Discerning Spirits: Divine And Demonic Possession In The Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville CaciolaDiscerning Spirits: Divine And Demonic Possession In The Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola

Discerning Spirits: Divine And Demonic Possession In The Middle Ages

byNancy Mandeville Caciola

Paperback | July 13, 2006

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Trance states, prophesying, convulsions, fasting, and other physical manifestations were often regarded as signs that a person was seized by spirits. In a book that sets out the prehistory of the early modern European witch craze, Nancy Caciola shows how medieval people decided whom to venerate as a saint infused with the spirit of God and whom to avoid as a demoniac possessed of an unclean spirit. This process of discrimination, known as the discernment of spirits, was central to the religious culture of Western Europe between 1200 and 1500.

Since the outward manifestations of benign and malign possession were indistinguishable, a highly ambiguous set of bodily features and behaviors were carefully scrutinized by observers. Attempts to make decisions about individuals who exhibited supernatural powers were complicated by the fact that the most intense exemplars of lay spirituality were women, and the "fragile sex" was deemed especially vulnerable to the snares of the devil. Assessments of women's spirit possessions often oscillated between divine and demonic interpretations. Ultimately, although a few late medieval women visionaries achieved the prestige of canonization, many more were accused of possession by demons.

Caciola analyzes a broad array of sources from saints' lives to medical treatises, exorcists' manuals to miracle accounts, to find that observers came to rely on the discernment of bodies rather than seeking to distinguish between divine and demonic possession in purely spiritual terms.

Nancy Mandeville Caciola is Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of and , both from Cornell.
Title:Discerning Spirits: Divine And Demonic Possession In The Middle AgesFormat:PaperbackDimensions:352 pages, 9.25 × 6.13 × 0.2 inPublished:July 13, 2006Publisher:Cornell University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0801473349

ISBN - 13:9780801473340

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Table of Contents



1. Possessed Behaviors
2. Ciphers


3. Fallen Women and Fallen Angels
4. Breath, Heart, Bowels


5. Exorcizing Demonic Disorder
6. Testing Spirits in the Effeminate Age


Editorial Reviews

"In thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe, theologians and preachers could not decide how to interpret the behavior of certain inspired women who experienced trances and ecstatic states: were they possessed by the devil or filled with the Holy Spirit? With no objective criteria for 'discerning spirits'—evaluating the soul based on outward appearances—it was generally accepted that the signs were ambiguous and the nature of the women's souls uncertain. By exploring the historical record, Nancy Caciola helps us understand that the strict opposition between Good and Evil is not an intrinsic aspect of religious and political discourse. Such a book is urgently needed today!"—Jean-Claude Schmitt, author of Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society