Demonic Possessions and Mental Illness: Discussion of selected cases in Late Medieval Hagiographical Literature

in Early Science and Medicine
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During the Middle Ages, demonic possession constituted an explanation for an erratic behavior in society. Exorcism was the treatment generally applied to demoniacs and seems to have caused some alleviation in the suffering of mentally distressed people. We have selected and analyzed some cases of demonic possession from thirteenth-century hagiographical literature. In the description of demoniacs we have been able to find traits of psychotic, mood, neurotic, personality disorders and epilepsy. The exorcisms analyzed in our article are the result of literary invention more than the description of a contemporary event. Nevertheless, the writers were witnesses of their time, transferred their knowledge about exorcism and possession in their narrative and presumably incorporated their actual experience with demoniacs.

Demonic Possessions and Mental Illness: Discussion of selected cases in Late Medieval Hagiographical Literature

in Early Science and Medicine




SorensenPossession53. This method was also applied thereafter; e.g. at the end of the fifteenth century the painter Hugo van der Goes suffered a breakdown and wanted to commit suicide. The diagnosis was that it was the same morbus that affected king Saul; therefore it was ordered to make lots of music for him to recover see Erik H. C. Midelfort A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Stanford 1999) 26. Music was a therapy used in Antiquity to cure several kinds of mental illnesses related to melancholia see Raymond Klibansky Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl Saturno y la melancolía (Madrid 2011) 68–69 (originally in English Saturn and Melancholy 1964).


Sorensen Possession53–55 80–100 104–107 121.


Grey Cam“Demoniacs, Dissent and Disempowerment in the Late Roman West: Some Case Studies from the Hagiographical Literature,” Journal of Early Christian Studies13 (2005) 45–47; Marek Tamm “Saints and the Demoniacs: Exorcistic Rites in Medieval Europe (11th-13th centuries)” Folklore 23 (2003) 7–8.


Michele Bacci“Imaginariae repraesentationes: l’iconografia evangelica e il pio esercizio della memoria,” in Iconografia evangelica a Siena: dalle origine al Concilio di Trento (Siena 2009) 6–25; Michael Camille Gothic Art: Glorious Visions (New York 1996) 104–118; Lester K. Little Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (New York 1978) 35–41. Only in 1614 was the rite for exorcism regulated. This was due to the growing association of uncontrolled exorcism with black magic see Moshe Sluhovsky Believe not Every Spirit. Possession Mysticism & Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago 2007) 14–17 36–38 61–63.


Chave-MahirUne parole146–156 218–226. Sometimes remedies were a bit more exotic like the formula advised by Hildegard of Bingen that required seven priests of pure soul representing the patriarchs that offered sacrifices to God – Abel Noah Abraham Melchizedek Jakob Aaron and Christ as the ultimate sacrifice – to talk directly to the demon and order him to leave the body of his host in the name of God see ibid. 226–231.


CaciolaDiscerning Spirits44–48.


St. BonaventureThe Life of St. Francis134. For the use of the Eucharist in exorcisms see Chave-Mahir Une parole 338–339.


See Barbara Newman“Possessed by the Spirit: Devout Women, Demoniacs, and the Apostolic Life in the Thirteenth Century,” Speculum 73 (1998) 733–770; Caciola Discerning Spirits; Sarah Ferber Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (London 2004); and Sluhovsky Believe not Every Spirit. Even though Chave-Mahir admits that the legends of the life of St. Francis mention an equal number of male and female demoniacs she states that it possessedness was mainly a female condition following Caciola’s work see Chave-Mahir Une parole 313. Other recent studies that deal with demonic possession in later periods don’t include gender issues as the primary concern see Midelfort A History of Madness; idem Exorcism and Enlightenment. Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany (New Haven and London 2005); Hilaire Kallen­dorf Exorcism and Its Texts: Subjectivity in Early Modern Literature of England and Spain (Toronto 2003); Philip C. Almond Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England: Contemporary Texts and Their Cultural Contexts (Cambridge 2004).


W. H. Trethowan“Exorcism: A Psychiatric Viewpoint,” Journal of Medical Ethics2 (1976) 127–137; 129 131.


Diego E. Londoño“La Folie à deux, une entité confuse,” L’évolution psychiatrique75 (2010) 533–548. Usually the psychotic belief arises in just one person who imposes it on the second. Less frequently a delusional belief may occur simultaneously in two individuals who then enrich each other’s psychosis; see Sadock Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry 1621.


A. N. G. Clark; G. D. Mankikar; I. Gray“Diogenes Syndrome: A Clinical Study of Gross Neglect in Old Age,” The Lancet305 (1975) 366–368.


Sadock Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry1710.


Fernando Gutiérrez Baños“El retablo de San Cristóbal,” Boletín del Museo del Prado46 (2010) 14–19.


SluhovskyBelieve not Every Spirit49–59; Tamm “Saints and Demoniacs” 16–17.


CaciolaDiscerning Spirits43.


In 1994Samuel Pfeifer found that out of a sample of 343 psychiatric patients in Switzerland that described themselves as religious 129 (37.6 %) believed that their mental distress could be caused by possession of evils spirits. Among them 104 (30.3 %) had sought help through “prayers for deliverance” and exorcism. In the group of patients who believed in occult causality 25% met criteria for a psychotic disorder 22% for a mood disorder 21% for an anxiety disorder 19% for a personality disorder and 13% for a personality disorder; see Samuel Pfeifer “Belief in Demons and Exorcism in Psychiatric Patients in Switzerland” British Journal of Medical Psychology 67 (1994) 247–258. More recently Kazuhiro Tajima-Pozo et al. discuss the case report of a 28 year-old patient in Spain who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The patient was led to believe by Catholic priests in Madrid that the symptoms were due to the presence of a demon and therefore several exorcisms were practiced to release him of the demon see Kazuhiro Tajima-Pozo et al. “Practicing Exorcism in Schizophrenia” BMJ Case Reports 2011 14.


See Harld J. Koening and David B. Larson“Religion and Mental Health: Evidence for an Association,” International Review of Psychiatry13 (2001) 67–68.


  • View in gallery
    Master of Bardi Chapel: St. Francis altarpiece (Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence), mid-thirteenth century. Detail: St. Francis helped by a friar companion expels three demons from a woman. (Courtesy of Santa Croce Church and Museum Florence, Italy)
  • View in gallery
    Unknown artist: St. Christopher altarpiece (Prado Museum, Madrid), late thirteenth century. Detail: St. Aemilian as an exorcist. (Courtesy of Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain)

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    Jaume Huguet: Post-mortem exorcism of Saint Vincent (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya). mid-fifteenth century (Courtesy Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain)

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