The Medical Diagnosis of Demonic Possession in an Early Modern English Community

By Bonzol, Judith | Parergon, January 2009 | Go to article overview

The Medical Diagnosis of Demonic Possession in an Early Modern English Community


Bonzol, Judith, Parergon


Anne Gunter's troubles began in the summer of 1604 when she 'fell into a series of strange fits'. Anne's mother took her to a doctor, 'one M[aste]r Cheyneye ... of Wallingford'. He suggested that she was 'not sicke of any naturall cause' and administered a purge, but her 'fitts continued & grew to be worse & worse'. (1) Later that year, Roger Bracegirdle and Bartholomew Warner, qualified physicians from Oxford University, were sent samples of Anne Gunter's urine. Warner, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford from 1597, insisted that Anne Gunter 'was not sicke of anye naturall cause or infirmitie'. (2) Bracegirdle, the eighty-year-old fellow of Brasenose College with over thirty years of medical experience, had known the Gunters for several years prior to Anne's illness. He saw her condition improve when the thatch was burned from the cottage of one of the suspected witches, and he was entirely 'p[er]swaded that the said Anne Gunter was bewitched & so he having no skill to redresse it went his waye'. (3) Two years later when Anne Gunter testified in the court of the Star Chamber, she declared that initially she neither claimed nor believed herself to be possessed, but thought that she was suffering from 'the disease called the mother'. (4) She went on to say that when her illness returned later that same year, her father (Brian Gunter) persuaded her to 'counterfeit herself to be bewitched', and to accuse a neighbour, Elizabeth Gregory, of bewitching her, as he had a long-standing dispute with the Gregory family. (5)

Statements from witnesses at the trial in the Star Chamber reveal that Anne Gunter's symptoms included:

   "hysterical passions and paralytical convulsions" ... quivering and
   shaking, extraordinary stiffness, lameness, change of weight and
   height, with variations of strength. She lost feeling, had attacks
   of blindness, deafness, and fearful visions of witches. Her eyes
   goggled, ... she foamed at the mouth.... Sometimes she abstained
   from taking food for ten or twelve days together, and occasionally
   her pulse ceased to beat. She could tell what money people had in
   their purses, and describe actions performed in other rooms. (6)

The voiding of foreign objects was one of the most common symptoms of demonic possession, and Anne Gunter not only vomited copious quantities of pins, but ejected them from her nose when sneezing and passed them in her urine. It was the numerous pins that made a vivid impression with contemporary chroniclers and diarists. In October 1605, Walter Yonge wrote of Anne Gunter, 'that in her fits she cast out of her nose and mouth pins in great abundance'. (7) In his entry for the same year Robert Johnston recorded in his chronicle:

   To the great wonder of bystanders she lacked all sense of pain when
   she was stuck with pins.... Not only was this wonderful in the eyes
   of those who were present, but she also cast out of her mouth and
   throat needles and pins in an extraordinary fashion. (8)

Several eye-witnesses, including Drs John Hall and Robert Vilvaine from Oxford University, were equally impressed by Anne Gunter's clairvoyant abilities and believed that she was able to prophesy events, reveal the contents of private conversations, and that her clothing appeared to move of its own accord.

In the families of the English gentry where the majority of the documented cases of demonic possession occurred, doctors played a significant role in interpreting strange and unusual illnesses. It was considered important to first rule out the possibility of natural causation when a supernatural affliction was suspected, and physicians were regarded as crucial in making the distinction. (9) Numerous published accounts of demonic possession frequently made a point of mentioning that physicians were consulted in the early stages of a perceived demonic illness. While contemporary writers on witchcraft in England, such as Henry Holland, advocated consulting 'learned physicians' in order to find 'the cure of any man, poisoned by Sathan', people more often turned to physicians for interpretation rather than cure. …

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