To be honest, I can’t recall having heard of Johann Joseph Gassner before. Given his role in the European witch-hunting culture, however, I must have read his name a time or two. As with most names out of context, it was quickly forgotten. H. C. Erik Midelfort, therefore, is to be congratulated with bringing out not only Gassner’s name, but his remarkable career. Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany, like so many other books, came to my attention in a bookstore. Books on demons have a strange kind of draw to someone interested in both religion and monsters, and since it was on an overstock shelf, I found it impossible to let it lie. This proved to be a wise decision.
Midelfort proves himself one of the rare academics who doesn’t talk down to his readership, yet makes what could be a complex topic understandable. Complex is about the only word to describe what would become Germany in the Eighteenth Century. The remnants of the Holy Roman Empire left a divided region with prince-bishops—clerics with political control outside their own dioceses—vying for all kinds of authority. Although the Enlightenment was well underway, the region was embroiled in the controversy of a priest by the name of Gassner. Gassner was a healer, but also an exorcist. Believing that many torments suffered by the populace were demon-spawned, he used highly public and, to some, incredible exorcisms before healing those in need. His success was unquestioned, but the church, struggling between Catholicism and Lutheranism, as well as struggling to find a place in the Enlightenment world, found Gassner a bit of an embarrassment. What do you do with demons in a world where science says they don’t exist?
One of the most notable takeaways from Midelfort’s book, for me, is that the Enlightenment did not suddenly change the world. Even fully aware of empirical experimentation and the use of reason, the scholarly world did not utterly acquiesce to a subdued materialism. It still hasn’t. As the case of Gassner demonstrates, our comfortable, physically predictable world holds some surprises for us yet. At least for Gassner, believing demons don’t exist doesn’t stop them from tormenting people. As he cured his thousands, skeptics gathered (including his contemporary Franz Mesmer) to explain away what was happening. Even today, as Midelfort points out, we can’t explain the placebo effect. There’s no question, however, that it works. As does, if the media is to be believed, the occasional exorcism in the twenty-first century.