Date of Award

Winter 1992

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Charles E Clark


During the Reformation, Protestants attempted to recast their theology in opposition to the Roman Catholic system. They succeeded in most areas. There was, however, one area of theology where this was not true: demonology and spiritual possession. Incidents of demonic possession rose during the second quarter of the sixteenth century, reached a crescendo by the first quarter of the seventeenth century, and except for a flurry or two, died out near the beginning of the eighteenth century. This dissertation examines the published materials relating to the physical phenomena of demonic possession in France, England, and Puritan America from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in three categories: theology, law and medicine. By concentrating on the corporeal aspects of the phenomenon, I have delineated aspects of the problem which were most important to each profession, outlined differences between the professions in discernment of the spirits and the remedies prescribed, and offered explanations for the dissolution of the interest in demonic possession as a diagnosis.

In searching for answers to the rise of demonic possession, both Catholics and Reformers resorted to shared sources: the Bible, Church Fathers, Classical authors, and scholastics. Therefore, the demonology remained constant for both sides. It was not whether one was Roman Catholic or Reformed but whether one adhered to the philosophical system outlined by Plato or the one by Aristotle. Puritan thought was dictated by the scholastic education at Cambridge University and by a lack of a reformed angelology to counterbalance the Summa Theologica of Aquinas. Thinkers who diagnosed behavior as demonic and sanctioned witchcraft persecution were usually Aristotelian in thought. Neoplatonic thinkers searched for other origins. This has implications for the study of Protestant and Puritan theology. The Salem events, for instance, happened the way they did not so much because of sociological or political problems, but because anomalous human behavior was interpreted in an Aristotelian manner. Finally, this work is an attempt to offer a broader insight into the intellectual history of the early modern period through a study of the use of the human body to explain theological assumptions.