Believe Not Every Spirit
Possession, Mysticism, & Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism
From 1400 through 1700, the number of reports of demonic possessions among European women was extraordinarily high. During the same period, a new type of mysticism—popular with women—emerged that greatly affected the risk of possession and, as a result, the practice of exorcism. Many feared that in moments of rapture, women, who had surrendered their souls to divine love, were not experiencing the work of angels, but rather the ravages of demons in disguise. So how then, asks Moshe Sluhovsky, were practitioners of exorcism to distinguish demonic from divine possessions?
Drawing on unexplored accounts of mystical schools and spiritual techniques, testimonies of the possessed, and exorcism manuals, Believe Not Every Spirit examines how early modern Europeans dealt with this dilemma. The personal experiences of practitioners, Sluhovsky shows, trumped theological knowledge. Worried that this could lead to a rejection of Catholic rituals, the church reshaped the meaning and practices of exorcism, transforming this healing rite into a means of spiritual interrogation. In its efforts to distinguish between good and evil, the church developed important new explanatory frameworks for the relations between body and soul, interiority and exteriority, and the natural and supernatural.
“Believe Not Every Spirit achieves something very rare—it gives entirely new shape to a vast historical subject. Encompassing the spiritual and physical dimensions of Catholic religiosity and the divine and diabolic causalities at work in both, it reinterprets the myriad experiences and beliefs of visionaries, mystics, demoniacs, exorcists, and inquisitors over three centuries. The key to Moshe Sluhovsky’s ambitious and compelling argument is the concept of the discernment of spirits, in his hands both a sophisticated hermeneutics for the reading of religious texts and arguments and a key to understanding the lives of individual men and women in states of possession. This is a sensitive, compassionate, and profoundly original book.”
"A highly stimulating and enjoyable read. Extensively researched, clearly written, and carefully argued, Believe Not Every Spirit is the definitive study of early modern possession and discernment."
PART ONE: POSSESSION AND EXORCISM
1: Trivializing Possession
2: The Prevalence of Mundane Practice
3: From Praxis to Prescribed Ritual
PART TWO: MYSTICISM
4: La Spiritualité à la Mode
5: Contemplation, Possession, and Sexual Misconduct
PART THREE: DISCERNMENT
6: Anatomy of the Soul
7: Discerning Women
PART FOUR: INTERSECTIONS
8: The Devil in the Convent