"Devil Possessions" Swept England After Invasion, Study Suggests

July 27, 2007

The Norman Invasion of A.D. 1066 may have brought more to England than just a new dynasty of kings.

The watershed year in English history was followed by ever increasing reports of people being possessed by the devil, according to one U.S. expert.

The two developments were closely linked, says Peter Dendle, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Furthermore, understanding how medieval England came to be "bedeviled" after the Anglo-Saxons were conquered may help explain a resurging belief in demon possession in modern Western countries, the researcher suggests.

Basing his theory on medieval texts and records, Dendle says that the concept of people being demonically possessed only really caught on in England after new religious beliefs and customs were imported from overseas.

Researchers had previously assumed that different parts of Christian Western Europe believed equally in demon possession in medieval times.

But while demon possession involving ritual display carried out by a priest or exorcist was well documented in mainland Europe, the phenomenon was either rare or absent in Anglo-Saxon England, the researcher found.

This changed after William of Normandy invaded from France, defeating the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings and replacing King Harold as England's monarch. (Related: "Ancient Britain Had Apartheid-Like Society, Study Suggests" [July 21, 2006].)

"As an imported and learned series of behaviors, demon possession did not seem to 'take' in England, for the most part, prior to the Norman Conquest," Dendle said.

Demonic Upsurge

Only one area bucked this trend.

"The major exception is late seventh to early eighth century Northumbria [in northeast England], in which there does seem to be a window of active and dynamic possession behavior," Dendle said.

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