Monday, July 30, 2007

Anglo-Saxon Demons

National Geographic is running a piece on Peter Dendle's Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England (which I've not yet read). I'm very interested in reading this book because it strikes me as totally wrong, so I'm wondering where Dendle's coming from.

First off, if their leechbooks are any indicator (and I'd say they are), the Anglo-Saxons certainly thought that evil or mischievous spirits caused sickness and madness. In addition to afflictions from being elfshot, people could suffer from "fiendsickness" or "devilsickness." Hagiography had examples of people being tormented by demons or devils, and of course the idea of demonic forces working in our world likely first came to England long before even the Anglo-Saxons did, with the conversion of the Britons. The only way I can see this working out is to have an extremely narrow definition of "possession."

Even then, I'm skeptical of this claim. Let's say that we define "demon" and "possession" very narrowly -- i.e. demon means "evil spirit in league with the Christian Satan" and possession means "absolute control over every element of a person's body." Even then, this is a startling claim to make from negative evidence. Let's say we have no extant examples of such demonic possession from Anglo-Saxon England (we may not under such a narrow definition) -- does this then mean that they did not have demonic possession? That's a pretty big claim to make for a period with limited manuscript evidence.

Furthermore, the article seems to indicate that we do have manuscript evidence of demonic possession, in this 50-year outbreak in Northumbria. It strikes me that this is less likely an "outbreak," and more likely simply one of the few records that survived the dissolution of the monasteries and the fire at the Cotton Library.

Maybe Dendle has some stronger evidence than was introduced in the article, such as Anglo-Saxons seeming to consider demon possession foreign or explicitly referring to it as "Irish" or "Merovingian." Dendle has done other work on demons and devils, so I'm betting he's got more powerful ammunition than this popular article shows us.

h/t Scribal Terror


  1. I'm not an Anglo-Saxonist any more but I share your misgivings! In particular I smell a rat where Dendle is quoted as saying, "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". That is of course also the point in Anglo-Saxon history from which our biggest single source for the period comes, Bede's Ecclesiastical History comes! So when we have sources, we have exceptions to Dendle's theory! How, er, serendipitous.

    The other reason I comment is that at Leeds, a friend of mine, Alaric Hall, was giving pretty much the opposite paper to this argument. Although he was talking about witches (which does involve some demons, and also 'elfshot'), he also had to generally touch on the occult. His observation was that a lot of the evidence is literary, so historians proper hav tended not to quarry it because it's too subjective; and literature specialists have tended to leave it because it's not very good :-) But the evidence is there, even if there isn't huge masses of it. I can probably type up my notes on the paper if it will be of use, but I imagine Alaric would be happy to be asked for a copy of the paper too.

    I may be overestimating how involved you intend to get with this of course :-)

  2. I'd love to see Alaric's paper ... but if you could get him to comment here on the Wordhoard for everyone to see, that would be even better.

    I wonder if I could get Dendle to clarify or expand on some of our objections? At the very least, I'd like to know when the new book is forthcoming and who's publishing it.

  3. It seemed kind of fishy to me too, especially since he's trying to make a "statement." The more I look at it, the more I wonder about the word "contemporary." Is he trying to fudge by limiting the evidence to something like court cases or other legal documents and ignoring things like charms?

  4. Given the experience other scholars have had, I think it's just as likely that the reporter is trying to make a statement. I'll withhold judgment until I've had a chance to read his book -- i.e. his own arguments in his own words.

    That's always the danger of going off these news reports; they are by necessity simplified for a general audience, and are often written by reporters who don't have the strongest grasp of the material themselves ... and who are writing on tight deadlines. My general philosophy is always to give the benefit of the doubt to the scholar.

    All we can deal with here, though, is the report itself, and I agree that something doesn't seem right.

  5. Hey dudes,

    I was put onto this blog by Kathryn Laity--it's a cool blog, Richard! Cheers for sharing your thoughts.

    I hadn't heard about Dendle's forthcoming book and, like you, am now keen to find out more about it--sounds interesting if nothing else, and I've enjoyed his previous work. And the reservations both about this fifty-year window in the Northumbrian records and the usefulness of journalistic reporting of forthcoming work strike me as judicious too!

    Thanks for the expressions of interest in my Leeds paper. I don't script papers, I'm afraid, so I don't have a copy which I can handily circulate, though I'll look at my powerpoint slides when I next have the computer with them on handy and see if they're likely to make sense to anyone. Jonathan's summary of my paper is definitely not wrong, but I think my key point was to argue that people have tried to impose a false distinction between 'real' witches and 'supernatural' valkyrie type women when dealing with out early medieval evidence for witchcraft, which has led to swathes of material being written off as irrelevant to the history of witchcraft.

    As for the idea that demonic possession specifically became a more prominent concept after the Conquest, I don't claim to know, but I could believe it I think. Although different commentators and translators have come up with different views of our Anglo-Saxon medical texts, they don't contain much unambiguous evidence for possession, as opposed to other sorts of harm done by supernatural beings. The most relevant common term is féondes costunga ('tribulations of the Enemy')--I guess if you take that to denote demonic possession, then there's plenty of it, but if you don't then there's not very much! I'm not sure what sort of profile is suggested by our hagiographical texts? I'd have thought that they'd be at the centre of Dendle's argumentation. But I could imagine a priori that the tightening of the relationship of English Christianity with Continental from the eleventh century or so, and changes in Christian thinking generally about that time, might have promoted a rise in the idea of demonic possession, along with other more familiar things like hermitic activity or female mystics or the cult of Mary. Just a guess though.

    There is some interesting lexical Anglo-Saxon evidence for possession in the form of the words gydig (the etymon of giddy) and perhaps ylfig. The former certainly meant 'possessed by a god' and seems to be an old word (since it reflects a stem *gud- which is not really attested in historic Old English, which has the variant god). And ylfig is attested to mean something like 'speaking prophetically'--implying possession by elves as a means for acquiring prophetic knowledge? In which case there may have been positive associations for (some kinds of) possession in early Anglo-Saxon England. Hard to be sure... If anyone wants references for these points, I'm happy to provide them.

    Well, just some Tuesday morning thoughts.

  6. Peter Dendle10:32 PM

    Thanks to everyone for responding to that news item, and for posting feedback.

    I think I can clarify matters a little by explaining that my book does not deal with the broader category of demons as illness agents in general (which is how the Anglo-Saxons likely would have understood them), but with "demon possession" in the modern sense of the term: the ostensible taking over of the individual's personality by an alternate personality. This is a well documented and culturally determined behavioral phenomenon, available (among other things) to express political or religious dissent, personal frustration/rage, or libidinal impulses. This phenomenon is recorded for some pre-modern societies, but not for others. My purpose in the forthcoming book is to explore to what extent this particular phenomenon might have existed in Anglo-Saxon England. If I start addressing more particular concerns (very rightly raised here in this blog by all who have posted), I fear I'll wind up re-typing out the book, so forgive me if I back off at this point and ask people to postpone the dialogue until the book appears. Thanks to Richard, Alaric and others for wishing to hold off on further comment until the arguments appear in full.

  7. I must apologise in advance for being ignorant of both Peter Dendel's book and Alaric's paper (sorry Alaric).

    From my knowledge of the Leechbooks I don't think they are particularly helpful in this debate, as it is very difficult to tell from the context of the recipes (Leechbook i.lxiii, ed. Cockayne, 1864-6 vol 2 pp 136-8) the precise meaning of the terms feond seocum men, bræseocum men and weden heorte.

    The fact that they are treated by herbal leechdoms rather than clerical exorcisms may be taken to imply that they are not demonic possession in the current sense of the word, yet it is a slim sliver of evidence either way. I would however be tempted to agree with Alaric Hall's statement in Elves in Anglo-Saxon England wherein he suggests that certain medical references to elves, such as the term "water-elf disease" may have become bahuvrihi compounds by the time they were used in medical texts, and I would suggest that a similar process may be in operation in the references to "fiend-sickness". (hoping of course that my memory of the book is accurate).

    I am, however, just a lowly PhD student, so feel free to disregard my comments.

  8. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.

  9. Thanks for sharing your thought on this! I've always been interested in the definition of "demon" and distinguishing demons and possession meanings. You actually made the point.

  10. I was curious if you ever thought of changing the structure of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or two pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

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