BOYD BROGAN is a Centre for Future Health Research Fellow in the Department of History, University of York.He works on sexual abstinence and illness in premodern medicine and on epilepsy, hysteria, and demonic possession from the early modern period to the twentieth century.“What was to go on the canvas,” Rosenberg wrote, “was not a picture but an event.” Notable Quote Weak mysticism, the “Christian Science” side of the new movement, tends …
Nancy Caciola and Moshe Sluhovsky both agree that possession was linked to femininity but trace this link to premodern medical concepts of gender rather than twentieth-century psychiatric ones. It is therefore inevitably a gendered history” echoes the program of Roper’s provocatively titled : to investigate “the irrational and unconscious . Much of this work has focused on medical writings on womb diseases.
The assertions of these historicist scholars are interestingly close to those of the psychoanalytic studies that preceded them. These scholars have broken with the notion that illnesses of this type can be “retrospectively diagnosed” as hysteria.
In this article Boyd Brogan reconsiders the gendering of the early modern body from the perspectives of exorcism and medicine, challenging the emphasis on sexual difference that has guided a generation of work in both these fields.
He argues that even the most recent historicist approaches to early modern possession and illness remain shaped by psychoanalytic interpretations that associate possession with hysteria.
Scholars such as John Demos, Lyndal Roper, Robin Briggs, and Steven Connor were no crude Freudians and often preferred Melanie Klein’s emphasis on motherhood to de Certeau’s Lacanian prioritization of language. and the relation of these two to sexual difference.” Both assume that a history of the body must be a history of what Roper calls “the physiological and psychological reality” of gender.
But they were all working within a tradition, derived ultimately from Freud’s predecessor Jean-Martin Charcot, that viewed possession through the lens of hysteria; and despite regular attempts to extend it to male patients, hysteria remains fundamentally associated with femininity. Similarly, it seems no great leap from the “porosity” and “openness” that Caciola finds in medieval female anatomy to Steven Connor’s Lacanian association of possession with “invaginated hollowness” and cultural perceptions of “the castration or deficiency of the female body.” A similar trend has been apparent in medical historiography.
As part of the larger “culture wars” of the mid-century, art critics began to take on greater influence than they’d ever held before.
For a time, two critics in particular—who began as friends, and remained in the same social circles for much of their lives—set the stakes of the debates surrounding the maturation of American art that would continue for decades.
Sluhovsky’s claim “The history of possession is a history of bodies. But they have also, it might be argued, subtly confirmed it, by emphasizing the extent to which the womb was indeed viewed as a potent source of mental and physical illnesses that were unique to women.
Since some of these illnesses, such as suffocation of the womb, possessed cultural associations with demonic possession, studies like these offer powerful support for the notion that possession too was a kind of female malady.