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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.

384 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Gender and Sexuality

History: European History

Medieval Studies

Religion: Christianity

Women's Studies


“Moshe Sluhovsky’s fascinating study links spirit possession, exorcism, and mystical practice in early modern Europe. Women and men, healers and priestly exorcisers are caught up in a new quest for truth and introspection as they try to figure out whether these dramas of body and soul come from the devil or God. A stunning feat of scholarship and interpretation.”

Natalie Zemon Davis, University of Toronto

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.”

Stuart Clark, University of Wales, Swansea

Believe Not Every Spirit offers a new and fruitful approach to the problem of spirit possession in early modern Europe. While a number of historians have written about the dramatic cases of demonic possession that troubled European convents, none has addressed why, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the diagnosis of demonic possession was attached with increasing frequency to spiritually minded women. This is the problem that Moshe Sluhovsky takes up, and he does so with great success.”

Barbara Diefendorf, Boston University

"This is a very scholarly book. It is a model of how an important element of a religious tradition needs to be examined. It is highly recommended not only for its content but also for its method."

Lucien J. Richard | Catholic Library World

"This study of mysticism and possession in early modern Europe is a model of scrupulous scholarship, not only on account of its detailed scrutiny of a very complex historical literature in half a dozen languages, but on account of its refusal to apply reductive frameworks at the expense of the integrity of the data."

Daid Martin | Books and Culture

"Sluhovsky has written an excellent study of possession and mysticism in early modern European Catholicism. His elegantly written and clearly argued book . . . points scholars in some new directions in understanding the meaning of demonic possession."

Marc R. Forster | H-Net

"A sprawling, energetic, deeply researched book, one that glides happily to and fro among salacious tidbits and big historiographical assertions. . . . One of the book’s major objectives, thoroughly achieved, is to persuade us that early modern people widely if not uniformly accepted spirits, good and evil, as routine participants in their daily lives. . . . The entire book merits close reading by a wide audience interested in the history of Western Christianity."

Rudolph M. Bell | AAR Book Reviews

"An exceptional piece of historical scholarship and highly recommended for historians of early modern Catholicism."

Robert Fastiggi | The Historian

"Highly recommended for researchers of French and Roman early modern Catholic demonology."

Gordon James Klingenschmitt | Religious Studies Review

"Any short summary can give only a limited account of the argument presented in this well-documented, rigorously historicized, ambitious, and thought-provoking contribution to the cultural history of antinomian spirituality."

Susan Rosa | Journal of Modern History

"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."

Nancy Caciola | Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft

Table of Contents


Acknowledgements ix
Introduction 1


1: Trivializing Possession
2: The Prevalence of Mundane Practice
3: From Praxis to Prescribed Ritual


4: La Spiritualité à la Mode
5: Contemplation, Possession, and Sexual Misconduct


6: Anatomy of the Soul
7: Discerning Women


8: The Devil in the Convent
9: Conclusions


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