Exorcism and Enlightenment

Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany


Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10669-5


1 The Experience of Demons.............................................................11
2 A Niche in the Incubator: Ecclesiastical Politics and the Empire.....................32
3 Healing..............................................................................59
4 Interpretation.......................................................................87
5 Conversation and Ridicule............................................................118

Chapter One


L[ucius]: "So you're a free thinker and a skeptic. So what? If real and incontrovertible experiences show that Herr Gassner has made many sick persons well, then you just have to believe these experiences." -[Christoph Heinrich Korn] Gespräch im Reiche der Lebendigen

Gassner was not the only one dabbling with the world of demons in the mid-1770s. In the South German, Upper Swabian town of Langenegg a poverty-stricken, guilt-ridden woman, Maria Anna Schwägelin, lay miserably confined in a spital for the poor. Orphaned early in life, she had abandoned her Catholic faith in order to marry a Protestant from Memmingen, but the marriage plans were broken off. She became increasingly convinced that in betraying her faith, she had left herself open to the assaults of the Evil One. Crippled, she began to wonder if her troubles were caused by the devil. A five-year-old child living in the poorhouse now began to seem demon possessed, but a local pastor decided that the child was actually bewitched. Schwägelin was beaten and soon confessed that she was indeed a witch. Transferred to the Imperial Abbey of Kempten for trial, she continued her confessions and was convicted in April of 1775. Historians have long believed that she was the last witch executed on German soil. Recent research has shown that Maria Anna was not executed, however, and perhaps she should stand instead for how little we really understand the Germany of the 1770s.

During the months that Maria Anna Schwägelin was suffering in a poorhouse and confessing to her troubles with the devil, Father Gassner was touring Upper Swabia, demonstrating his abilities to detect and expel the devil with uncanny efficiency. In 1774 he published a pious little book on his methods right in Kempten, probably contributing to the renewed interest in demonic possession and witchcraft that got Maria Anna into such deep trouble. Born in 1727, Johann Joseph Gassner came from Braz in the Vorarlberg (Austria), and had studied with the Jesuits in Prague and Innsbruck but did not become a member of their Society. Instead, he became a secular priest in 1750 and took up duties in Dalaas (1751-1758) and then in Klösterle, east of Feldkirch (1758-1774), at the foot of the immense Arlberg Mountains. Apparently from early in his pastoral career, Gassner had employed special blessings and cures; but as a result of a series of chronic ailments from 1752 to 1759 he developed a special technique for healing the headaches, fainting spells, and sudden weakness he experienced, especially whenever he was to preach or say Mass. He also sought out doctors and used their prescriptions, he wrote-but to no effect. In the end, Gassner concluded that his illness came from the devil, and accordingly he invoked the Holy Name of Jesus and, in effect, exorcised himself. Using this method of cure, Gassner developed a regional reputation as a healer in the 1760s and learned to tell if the devil was at hand by practicing "test exorcisms," in which he would order the devil, if he was present, to perform certain acts. Sometimes he addressed the devil in Latin, a language that he assumed his parishioners would not understand even though the devil, as a great linguist, would have no trouble. If he found that a demon was in fact present, Gassner took his time, forcing the demon to move around in the patient's body and to manifest himself in various ways, until the patient too became persuaded of this startling truth: that he or she was possessed. This is a good example of how an idea could be mobilized, with practice, to become a full-fledged experience. One sometimes reads that Gassner believed all diseases to come from the devil, but this he specifically denied. In fact, his probative exorcisms make sense only if some illnesses and disabilities were of natural origin. By practicing on his patients, by helping them to experience their condition as demonic, Gassner was creating the first and crucial precondition for successful exorcism. It was a kind of negative spiritual exercise that paved the way for further experiences. He allows us to see how our concepts and beliefs make certain experiences possible and others almost impossible.

This chapter explores the uses of the devil as a thinking tool, a way of understanding and shaping one's experience and religion. In proceeding in this manner one runs the risk of sounding antiquarian and anachronistic. Few reputable history professors take the devil seriously anymore. What sensible person still thinks that demonic possession might be real or that exorcism might help? "In these Enlightened days," we are told, and we tell ourselves, such ideas are rotting on the compost heap of outmoded and dangerous ideas, displaced by science, psychoanalysis, improved means of understanding Holy Scripture, and by the feeling that if we let the devil back into public discourse, we'll open the door to witchcraft trials and demonically obsessed nursery schools, cloisters, asylums, and hospitals all over again. But here let me make an important clarification. I am not here mounting a defense of the devil, who, if he exists, certainly does not need my defense. Rather, I am suggesting that how we talk about such matters matters. How we talk shapes how we think and what we can fully experience. When Gassner and his supplicants spoke of the devil, they were speaking of and simultaneously shaping their own experiences.

Gassner's Healing Career

Hundreds of patients came to Gassner for relief, but he did not treat them all. Only if he first got results with his "praecepta" or admonitions did he feel assured that a full-fledged "benedictio" (blessing) or exorcism would get rid of the devil for good. In a diary ("Diarium") that he kept for 1769 he recorded over two hundred cures and healing miracles, and in chapter 3 we will spend some time looking at these and other cases of healing. It is worth noticing, however, that Gassner did not think that he was dealing with classic instances of full-fledged demonic possession, for which the expected symptoms would have been amazing, supernatural, "wondrous." We find among those who sought him out virtually none of the classic signs of demoniac possession: no supernatural strength, no frothing at the mouth, no unaccountable knowledge of distant events. They showed no mysterious knowledge of foreign languages they had never heard or learned, although Gassner did deploy this last symptom in one of his favorite test exorcisms, addressing the supposed demon in Latin and (often) getting a response that he assumed could only mean that the devil was present. Basically, Gassner employed blessings and exorcisms to treat illnesses that looked natural. It seems that this was one way in which the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century actually affected his practice: the devil no longer looked as if he were separate from the world of normal appearance. Instead, even sickness and chronic crippling that looked ordinary might come from the devil.

In the summer of 1774 Gassner's growing reputation jumped beyond the region of Vorarlberg, Tirol, and eastern Switzerland, where he had gained a sensational but merely regional reputation as a wonder worker. With permission from his bishop in Chur, Gassner made a remarkable tour of Upper Swabia, the region just north of the Lake of Constance. In Wolfegg he healed Countess Maria Bernardina Truchsess von Wolfegg and Friedberg along with many others, then moving on to other tiny counties and abbeys of the region. He spent a month or more with the abbot of Salem and began to cure desperate patients by the score, often treating fifty to eighty a day. Altogether that summer he reckoned that he had treated three hundred nuns and eight thousand persons of all sorts. By the fall of 1774 he was back in his parish of Klösterle, having been gone far longer than his original leave of absence allowed. But now he received a summons to the Princely Provostry (Fürstpropstei) of Ellwangen, where the blind Anton Ignaz von Fugger, bishop of Regensburg (reg. 1769-1787), was also the prince provost of Ellwangen. Although Gassner determined that the bishop's blindness was merely natural and therefore beyond priestly help, his stay in Ellwangen brought him to new levels of success. Thousands of persons seeking help jammed the streets of the little town and overburdened local hostelries. Gassner stayed there from November of 1774 to June of 1775, displaying his techniques to the faithful and to skeptics alike. Members of the higher and lower nobility joined the throngs of commoners in traveling to Ellwangen, hoping for help, but also looking for proof that traditional, unenlightened (perhaps we should call it "Counter-Enlightened") Catholicism still had some fight left in it during the years immediately following the papal dissolution of the Jesuit Order, a move that many German nobles had regarded as a craven concession to the worldly spirit of their age. Bishop Anton Ignaz rewarded Gassner by appointing him his court chaplain and making him a member of his "spiritual council" (Geistlicher Rat).

By now Gassner was famous throughout Germany and even in parts of France. But he was also attracting the attention of enlightened skeptics, including especially Don Ferdinand Sterzinger, a reforming Theatine from Munich, prominent member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, and one of the leaders of the Bavarian attack on witchcraft in the 1760s; and Johann Salomo Semler, professor of enlightened ("neologist," or cautiously historicizing) theology at Halle in northern (Prussian) Germany. On the other hand, a handful of ex-Jesuits now sprang to his defense and mounted a noisy campaign trumpeting empirical claims based on careful observation and scrupulous reporting. And certain Protestants in Germany and Switzerland were so impressed with these claims that they began to take an intense interest in Gassner. The most famous of these was Johann Kaspar Lavater, the renowned pastor and physiognomist of Zurich, about whom I will have more to say.

In the summer of 1775, Gassner moved with Bishop Anton Ignaz from Ellwangen eastward over one hundred miles to Regensburg, where he worked his wondrous cures until September, when he moved his operations northward to the Upper Palatinate (at Sulzbach and Amberg), but under increasingly intense scrutiny and in apparently decreasing numbers. One reason for moving around like this may have been to bring his healing powers to ever larger groups of sufferers, but these peripatetic missions also firmed up support for Gassner's movement among secular rulers, such as the Upper Palatinate, the court at Sulzbach, or the Bavarian administration in Amberg. As we will see in chapter 2, Gassner seemed for a time to be exploiting the weaknesses or peculiarities of the Holy Roman Empire with great success. Prudent men, however, urged greater caution. In November of 1775 the Emperor Joseph II ordered Gassner to leave Regensburg; the archbishops of Prague and Salzburg issued pastoral letters warning of the misuse of exorcism; and in April of 1776 ecclesiastical enemies secured a condemnation from Pope Pius VI himself, which settled the matter, at least as far as his actual exorcisms went. Gassner was forced to take up simple parish duties in tiny Pondorf, several hours down the Danube from Regensburg, where he died in 1779. But in his heyday he had exorcised and blessed thousands and tens of thousands.

The Problem of Evil

How shall we understand what Gassner was doing? He was treating a familiar series of miseries with a novel diagnosis, and as we will see, he was using a form of exorcism that was not entirely orthodox either. One way to regard his work is to see it as a response to the question of evil. Susan Neiman has recently pointed out that in the eighteenth century, following the challenge of Pierre Bayle, many European intellectuals had increasing trouble understanding how a gracious God could inflict massive misery on thousands or even millions of innocent sufferers. The Lisbon earthquake of 1 November 1755 had cost perhaps twenty to thirty thousand lives, and it seemed hard or at least hard-hearted to argue the Leibnizian or Wolffian line that this was all part of the "best of all possible worlds." Some, like Voltaire, heaped ridicule upon the claim that the world always worked toward progress and human benefit. Others, like Rousseau, pointed to the human factors that contributed to natural disasters, such as poorly built houses and overcrowding. Following such lines of physical investigation, some began to think that nature was not itself a theater of evil, a place where natural evils existed to punish mankind for its moral evils. For such thinkers natural accidents and natural disasters were merely unfortunate; they concluded that true evil ought to be confined to those events or experiences that were the product of someone's will. This amounted to redefining the distinction between natural evil and moral evil, and thus emphasizing the way evil entered the world as human beings became socially human. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was beginning to seem that efforts to explain evil might be doomed to blasphemy if they seemed to blame God for flaws He might have avoided. But as Neiman stresses, the refusal to deal with evil as a problem provided no solution. People still demanded (and reason still demands) an explanation, even if the wrongs we suffer and the wrongs others suffer do not come as divine punishments anymore. From this perspective, it makes historical sense that Johann Joseph Gassner was emphasizing the role of the devil in causing a large share of the miseries to which humankind is subject. It was Gassner's way of saying that misery was in fact intelligible; it was not accidental and not merely natural but rather the product of a cunning and depraved will. Banishing the devil was his therapeutic solution, but Gassner did not proceed in the manner that a naturalizing Enlightenment did. For most Enlightened intellectuals did more than banish the devil: they read him out of reality. The trouble was that declaring the death of the devil became a prelude to the death of God and signaled an early defeat on the field of meaning. Without the devil, it seemed, certain evils simply could not be understood. It will appear, therefore, that demonology was actually a practical means of doing theology, a negative theology to be sure, but one connected closely to the human quest for meaning. So instead of flatly forgetting the devil, Gassner was trying on a massive scale to retain and yet banish (but not to annihilate) the devil. That was an unstable effort, one doomed to condemnation by both the church and the state in his day. But it was not so foolish as the Enlightened thought then and frankly have ever since.

Franz Anton Mesmer as Rival

At just the moment that Gassner's fame was at its peak and was attracting the skeptical attentions of churchmen and enlightened rulers such as Emperor Joseph II and Elector Maximilian III Joseph of Bavaria, another healer came out of Austria to fascinate his own throngs of enthusiastic followers. Inspired by the work of Viennese Jesuit court astronomer Maximilian Hell (1720-1792), Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) had discovered in 1774 that he could manipulate strange forces in some of his patients, forces that he called magnetic. Following Hell's example, he had begun working with "real magnets" made of metal, glass, and stone, but subsequently found that he could achieve the same amazing effects on patients by mere touch and concentration; and so he distinguished this new magnetism from the magnetism found in inanimate nature and called it "animal magnetism," a term he probably picked up from the seventeenth-century Jesuit savant Athanasius Kircher. With this new therapeutic weapon and with the elaborate theory that went with it, he became a celebrity in Vienna, entertaining the young Mozart and healing the rich and famous. After a frustrating therapeutic setback at the Slovakian castle of a Hungarian nobleman, however, Mesmer decided to return to his homeland, just north of the Lake of Constance.


Excerpted from Exorcism and Enlightenment by H.C. ERIK MIDELFORT Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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