University of California, San Diego history professor Nancy Caciola spends her days studying the fine line between godly saints and demonic sinners. She’s interested in how the people of the Middle Ages figured out which was which — or witch.
Caciola, a leading specialist in the study of possession, is intrigued by those who obsessed over their strange-acting neighbors. Were they in the throes of religious ecstasy? Willing followers of Satan? Or maybe the devil had taken their innocent souls hostage. If that was the case — oh dear — then what?
In an interview this week, Caciola talked about witchcraft, women and one heck of a suffering saint.
You teach a class about witchcraft and the church’s battle to kill off witches. What do you talk about?
There’s a huge amount of disagreement. There are those who say there was a frame-up, a fantasy that scapegoated women and has no relation to what women might have been doing. Others say a pagan cult survived underground and was demonized by the Catholic church. And then there are those who say there really were demon-worshipping women who literally went to the crossroads and tried to call up the devil.
Are there myths about witches?
A lot of people have come up with a number of 9 million witches burned, which is total bunk. It’s probably something like 30,000 from the 1430s until the 18th century. The number of 9 million has always appeared to me as an attempt to top the Holocaust: It’s the women’s Holocaust.
What does your research tell you about the role of women in the Middle Ages?
It’s certainly a misogynistic era and not one I’d want to live in. But there’s a surprising level of leadership and prominence by women in certain times and places.
People assume that the further you go back in history, the worse things are for women, and it’s a straight path to greater power and prominence. I don’t think that’s true. It’s a fairly uneven path, and you can find women in the Middle Ages who were powerful queens and went on crusades and were venerated as saints.
How are male and female saints different?
Male saints are known for leadership and intellectual qualities, while women saints are known for possession and mysticism, altered states of consciousness in which they prophesy, claim they’re receiving divine raptures and speak with Jesus directly.
Besides living unusual lives, the lives of saints often had fantastically bloody and gruesome ends. Do you think Catholics today understand this part of the past of their church?
There’s probably been a softening of that kind of thing. These types of stories with a focus on the nitty-gritty are certainly less popular today.
Medieval people lived in a brutal time when this kind of violence was perhaps less shocking, and they really liked these kinds of stories. You find a lot of stories of beheadings, of eyes being plucked out, of saints being grilled. There’s even a famous story of a saint called St. James the Dismembered.
Who’s one of your favorite characters from the Middle Ages?
A really fun one is Saint Christina Mirabilis, which translates to something like The Astonishing. She’s a 13th-century saint who dies at a young age and then is resurrected in the middle of her funeral service. She reports that she was brought before the throne of God. She can stay in heaven or go back to her body and take upon herself the suffering of other souls who were trapped in purgatory. She’ll do this as a form of charity and suffer intense pains in her body.
In order to enact this suffering, she does things like throw herself in icy rivers, burns herself in the bread ovens, and has this strange humming song that she produces when she’s in a state of ecstasy. And she keeps running around from her town and trying to live in a wilderness.
Her sisters believe that she’s possessed by demons. They send someone after her who breaks her legs and takes her home, and she’s tied up. It’s a good example of someone who has these extreme behaviors and is being interpreted in one way. But a man who admires her tries to present her as a saint. How do we know? Because she does all these crazy things.
Possession — by God or the devil — is one of your main areas of study. How did you get interested in this?
When I was first training as a historian in graduate school, I was interested in women saints. They get stigmata, and it seemed to me like it was symbolically saying Jesus were inside these women.
I was interested in the idea of possession, that a foreign spirit has entered into your body and taken control. Your mind, your spirit, your intellect is controlled by this foreign entity.
What does a culture do when there’s a whole lot of people who appear to be possessed? Some are possibly possessed by a demon but some might be saints possessed by God. How do you tell which is which? What’s the guy in the street going to do when they meet someone who’s able to prophecy the future and have great power in some way?
It’s really important to know whom to avoid and whom to offer your veneration to. Your soul hangs in balance in terms of choosing correctly.
So what do you do if someone’s acting odd and you’re not sure if they’re possessed by God or Satan? Just in case I need to figure this out.
The theory behind demonic possession is that a demon is going to try to mislead you in some way. You need to constantly test for consistency to make sure the person isn’t slipping in a lie. The medieval theory is that a devil will tell 1,000 truths in order to get one lie past you.
What do you find fascinating about studying all this?
I am a person who is drawn to things that are unclear. What jazzes me up as a scholar is finding something that’s ambiguous and a little chaotic and trying to figure out why a culture set this up so this chaos can come in. I’m very seldom drawn to things that are very clear cut.
What can we learn today from the obsession with figuring out whether people were possessed by angels or demons?
The world is not black and white. It’s not very easy to determine what is going on, what reality is, how we ought to respond to a person and characterize them. So we create categories that aren’t natural. That’s a good thing to remember: people aren’t naturally or intrinsically one thing.
Does your background in studying how people separated saints from the demon-possessed ever help you in your own life ? Do you ever look at your husband and think, “Hmmm….”?
No comment on that!