The 12+12 Books of Christmas #21


When you think of Christmas and books, studies of Renaissance demonology are not the first things that come to mind. If you have friends or relatives into black metal or the occult, Satan’s Rhetoric by Armando Maggi might be a good stocking stuffer. Otherwise, I would steer clear of this one this time of the year. It’s nevertheless a very interesting book for anyone interested in the darker side of western thought during the Renaissance. In terms of the history of ideas, it’s a brilliant romp through a vein of thought that runs across western philosophy. If you want to know why you were absolutely terrified by The Exorcist even though you are not religious, here’s your explanation. Magical thinking of the kind Maggi unearths in the book runs very deep in our culture.

One of the things we learn from the book is that before the fifteenth century, the techniques of exorcism were more or less improvised. The grand Catholic church with its dogmas and rituals and pomp was pretty much making it up as it went along. Nobody really knew what to do with people who were possessed by demons. We get a number of interesting versions of exorcism techniques in Maggi’s study and although things began to coalesce into a coherent ritual, it still reads like the Keystone Cops in ecclesiastical robes.

One of the things the demonologists noticed was that possession always occurred with melancholia, an excess of yellow bile. Not all melancholics were in cahoots with the Devil, but all those who were were also melancholics. In a chapter on one Manuel do Valle de Moura and his De incantantionibus seu ensalmis (1620), Maggi writes:

It is well known, de Moura states, that the devil can exert an enormous power on a human being’s internal representations. As he will state in a later passage of De ensalmis, “the devil can influence our intellect only through phantasms.” In other words, every time a human being rationally or spontaneously formulates a linguistic expression in his or her mind, his or her sentences may be engaged in a dialogic exchange with an interlocutor (God, angels, devils) who is at once internal and external to the thinker’s mind. […] According to Renaissance demonologists, melancholics have a fluctuating identity, ranging from individuals prone to solitary musings to people who, suffering from hallucinations, believe that they have been turned into animals. Thus, it is extremely difficult to determine whether a melancholic is naturally sick or is affected by a devilish perversion.

It is comforting to know that even in de Moura’s time there was a distinction made between natural mental illness and possession. What is more disturbing is the notion that we are all beacons for devils when we form a thought. Our thinking sounds out like radio waves into the unseen world where it is picked up by the denizens of the ether. This is the kind of magical thinking that died at the onset of modernity and the Enlightenment. We had a notion in the West that there was something mysterious about our thoughts and words. They were being listened to. Somebody was at the other end of the line. Some, like the devils de Moura writes about, were even eavesdropping! Although the line has been dead for a long time, we still sometimes think we hear a crackling at the other end and shudder.

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