Monday, December 19, 2016

Demon Possession in Context: Giovanni Levi's Microhistory of a Seventeenth-Century Exorcist

Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Pp. xxviii, 209.

Inheriting Power was first published in Italian in 1985. A microhistory, the book focuses on the village of Santena and the surrounding region in northwestern Italy during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, particularly the 1690s. In a real sense Giovan Battista Chiesa, the exorcist of the subtitle, is nearly incidental to the world that the author reconstructs. In fact, Levi once described his book as an exploration of “one village’s land transactions studied to discover the social rules of commercial exchange at work in a market which had yet to be de-personalized.”

Chapter 1 tells the story of how Chiesa, the suffragan priest of Santena in northwestern Italy, became a regional celebrity healer and exorcist during the warm months of 1697. For his unconventional ministry to hundreds of people, Chiesa was summoned to answer before church authorities in Turin. Apparently, under canon law, not much of a case could be made against him. If he was ever sentenced, we do not know what the penalty was. After his trial in November 1697, none of the available records so much as mention him. He practically vanishes. “We do not know his date of death, nor what became of him, nor what new ties he may have forged. His history can only be read backward, by asking who he was, where he came from, who his friends and his family were, and why he became a healer and gathered a following” (19). Nonetheless, the promise of Levi’s study is that “even though there is no correspondence here between symbolic representations and the polarized social reality, the patterns of behavior of the chief actors in this local flare-up of the ancient war against the Demon can be tied to an underlying context of passions and conflicts that took years to develop and were not riding the momentary wave of a new cult” (12). Levi’s research question asks about the political and socio-economic contexts of events that might otherwise appear to be simply unusual.

Chapter 2 explores three contemporary massari (i.e., middling) families. Levi reveals how it was that within these families, the systems of dependence and assistance extended well beyond the boundaries of the truly-modern nuclear family. “In reality, there is a sort of anachronism in considering the household as the sole unit of analysis” (60). Levi also notes how these extended families deliberately diversified their occupations and activities as a means to survival and success. His point is that this was a world where the majority of the population was fairly obsessed with the “search for security.” Thus, Levi suggests that when the people of Santena and the surrounding area turned to Giovan Battista Chiesa for divine help, they were responding to the need for greater predictability and control in an uncertain world (64-65).

In Chapter 3, Levi identifies a trio of hypotheses stemming from his study to this point: (a) “The relative value of goods was not completely free to vary; it expresses proportions determined by conditions existing in the community, and it contributed to the persistence of such conditions.” Here, the operative word is community. (b) “The relative value of goods did not have the same significance for all members of the community. Significance varied in relation to position on the scale of wealth and social status of the contractual parties.” (c) “The situation in Santena at the end of the seventeenth century was in no way exceptional. It was one example of land-market mechanisms common to many other areas in Piedmont during the ancien rĂ©gime.” This was not an impersonal market world controlled by supply and demand. Rather, it was concerned with “justice” and a “just price,” a world in which “relative value was the result of concrete social situations” (80-81). Levi explains this interpretation with land-sale statistics that reveal a wide range of prices. (See his graphs on p. 90). The differences clearly depend on the identity of the buyer. Specifically, did a peasant sell part of his land to a family member, a near neighbor, or to an outsider?

Chapter 4 uses “the biography of Giovan Battista Chiesa's father to describe a highly mobile and dynamic relationship between the community and a local political leader” (100). Here, Levi shows how for many years the father of our main character accumulated and leveraged local authority as he served his community in ways that extended far beyond his official responsibilities. When he died in 1690, his son “felt his position was unassailable, and he must have considered himself invested with the same boundless power that his father seems to have exercised in the community” (122).

Chapter 5 takes the reader back to the year 1694, when our future exorcist was brought up on charges that he neglected his priestly responsibilities and, more to the point, pilfered funds and abused his clerical authority. It was no coincidence, writes Levi, that 1694 marked the height of a desperate time. During the previous four years, traveling armies trampled and pillaged the region, a terrible hail storm ruined virtually all the produce of an entire growing season, and heavy snows in late spring shortened yet another growing season. The crisis led to a number of premature deaths (125-27). Just before these events, Giovan Battista Chiesa’s father had died, and the priest dealt ruthlessly with peasants who were desperate to bury their dead, but who could not pay the price for a religious burial.

Chapter 6 resembles Chapter 3 in that it also examines extended families. But here, Levi turns from the massari of Chapter 3 to families of notables. Among these wealthier residents of Santena, in a family with several sons it was common for one of them to become a priest. Consequently, all land to which he held title would be tax-exempt. Upon the death of one of his brothers, the priest could transfer ownership of his land to the son(s) of the deceased. The sisters of these sons would be married off to respectable massari families who would provide for them well enough, but who would not expect large dowries. About this world, Levi remarks: “A strong potential for change lurked beneath established hierarchies that had become self-sustaining and rigid. Messianism and miracles often find living space in an ambiguous climate of truce and dissatisfaction, of outward peace and latent conflict, in which no equilibrium ever is definitive or stable” (157).

A brief final chapter returns the reader to the story of Giovan Battista Chiesa. The mercenary priest of 1694 became the apparently-generous healer and exorcist of 1697. What had changed? “It does not seem accurate,” writes Levi, “to say that he took up exorcism in an attempt to find a way to keep the prestige and the power that he had showed himself so incapable of maintaining after the death of this father. It is highly probable that as his preaching garnered successful cures, he himself began to believe sincerely in the new powers of healing that many saw in him” (162), a false dichotomy as I see it. The hundreds of people healed by Chiesa came from peasant, massari, and even notable backgrounds. However, all of them were “secondary personages in their respective kinship groups.” Not one of them was a first-born son or the head of a family. Apparently all of them were men and women “who felt a pressing need to find a reason for their misfortunes” (163). Many of their troubles “went back to complex problems of administration of all the many local communities in the state” as Victor Amadeus II “fought to affirm the central power of the state” (168).

Note: If you've made it this far down the page, then you know that the foregoing is a book report, a summary. For more about Inheriting Power, see the great review by Stephen Greenblatt, “Loitering in the Piazza,” which appeared in the London Review of Books in 1988.

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