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The wicked and the damned

Demons, the dead, and spirit possession in medieval Italy
Nancy Mandeville Caciola
Traduction(s) :
Le dévoyé et le damné


Whereas representatives of the medieval church insisted that possessing spirits were demons or fallen angels, many medieval Italians attributed spirit possession to ghosts. In particular, the untimely dead who had perished through violence were thought to seize the bodies of the possessed in order to re-experience embodiment. Such beliefs had a long genealogy, predating the spread of Christianity. I argue that those elements of culture that persist unchanged over a long period of time are not retained unthinkingly, but are chosen because they serve the needs of the communities that employ them. In this case, belief in ghosts as possessors was an opportunity for several types of healing for the benefit of the victim, the ghost itself, and the whole community.

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  • 1 Citations are to Latin originals of medieval texts; all translations are my own.

Some people say that those who are cut off by an early death wander about hither and yon until they complete the number of years they would have lived, had they not died untimely … But it is demons that operate under the fiction of being dead souls … Sometimes an evil spirit disguises itself as the shade [persona] of a dead person … as when in exorcisms the spirit sometimes affirms that it is one of the person’s relatives. (Tertullian 1841–66: 746–48)1

1So wrote the early Church Father Tertullian (c.160–c.225) in his Treatise on the Soul. The quotation exemplifies the drive of early Christian thinkers to reframe all the multifarious spirits of the ancient world according to their own simpler cosmology. All this-worldly spirits, according to this view, really were demons – that is, fallen angels and principles of primordial chaos and evil. Tertullian was not an innovator in this regard: a tension between shades of the dead and demonic spirits is evident even in the Gospel tale of the Gadarene demoniac, the man possessed by a legion of spirits and who “lived among the tombs” (Mark 5:3).

2As the first generations of Christian evangelists preached their good news throughout the Mediterranean, they spread their new and unheard-of teaching about the nature of the spirit world with mixed success. Hitherto, this-worldly spirits or daimones had been understood as ubiquitous, though invisible, intelligences that filtered throughout the visible world, from urban streets to suburban cemeteries to fully bucolic landscapes. The general category was a diverse one comprising many different kinds of beings. The lares and penates were beneficent spirits that protected hearth and home; there also existed immanent landscape spirits inhabiting the air, water, flames, earth, and plants, as well as various muses and familiars. Finally, some shades of the dead became daimones as well, particularly those of individuals who had died suddenly, through violence, or before their natural term of life. These unquiet shades usually remained near their tombs, but they were also known to haunt houses and to wander farther afield. Sometimes such spirits of the dead opportunistically possessed the bodies of the living: they sought to experience re-embodiment by seizing and controlling the bodies of the unwary.

3Christian teachers grouped all of the above entities into a new, reductive category: all were demonic intelligences in the army of Satan. Daimones became demons, legions of unclean spirits who functioned as primal antagonists to Jesus and the apostles. As Peter Brown and others have shown, it was a taxonomy constructed and wielded to dramatize the triumphant, even apocalyptic, heroism of Christian holy men (Brown 1971; Smith 1978; Saxer 1980; Brown 1982; Frankfurter 2010). And as daimones became demons, so reports of hauntings and ghostly spirit possessions ultimately came to be regarded as the works of diabolic agencies disguising themselves as the dead.

4There was some disagreement on this matter. A fourth-century bishop of Verona, Zeno, for example, maintained the ancient belief in spectral possession:

Displaced, unclean human spirits of either sex sometimes enter into the bodies of living human beings as dwelling places … Such a spirit will confess its sex; it will confess the time and place when it entered; it will confess its proper name and the manner of its death … We especially worry about those who died through violence … You say, “Demons feign these things.” … But why would they adopt feigned names when their confessions are true in all other ways? (Zeno of Verona 1841–66: 373–76).

5But such ideas were rejected by the most influential patristic thinkers. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) settled the issue for future generations of Christian intellectuals. In a series of influential works, he insisted that a Christian necrology and demonology must be separate, for human spirits are an entirely distinct order of being from unclean spirits (Caciola 2016: 38–48). Demons and the dead have nothing to do with one another, and the boundary between the two categories was firm and unyielding. The dead, Augustine argued, were translated to another realm entirely: an otherworldly place of retribution or reward from which no shade could return without a direct divine dispensation of the normal course of events (Schmitt 1994: 31–36). As for demons, these fallen angels wandered through the world, as powers and principalities (Eph. 6:12) dedicated to the deception and downfall of the human race. Demonic activities such as spirit possession were not possible for the dead for they were elsewhere, translated to an afterlife place. This set of teachings ultimately became the standard position of the Church hierarchy.

6Yet ancient beliefs about the intimacy, even the banality, of daily relationships in this world between the living and the dead proved extremely resistant to change (Lecouteux 1986; Schmitt 1994; Caciola 2016). The dead were felt as close presences in medieval society, hovering at the social periphery, yet central to the symbolic systems of the culture (Babcock 1978; Lauwers 1997). In particular, belief in spirit possession by ghosts had a vigorous afterlife in the popular culture of Italy for many centuries to come, despite continual countervailing arguments by preachers and clergy. The discussions we see among patristic authors like Tertullian, Zeno and Augustine are closely echoed in some much later case histories of spirit possession, recorded in medieval miracle accounts.

7Historians like myself are trained to prioritize change over time, but the question of how to deal with cultural consistency over a lengthy period is equally significant for understanding the past. Cultural traditions that persist over the longue durée should not be regarded as ossified, empty “survivals” that endure through sheer inertia. Rather as João Pina-Cabral has suggested, these are actively chosen elements of invariance that continue to be vested with significance by the communities that preserve them, even as other cultural habits wither and fall away (Pina-Cabral 1992). This more active view of how and why certain cultural elements remain stable should not be taken to imply, however, that the precise meanings of such fragments remained unchanged even in transformed historical contexts. Forms may persist even as their meanings shift over time. To bring this discussion back to the dead: what Jean-Claude Schmitt has dubbed an eleventh-century “invasion of revenants” (Schmitt 1994: 77–98) may have revitalized the dead, but as ancient and as traditional as some of these ghost stories may seem, their social functions and significances were distinctive to the Middle Ages. Medieval ghosts must be read against a context of saintly relic veneration, of the cemetery enclosure, of liturgical memorials and masses for the departed, and, later, of the promotion of Purgatory – and this is to name only a few developments in the era’s distinctive cult of the dead (Le Goff 1981; Vauchez, 1988; Lauwers 1997). These stories are richly layered, complex cultural formations that cannot be approached in a reductive way.

8In the remaining pages of this article I turn to two particularly rich, late medieval texts that offer evidence for the stubborn persistence of belief in possession by shades of the dead: the 1325 canonization testimonies for Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (Boureau 2004: 199–221; Lett 2008; Katajala-Peltomaa 2009; Caciola 2016: 315–21) and the fifteenth-century Miracles of John Gualbert (Sigal 1992; Caciola 2016: 321–30). Both texts incorporate vivid descriptions of spirit possessions gleaned from interviews with witnesses. Indeed, the two texts are intrinsically multivocal, incorporating several different perspectives on the spirit possessions they describe. They thus offer excellent opportunities to reconstruct the debates that late medieval Italian communities spontaneously engaged in when trying to identify possessing spirits. We see the possessed name their indwelling spirits as the shades of the recently dead; we hear their neighbours excitedly recall the lives and deaths of these dead folk; and we encounter local clerics who dispute these identifications, arguing that the spirits are demons instead. In the next two sections I present close readings of several of these cases before offering some conclusions.

“Invaded by devils and by spirits of the damned”

9I begin with the canonization dossier of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, an Augustinian friar from the March of Ancona. In 1325 the Augustinian Order, together with a collection of locally prominent families, petitioned Pope John XXII to open an inquiry in partibus investigating the sanctity of Nicolas (1245–1305). Between July and September 1325, in Tolentino and other nearby sites, 365 witnesses were interviewed and their oral testimony recorded in Latin translation (Occhioni 1983: ix–xii). However, the process was not immediately successful: Nicholas was not canonized until 1446.

10Among the 301 miracles attributed to the hermit was the healing of three possessed women: Philippucia, Salimbena, and Zola. Of particular interest is the fact that the women themselves, and numerous other witnesses, all stated that they were possessed both by devils and by spirits of the damned, though it is the latter that garners the bulk of attention in the testimonies. Each was healed after performing the ritual of incubation at Saint Nicholas’s tomb (itself a custom with an ancient pedigree), spending the night in vigil before the saint’s relics.

11The year was 1322 when Sister Philippucia suddenly began acting strangely. She constantly hurled insults at the other nuns, shouted curses and blasphemies, made horrible faces, and could hardly keep still. She also “used to walk on her hands and raise up her feet on high”, thereby exposing herself through her falling dress (Occhioni 1983: 327). Philippucia eventually offered a first-person testimony about her experience:

She stated that while she was living in the monastery … she was invaded so forcefully that she used to roll her eyes back into her head, she twisted her mouth, danced in time, and would say many injurious and nasty things to the nuns of that monastery. Many visions appeared to her, or at least it used to seem like they appeared. Day and night she seemed to see mice in infinite numbers, and images of various men of the foulest kind, and many beasts. (Occhioni 1983: 137)

12The “men of the foulest kind” who haunted Philippucia’s mind were images of the phantoms who possessed her. They were not just any men, however: as several other nuns testified, Philippucia narrated her possession visions out loud and often cried out, seemingly in panic, that Lord Johannes, Lord Vivibene de Esculo, and Lord Raynaldo de Burunforte were attacking her (Occhioni 1983: 140 and 324).

13The testimony tells us only a little about Johannes, Vivibene, and Raynaldo, but the facts that are included are highly significant. The men clearly were members of the nobility since each is referred to as “Lord”, and they have formal surnames such as “de Burunforte”. Beyond this, we know from the other nuns’ testimonies that by the time of Philippucia’s possession, all three were dead, and that they had led lives filled with wickedness and cruelty: they were “dead men who were tyrants while on earth, and who had committed many evils during their lifetimes” (Occhioni 1983: 330). The evidence of another sister was more specific: “[Philippucia] announced that she was the dead men Lord Johannes, Lord Vivibene de Esculo, and Lord Raynaldo de Burunforte … men who during their lives committed many crimes, homicides, thefts, and evil deeds” (Occhioni 1983: 328). In line with the typical pattern of spirit possession, the identity of the indwelling spirits took precedence over Philippucia’s own: it was they who expressed themselves through the possessed body. Likewise, the characterization of these individuals as noble tyrants exemplifies the social tensions in local society: the nobility (mostly Ghibelline) was regarded as oppressors by the families (mostly Guelph) who dominated the process (Lett 2008). Accusations of post-mortem spirit possession here are deployed as a rhetorical tool to dishonour social enemies: these men are portrayed as continuing to exert their malice after death by becoming possessors, and by engaging in blasphemy and other dishonourable actions through Philippucia’s possessed body.

  • 2 In all cases, the possessing ghosts identified in the texts I am examining were males.

14A similar pattern was present in the other two cases of spectral possession discussed among Nicholas’s miracles. The other victims likewise were possessed by the shades of men who are presented as violent criminals.2 As was the case with Philippucia, the identities of the phantom aggressors were made known to witnesses through the shouts of the possessed. Thus a certain woman named Salimbena Vissanuci de Visso struck others as possessed precisely because she continually yelled out the names of a certain group of dead men. Everyone later remembered these instances in their interviews, and each independently recalled the same names and similar details. Typical is the testimony of Gentile Nugarelli, who also offered some background about the dead men’s characters and histories:

He said that Salimbena de Visso was tempted and invaded by devils and by spirits of the damned: to wit, by Scambio Raynaldo, Vecte Salvo de Podio Vallis, Nicoleta de Paterno, and two others whose names she could not remember. Salimbena used to explain that when they were alive these men had been of evil reputation, condition, and life. They were robbers and wicked men. And she said that they had been burned for their crimes, their evil doings and their deeds. And this Salimbena was so stricken and so invaded by these same men’s ghosts, she used to shout out their names. Also she often used to say very dirty words. (Occhioni 1983: 452).

15Similarly, Augustinian Brother Francisco de Nursia recalled that Salimbena cried out the names during her incubation at Nicholas’s tomb: “for the greater part of the night she was calling out in a loud voice certain names of men and demons, for it was said that she was invaded and tempted by devils and by spirits of the damned” (Occhioni 1983: 455). She kept it up until she was healed the next morning.

16Interestingly, these women claimed to be possessed by demons as well as by ghosts, yet witnesses chiefly focused upon the dead and showed minimal interest in diabolic spirits: mentions of demons seem in most cases pro forma. By contrast, the shades of the dead who possessed the living inspired lengthy descriptions and digressions in the testimonies: their identities are fully explored, including their full names and noble titles, their crimes, and the manner of their deaths (in several cases, by burning). The final victim of possession, a married woman named Zola, makes this element of obsessive, traumatic memory quite clear.

A long time ago [Zola] was continually being tempted and molested by certain damned spirits from the village of Cammoro named Lardo and Traverso, who had been wicked men. They committed many wicked crimes during their lives; and because of their political sympathies they had been summarily burned, without sentencing or trial. The witness often used to see them in the form of dogs, and it seemed to her that these burnt men were always before her eyes to see. They would say to her, “You will see us every time you go through the streets!” and they used to shout at her. (Occhioni, 1983: 303)

17These men must have been known to Zola in life, as they came from the same village as she did. The names of Zola’s ghosts, which translate roughly as “Porky” and “Twisty”, appear to be nicknames (perhaps of the kind that remain popular even today in some criminal organizations or gangs). Yet again, the reference to their “political sympathies” suggests that these men surely formed part of the Ghibelline nobility, which was characterized as tyrannical by local witnesses to these possessions (Lett 2008: 120–21).

18Thus naming names – that is, calling out specific shades of the dead as spiritual aggressors – were an expected component of the public performance of a possession episode. Identifying the possessing ghosts, remembering the wicked deeds of their lives, shuddering over the horrific circumstances of their untimely, violent deaths: these acts of collective memory and story-sharing were key to resolving the disturbances of possession, as well as to purging the living community of disturbing memories. Shared remembrances thus become a prelude to communal forgetting. At the same time, of course, the possessing entity’s acknowledgement of his name, his crimes, and the details of his death, as ventriloquized through the disordered shouts of the possessed person, was likewise a veridical point in establishing the basis for exorcism. All these actions were necessary formalities before the victim could be healed and reintegrated into normal society. And finally, it is noteworthy that the dead malefactors and culprits in these cases of possession likely pertained to the Ghibelline-dominated local nobility, whereas the families offering testimony often were wealthy, but non-noble, Guelph partisans seeking to bolster their own sense of righteousness and entitlement.

19Episodes of possession by shades of the dead thus held a complex, and at times internally inconsistent, set of emotional charges. On the one hand, witnesses to these events universally decried the characters of the possessing ghosts and expressed horror and revulsion at their deaths – a negative set of reactions that suggest that a form of group trauma was made present via such intimate hauntings. Zola’s obsessive inability to forget the image of the burnt men – “always before her eyes to see”– surely was not a unique response to such a form of execution. On the other hand, the possessed and their communities feared and disliked these dead men – yet they eagerly rehearsed memories of them. However horrific some of these reminiscences, and however riven the political sympathies within the locale, one simple fact confronts us: witnesses wanted to think about these dead men together. Such intricately intermingled responses make sense, for the exorcism of a dead person necessarily is a different emotional operation than the exorcism of a demon. The exorcism of a ghost is an inherently social operation, in a way that the exorcism of an evil supernatural spirit is not. A shade of the dead, however unsavoury, was until recently a person: someone’s son, someone’s lover, someone’s father, and, of course, in these cases also someone’s enemy or oppressor – but a known individual occupying a particular social niche. The untimely death of such a person not only snapped his own tenuous life thread, it ruptured the web of social bonds that connected him to others. Such a person’s re-emergence into the community, via the possession of a living body, accomplished the temporary mending of a rent social fabric as well as an opportunity to move past the haunting recollection of the person’s violent life and equally violent death. Finally, the performative catharsis of expulsion would occur – fittingly, at the tomb of a saint, in a triumphant confrontation of the blessed “good dead” against the damned “bad dead”. Thus, the shades of the local tyrants might be exorcized on a symbolic, collective level as well as on the more literal level of the afflicted person.

20Although specific, named ghosts attracted the bulk of the attention in these testimonies, it should not be overlooked that in all cases, demons were also identified as possessors, along with the dead. Thus, the bodies of the possessed were, in some ways, symbolically aligned to Hell itself, the location where the wicked dead and demons dwell together. This detail alerts us to an interesting fact about cultural change and stability over time: the model of possession upheld in this region was not a survival of an ancient belief system without any change or evolution at all. On the contrary, local tradition clearly was syncretic and accumulative, with new teachings effectively being grafted onto a rootstock of older ideas. The system at work here accepted the universalizing Christian epistemology of demons as possessors, yet still maintained an older tradition of ghostly possession that invoked local memories and community knowledge systems. The two were not seen in dichotomous terms, but as mutually sustaining, complementary notions that literally shared space within the possessed body.

21This complementarity likely was fostered and reproduced through multiple means: sermons and teachings about demons appear simply to have overlain local legends about the restless spirits of the dead, for example, rather than uprooting them. The role of images likewise seems relevant, for contemporary representations of the human spirit leaving the human body at death, and of demons leaving the human body during an exorcism, were structurally identical in this time period. Medieval people visualized both kinds of spirits as exiting through the mouth. The structural parallels in these portrayals of bodies and their departing spirits constitute an instance of what Jérôme Baschet (2008: 274ff.) calls a “hypertheme”. Analysing such works relationally, he suggests, carries our reading of iconography beyond what is explicitly formulated by the works themselves. In this light, the relational comparison of images suggests that human spirits or ghosts, on the one hand, and unclean spirits or demons, on the other, operate upon the body in a similar fashion. Either kind of spirit can be embodied in a human form and animate it, and both leave through the mouth when forcibly ejected from this corporeal dwelling place.

Debating the spirits

22In the next text to consider, we encounter explicit debates between, on the one hand, the clerical viewpoint that only demons act as possessing spirits, and on the other, the popular attitude that blamed shades of the dead for possessions. The Miracles of John Gualbert is a fifteenth-century compilation of healings attributed to a monk who had died in 1073 and was canonized two decades later, in 1093 (Caciola 2016: 321). In the interim between the canonization and the writing of the miracle compilation, John’s relics – in particular, his arm – had achieved a reputation for swift and efficacious healing of the spirit-possessed. The afflicted therefore made the pilgrimage to his shrine in large numbers. Accounts of possessions in this source are detailed, based upon first-hand interviews with the possessed and their family members. In several cases the invading spirit explicitly identifies itself as a dead person, providing his name and the details of his life and death.

23The author of the collection, Jerome de Raggiolo, aggressively contests this identification and insists that the spirits are, rather, demons. Rather uniquely, the text chronicles a series of spontaneous public disputations about the nature of possessing spirits, conducted between learned monks and clerics, on the one hand, and a crowd of local laity viewing the exorcisms on the other. As with the cases of Philippucia, Salimbena and Zola, here too the often possessed named their indwelling spirits, and local crowds would accept this identification without hesitation and begin sharing narratives and memories of the person. However, in the Miracles of John Gualbert we find a blockage to this process of storytelling and collective catharsis: a local priest, and Raggiolo himself, dispute these identifications, ridicule them, and attempt to persuade the local crowd – in the face of stiff resistance – of the demonic character of the possessing spirits instead. In some instances, this difference of opinion engendered lengthy arguments that are reproduced in the text, thus presenting us with an excellent example of different levels of culture, popular and elite, in emergent debate over the meanings of contemporary events. These sections of the text are rich and rewarding to explore.

24The multivocality of this document is somewhat striking since Raggiolo’s purposes were, after all, to uphold the impeccable power and orthodoxy of John’s relic cult. Yet as André Vauchez has noted of canonization proceedings, the class of documents that preserve notarized interviews with local witnesses very often, almost in spite of themselves, end up incorporating narratives that run counter to their own larger goals. Such procès-verbal sources “constituent le lieu d’une confrontation – tantôt pacifique, tantôt conflictuelle – entre la culture des couches dominantes – auxquelles appartiennent ceux qui ont ordonné l’enquête et ceux qui l’effectuent – et celle des classes subalternes parmi lesquelles se recrutent bon nombre des témoins” (Vauchez 1988: 4). In this case, such counter-narratives are not subtexts, but explicit elements of the source: as such, they are peculiarly revelatory of the attitudes of non-intellectual segments of society. Though Raggiolo shaped and crafted the document to foreground his own favoured interpretations of these events, he nevertheless included detailed expositions of the alternative interpretations of the crowd.

25The first instance of such a debate involves a woman who had made a pilgrimage to John Gualbert’s shrine from Pontenano, some 75 kilometres south-east of Florence; she claimed to be possessed by a specific dead man from Liguria. Raggiolo presented the spirit’s claim to be a ghost, but then immediately contested this identification:

Another woman came to us from the town of Pontenano … and the demon that had invaded her averred (as many of them are accustomed to do) that it was the shade of a certain Ligurian named Beltramo. It ought to be pointed out that this is an impudent lie that must be restrained by the authority of Holy Mother Church, so that the average common man might perceive that such a thing is scarcely possible and thus be instructed in true religion. … This fact is proved, first of all, by the authority of the prophet who says, “the spirit goes and does not return” (Ps. 77:39). Nothing tells us where it goes: either it flies through the air purging itself; or it dwells in an earthly place that is deserted and uncultivated, or else not deserted; or it goes to a place that is inaccessible to us, which we call Purgatory.

But to believe that a dead soul should go back into a human body again we consider, and hereby declare, to be a wicked thing [nefas]. Moreover, it has never been read among any people that two souls of the same type and nature might occupy the same body, and have various experiences together.
I was able to cite other pronouncements, at times from the holy gospels at times from other divine Scriptures, as proofs. However, lest it should seem that I am presenting a sermon rather than a history, it is enough to know that devils are proven liars on this matter. Though in truth, if they request anything useful for souls of the dead – either offices, or Gregorian masses, or alms – once it is asked for then, God willing, we do it. Now I return to my story. (Raggiolo 1867: 416)

26It is noteworthy that Raggiolo concedes at the outset that “many [possessing spirits] are accustomed” to identify themselves as shades of the dead. He then goes on to present some intriguing arguments against the belief in possession by the dead. His thoughts include flatly appealing to the authority of the Church; arguing from Scripture to the effect that the dead leave the places of the living; the fact that demons are proven liars; and a physiological argument that two human souls cannot coexist within a single body and share its sensory experiences. Yet even as Raggiolo denies that shades of the dead might act as possessors, his actions – willingness to provide masses for a dead man when a spirit requests them – belie his words. His willingness to accede to this request surely would have signalled to the crowd that Beltramo the dead Ligurian might, indeed, have been the culprit. (As we shall see, this is not the last Raggiolo was to hear of Beltramo.)

27The next miracle presents a very similar kind of scenario. Here, the exorcism of another woman claiming to be possessed by one of the evil dead – a thug who had been knifed over a gambling dispute – leads, again, to a spontaneous public debate on the nature of possessing spirits. The priest in charge of the exorcism hotly contests the notion that the indwelling spirit is the shade of a dead gambler, but the crowd is unimpressed and demurs:

The demon that had invaded her asserted that it was the soul of a certain man named Mazzanto, who was murdered with a dagger by a certain scoundrel over a game of dice. Everyone who was witnessing this pressed forward to affirm that it was true. However the priest argued with them, bringing forth … many opinions of men outstanding in virtue and learning, through which he demonstrated that when the souls of men first leave their bodies they go to the place they have merited. That is, they find a sweet place; or they find a harsh land for purging or else for eternal torment. They do not find another body to enter. As for those others [i.e. possessing spirits], they are evil spirits …

[But] the priest scarcely could convince them this was true. It is typical of rustic people that the less they understand of what is being said, the more they wonder, and it is only with the greatest difficulty that they can be turned away from any idea that already has caught their ears. This is particularly true because they are stiff-necked and barely capable of reason … Finally, through the virtue of the most blessed John Gualbert, [the possessing spirit] broke forth in these words, “I will make my way elsewhere if prayers and orations are made on behalf of the soul of this Mazzanto.” … The girl happily went back home with her family, having offered some money right away in order that, as promised, Gregorian Masses might be celebrated in the monastery on behalf of Mazzanto’s soul. (Raggiolo 1867: 417)

28The belief that possessing spirits were the evil dead was too deeply rooted to be gainsaid by the priest’s arguments. Moreover, the spirit, speaking through the girl, impressed the crowd by its specific knowledge of the circumstances of Mazzantos’s death: his description of his own knifing at the gambling table provoked a stirring response among the bystanders, who pressed forward excitedly to hear and corroborate the story. This exchange was held as probative evidence that the spirit must truly be the dead man himself. In such a case, collective memory took priority over the priest’s abstract arguments about a tripartite afterlife and the different categories of supernatural spirits. Finally: in the end the promise of masses on behalf of Mazzanto’s soul effectuated the healing of the girl, a fact that likely was taken as corroborating proof of the spirit’s identity.

29The cultural logic of spectral possession suggests that there was an interval after death, when shades of the violently killed or untimely dead had yet to come to terms with the fact of their sudden disembodiment. These shades clung to life and to their former communities, therefore seeking a new body to inhabit and utilize. In all the stories examined thus far, it is always the recent, known dead who were identified as the culprits. Their former neighbours needed first to understand who the spirit was, and why he was so loath to accept his own death. They therefore wanted to know the names and death details of the shade, which could speak through the body of the possessed person. A secondary stage of social interaction around possession would involve communication among the group: sharing stories (often negative ones) of the dead man’s life, and memories (often more sympathetic ones) of his untimely death. Collective recognition of the life-story and death details of the shade re-established its connections with the community: there was a broad social interest in temporary communion with the deceased. Finally, in cases where a request was made for masses on behalf of the dead person, the community could experience a true catharsis while taking positive steps to alleviate the post-mortem condition of the deceased – and in the process, facilitate the process of forgetting the dead. As Jean-Claude Schmitt has noted of such liturgical remembrances: “le but de la memoria était en réalité d’aider à la séparation des vivants et du mort … de permettre aux vivants d’oublier le défunt” (1994: 17). Interaction with these shades, however outcast and violent they may have been in life, became an opportunity for generosity and reconciliation after death.

30A particularly illuminating case in point involves the return of Beltramo the Ligurian. The latter appears to have been a particularly stubborn ghost: this time he possessed a man who (we eventually learn) was a relative of the woman whom he formerly had inhabited. There thus appears to be an element of mimicry involved here, as two different people related to the same family each enact similar scenarios of possession.

31Raggiolo’s account of this encounter and exorcism is unusually lengthy. It portrays Beltramo as a wicked criminal, and as someone with a great deal of unfinished business from his brief life. Exorcizing Beltramo thus not only involved the personal recognition and commemoration we have so often seen in the foregoing pages but also a complicated set of rectifying activities in order to set his affairs in order for him posthumously:

After the demon, in the guise of [Beltramo], had battled both the cross and prayers for a long time, it was afflicted with bitter torments. Finally, persisting in its impersonation, it broke forth into these words: “I will go to my repose if these people here, after having diligently investigated and looked into my estate, will make sure to stand up to my children. For if the latter are led by their usual perversity, they would prefer to do anything rather than make things right. If this happens then even though I now am forced to depart for another place, I will come back, bringing many of my colleagues with me, and I will inflict even worse torments upon them!” Hearing this those wretched men, fearing for their own sakes, said, “Give us a way of undertaking this task, if you can, and we will diligently strive to fulfil your request.”

“I request that these things should be done”, said the demon, “and you must fulfil what I say to the letter. I desire to make a disposition of my possessions through a public testament, in accordance with popular custom.” A scribe was brought in, who happened by chance to be in the monastery on some business with the abbot. Then the demon, under oath and upholding his best judgment of the truth of the matter, enumerated his possessions, interests, works, appointments, creditors and debtors; which things should be bequeathed to his children, which things to the Church, and which things to other people; and meanwhile the scribe put it down in writing as a record. With these things having been diligently fulfilled, the demon then vanished in the form of smoke. (Raggiolo 1867: 416)

32Assisting Beltramo to set his affairs in order, despite his children’s expected resistance, was a way of setting aright a “bad death”, intestate: for the formal drafting of a will was, of course, an integral component of the requirements for a “good death” as set forth in the contemporary late medieval ars moriendi, treatises for dying “properly” (Chartier 1976; Michaud 2017). This injunction was felt forcefully in Italy, which had a strong notarial and legal culture: it is not by accident that a notary was brought in so quickly to record a detailed inventory of Beltramo’s holdings and their proper disposition. The will retroactively transforms Beltramo’s bad death, intestate, into a better one.

33As the text continues we next are told how Beltramo had earlier, while possessing his first victim, confessed to an unsolved crime:

It does not seem inappropriate to describe in a few words a murder that was perpetrated by the abovementioned Beltramo … He knew of a certain person who was an architect by training, who earned a not insubstantial sum of money for himself and his associates during the summer. Observing this, certain wicked men from the city of Pontenano were seized with greed for that money. They diligently mapped out the streets and routes he took, with this in mind: that they would kill him. One day the plotters, determined in their treachery, slaughtered him in a rather remote area of a horrible, dark wood not far from Pontenano. Having stolen his money, they buried him (lest there be any evidence of their deed) and left him there. The demon, while he was here and, as you heard, afflicting with torment a woman from the same family, by divine will told the whole story. (Raggiolo 1867: 417)

34As with the act of dictating a will, thus transforming a bad death into a somewhat better one, Beltramo also retroactively made possible a good death for his own murder victim. From the perspective of the local community, this confession would represent a significant expression of remorse and an attempt at rectification from beyond the grave; for the family of the victim, it could help bring closure to grief and the ability to observe proper funerary ritual. In the end, once all Beltramo’s affairs were placed in order – masses commissioned for his soul, his property legally bequeathed, a murder and a burial place disclosed – he could transition away from this realm of existence to the next, secure in the hope of eventual salvation. He does not appear again in the dossier; apparently, possessing two different people permitted him to get what he needed to attain rest: masses and a confession of a murder from the first possession, and a will from the second.


35One goal of this article has been to show points of intersection between medieval popular culture and traditions that predated the spread of Christianity. The notion that spirit possession is the work of the unquiet and untimely dead had a lengthy pedigree extending into Antiquity. Thus, despite the best efforts of Christian evangelists and preachers, over the course of many centuries, to substitute demons for the dead, belief in ghostly possession lived on. Indeed, crowds of laity sometimes vigorously upheld and defended this belief against the protestations of clergy. Such material foregrounds the problem of historical continuities. Why are certain traditions selectively reproduced through time? How have the meanings of such traditions evolved to meet new needs in changing historical contexts? And were these innovative meanings replaced or, occasionally, melded with older understandings?

36Thus, in the specific case of late medieval cases of possession by ghosts, the shades of the dead were characterized as sinners within a medieval Christian moral frame; their post-mortem status often was reckoned as a form of Purgatory, and the alleviation of their status often involved requests for masses as a form of spiritual alms or (in the case of Beltramo) the dictating of a will. Thus this ancient pattern of ghostly possession was no longer so ancient in terms of its cultural expressions and interpretive significances. Furthermore, the cure for possession – visiting a saint – involves the invocation of yet another category of the human dead: those heroic ones whose sufferings merited them participation in the reserves of divine supernatural power. A confrontation between two categorical extremes of the most powerful dead – the unquiet shades of malefactors and criminals, set in opposition to the healing relics of saintly ascetics – is orchestrated in the ritual dramas of incubation, exorcism, and, ultimately, in the construction of these texts, which recorded, shaped, and rebutted witness interviews. It is significant that the shades who were identified as possessors were seldom the ordinary, but rather the extraordinary, dead: those whose lives were particularly wicked and whose manner of death was particularly horrible. Such men were violent and quarrelsome personalities who were vividly remembered. Most importantly, they managed to inspire terror even after their deaths: the physically belligerent living man continued to be feared as a spiritually aggressive dead one. On the other hand, the remedy for an attack by such a spirit was to turn to the corpse of one of the heroic dead, those whose feats of incandescent asceticism and piety transformed their corporeal remains into reserves of usable power in the material world. The antidote to invasion by an evil human spirit was proximity to a holy human corpse. Implicit in this juxtaposition is an invisible conflict between the unquiet shades of the evil dead, and the celestial spirits of the saints. Thus the overall mise en scène of these stories, regardless of their formal continuities with ancient tradition, unfolds in a distinctively medieval religious setting: it is this context that gives meaning to the possession narratives and which occasioned the writing of the texts, after all. The consensus of all involved, laity and clerics alike, was that the powerfully beneficent dead were demonstrating their holy power through their healing of the possessed. Thus, regardless of how the possessing spirits were understood – as demons, the dead, or some combination of the two – the identification of the most powerful dead of all – the saints – was sustained by these unfolding events.

37At the same time, however, a precise kind of logic is entailed in the belief system that possessing spirits are the prematurely dead, and this remained stable over time. A possessing spirit defined as a ghost has a human identity: thus what might be termed the social elements of possession by the dead persisted. In this light, the importance placed upon the process of naming the possessing spirit suggests that identifying the possessor and allowing the community to remember his life and death is a key element in the drama of possession. The possessed person, along with family members and other witnesses, collectively reconstructed the indwelling spirit’s story – and storytelling is, of course, a fundamentally social act, deeply expressive of community priorities and interests. In this process of attaching an identity to the indwelling shade, local knowledge, memories and idioms were spoken aloud and then knitted together in order to make spirit possession an opportunity for multiple types of healing: the victim is exorcized; the possessing spirit is assisted with unfinished business and laid to rest; and witnesses are able temporarily to reconstitute a community that had been ruptured. Through possession, the dead person became present, embodied, and most importantly, able to speak once again. Once this entire ritual was complete and the spirit was expelled from the body, the dead person could be properly forgotten.

38This is a view of the universe that is far more intimate in its structure, if somewhat less systematic in its meanings, than the dogma of the medieval Catholic Church. It is a more “humanistic” view of the unseen world of spirits, structured by the shared memories, experiences, and common sense of the community as they remembered the dead. In viewing the human body as a possible repository for displaced human souls, these communities constructed for themselves a supernatural that was more knowable because smaller in scale. Ultimately, the exorcism of a ghost functioned as an emergent, reconstitutive ritual that redefined the community at its centre – the living – and at its peripheries — the dead. Such episodes placed the living even as they placed the dead, repositioning both within new social groupings as the population of a given town constantly passed away and renewed itself.

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1 Citations are to Latin originals of medieval texts; all translations are my own.

2 In all cases, the possessing ghosts identified in the texts I am examining were males.

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Nancy Mandeville Caciola, « The wicked and the damned », Terrain [En ligne], 69 | avril 2018, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2018, consulté le 29 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Nancy Mandeville Caciola

Université de Californie, San Diego –

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