Publication of A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity

Today is the publication date of my book A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity, which is the first comprehensive history of exorcism in the English language, covering the period from 400CE to the present day.

Exorcism Front Cover

The book is a sort-of-sequel to my earlier English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553-1829 (2013), and I began writing it in 2012 just after completing the earlier book. The final chapter of English Catholics and the Supernatural was devoted to Catholic exorcisms in England after the Reformation, but I became frustrated that there was virtually no literature that could answer a question that persistently troubled me: ‘What exactly counts as an exorcism?’ In other words, did an exorcism have to be a liturgical event, or was the apotropaic use of objects (such as relics) sufficient? And what sort of liturgical event was an exorcism? Many scholars seemed to assume that wherever the dispossession of a person thought to be under evil influence was attempted, an exorcism had taken place. The main reason for this is that, until now, there has existed virtually no historiography of exorcism per se, although a highly developed historiography of possession and dispossession now exists. Just take a look at a bibliography of the ever-growing literature on demonic possession in the early modern period, and you will see that almost all of it focuses on alleged demoniacs and, occasionally, on exorcists. Very rarely indeed does a detailed analysis of the procedures and rituals deployed feature in the historiography.

I suspect that one reason for this neglect is a tendency by historians to assume that we know what exorcism is, and that it is something defined functionally by anthropologists rather than a practice requiring historical analysis. Yet exorcism is historically interesting precisely because strenuous efforts have always been made (and are still being made) by the Roman Catholic church to define and canonically regulate it. Exorcism makes for a fascinating case study (perhaps the most fascinating) of the institutional church’s attempts to curtail and circumscribe a practice that has always had its own independent life within popular religion. And here lies another historiographical reason why, I suspect, exorcism has been neglected. The history of exorcism lies partly in the history of liturgy and partly in the history of learned ritual magic, and possessions tend to be studied by cultural historians and historians of witchcraft who have little interest in liturgy or in the more learned forms of magic.

A history of exorcism and a history of possession are by no means the same thing, because the liturgical history of exorcism goes far beyond rites intended to dispossess human beings of evil spirits. Exorcism originated as part of the liturgy of baptism (where it is far from clear that catechumens were ever thought of as possessed), and developed into an integral part of the liturgy of blessing inanimate objects. Although exorcism of energumens (demoniacs) is as old (indeed older) than Christianity itself, recognisably liturgical exorcism seems to have been a relatively late development, appearing first in the Carolingian sacramentaries of the eighth century. Throughout the Middle Ages, liturgical exorcism existed in competition with alternative methods of dispossession of demoniacs, notably the charismatic power of saints and their shrines. In England, for example, there is scant evidence that liturgical exorcism was ever used and demoniacs were brought instead to spend the night at shrines of saints such as Cuthbert, Frideswide, Henry VI and St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Exorcism in its present culturally recognisable form, as seen in films such as The Exorcist and its many derivatives, is a sixteenth-century phenomenon and a creation of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The golden age of liturgical exorcism lasted from the 1560s – when exorcists recovered their confidence in the aftermath of Protestant critiques – until around 1700, when the Inquisition began cracking down on unauthorised manuals of exorcism. The most important event within this period was the publication of the official liturgy of exorcism of the Council of Trent in 1614 – a liturgy that remained in force, never translated from the original Latin, until 1999. However, the 1614 liturgy was more honoured in the breach than the observance by the most celebrated exorcists, and it was for this reason that the Inquisition eventually banned all manuals other than the official Rituale Romanum in 1703.

The eighteenth century was possibly the greatest nadir in the history of Catholic exorcism, with the practice coming under severe pressure in Enlightenment Europe. However, it ought not to be forgotten that exorcism remained a very active force in missionary territories such as Latin America and China, and famous exorcists still practised in Europe at this period, such as Johann Joseph Gassner. The decline continued into the nineteenth century, when traditional belief in exorcism came under direct attack from secular regimes in Spain, France and elsewhere. However, an increasingly reactionary Papacy in the late nineteenth century began to revive exorcism as it became preoccupied with suspicions of organised evil. Leo XIII’s belief in a Satanic and Masonic conspiracy to dominate the world led him to compose the influential ‘Exorcism Against Satan and the Apostate Angels’ which first appeared in the Rituale in 1893.

Exorcism began a slow revival in the twentieth century that culminated in the publication of William Peter Blatty’s fictionalised account of a real-life exorcism in 1971, and William Friedkin’s subsequent film in 1973. Demand for exorcism sky-rocketed at precisely the same moment that the Vatican had downgraded exorcism to ‘a remotely possible service’ and abolished the Order of Exorcist. The church thus found itself at odds with a lay Catholic culture increasingly interested in exorcism. It was not until 1999 that the church responded to this demand by creating a new liturgy of exorcism, although the new rite came in for criticism from many exorcists themselves. Nevertheless, the creation of the International Association of Exorcists in 1994 (one of whose founder members kindly assisted me with the book) and the appearance of numerous training courses for priests is evidence that the practice shows no sign of demise. Indeed, one point of continuity between Pope Francis and Benedict XVI is the support of both Popes for the expansion of the ministry of exorcists. Exorcism is looking healthier in the Roman Catholic church today than it has at any other time in the last 300 years.


Origins of Reader Ministry in the Church of England

Readers logo

My article ‘1866 And All That: the origins of Reader ministry in the Church of England’ has just been published in a special edition of The Reader, the magazine of Church of England Readers, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Office of Reader by the Convocation of Canterbury on Ascension Day 1866. I am intrigued by ‘paraclerical’ ministries like that of Reader, and my book Inferior Office? A History of Deacons in the Church of England (2015), although primarily focussed on distinctive deacons, contained a great deal about Readers because between 1839 and 1866 the debate inside and outside Convocation about part-time deacons ran alongside the debate about ‘lay Scripture Readers’, ‘Subdeacons’ or simply ‘the third agency’ in the church. Today Readers (or Licensed Lay Ministers, as they are known in some dioceses) are a well-established feature of the Church of England and are licensed in a semi-liturgical rite to a specific diocese; however, Reader ministry is recognised across all dioceses, meaning that episcopal permission (rather than a formal re-licensing) is required for a Reader to serve in a different diocese. However, as I show in my article, Reader ministry was not invented in 1866 and goes back ultimately to the Order of Lector in the early Church.

In the Orthodox Church lay lectors or cantors remain a significant feature of parish life, and have the crucial role of singing the parts of the service that are assigned to the congregation (who do not actually participate as they do not know the tones). However, the Order of Lector fell into abeyance in the West except as one of the minor orders through which aspirants to the priesthood passed. However, Readers re-emerged in the Church of England after the Elizabethan Settlement in order to make up for a chronic shortfall in clergy, caused by the ejection of clergy who refused to renounce their allegiance to the Pope. In a sign of Elizabeth’s personal liturgical conservatism, in 1565 a royal ordinance required a Gospeller and Epistler to assist the priest in the celebration of divine service in the cathedral and collegiate churches; whilst the Gospeller needed to be himself a priest or a deacon, the Epistler could, in theory, be a layman (although in practice it was usually another priest). Readers licensed by individual bishops according to need lingered in some remote corners of northern dioceses, such as Chester and Carlisle, as late as the second half of the eighteenth century. When the ministry returned, it was not so much because Readers were needed to make up for a shortfall of priests but because priests were perceived as an excessively elite group who had no chance of appealing to the lower middle and working classes, who were therefore in danger of falling away from the established church and joining the dissenters, who permitted lay preaching. Readers after 1866 were more than just men who read the service and the lessons, therefore, but men licensed to preach with the authority of the bishop.

The position of Readers in the Church of England makes for an interesting comparison with the case of the Catholic Church, where the ministry of reader (or lector) also exists, but in a rather different form. Canon 1035 requires anyone being admitted to the diaconate to have first received the ministry of lector, a requirement which derives from the Motu Propriu of Paul VI Ministeria Quaedam (15 August 1972), which abolished the minor orders to which seminarians had previously been admitted and replaced them with two ministries to which seminarians were ‘instituted’ by a liturgical rite, rather than ordained: acolyte and lector (which between them ‘include the functions of the subdiaconate’). Of course, by the time of Ministeria Quaedam there were already men being admitted to the diaconate who were not seminarians in the traditional sense, since in 1967 Paul VI had opened the diaconate to married men in Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem. Therefore, by default, Ministeria Quaedam created ‘instituted lectors’ in parish ministry, who were men training for the permanent diaconate.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2003) provides (at GIRM 101) that in the absence of an instituted lector, lay people may be ‘commissioned’ as readers to proclaim the readings from Scripture. A commissioned lector is clearly not the same as an instituted one, and apart from men training for the permanent diaconate or visiting seminarians, it is unlikely that an instituted lector would be present at mass. This raises the question of why the Church does not institute as lectors in a liturgical rite those who do not intend to go on to ordination as deacons; if the proclamation of the Word of God has the value attributed to it by the Second Vatican Council, formal institution and training of lectors who are not in training for ordination is surely desirable. This would then open up the possibility of instituted lectors (who could be men or women) taking on a greater role in parishes than simply reading the Scriptures – they could begin to lead non-Eucharistic services such as Vespers, for instance. It is odd that the ministry of lay Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, who are commissioned in place of instituted acolytes, should have expanded so much in the Catholic Church when the ministry of lector has been somewhat neglected. I should very much like to see the Catholic Church in England and Wales expand the ministry of lector, and the development of Reader ministry in the Church of England provides a very different but nevertheless helpful model.


Launch of Rookwood Family Papers


Yesterday evening I launched my book Rookwood Family Papers 1606-1761, the Suffolk Records Society‘s volume for 2016, in the crypt of the Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr, Bury St Edmunds. The SRS tends to choose launch venues with a connection to the subject of the year’s volume, and St Edmund’s was an appropriate venue for launching mine because the church was founded in 1761 (as the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception) by the second son of Elizabeth Rookwood (1683-1759), using money and land bequeathed in her will. Indeed, her son described Elizabeth as ‘almost the foundress’ of the Jesuit chapel. I was honoured by the attendance at the launch of the Mayor of St Edmundsbury, Cllr Patrick Chung.

Rookwood Family Papers, which draws primarily (but not exclusively) on the papers of the Rookwood family, held in Cambridge University Library as part of the Hengrave Manuscripts, chronicles the fortunes of Suffolk’s most notorious family of Catholic recusants between the execution of Ambrose Rookwood (1573-1606) for his part in the Gunpowder Plot and the death of Elizabeth Rookwood in 1759 (although the last document in the collection dates from 1761). The Rookwoods of Coldham Hall, in the parish of Stanningfield just south of Bury St Edmunds, produced two convicted traitors within less than a hundred years; in addition to the Ambrose of the Gunpowder Plot, another Ambrose Rookwood was executed in 1696 for attempting to assassinate William of Orange in the Barclay Conspiracy. So black was the reputation of the Rookwoods that even Shakespeare punned on the family name in Macbeth, and more recently J. K. Rowling selected the surname for one of her ‘Death Eaters’.

The great historical puzzle of the Rookwoods, given their terrible reputation, is how they managed to survive as a family, hold onto their lands, and finally triumph as Suffolk’s foremost Catholic family at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1767 the Rookwoods inherited the baronetcy and estates of the Gages of Hengrave Hall, later absorbing the patrimony of the Martin family of Long Melford as well. The Rookwood Gages or Gage-Rokewodes did not finally go extinct until 1872, although they abandoned Coldham Hall in 1843. My volume presents the documents that solve this puzzle, showing that the Rookwoods held on to their lands by the skin of their teeth in the period 1606-1636, finally retrieving ownership of the Coldham estate by dint of the political, legal and financial astuteness of Sir Robert Rookwood, who managed to retrieve James I’s trust to the extent that the King knighted him at Royston in 1624. Nevertheless, the Rookwoods never wavered in their loyalty to the Catholic faith, faithful to the family motto Tout est en Dieu – ‘all is in God’.

Although the second Ambrose Rookwood to suffer a traitor’s death was an obscure fourth son, the incident tarnished the heir to the Coldham estate, Thomas Rookwood (1658-1726) who found himself in exile in France and Flanders until 1704, when he returned without permission from Queen Anne and was arrested. In the meantime his estates came almost to ruin, and it was his daughter Elizabeth who really saved the Rookwood family. In 1718 she secretly married (against her father’s wishes) John Gage of Hengrave, and after his death in 1728 she shrewdly managed the Coldham estate until the marriage of her eldest son Thomas Rookwood Gage to Lucy Knight of Kingerby in 1746. Elizabeth Rookwood, who was educated at Paris and Bruges, was a learned woman who spoke multiple languages and the jewels in this collection of documents are a domestic inventory of Coldham Hall compiled in 1737 and a catalogue of Catholic books in the library at around the same period. With 1,889 books, the library of Coldham Hall was the largest Catholic library in East Anglia and one of the largest in England. Elizabeth’s domestic inventory shows that she collected works of art and devotional objects from all over Europe. These two documents, more than any others, show that Coldham Hall was far more than just a family home: it was the de facto headquarters of the Jesuit College of the Holy Apostles (of whom the Rookwoods long-serving chaplain Fr James Dennett was superior) and the library may have doubled up as the collection of the missionary college.

Rookwood Family Papers is in many ways a companion volume to my earlier Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism (2015), in the sense that it draws on the same collection of manuscripts and pertains to the same network of interconnected Suffolk recusant families. Indeed, my work on the Rookwoods volume came about in 2011, after I had finished transcribing the Gages documents, because I felt that this small and somewhat neglected adjunct to the Hengrave Manuscripts required attention. Together, the two books are intended to provide a comprehensive account of Catholicism in West Suffolk between the Civil War and the 1760s.


English Catholic History and England’s European Identity

Thomas More

I do not think my self bound to conform my Conscience to the Counsel of one Kingdom, against the general Consent of all Christendom.

– Sir Thomas More, 7 May 1535

The trial of Sir Thomas More for high treason on 7 May 1535 was a defining moment (perhaps the defining moment) in the creation of what can be called English Catholicism – that is to say, the self-conscious adoption by English men and women of a religious identity as Christians in communion with the See of Rome. It would be excessively simplistic and ahistorical to say that More was defending the pan-European institutions of his day (the Papacy) against a king obsessed with strengthening national sovereignty, but it is nevertheless true that More’s conception of what constituted English identity was broader than Henry VIII’s, since More saw England’s participation in Catholic Christendom as essential to what it meant to be English. The trial of Thomas More marked a parting of the ways between a view of English national identity as distinct from other Europeans – even in the spiritual realm – and another that saw England as part of the greater whole of Christendom.

Members of More’s own family joined a stream of English exiles to the Low Countries and other Catholic nations as a consequence of the break with Rome, and it is noteworthy that the restoration of Catholicism, when it finally arrived in 1553 under Mary I, brought England back into the mainstream of Catholic Europe. Mary’s marriage to Phillip of Spain meant that most of the European Counter-reformers who pitched up in Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere were Spaniards, but Cardinal Reginald Pole also brought with him an Italian entourage. The accession of Elizabeth and the Act of Uniformity in 1559 again sent many Catholics into European exile and reinforced the idea of England as politically and spiritually insular – and the loss of Calais in 1558, the last fragment of the Angevin Empire, did not help matters. Elizabeth dallied with the idea of engaging with other Protestant European powers – and even hosted European reformers in England – but the English Reformation remained, on the whole, a profoundly insular project.

Another defining moment in the divergence of English Catholic identity from the mainstream of English national identity occurred in 1571 when the Catholic exile John Story – who had been kidnapped from the Low Countries by English agents – was put on trial for treason. Story pointed out that he had long since become a naturalised subject of Spain, but the court was baffled by this assertion and denied that it was possible for any Englishman to give up his natural allegiance. In other words, the only way to be English was to be loyal to the Queen of England – and this applied even to exiles. Parliament then determined in 1585 that any Englishman taking orders under the authority of the Bishop of Rome was, ipso facto, a traitor – even though, like Story, many of those Englishmen had renounced their allegiance to Elizabeth. England’s confrontation with Spain in the 1580s resulted in xenophobia, combined with a hefty dose of anti-Catholicism, becoming a crucial component of the national psyche.

The alienation of English Catholic identity from the mainstream of English national identity reached its apogee in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of Catholics attempted to eliminate Parliament in entirety (as well as trying to kill the son of the woman previously favoured as a Catholic pretender, Mary, Queen of Scots). Thereafter, however, Catholics began a slow journey back to the heart of the establishment as the House of Stuart vacillated in its commitment to the Protestant cause; the ‘Spanish marriage’ of 1623 was a particular high point, when it seemed that a precondition of the Prince of Wales’ marriage to the Spanish Infanta would be toleration for Catholics. Likewise, the personal rule of Charles I saw a small number of favoured Catholics moving close to the heart of political power. The interruption of the Interregnum notwithstanding, the process of Catholic advancement at court continued in Charles II’s reign, culminating in the conversion of the King’s brother and heir, the Duke of York, to Catholicism. Attempts to exclude the Duke of York from the succession failed, and pent-up popular resentment exploded in 1678 in the form of the ‘Popish Plot’, a vast anti-Catholic conspiracy theory that produced the final crop of English Catholic martyrs.

The accession of James II in 1685 promised to heal the rift between Protestant and Catholic understandings of English identity in the King’s own person, since he would (as a Catholic) continue to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England and appoint Protestant bishops. James tactfully opted for a Protestant coronation without a celebration of Holy Communion, and enjoyed huge popularity amongst Church of England loyalists. However, the fact remained that the penal laws against Catholics remained in force. Some historians have argued that James squandered his popularity amongst Tories by insisting on legislating toleration, but in reality he had no choice but to do so while his co-religionists were systematically discriminated against by the law. Yet James’ vision of an England in which Catholics and dissenters enjoyed religious toleration alongside the Church of England was too much for the national church to stomach. The King was deposed in 1688 and went into exile, along with his followers (the Jacobites), who entered the service of France, Spain, Sweden and Russia and who cherished a transnational identity in which their Englishness was rooted in loyalty to the House of Stuart rather than living in England or even speaking English.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s successful invasion of Scotland and England in 1745-46 represented the last serious attempt by Jacobites to impose their conception of kingship and Englishness; the succeeding years saw Catholics come to terms with the Hanoverian polity of an institutionally Protestant constitutional monarchy, a process that culminated in the death of Charles in 1788, at which time the Catholic bishops permitted prayers for George III at the end of mass. Over the succeeding decades a painfully slow process of legal emancipation for Catholics began, ending with the Third Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament. Nineteenth-century Catholics tended to ally themselves with the Liberals on the grounds that the Tories favoured a close alliance between established church and state, but after the brief flurry of Protestant concern over the establishment of Catholic dioceses in England in 1850, Catholics began gradually to be integrated into all levels of the British political establishment. Today Catholics can be found across the full spectrum of political views.

So was Thomas More, and other English Catholics after him, advocating England’s identity as a European nation? To claim this would probably be too much. However, there can be no doubt that More was advocating limits to the absoluteness of national sovereignty: he was adamant that Henry VIII’s sovereignty did not extend to governance of the Church, a supra-national body to whom Christian kings rendered their allegiance. On one reading, the history of English Catholicism, and especially the history of English Catholics’ engagement with the state, is the story of the gradual acceptance by the state that its sovereignty over one portion of its people (Catholics) could never be absolute. This is why, as a historian of English Catholicism, I cannot but feel the relevance of the experience of English Catholics to the debate on the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. The historical parallels are far from exact, but one lesson today’s politicians could learn from the history of England’s gradual acceptance of Catholics as true Englishmen and women is that it is far easier to tolerate difference and accept the limitations of sovereignty when fear is set aside – in 1829 the Papacy looked and felt a great deal less threatening than it did in 1535, even if its claims to spiritual jurisdiction over England’s Catholics were much the same.