Female body possession stories

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This article reassesses the role of gender in early modern demonic possession from a medical perspective. It takes as its starting point the demoniac Richard Mainy, who in claimed to be suffering from hysteria. While medical historians have viewed hysteria as the key possession-related illness, epilepsy was equally important.

Both were seen as convulsive illnesses caused by an excess of reproductive fluids. Emphasizing the similarities rather than the differences between male and female sexuality, this shared etiology underpinned medical approaches to demonic possession. Up to the close of the last century, studies of early modern demonic possession were dominated by psychoanalytic perspectives, and it seems fair to say that such perspectives are more than usually likely to produce an association between possession and the female body.

More recent studies have reached the same conclusion as de Certeau from a different and more strictly historicist angle. Nancy Caciola and Moshe Sluhovsky both agree that possession was linked to femininity but trace this link to premodern medical concepts of gender rather than twentieth-century psychiatric ones. Yet the assertions of these historicist scholars are interestingly close to those of the psychoanalytic studies that preceded them. A similar trend has been apparent in medical historiography. After Laqueur sensationally claimed that the premodern era lacked a binary concept of gender, a series of major studies devoted themselves to reassessing, and to some extent rebuilding, the anatomical and physiological premises of early modern sexual difference.

Much of this work has focused on medical writings on womb diseases. But they have also, it might be argued, subtly confirmed it, by emphasizing the extent to which the womb was indeed viewed as a potent source of mental and physical illnesses that were unique to women. This article takes as its starting point a series of early modern exorcisms that challenge these premises. For them, the possessions Female body possession stories Richard Mainy and Sara Williams would have presented a reminder of the similarities rather than the differences between the sexes, and the different but related kinds of plenitude—sexual, humoral, demonic—that affected both.

The Denham exorcisms were conducted by a group of Catholic seminary priests, led by Father William Weston, from to They took place principally at the house of Edmund Peckham, a recusant who was sheltering Weston and his colleagues. These were Richard Mainy, a Catholic and former probationer who had recently abandoned his order, and three servants, two of whom were sisters: Sara and Fid Williams and Ann Smith. The statements were gathered under coercion by ecclesiastical commissioners in andsome fifteen years after the exorcisms.

Suffocation of the womb was an ancient disease concept described by Avicenna and Galen and widely known in early modern medicine. As the vapors passed through the lungs and throat, they caused a characteristic choking sensation that gave the disease its name. The case of Richard Mainy and the Denham exorcisms, then, raises a key question: how can a man have suffocation of the womb? Maynie had. One would expect much more polemical play with the fact that both the owner of the house and its chief demoniac, one a recusant priest-harborer and the other a runaway trainee priest, ludicrously claim to suffer from a disease of women.

In both, the topic appears to be the difference between natural illness and possession, rather than that between male and female illnesses. There is one saith hee to the deuill as it was pretended that hath the Mother, what sayest thou to him? The deuill aunswereth, that is a Mother indeed. So heereby they would makes it plaine, that it was not the Mother that I was troubled with. But the priest goeth forward saying, was there any spirit cast out of him? An exchange that Mainy describes on the following tends to confirm this reading.

The same holds for the small of early modern texts that respond to the Declaration. These responses are all the more striking in view of the fact that Mainy himself offers an alternative diagnosis that ought, in terms of gender, to be more plausible. Yet neither Harsnett nor any of the early modern texts that refer to the Declaration ever mentions this momentary self-correction. The reason may be that, like him, they viewed the difference as relatively trivial. In early modern medicine, vertigo and suffocation of the womb were closely related, and the similarities between them can help to explain the kinds of womb that early modern men Female body possession stories possess.

The disease I spake of, was a spice of the Mother … whether I doe rightly terme it the Mother or no, I know not. It riseth as he said, and I haue often felt of a wind in the bottome of the belly, and proceeding with a great swelling, causeth a very painfull collicke in the stomack, and an extraordinary giddines in the head. This looks like a garbled translation. With this transmission history, it comes as little surprise to find some slip of terms.

Those shifts were more than just a matter of names. Medical writers who likened the womb to a sewer were thus not simply indulging in misogyny, though they may have been doing that as Female body possession stories. Like the guts, the womb was an organ of excretion. This nexus between womb and digestive tract was also apparent in the discourses and descriptions of demonic possession.

One typical variety of exorcism formula, in which each part of the body is addressed in turn, can use venter to mean womb or stomach; Caciola gives an example in which both seem to be implied. Bellies were of particular ificance in exorcism because possession often manifested itself through swelling in this area. In possessed women, and sometimes men, this swollen belly was often compared to pregnancy.

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As Caciola has shown, however, demons, being naturally drawn to excrement, also tended to inhabit the guts. Since wombs were also a place of excretion, bellies had a twofold attraction in this respect, and the precise organ in which a belly-demon had taken up residence might not always be clear. Like Batman vpon Bartholomethese examples show digestive and reproductive organs trading places. The affinity between these organs was equally well marked in early modern medicine. This important model of disease causation linked the two conditions, vertigo and suffocation of the womb, with which Richard Mainy claimed to have been diagnosed.

We have already seen how suffocation of the womb was caused by an accumulation of fluids within the womb. Over time these would degenerate to give off toxic vapors that rose through the heart and lungs to the brain, causing the characteristic symptoms of choking, convulsions, and unconsciousness.

Vertigo vertiginem is the accusative form possessed a similar etiology. Unlike today, when it is regarded mostly as a symptom, vertigo in premodern medicine was an important illness in its own right. It was believed to occur in two ways. In the first, the disease-causing matter was present in the head itself; in the second, it was contained in the stomach, in the shape of poorly digested food, and the illness occurred through the common mechanism of vapors rising to the brain. Vertigo and suffocation of the womb were both diseases that made people fall.

But the similarities did not end there. While vertigo was frequently caused by the stomach, it could also sometimes be caused by the womb; in this case, the etiology was the same as that of suffocation of the womb, with fluids in the womb generating the toxic vapors. Blurring the boundaries still Female body possession stories, vertigo was also sometimes described as a symptom of suffocation of the womb, rather than a disease in its own right.

While I have not found other early modern cases of this type, a medieval text reprinted in the sixteenth century suggests that this one was more than an isolated incident. This work suggests that suffocation of the womb and vertigo, each linked to supernatural phenomena, are male and female versions of the same illness:. Suffocation of the womb … is caused when corrupt and venomous vapours emanate from the womb. From this infirmity … vertigo [arises], and this is caused by corrupt vapours raised up toward the head.

You might say, since this [also] happens in men, how do they contract it? Sometimes women have this problem as well, so they can experience vertigo either because of their stomach or because of their womb. For this writer, vertigo may occur in women as a Female body possession stories of suffocation of the womb, or in both sexes because of the stomach; in either case it comes about through the mechanism of vapors rising from these belly organs, which also cause visions of demons. The source is the De secretis mulierum attributed to Albertus Magnus; this text was well known in the early modern period, although the parts of the passage just quoted that discuss male vertigo appear to be extant in only one edition.

Instead, it points to the need to understand apparently gendered illnesses such as suffocation of the womb in broader terms. For the underlying phenomenon, the larger disease category of which both suffocation of the womb and vertigo could be viewed as species, was the falling sickness itself: epilepsy, with which suffocation of the womb had a long and close historical relationship.

It ariseth up in his stomach as if it would stop his winde. But suffocation of the womb and epilepsy from the womb appeared particularly similar, since in both convulsions were a key symptom. But the two illnesses were clearly linked. Vertigo was a third partner in this triangular relationship. Vertigo, epilepsy, and suffocation of the womb were thus closely linked. Betwixt common Falling-sickness and Convulsions and fits of the Mother, many times is little difference.

In Epilepsies some turn round as in a Vertigo, and then fall, and then have heavings of their Breast, as in Hystericks. But both Galenic and more Hippocratically minded writers agreed that these were conditions that possessed a natural affinity. Subtending this relationship was the association of all three illnesses with demonic possession. Walker have argued, epilepsy was the key illness here. This became widely cited, appearing as something of a staple in early Female body possession stories demonological texts. Like the numerous and well-publicized English examples of possessed boys, it complicates the assumption that possession was bound up with femininity.

In a possessed woman, Margaret Byrom, described her symptoms in similar terms:. When her belly slaked there went out of hir mouth a coulde breath … then plumpte it downe into her body like a colde longe whetstone.

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This might be suffocation of the womb, epilepsy from the womb, or epilepsy from the stomach. In an age before the scan, it could be hard to pinpoint exactly which belly organ might be the culprit. But these are not the only ways in which a gendered complaint like suffocation of the womb could cross the lines of early modern sexual difference. This is because the principal cause of this illness was not the womb itself, but Female body possession stories substance it produced: a substance that early moderns associated with masculinity and femininity alike.

This was semen, or seed, as English texts of the period usually refer to it. At this date, the organs we know as ovaries were usually understood as female testicles, which were considered to be a part of the womb. These produced a semen, which, though often qualified as weaker or more dilute, was seen as fundamentally similar to its male equivalent. As well as the masculine lust disease satyriasis—the male equivalent of furor uterinus —both vertigo and epilepsy could also be caused in this way.

Epilepsy was particularly ificant in this respect. This was an illness that could be caused by sexual excess as well as abstinence; implicitly, moderation was key. The link with sexual abstinence was particularly strong for women, since epilepsy from the womb was caused by retained seed or menses, in identical fashion to its sibling ailment suffocation of the womb.

But toxic seed could also cause epilepsy in men.

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For some writers, the purpose of the fit was to expel the harmful substance that was causing the illness, so if seed was expelled it was also likely to be the cause. A similar logic was applied in suffocation of the womb; even if the masturbatory cure was not employed, the end of the fit was believed to be marked by a spontaneous expulsion of female seed, the causative agent.

Epilepsy was also linked to seed in a different way.

Female body possession stories

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Taking: A Body Possession Story Collection