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Description - Discerning Spirits by Nancy Mandeville Caciola

Trance states, prophesying, convulsions, fasting, and other physical manifestations were often regarded as signs that a person was seized by spirits. In a book that sets out the prehistory of the early modern European witch craze, Nancy Caciola shows how medieval people decided whom to venerate as a saint infused with the spirit of God and whom to avoid as a demoniac possessed of an unclean spirit. This process of discrimination, known as the discernment of spirits, was central to the religious culture of Western Europe between 1200 and 1500. Since the outward manifestations of benign and malign possession were indistinguishable, a highly ambiguous set of bodily features and behaviors were carefully scrutinized by observers. Attempts to make decisions about individuals who exhibited supernatural powers were complicated by the fact that the most intense exemplars of lay spirituality were women, and the "fragile sex" was deemed especially vulnerable to the snares of the devil. Assessments of women's spirit possessions often oscillated between divine and demonic interpretations.
Ultimately, although a few late medieval women visionaries achieved the prestige of canonization, many more were accused of possession by demons. Caciola analyzes a broad array of sources from saints' lives to medical treatises, exorcists' manuals to miracle accounts, to find that observers came to rely on the discernment of bodies rather than seeking to distinguish between divine and demonic possession in purely spiritual terms.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780801473340
ISBN-10: 0801473349
Format: Paperback / softback
(235mm x 156mm x 5mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Cornell University Press
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publish Date: 13-Jul-2006
Country of Publication: United States

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Author Biography - Nancy Mandeville Caciola

Nancy Mandeville Caciola is Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages and Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, both from Cornell.

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