The Magazine

The Miracle Cure

What an exorcist knew about human nature.

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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"Demonic possession," he writes, "actually 'made sense' in the late 18th century and [Gassner's] conceptual framework of demons provided a way of understanding evil, sickness, and hardship in a structure we have mostly dismantled, but for which we have not really found any substitute." Gassner effectively "taught tormented people to intensify and then to dismiss their pains themselves," a boot strapping philosophy for the worst of times.

Midelfort, whose previous work has explored the humane side of the history of illness and madness, also expresses the historian's fear of being "censured by modernity into leaping to a ready-made, modern, medical-psychiatric explanation [that] prevents the historian from hearing what all his historical subjects are talking about."

Midelfort reminds us that we still live in a world where some believe in demons and miracles, while others see an orderly, disenchanted process. He also reminds historians that they do not have to choose between these two worlds--an appropriate reminder after having demonstrated how interesting a historian's work can be when he doesn't.

One may add that the reader also need not choose between these two worlds. In a life where sin, death, and the devil seem so often to have the upper hand, one surely forsakes transcendence at great peril. That was what the great 18th-century exorcist Gassner knew.

Steven Ozment is McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard and the author, most recently, of A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.