A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
Chapter 16 - From Diabolism to Hysteria

Beginnings of Helpful Scepticism

But near the end of the eighteenth century a fact very important for science was established. It was found that these manifestations do not arise in all cases from supernatural sources. In 1787 came the noted case at Hodden Bridge, in Lancashire. A girl working in a cotton manufactory there put a mouse into the bosom of another girl who had a great dread of mice. The girl thus treated immediately went into convulsions, which lasted twenty-four hours. Shortly afterward three other girls were seized with like convulsions, a little later six more, and then others, until, in all, twenty-four were attacked. Then came a fact throwing a flood of light upon earlier occurrences. This epidemic, being noised abroad, soon spread to another factory five miles distant. The patients there suffered from strangulation, danced, tore their hair, and dashed their heads against the walls. There was a strong belief that it was a disease introduced in cotton, but a resident physician amused the patients with electric shocks, and the disease died out.

In 1801 came a case of like import in the Charite Hospital in Berlin. A girl fell into strong convulsions. The disease proved contagious, several others becoming afflicted in a similar way; but nearly all were finally cured, principally by the administration of opium, which appears at that time to have been a fashionable remedy.

Of the same sort was a case at Lyons in 1851. Sixty women were working together in a shop, when one of them, after a bitter quarrel with her husband, fell into a violent nervous paroxysm. The other women, sympathizing with her, gathered about to assist her, but one after another fell into a similar condition, until twenty were thus prostrated, and a more general spread of the epidemic was only prevented by clearing the premises.

But while these cases seemed, in the eye of Science, fatal to the old conception of diabolic influence, the great majority of such epidemics, when unexplained, continued to give strength to the older view.

In Roman Catholic countries these manifestations, as we have seen, have generally appeared in convents, or in churches where young girls are brought together for their first communion, or at shrines where miracles are supposed to be wrought.

In Protestant countries they appear in times of great religious excitement, and especially when large bodies of young women are submitted to the influence of noisy and frothy preachers. Well-known examples of this in America are seen in the "Jumpers," "Jerkers," and various revival extravagances, especially among the negroes and "poor whites" of the Southern States.

The proper conditions being given for the development of the disease - generally a congregation composed mainly of young women - any fanatic or overzealous priest or preacher may stimulate hysterical seizures, which are very likely to become epidemic.

As a recent typical example on a large scale, I take the case of diabolic possession at Morzine, a French village on the borders of Switzerland; and it is especially instructive, because it was thoroughly investigated by a competent man of science.

About the year 1853 a sick girl at Morzine, acting strangely, was thought to be possessed of the devil, and was taken to Besancon, where she seems to have fallen into the hands of kindly and sensible ecclesiastics, and, under the operation of the relics preserved in the cathedral there - especially the handkerchief of Christ - the devil was cast out and she was cured. Naturally, much was said of the affair among the peasantry, and soon other cases began to show themselves. The priest at Morzine attempted to quiet the matter by avowing his disbelief in such cases of possession; but immediately a great outcry was raised against him, especially by the possessed themselves. The matter was now widely discussed, and the malady spread rapidly; myth-making and wonder-mongering began; amazing accounts were thus developed and sent out to the world. The afflicted were said to have climbed trees like squirrels; to have shown superhuman strength; to have exercised the gift of tongues, speaking in German, Latin, and even in Arabic; to have given accounts of historical events they had never heard of; and to have revealed the secret thoughts of persons about them. Mingled with such exhibitions of power were outbursts of blasphemy and obscenity.

But suddenly came something more miraculous, apparently, than all these wonders. Without any assigned cause, this epidemic of possession diminished and the devil disappeared.

Not long after this, Prof. Tissot, an eminent member of the medical faculty at Dijon, visited the spot and began a series of researches, of which he afterward published a full account. He tells us that he found some reasons for the sudden departure of Satan which had never been published. He discovered that the Government had quietly removed one or two very zealous ecclesiastics to another parish, had sent the police to Morzine to maintain order, and had given instructions that those who acted outrageously should be simply treated as lunatics and sent to asylums. This policy, so accordant with French methods of administration, cast out the devil: the possessed were mainly cured, and the matter appeared ended.

But Dr. Tissot found a few of the diseased still remaining, and he soon satisfied himself by various investigations and experiments that they were simply suffering from hysteria. One of his investigations is especially curious. In order to observe the patients more carefully, he invited some of them to dine with him, gave them without their knowledge holy water in their wine or their food, and found that it produced no effect whatever, though its results upon the demons when the possessed knew of its presence had been very marked. Even after large draughts of holy water had been thus given, the possessed remained afflicted, urged that the devil should be cast out, and some of them even went into convulsions; the devil apparently speaking from their mouths. It was evident that Satan had not the remotest idea that he had been thoroughly dosed with the most effective medicine known to the older theology.

At last Tissot published the results of his experiments, and the stereotyped answer was soon made. It resembled the answer made by the clerical opponents of Galileo when he showed them the moons of Jupiter through his telescope, and they declared that the moons were created by the telescope. The clerical opponents of Tissot insisted that the non-effect of the holy water upon the demons proved nothing save the extraordinary cunning of Satan; that the archfiend wished it to be thought that he does not exist, and so overcame his repugnance to holy water, gulping it down in order to conceal his presence.

Dr. Tissot also examined into the gift of tongues exercised by the possessed. As to German and Latin, no great difficulty was presented: it was by no means hard to suppose that some of the girls might have learned some words of the former language in the neighbouring Swiss cantons where German was spoken, or even in Germany itself; and as to Latin, considering that they had heard it from their childhood in the church, there seemed nothing very wonderful in their uttering some words in that language also. As to Arabic, had they really spoken it, that might have been accounted for by the relations of the possessed with Zouaves or Spahis from the French army; but, as Tissot could discover no such relations, he investigated this point as the most puzzling of all.

On a close inquiry, he found that all the wonderful examples of speaking Arabic were reduced to one. He then asked whether there was any other person speaking or knowing Arabic in the town. He was answered that there was not. He asked whether any person had lived there, so far as any one could remember, who had spoken or understood Arabic, and he was answered in the negative. He then asked the witnesses how they knew that the language spoken by the girl was Arabic: no answer was vouchsafed him; but he was overwhelmed with such stories as that of a pig which, at sight of the cross on the village church, suddenly refused to go farther; and he was denounced thoroughly in the clerical newspapers for declining to accept such evidence.

At Tissot's visit in 1863 the possession had generally ceased, and the cases left were few and quiet. But his visits stirred a new controversy, and its echoes were long and loud in the pulpits and clerical journals. Believers insisted that Satan had been removed by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin; unbelievers hinted that the main cause of the deliverance was the reluctance of the possessed to be shut up in asylums.

Under these circumstances the Bishop of Annecy announced that he would visit Morzine to administer Confirmation, and word appears to have spread that he would give a more orthodox completion to the work already done, by exorcising the devils who remained. Immediately several new cases of possession appeared; young girls who had been cured were again affected; the embers thus kindled were fanned into a flame by a "mission" which sundry priests held in the parish to arouse the people to their religious duties - a mission in Roman Catholic countries being akin to a "revival" among some Protestant sects. Multitudes of young women, excited by the preaching and appeals of the clergy, were again thrown into the old disease, and at the coming of the good bishop it culminated.

The account is given in the words of an eye-witness:

"At the solemn entrance of the bishop into the church, the possessed persons threw themselves on the ground before him, or endeavoured to throw themselves upon him, screaming frightfully, cursing, blaspheming, so that the people at large were struck with horror. The possessed followed the bishop, hooted him, and threatened him, up to the middle of the church. Order was only established by the intervention of the soldiers. During the confirmation the diseased redoubled their howls and infernal vociferations, and tried to spit in the face of the bishop and to tear off his pastoral raiment. At the moment when the prelate gave his benediction a still more outrageous scene took place. The violence of the diseased was carried to fury, and from all parts of the church arose yells and fearful howling; so frightful was the din that tears fell from the eyes of many of the spectators, and many strangers were thrown into consternation."

Among the very large number of these diseased persons there were only two men; of the remainder only two were of advanced age; the great majority were young women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five years.

The public authorities shortly afterward intervened, and sought to cure the disease and to draw the people out of their mania by singing, dancing, and sports of various sorts, until at last it was brought under control.

Scenes similar to these, in their essential character, have arisen more recently in Protestant countries, but with the difference that what has been generally attributed by Roman Catholic ecclesiastics to Satan is attributed by Protestant ecclesiastics to the Almighty. Typical among the greater exhibitions of this were those which began in the Methodist chapel at Redruth in Cornwall - convulsions, leaping, jumping, until some four thousand persons were seized by it. The same thing is seen in the ruder parts of America at "revivals" and camp meetings. Nor in the ruder parts of America alone. In June, 1893, at a funeral in the city of Brooklyn, one of the mourners having fallen into hysterical fits, several other cases at once appeared in various parts of the church edifice, and some of the patients were so seriously affected that they were taken to a hospital.

In still another field these exhibitions are seen, but more after a medieval pattern: in the Tigretier of Abyssinia we have epidemics of dancing which seek and obtain miraculous cures.

Reports of similar manifestations are also sent from missionaries from the west coast of Africa, one of whom sees in some of them the characteristics of cases of possession mentioned in our Gospels, and is therefore inclined to attribute them to Satan.

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