Exorcism and Enlightenment
Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany
by H.C. Erik Midelfort
Yale University, 240 pp., $35
THIS OFTEN RIVETING BOOK IS a micro-historical study of credulity and reason in the German Enlightenment of the late 18th century. H.C. Erik Midelfort's subject is a short, balding, rotund Roman Catholic priest named Johann Joseph Gassner (1727-1779), who conducted spectacular and controversial exorcisms in southern Germany between 1760 and 1776.
Plagued by head aches and fainting spells early in his career whenever he had to preach or say Mass, and finding no relief in contemporary medicine, Gassner developed his own personal cure. Convinced that his ailments were caused by the devil, he invoked the Name of Jesus and privately, over time, cured himself. Like Ignatius of Loyola, who extended to others "spiritual exercises" he invented to control the pain of wounds received in youthful battle, Gassner, who studied with the Jesuits, applied his personal techniques to "thousands and tens of thousands" of lay patients who sought his blessing and cure.
In the 1760s, his patients were the biblically afflicted: epileptics, the crippled, and the blind. By the peak years of his healing, 1774-1776, he treated any and all natural illnesses as demonic. In Gassner's doing so, Midelfort sees the famous exorcist accommodating the Enlightenment, whose thinkers rationalized and internalized previously transcendent religious realities and forces, deeming them all to be subjective projections of what man was, or wanted to be.
Regardless of the patient's ailment, Gassner's procedure was first to confirm the presence of the devil or a demon. Commanding both demon and patient to "move the pain around" in the patient's body, he taught the patient to associate suffering with demonic possession. From there it was a logical, and vital, step for the patient to cast out the devil, and heal himself, as Gassner had learned to do in his youth. The procedure was not so far from the traditional Sacrament of Baptism, wherein the priest, after blowing into the eyes of the infant, marking its forehead with the cross of Christ, inserting a pinch of salt in its mouth, and dabbing a mixture of sputum and dirt in its ears, commanded the devil to flee the infant and make room for the Holy Spirit.
Although his enemies feared Gassner would revive witchcraft and the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries, he denied that witches had human agency and that demonic possession was supernatural behavior, "naturalizing" both in the spirit of the Enlightenment. Because he viewed the devil as an integrated part of the natural world, he could comfortably trace any human illness to him.
Gassner's downfall began in the summer of 1774, after he began a curing tour of upper Swabia. Between November 1774 and June 1775, he exorcised thousands in the city of Ellwangen, northeast of Stuttgart. By this point people came to his revivals not only to be healed, but also for "proof that traditional, unenlightened Catholicism still had some fight left."
The great tour drew the scrutiny of enlightened skeptics in the church and the universities. One standout was Franz Anton Mesmer, healer to the rich and famous, after whom Mesmerism is named. He claimed he could manipulate by touch and concentration an occult magnetic fluid in living creatures, so-called "animal magnetism," and by doing so, improve health. Describing his more popular rival as unscientific, he accused Gassner of the sincerest flattery by attributing his successes to his having stumbled, unbeknown, upon animal magnetism.
Although more people left Gassner's revivals uncured than cured, the Catholic laity loved him. Among the high Catholic officials of state and church, it was a very different story. Accused of exploiting the poor, threatening civil peace, and bringing the church "under a cloud of Enlightened ridicule," Emperor Joseph II and Pope Pius VI moved independently to defeat him totally. In November 1775 the emperor ended a popular mission in Regensburg, and in April 1776 the pope condemned him for failing to follow the church's ritual on exorcism. Forced off the healing circuit, he was confined to a small parish, where he performed only private exorcisms under watchful eyes.
Why would a distinguished modern scholar like Midelfort become enamored of an 18th-century Catholic exorcist, whom he praises as having had the "best empirical evidence" and arguments "at least as persuasive" as those of the geniuses of the Enlightenment? The apparent answer is a refreshing one: Midelfort believes Gassner had the truer insight into historic human nature.
"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.