Demon Possession in Anglo‐Saxon and Early Modern England: Continuity and Evolution in Social Context
By Richard Raiswell and Peter Dendle
Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47 (2008)
Introduction: Sometime between around 687 and 700, a distraught father brought his raving son, in a wagon, to the island of Lindisfarne, where the holy relics of Saint Cuthbert were kept. According to the author of the Life of Cuthbert, the boy, wearied by the torments of a demon, was prone to succumb to bouts of screaming, weeping, and self-mutilation. A priest named Tydi had been unable to put the demon to ﬂight, so he advised the father to transport his son to the relics. At that point, “Many people despaired of being able to secure any remedy for the miserable boy, but a certain man of good and pure faith who was moved to pity, placing his trust in God and entreating the help of St. Cuthbert, blessed some holy water and sprinkled in it some dirt from the ditch in which had been poured the bath water of the body of our holy bishop after his death. Once tried the holy water, he desisted from his babbling that night.”
Almost a thousand years later, an Essex teenager named Katheren Malpas was likewise adjudged to be sorely afflicted by demons. According to the testimony her grandparents gave in Star Chamber, Katheren’s torments began on Candlemas Eve, 1621, presaged by several bouts of hideous screaming that left her lame. Over the subsequent months, Katheren often appeared tosuccumb to terrible ﬁts that seemed all the more horrifying to those whosaw her, by virtue of their violence and the fact that they rendered her completely insensible. According to her mother, Katheren’s condition was such that she:
would drawe her hands togeath[e]r at other tymes . . . woulde holde her in her heade & make her heade shake as though she were trobled w[i]th the palsey & diverstymes when the ﬁtts tok her she would fome att the mouth & shrike verie fearfully att other tymes it would draw her belly ﬂatt to her backe & woulde drawe downe her shoulder bones & some tymes when the ﬁtt did tak her her legges woulde turne backwards & be verie stiffe & at other tymes she woulde be stretched out & be soe stiffe that her whuole woulde not bend w[i]th out breakeinge.
On the evidence of these strange and wondrous torments, Katheren’s family asserted that she was the victim of demons who had taken physical possession of her body.
Although separated by almost a millennium, these two cases struck contemporaries as terrifying, in part at least because they participated in a venerable discourse about possession, whose metaphysical reality was ﬁrmly anchored in the New Testament. According to the account in Mark’s gospel, demoniacs would most typically manifest their appalling malady through a course of strange and violent ﬁts: they would tear at themselves and collapse to the ground, often wallowing or foaming at the mouth. Some, the evangelist further notes, were so sorely afﬂicted by their possessors that they were moved to suicide, attempting to put an end to their torments by throwing themselves into ﬁre or water (Mark 9:17–29).