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"Devil Possessions" Swept England After Invasion, Study Suggests

James Owen
for National Geographic News
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.

Dendle links this to the fact that while Christianity was already established in most of England, the northeastern region had only recently been converted (England map).

Lasting no more than 50 years, the outbreak may reflect the tension between Christianity and lingering pagan beliefs, Dendle pointed out. Or the spate could have resulted from differences in the way converts understood their new religion.

Afterward, though, "there is no reference to a contemporary Anglo-Saxon case of possession for 300 years," Dendle said.

Anglo-Saxon sources indicate that the English were both puzzled and surprised by cases of possession mentioned both in the Scriptures and European texts from regions such as modern-day France and Germany.

But after the Norman Conquest, possession stories and exorcisms quickly appear in England, Dendle found.

These reports coincided with growing use of healing shrines and pilgrimage routes by people in search of miracle cures, the researcher suggests.

Christina Lee of the University of Nottingham in England says saintly relics that supposedly had healing properties were increasingly advertised by monasteries and churches as cures for the possessed or the mad.

"There were churches vying to have the most powerful saint, while monasteries had hospitals attached to them," Lee said. "They saw themselves as doctors of the soul."

One argument is that demon possession as a religious concept was good for business.

If cures appeared to work, "people would be very grateful and leave donations—which the churches and monasteries were dependent on," Lee pointed out.

Evil Business

In a forthcoming book, Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England, English professor Dendle draws parallels between the phenomenon in medieval England and its resurgence in the West in recent decades.

The author notes, for instance, that a widespread increase in possessions and exorcisms in America were sparked in part by the 1973 horror movie The Exorcist.

This shows how culture can affect such practices and how "attitudes toward the demonic can radically shift in a very short period of time," he said.

"Demon possession as a living social phenomenon has made a 'miraculous' comeback over the last 30 years," Dendle added. "It's currently a growth industry in America and England as well as throughout the developing world."

Such a trend is seen today mainly among Evangelical Christians, such as those belonging to the Pentecostal movement.

Rather than an abstract idea, evil is seen by believers as an actual force that can be manifest when the devil "possesses" someone.

"There is little out there more spectacular than demon possession, and it brings with it an intoxicating aura of mystery and primordial danger—of cosmic forces locked in epic combat," Dendle said.

"I believe this trend will continue to gain momentum for some time."

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