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Bishop William Poynter and exorcism in Regency England

  • Francis Young (a1)

In 1815 the Vicar Apostolic of the London District, William Poynter, became embroiled in a case of alleged demonic possession. In the face of considerable pressure from the family of Peter Moore, the alleged demoniac, Poynter prevented a proposed exorcism on the grounds that it would bring adverse publicity to the still fragile Catholic Church in England. Drawing on the surviving correspondence between Poynter and his officials and Peter Moore’s family, this article examines the stance adopted by Poynter on the issue of exorcism within the wider context of ‘Catholic Enlightenment’ thought on demonic possession, and argues that the political circumstances of Catholics in England ensured that Poynter’s cautious approach to exorcism ultimately won out against the desire of other Catholics—including another Vicar Apostolic, John Milner—to publicise the rite as a means of promoting the Catholic faith.

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1 Erik Midelfort, H. C., ‘Natur und Besessenheit: Natürliche Erklärungen für Besessenheit von der Melancholie bis Magnetismus’ in H. De Waardt, J. M. Schmidt, H. C. Erik Midelfort and D. Bauer, eds, Dämonische Besessenheit: zur Interpretation eines kulturhistorischen Phänomens (Bielefeld: Verlag für Regionalgeschichte, 2005), 7387 .

2 Brambilla, Elena, Corpi Invasi e Viaggi dell’Anima: santita, possessione, esorcismo dalla teologia barocca alla medicina illuminista (Rome: Viella, 2010).

3 On the sceptical reaction to exorcism see Romeo, Giovanni, Inquisitori, Esorcisti e Streghe nell’Italia della Controriforma (Florence: Sansoni, 2003), 115 ; Quantin, Jean-Louis, Catholicisme Classique et les Pères de L’Eglise: un retour au sources (1669–1713) (Paris: Institut d’Etudes Augustiniennes, 1999), 474488 .

4 Levack, Brian, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 215239 ; Mazzotti, Massimo, The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 98101 .

5 Cameron, Euan, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 9598 .

6 Lehner, Ulrich L., The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 139143 .

7 Young, Francis, A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 155180 .

8 Erik Midelfort, H. C., Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).

9 Ebright, Malcolm and Hendricks, Rick, The Witches of Abiquiu: the Governor, the Priest, the Genizaro Indians, and the Devil (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2006).

10 Tausiet, Maria, ‘The Possessed of Tosos (1812–1814): Witchcraft and Popular Justice During the Spanish Revolution’ in De Waardt et al., eds, Dämonische Besessenheit, 263280 .

11 Davies, Owen, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736–1951 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 2326 .

12 Young, Francis, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553–1829 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 223229 .

13 Brambilla, Corpi Invasi, 170–79.

14 Ibid., 191.

15 Midelfort, Exorcism and Enlightenment, 51.

16 Klueting, Harm, ‘The Catholic Enlightenment in Austria or the Habsburg Lands’ in Ulrich L. Lehner and Michael Printy, eds, A Companion to the Catholic Enlightenment in Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 127164 , at 144.

17 Tausiet, ‘Possessed of Tosos’, 263–80.

18 Barry, Jonathan, Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640–1789 (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 209 .

19 Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology, 207–208.

20 Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology, 229–30.

21 Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology, 169–70.

22 Shell, Alison, Oral Culture and Catholicism in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 39 .

23 Monod, Paul Kléber, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven, NY: Yale University Press, 2013), 250 .

24 Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology, 236.

25 On this dispute see Carter, Brian, ‘Controversy and Conciliation in the English Catholic Enlightenment, 1790–1840’, Enlightenment and Dissent 7 (1988), 324 ; Chinnici, Joseph P., The English Catholic Enlightenment: John Lingard and the Cisalpine Movement, 1780–1850 (Shepherdstown, WV: Patmos Press, 1980).

26 Phillips, Peter, ed., The Diaries of William Poynter, V.A. (1815–1824), CRS 79 (London: Catholic Record Society, 2006), 910 .

27 Milner, John, Authentic Documents Relative to the Miraculous Cure of Winefrid White, of Wolverhampton, at St. Winefrid’s Well (London, 1806), 24 , quoted in Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 74–77.

28 See ibid., 197–203.

29 Scott, Geoffrey, Gothic Rage Undone: English Monks in the Age of Enlightenment (Bath: Downside Abbey, 1992), 155165 ; Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 55–78.

30 Husenbeth, Frederick C., The Life of the Right Rev. John Milner D.D. (Dublin: James Duffy, 1862), 307 .

31 Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 111–12.

32 Boglioni, Pietro and Boudreau, Gérald C., ‘“Du tems de la cadi”: possessions diaboliques et exorcismes populaires en Acadie au début du XIXe siècle’, Revue d’Histoire de l’Amerique Française 60 (2007): 487551 .

33 Davies, Owen, ‘Urbanisation and the Decline of Witchcraft: An Examination of London’, Journal of Social History 30 (1997): 597617 , at 600.

34 Hone, Joseph, The Moores of Moore Hall (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939), 2122 .

35 Mulloy, S., ‘Moore, John (1767–99)’ in Dictionary of Irish Biography (hereafter DIB), 9 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 6: 646647 .

36 Hone, Moores of Moore Hall, 46–49.

37 Peter Moore to Catherine Moore, 5 May 1806, MSS U386/B12, Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone (hereafter KHLC).

38 The Irish College at Salamanca was founded by Thomas White SJ in 1592 to train Irish priests to be sent back to their home country on mission.

39 The Irish College at Bordeaux was founded by Dermit MacCarthy in 1603 to train Irish priests to be sent back to their home country on mission.

40 R. H. A. J. Everard, ‘Everard, Patrick (c. 1751–1821)’ in DIB 3:670.

41 Thomas Moore to William Poynter, 29 November 1814, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

42 Peter and George Moore to Catherine Moore, 31 May 1806, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

43 Hone, Moores of Moore Hall, 47–8.

44 Ibid, 48.

45 William Poynter to James Ryan, 21 November 1814, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

46 Rituale Romanum editio princeps (1614), ed. M. Sodi and J. J. Flores Arcas (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004), §863: In primis, ne facile credat, aliquem a daemone obsessum esse; sed nota habeat ea signa, quibus obsessus disgnoscitur ab iis, qui vel atra bile, vel morbo alio laborant.

47 Quoted in Brambilla, Corpi Invasi, 191n: In exorcizandis energuminis illud potissime interest, ut ante omnia dignoscatur, an re vera obsessus sit a daemone is qui talis affirmatur.

48 Thomas Moore to William Poynter, 29 November 1814, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

49 Walsham, Alexandra, ‘Miracles and the Counter-Reformation Mission to England’, The Historical Journal 46 (2003): 779815 .

50 Chinnici, Joseph P., ‘Poynter, William (1762–1827)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (hereafter ODNB), online edition, (accessed 13 August 2015).

51 Phillips, Diaries, 31.

52 Ibid., 57.

53 Anstruther, Godfrey, The Seminary Priests: A Dictionary of the Secular Clergy of England and Wales 1558–1800: IV. 1716–1800 (Great Wakering: Mayhew-McCrimon, 1977), 139140 .

54 Before the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917 authorization of an exorcism by a bishop was the norm but there were exceptions; in 1906 the Vicar General of the Vicar Apostolic of Natal, South Africa authorized an exorcism in the absence of the Vicar Apostolic ( Rodewyk, Adolf, Possessed by Satan: The Church’s Teaching on the Devil, Possession and Exorcism (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 120127 ).

55 Anstruther, Seminary Priests, 4: 228–29.

56 The English College at Douai, founded by Cardinal William Allen in 1568, moved to Old Hall Green, Ware, Hertfordshire in 1793 as a result of the French Revolution.

57 St Mary’s College, Oscott was founded at Great Barr, Staffordshire in 1794 to train priests for the Midland District; Crook Hall was founded in County Durham in 1794 for refugee students of the English College, Douai to train for mission in the Northern District.

58 Anstruther, Seminary Priests, 4: 47.

59 Thomas Moore to James Ryan, 12 January 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

60 Hodgson wrote ‘We have no power to permit any one to have resource [sic.] to exorcism’ (James Ryan to Thomas Moore, 4 January 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC).

61 James Ryan to Thomas Moore, 25 April 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

62 James Ryan to Thomas Moore, 25 April 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

63 Richard Broderick to Thomas Moore, 21 July 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

64 Thomas Moore to William Poynter, 25 July 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

65 Thomas Moore to William Poynter, 25 July 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

66 Phillips, Diaries, 63.

67 William Poynter to Thomas Moore, undated [2 August 1815], U386/B12, KHLC.

68 Thomas Moore to William Poynter, undated [3 August 1815], U386/B12, KHLC.

69 Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 202–203.

70 Tolosana, Carmen L., Demonios y Exorcismos en los Siglos de Oro (Madrid: Akal, 1990), 9 .

71 On Thyraeus, see Maggi, Armando, Satan’s Rhetoric: A Study in Renaissance Demonology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 107109 .

72 Thyraeus, Petrus, Daemoniaci cum locis infestis et terriculamentis nocturnis (Cologne, 1631).

73 Anstruther, Seminary Priests, 4:95.

74 John Earle to Thomas Moore, 3 August 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

75 William Poynter to Thomas Moore, 5 August 1815, MSS U386/B12, KHLC.

76 Hone, Moores of Moore Hall, 101.

77 A diligent examination of the relevant boxes of Poynter’s surviving papers in the Archives of the Archbishops of Westminster (AAW) (correspondence with Vicars General 1812–25, MSS AAW A60; correspondence regarding clergy and parishes 1812–20, MSS AAW A61; correspondence with Peter Gandolphy 1814–20, MSS AAW A68b; miscellaneous correspondence 1812–26, MSS AAW A68c) has revealed no sign of an original of the letter transcribed in the Maidstone collection.

78 Peach, Edward, ‘An Account of an Exorcism successfully performed, with the Exorcist’s Reflections thereon’, The Catholicon 2 (January–June 1816): 236242 .

79 [Milner, John], ‘On the Exorcism by the Rev. E. Peach’, The Catholicon 4 (July–December 1816): 2324 . Confirmation that Milner was the author of the letter comes from Milner’s biographer Frederick Husenbeth (Life, 320).

80 Peach, Edward, A Circumstantial Account of a Successful Exorcism, Performed at King’s Norton, Worcestershire, in the Year 1815; Accompanied by Reflections which that Extraordinary Event Produced in the Mind of the Exorcist (Birmingham: R. P. Stone, 1836). For historical analysis of this exorcism see Davies, Witchcraft, 23–26; Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 226–29.

81 [John Milner], ‘On the Exorcism by the Rev. E. Peach’, 23–24.

82 Alexander Miller (1867–1914) implied that Cardinal Vaughan once contemplated exorcizing an Australian man who was interested in Spiritualism, see Miller, Alexander V., Sermons on Modern Spiritualism (London: Kegan Paul, 1908), 132138 .

83 Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 229.

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