The Devils of Loudun Page 55

It is worth remarking parenthetically that Paracelsus, the greatest of the early anti-Galenists, owed his enthusiasm for antimony to a false analogy. “Just as antimony purifies gold and leaves no slag in it, in the same form and shape it purifies the human body.”1 The same kind of false analogy between the arts of the metal-worker and the alchemist on the one hand and the arts of the doctor and dietician on the other led to the belief that the value of foods increased with their increasing refinement—that white bread was better than brown, that a much-stewed bouillon was superior to the unconcentrated meats and vegetables of which it was composed. It was assumed that ‘coarse’ foods coarsened the people who ate them. “Cheese, milk and oatcakes,” Paracelsus says, “cannot give one a subtle disposition.” It was only with the isolation of the vitamins, a generation ago, that the old false analogies with alchemy ceased to play havoc with our theories of diet.

The existence of a well-developed medical treatment of ‘melancholy’ was in no way incompatible with the existence of a widespread belief, even among the doctors, in the reality of possession and diabolic infestation. Some people, writes Burton, “laugh at all such stories.” But on the opposite side are “most lawyers, divines, physicians, philosophers.” Ben Jonson, in The Devil is an Ass, has left us a vivid description of the seventeenth-century mind, divided between credulity and scepticism, between a reliance on the supernatural (above all in its less creditable aspects) and a bumptious confidence in the new-found powers of applied science. In the play, Fitzdottrel is introduced as a dabbler in the magic arts, who longs to meet with a devil, because devils know the site of hidden treasures. But to this belief in magic and the power of Satan is conjoined a no less powerful belief in the quasi-rational and pseudoscientific schemes of those fraudulent inventors and company promoters whom our fathers called ‘projectors.’ When Fitzdottrel tells his wife that his projector has worked out a plan which will infallibly make him eighteen million pounds and secure him a dukedom, she shakes her head and tells him not to put too much trust “in these false spirits.” “Spirits!” cries Fitzdottrel,

Spirits! O no such thing, wife; wit, mere wit.

This man defies the Devil and all his works.

He does’t by engine and devices, he!

He has his wingéd ploughs that go with sails,

Will plough you forty acres at once! and mills

Will spout you water ten miles off.

However farcically the figure of fun, Fitzdottrel is none the less a truly Representative Man. He stands for a whole epoch, whose intellectual life was straddled insecurely between two worlds. That he tried to make the worst of both worlds, instead of the best, is also sadly typical. For the unregenerate, occultism and ‘projects’ are considerably more attractive than pure science and the worship of God in spirit.

In Burton’s book, as in the history of the nuns of Loudun, these two worlds co-exist and are taken for granted. There is melancholy and there is an approved medical treatment for melancholy. At the same time it is well known that magic and possession are common causes of disease, both of mind and of body. And no wonder! For “not so much as an hair-breadth empty in heaven, earth, or waters, above or under the earth. The air is not so full of flies in summer as it is at all times of invisible devils; this Paracelsus stiffly maintains, and that they have every one their several Chaos.” The number of these spirits must be infinite; “for if that be true that some of our Mathematicians say: if a stone could fall from the starry heaven or eighth sphere, and should pass every hour an hundred miles, it would be 65 years, or more, before it would come to ground, by reason of the great distance of heaven from earth, which contains, as some say, 170 million 803 miles . . . how many such spirits may it contain?” In the circumstances, the truly surprising thing was not the fact of an occasional possession, but the fact that most people could go through life without becoming demoniacs.


We have seen that the plausibility of the hypothesis of possession was exactly proportionate to the inadequacy of a physiology without cell-structure or chemistry, and of a psychology which took practically no account of mental activity on subconscious levels. Once universal, belief in possession is entertained at the present time only by Roman Catholics and Spiritists. The latter explain certain phenomena of the séanceroom in terms of the temporary possession of the medium’s organism by the surviving psyche of some dead human being. The former deny possession by departed souls, but explain certain cases of mental and physical derangement in terms of possession by devils, certain psycho-physical accompaniments of mystical or pre-mystical states in terms of possession by some divine agency.

There is nothing, so far as I can see, self-contradictory in the idea of possession. The notion is not one to be ruled out a priori, on the ground that it is “a relic of ancient superstition.” It should be treated rather as a working hypothesis, which may be cautiously entertained in any case where other forms of explanation are found to be inadequate to the facts. In practice modern exorcists seem to be agreed that most cases of suspected possession are in fact due to hysteria and can best be treated by the standard methods of psychiatry. In a few instances, however, they find evidence of something more than hysteria and assert that only exorcism and the casting out of the possessing spirit can effect a cure.

Possession of a medium’s organism by the discarnate spirit, or ‘psychic factor,’ of defunct human beings has been invoked to explain certain phenomena, such as evidential scripts and utterances, for which it would otherwise be difficult to account. The earlier evidence for such possession may be conveniently studied in F. W. H. Myers’s Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, the more recent in Mr. G. N. M. Tyrell’s The Personality of Man.

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