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In medieval society one of the main functions of a saint was healing
Similarly to Christ, whose contemporaries were awed by
his ability to cure the sick, the medieval saint was expected to have
an ability to perform miraculous healings.
Hagiographic literature
clearly indicates that health was the most called for miracle: people
turned to saints not as much for the blessing of soul but because of
physical ailments (Vauchez 1998: 46–47; Sigal 1985: 227–264)

Exorcising the demoniac played a significant role among the remedial
procedures of a saint. Firstly, it was the most spectacular evidence
of the saint’s magical powers: in medieval times exorcism
was the conditio sine qua non of sanctity.
Secondly, as I will indicate below, those demoniacs
at an early age were regarded as reliable
witnesses of the presence of sanctity: demon, who was forced by the
saint to affirm his powers through the voice of the possessed, was
an influential authority to a medieval man.

In practising exorcism a saint was also involved in the general struggle
against Satan.
The body of a possessed formed a sort of a battlefield
between the forces of heaven and hell.

Every single act of exorcism performed by a saint
was a part of the eternal struggle between
Satan and God (Dinzelbacher 1989: 669–675).

Following the tradition of Gospels, the earliest life stories of saints
(vitae) discuss numerous incidents of exorcism.
In the Life of St. Anthony, written down by Athanasius ,
the Egyptian saint freed many possessed from under the
Satan’s malignant influence, Sulpitius Severus
describes three episodes of exorcism in
his Vita sancti Martini, and finally,
Pope Gregory the Great
in his Dialogi accounts numerous stories of exorcism, which we will
encounter in recent hagiographic and sermonic literature.

The vitae of the 12th–13th century saints were therefore no exception
to this tradition:there hardly existed a hagiographic text from
this period that did not mention exorcism.
Main changes occurredon the narrative level:
in the second half of the 12th century the
descriptions of exorcistic episodes became more detailed, which was
very rarely the case in earlier periods (cf. Newman 1998, Caciola

Typologically, the exorcism performed by the saints was known as
charismatic exorcism.
While clerics used solely liturgical formulae
to expel evil spirits (the sc. liturgical type of exorcism), then a saint
conquered demon with its charismatic powers (Latin virtus) (Goddu:
1980: 543).
In the present article I will briefly introduce the main
characteristics of charismatic exorcism in the High Middle Ages.

In medieval times the relations between the saints and demons
were often depicted as very personal: each saint had his own demon
with whom he constantly contended. A very well known topos in
hagiographic literature is demon’s unwillingness to leave the body
of the possessed before a certain saint is summoned.
Hagiographers attached great importance to demon’s
such preference:
this is a supernatural evidence of a certain saint’s authority
over the forcesof evil.
This approach was definitely derived from the New Testament,
where the demons were often considered the first who acknowledged
Christ as the Son of God (Mark 3:11, Luke 4:41).
Demon’s personal preferences among the exorcists were known already
in the Early Middle Ages;

in the High Middle Ages it became
even more widespread.

An illustrative example is accounted in the
12th century Vita Erminoldi abbatis Pruveningensis.

After the priest’s vain attempts to adjure demon, the latter stated through
the victim: “I am not moved by your words or your chatter; I will
save my exit for Erminold, for he has the powers to expel me.”
People are very surprised at this statement and ask demon:
“Who is this Erminold? We don’t know him.”
But there is also someone at the church who thinks
he knows who demon is talking about and
tells the others about the miraculous powers of St. Erminold. In
response, demon confirms: “He is the one I was talking about.”

The motif appears most frequently in the wondrous post-mortem
deeds of saints.
A demon’s recognition played an important role inburial place.
Vita S. Anastasii (ca 1100–1120), for example, relates
about a virgin maiden possessed by several demons, who “was taken
to the graves of many saints, so that she could regain her health.
But one of the demons then said that they will not leave the maiden’s
body until it is taken on the grave of St. Anastasius the Confessor.”
When the possessed was then taken to the Anastasius’ grave,
the demons began ailing, thus demonstrating proof about the mightiness
of the saint:

Why do you burn us, Anastasius? Stop torturing us and we will
leave; stop flogging us and we will let the possessed body be. We
have been taken to the remains of many saints, but nowhere have
we been flogged like that; only you burn us, only you torture us,
only you hurt us.

Michael Goodich has demonstrated on the example of St. Joachim
Piccolimini the significant role of demon’s recognition in the posthumous
career of a saint. St. Joachim’s tomb had fallen into the
oblivion, because no miracles took place.
On Pentecost in 1310
a woman possessed by demon entered the cloister, where Joachim’s
grave was situated, and through her mouth demon shouted: “The
time has now come for me to exit, and for Christianella’s liberation.”
When the priest asked demon why other saints had not expelled
him, the demoniac approached Joachim’s tomb, saying: “Because
God has reserved this miracle for this saint.” Largely owing
to the described event, St. Joachim’s tomb became a popular destination
for pilgrimages (Goodich 1995: 75).

Unlike liturgical exorcism that was already regulated in the 7th–
8th century (Franz 1909: 532; Kelly 1977: 115), charismatic exorcism
was largely based on improvisation all through the Middle
Medieval saints, however, were not expected to invent new
methods for exorcism; it sufficed to imitate the gestures of Christ.

All incidents of exorcism in medieval hagiography are clearly reducible
to Christ: the saints adjured demons by His name and following
His example.

In their fight against demons the saints mainly used three most
common means of miraculous healing:
the cross, the prayer and,
less commonly, laying of hands on the victim.
In addition, they used holy water, wine or bread
(Sigal 1985: 23–29).

On single occasions
some more drastic means were used, such as beating the demoniac,
whereas the blows were of course addressed to the demon.

We should also mention that the adjuring formula played an important
role in exorcism as a form of verbal therapy.

The cross sign was one of the most common and convenient means
of expelling the demon. In addition to written reports it is mentioned
in several iconographic sources.
The illustrated vitae of saints from the 11th–13th century
often depict a saint freeing possessed
soul from the demon with a cross sign.

The illustrated manuscript
of Vita S. Radegondis by Fortunatus
describes four incidents
of exorcism, where St. Radegund used a cross sign against
demon on all four occasions.

An excellent example
demonstrating the power of the cross sign can be found in an illustrated
passional (ca 1200)
from Weissenau, depicting the freeing of an old possessed man by St. Leo IX.

Beside other things this illustration is noteworthy because of the saint’s
dignified and static posture opposing to the imbalance and
dynamics of the possessed.

This behavioural dichotomy is clearly intended for emphasising
the saint’s superiority over his opponent.

Holy water was another common means in fighting against demons.
Every saint used it to the best of his abilities. The most common
method was to sprinkle the water on the possessed;
St. Bernard of Clairvaux
for example, used to drip the holy water on the
victims’ lips.
Sometimes, however, the possessed was immersed in
holy water. The acts of canonisation of St. Ivo  reveal that
a demon had left the possessed after the latter had spent the night
in the saint’s bed that had been previously sprinkled with holy water.

Vita S. Cuthberti written by the Venerable Bede
mediates a story about a boy who was possessed by a devil and was
cured by the dirt taken from the place where the water in which St.
Cuthbert’s corpse had been washed had been thrown.
In the early 12th century illustrated manuscript of Vita S. Cuthberti15
this episode is depicted in an miniature.

Here we should note the original iconography of demon:
in this illustration the humansized
demon is not depicted as a traditional little demon exiting
through the mouth of the possessed but has left its victim as if
carried away by an invisible force.

While salt was one of the important components of liturgical exorcism
(Dölger 1909: 92–100; Böcher 1970: 235–238; Schneider 1987:
348–353), the saints hardly ever used it. An interesting example of
salt usage can be found in the vita of Pope Leo IX (ca 1050–1060).
Once, when Leo was praying, a local peasant, whose daughter had
been taken over by demon, came to him and addressed him.
On the peasant’s intense request the Pope agreed to heal the girl.
He found a grain of salt nearby, blessed it and put it in the girl’s mouth:
at this very moment the girl’s mouth started to bleed and she was
freed of demon.

As mentioned above, exorcism is first and foremost a form of verbal
Ever since the New Testament texts the exorcistic ritual
centres on the dialogue with demon, who speaks through the possessed.
Demon’s words are dialogical words.
The main purpose of exorcism, especially in the Early Middle Ages,
was to question the demon about who it was,
where it came from, why it had entered the human, etc.
(Brown 1981: 109; Grässlin 1991: 9–10; Boulhol
1994: 274–276).
During the ritual “the language is both the weapon
and the battlefield,” writes Michel de Certeau (Certeau 1970: 64).

The most important verbal means of exorcism was the word of a
a magic formula, which forced the demon out of the possessed body.

As we have learned, the first formulae of liturgical exorcism
were known in the 7th–8th century.
These were somewhat lengthy addressings during which the demon
was recited most of the life and activities of Christ
(Franz 1909: 559–574; Dölger 1909: 46–48;
Kelly 1977: 115–116).

In charismatic exorcism the formulae are short,
usually consisting of one sentence. The saints, as a rule, ordered
the demons in the name of Christ, not in the name of themselves.
Of course, there are exceptions: Hildegard of Bingen, for
instance, ordered the demons to leave in the following words:
“Leave, Satan, the body of this woman and
make room for the Holy Spirit!”
Traditionally, the exorcistic formula consisted of four components:
the declaration, the address, the invocation and the instruction.

On some occasions the last component may have been omitted.
As Richard Kieckhefer (1997, cf. 1990: 166–167)
has pointed out, the addressing
formula of an exorcist is largely similar to that of a necromancer,
the only difference being that while the exorcist intends to
expel the demon, the necromancer wishes to summon one.

Another important means in the verbal plane was the recital of the
Gospels over the possessed body.
Saints often used this means of liturgical exorcism: the name and
example of Christ was complemented
by His word.

Among the healing practices of the saints, exorcism, no doubt, was
the most strenuous and time-consuming.
Although hagiographers hardly ever mention any failed incidents of exorcism,
for obvious reasons, they
frequently describe the vigorous resistance of thedemon
(Goddu 1980; Sigal 1985: 73–78).
Demon rarely left the possessed body on the saint’s first order.
When it happened, however, the saint himself might have taken it as a surprise.
Thomas of Celano describes analogous incident about St. Francis
in his Vita prima (ca 1228–1229). In the small town of San Geminiano
St. Francis was asked to free a possessed woman from demon.
St. Francis prayed and ordered demon to leave the woman.
Thomas writes, “He had not finished his prayer when the
ranting and raving demon left the demoniac in such hurry that
St. Francis felt he had been deceived;
he hurriedly left the town in shame.”

Demon’s counteraction manifested in various ways.
He could, for example, ridicule the saint’s exorcistic methods.
The anonymous Vita S. Norberti (12th century)
describes how demon expressed his
arrogance towards the practices of St. Norbert:

When Norbert had placed some blessed salt on the possessed man’s
mouth, it spat in his face, saying. “You have suggested that I be
placed in water and beaten with harsh whips. Your efforts are in
vain. Your whips do not harm me, your threats do not frighten
me, death does not torture me.”

Sometimes the victims were possessed by more than just one demon.
In this case the ritual might have become very complicated
and long: when one demon had been expelled and another one was
being exorcised, then the first sometimes returned and the ritual
had to be started all over again.

In the medieval times the presence
of the demon in the body was depicted often very figuratively:
the demon was almost tangible foreign matter. During many
exorcistic rituals the demon was hunted around in the possessed
body until it exited through the victim’s mouth or rectum (cf. Caciola
2000: 283; 2003: 47, 237–238).

Gerald of Wales  tells a story
of a possessed woman, in the body of whom a demon was hunted
down with the gospel and relics of the saints.23 Thomas of Cantimpré
 relates an interesting incident about a twelve-year-old
boy, who hunted the demon around with the cross-sign.

The hunting might have taken other forms. St. Bernard of Clairvaux
tells the following story in his work Vita S. Malachiae episcopi:
In the town of Coleraine there was a possessed woman. St.
Malachy was summoned and he prayed for the woman and threatened
it who had taken over her body. On that the demon left her
body, but his evil was not done: he possessed a woman standing
nearby. Malachy then told: “I did not repel you so you could settle
in another body. Leave her body too.” The demon followed his
order, but possessed the first woman. And so it pestered them for
a long time: left one to settle in another. Then the angry saint
summoned all his powers and, trembling inside, attacked the
enemy with all his might and expelled the demon from both
women, whom it had treated this way.

One of the major problems the saints had to encounter during exorcism
was how to prevent the expelled demon from re-entering the
victim’s body.
This was specially emphasised in the exorcising formula
by giving instructions (about fasting and behaviour) to the
Hagiographers, however, have mediated several incidents
where the demon had returned to its victim soon after the saint
had departed. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the saints who
had to experience it. His hagiographer Arnaud of Bonneval describes
how St. Bernard had managed to free a woman from possession,
but as soon as she had reached home the demon had possessed her
again. Her husband had to take her back to St. Bernard.

The saint performed another successful séance, but to prevent the demon
from returning he attached a small piece of leather to the woman’s
collar with the following words written on it: “In the name of Our
Lord Jesus Christ I shall order you, Satan, not to touch this woman
in any way.”

According to the logic of hagiographic stories, the counteraction of
the demon served the interests of the saint:
the harder the fight, the better the result.
The arrogant and superior behaviour of the
demon was opposed to the humbleness and modesty of the saint;
the former got strength from itself, the latter from his belief in

Most of the incidents of charismatic exorcism accounted in
hagiographic texts took place after the saint’s death.
The belief in the miraculous powers of relics
originates in the Early Middle Ages
and was dominant all through the Middle Ages (Angenendt 1994).

From early on one of the most important powers attributed to relics
was exorcism (Delehaye 1933: 118).

Hagiographic texts quite clearly outline the following scene of
posthumous exorcism:
a bound demoniac is taken by the friends and
relatives to the saint’s tomb; (s)he is then left there, sometimes for
days, until full recovery (Finucane 1977: 91–93). In some cases the
possessed was left to the mercy of passing travellers, with a hope to
make life in the victim’s body unbearable for the demon. Certainly,
the presence of the demoniac was a nuisance to the church
the devilish screaming and vehement gesturing interfered
with the sermon and hindered the pilgrims. Miracula S. Frideswidae
(12th century) colourfully describes the mess a possessed had caused
in the church.
In order to influence the saint’s decision in favour of freeing the
possessed, his/her relatives brought various gifts to the saint.
According to different sources, one of the most surprising gifts was a
donkey promised to St. Fides by a mother, who had lost all hope to
her daughter’s recovery. Liber miraculorum sancte Fidis (11th cen-
tury) explains this offering as follows: “A despicable animal was used
to drive away a creature thousand times as despicable.”

Another intriguing category in the posthumous charismatic exorcism
was the freeing of a demoniac in apparition. Medieval hagiographers
describe several incidents of recovery: the demoniac is sleeping
at saint’s tomb and in his/her sleep sees an apparition of the
saint, who expels the demon from its victim’s body with a cross-sign
or an exorcistic formula. When the demoniac wakes up, (s)he is

Considering the condition of the demoniac, as it often excluded the
taking of the victim to the relics of a saint, the evil spirits were
sometimes chased off with portable relics. The idea was to direct
the demon out of the possessed body, which, as mentioned above,
often turned into the scene of hunting the demon within the body.

The most common practice was to place the relics at the victim’s
head or mouth, sometimes also in the mouth cavity (Sigal 1985:
44). Hagiographers mediate numerous accounts where the demoniac
was exorcised with the hair or the beard hair of the saint,31 the
saint’s stole,32 his tooth, etc.

In the Middle Ages exorcistic rituals were an inseparable part of a
saint’s life. This Christian ritual par excellence was propagated by
the first hagiographers (St. Athanasius, Sulpitius Severus, St.
Gregory the Great, etc.); the 12th century saw a rise in the numbers
and versatility of the accounts about exorcistic rituals.

For a saint the healing of the demoniac primarily meant a fight
with a demon. The victim was as if a battlefield to the divine and
infernal forces. Exorcism, however, served a much more practical
purpose for a saint: statements uttered by the demon during exorcism
played an important role in his “career”.
All the exertion and trouble he had to go through
during the ritual was well worth it:
successful performance helped to increase his fame (Latin fama)
and credibility.

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Copyright - Fred Batt - Darkforce Limited - 2008/09