabited by the poor Christ.

The tale unveils a profound tension in the history of religious laywomen in the later Middle Ages. Whereas Ida of Louvain and her hagiographer considered her state to be one of internal possession by the divine spirit, outside observers considered her “insane and frenetic,” a malady that was frequently attributed to demonic possession. Indeed, her external symptoms of dementia, frenzy, trances, convulsions, and episodes of strange bleeding precisely mirrored the behaviours characteristically reported of demoniacs at this time. Nor was Ida of Louvain alone in being the object of such suspicions: accusations of demonic possession were quite a common response to women claiming divine inspiration in the later Middle Ages.

Medieval communities struggled mightily over how to decide whether an inspired woman was possessed by the Holy Spirit or an unclean spirit. Although (as I shall argue below) Ida of Louvain’s vision of the pauper entering her heart might have suggested a beneficent interpretation of her behaviours to a medieval audience, ultimately this vision was internal and private, hence unverifiable. From the external vantage point of the observer, Ida of Louvain’s behaviour appeared pointless and disordered. Parading through the plazas while proudly modelling rags was taken as an “in-your-face” gesture by Ida of Louvain’s contemporaries, an indication that something was deeply wrong with her, rather than a sign of divine illumination. As I will demonstrate, this very same ambivalence of reception characterizes the careers of many women whose names populate the pages of recent monographs and articles about medieval feminine piety. Such women were frequently viewed with deep suspicion, even repugnance, by their surrounding community, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or both.

The responses of an audience to a mystic’s public performances are thus intricately bound up with the question of how external behaviours were thought to mirror internal, spiritual states. This internal/external dichotomy may also be discerned in the approaches of modern scholars to medieval women mystics. Modern American scholarship on feminine devotion in the Middle Ages has tended to approach the topic from a predominantly “internal” vantage point by exploring the subjective meanings of ascetic practices, devotional motifs and symbolisms, the intimate relationship between the putative saint and her confessor, or the affective content of typically female visions. This “internal” analysis may be contrasted with an “external” approach-exploring perceptions of the mystic within her community context, the formation of cults of veneration, or the process of canonization which has received less attention, particularly in the English-speaking world. While I cannot do justice to the subtleties of the entire field in the present context, there are two aspects of what I shall call the “dominant scholarly narrative” that I would like to highlight here. First, research on the internal affective piety of female mystics, culled largely from mystical vitae, has resulted in a profile of the “typical” woman saint as deeply ascetic, highly ecstatic, and devoted to meditation upon the events of Jesus’ life on earth. The result of such devotional practices, as Caroline Walker Bynum has compellingly demonstrated in a series of influential publications, was an experience of identification with the suffering body of the human Christ so intense that it often was said to be somatically manifested in the mystic’s own body. Paramystical transformations such as the onset of immobile and insensible trances, of uncontrollable fits and crying (the “gift of tears”), or the reception of the stigmata, are all commonly reported of women mystics, and were understood by them as the physical side-effects of their spiritual union with the divine.

The career of Ida of Louvain conforms closely to such a pattern. If we turn to “external” issues of community response, however, we see that these features of women mystics’ careers have received less attention. This is the second aspect of the dominant narrative that I would like to discuss. When the question of response has been raised, the dominant narrative holds that a significant number of religious laywomen gained prestige and empowerment through their ecstacies and austerities, and ultimately became the focus of cults of veneration. Viewed as vessels of the Holy Spirit, as the intimates of God, women mystics like Ida were held in awe and veneration by their contemporaries. André Vauchez’s statistics regarding female lay saints have been widely cited as proof of this fact, particularly the figure of 55.5 percent of women among the laity canonized during the Middle Ages, and an even more startling 71.4 percent of women among lay saints after the year 1305.

Certainly, the picture of a broad movement of mystical beguines and ascetic recluses gaining veneration is an appealing one. However, André Vauchez’s statistics regarding the growth of lay feminine sanctity, and the rising degree of veneration for these women lose some of their lustre when we examine the absolute numbers upon which they are based. In fact, only four laywomen were canonized in the period between 1198, when the processes studied by André Vauchez were begun, and 1500. Of these four, only two were also mystics who fit the ascetic-visionary profile outlined above: hardly a figure that suggests an institutionalization of feminine mystical piety.

Though it is customary, in the dominant narrative, to designate any woman who was the subject of a hagiography by the title “saint,” this practice conceals the fact that very few actually attained this status canonically. “I But even if we move away from strictly formal definitions of sainthood, it also seems that very few local communities instituted informal cults of veneration for their local recluses, beguines, or tertiaries. Some women, like the Dominican Catherine of Siena, were promoted by the elite among their religious orders, but only a few seem to have had deeply-rooted cults within their communities, as I will demonstrate in further detail below. As in the case of Ida of Louvain, the evidence suggests that women claiming divine gifts were as likely to be outcasts as to attract widespread devotion.

The main group of individuals that can definitively be identified as offering veneration to women mystics is their hagiographers. It is undeniably true that we have an increased number of women’s vitae from the later Middle Ages, a point that does testify to the growing willingness of some high-status males- such as Thomas of Cantimpré, Jacques de Vitry, Raymond of Capua, and a number of others-to offer veneration to female figures. In addition, the growing number of such texts may testify to a growth in the number of women aspiring to the saintly life: while not entirely self-evident, this is a reasonable interpretation. But the existence of a hagiography does not, in and of itself, testify to the existence of a cult of veneration.

The key word here is, of course, “cult.” The term, as deployed within medievalist historiographical literature, fits loosely within the conceptual field opened up by Weber’s characterization of the phenomenon as “a continuing association of men, a community for which [the saint] has special significance.”‘ My point in offering this definition is that “cult” as a collective noun is commonly taken to imply a group of more than two or three people. It may technically be accurate to state, as do many authors, that “women mystics were venerated by contemporaries”; each could count on at least her hagiographer for veneration, and some attracted broader circles of devotees. But do these situations-particularly those on the lower end of the scale-always constitute a cult? The passive verbal construction and nonspecific agent of the formula, “women mystics were venerated by contemporaries,” begs the important question of just how broadly such veneration extended into the community.

Also published on Medium.


Notify of