Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 3420
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Sluhovsky , Moshe.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: The Devil in the Convent
  • Source: American Historical Review 107, 5 (December 2002): Pages 1378 - 1411.
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Journal Article
  • Subject (See Also): Demoniac Possession Discernment of Spirits, Determining Whether a Holy Person was Inspired by Jesus Christ or by the Devil Ecclesiastical Reform Exorcism Gender Monasticism Mystics Nuns Sexuality Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: General
  • Century: 14- 15- 16- 17- 18
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  • Illustrations: One figure. Figure One Woodcut showing an exorcism performed on a woman by a priest and an assistant. A demon emerges from her mouth. From Pierre Boaistuau et al., "Histoires prodigieuses et memorables, extraictes de plusieurs fameux autheurs, Grecs & Latins, sacrez & prophanes (Paris, 1598).
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  • Abstract: Moshe Sluhovsky examines the relations between group diabolic possession in late medieval and early modern convents and changes in female spirituality. He argues that, rather than associating demonic possession with the witch craze, we should think of it as a fom of ecstatic communication with the supernatural. Analyzing more than fifty cases of group possession in convents, Sluhovsky informs us that only five cases led to witchcraft accusations and most ended in secrecy within the convent walls. Group possessions in convents resulted, he maintains, from psychological and spiritual tension within monastic communities. Late medieval and early modern nuns lived within a contradictory set of expectations. They were trying to negotiate activism with enclosure, individuality with communality, and normative behavior with exceptional spiritual achievements. The tensions that resulted from these contradictory goals led to a heightened sense of anxiety and suspicion. Wishing for God but most likely encountering the devil, late medieval and early modern nuns were educated to always suspect their own spiritual quest. The devil, after all, was known for his ability to disguise himself as an angel of light. Sluhovsky contends, therefore, that the exact nature of the possessing agency was not automatically clear to the nuns themselves, their mother superiors, or the male theologians and exorcists who examined them. Once exorcists and theologians decided that a woman was possessed by demons rather than by God, the nuns themselves were easily persuaded to participate in the reshaping of their experience into a narrative of diabolic possession. This enabled their reintegration into the community and put an end to their suffering and self-doubts. Sluhovsky's analysis is a compelling example of the benefits of subjecting a complex experience to multiple explanations. [Reproduced by permission of the American Historical Association.]
  • Author's Affiliation: Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2002.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00028762
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