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23.08.07 Raiswell/Winter (eds.), The Medieval Devil

23.08.07 Raiswell/Winter (eds.), The Medieval Devil

For this sourcebook on the medieval Devil, the editors, Richard Raiswell and David R. Winter, both extremely well-known scholars of medieval demonology, have compiled nearly one hundred excerpts distributed across eleven thematic chapters with a chronological range from the Hebrew Scriptures to theMalleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) of 1487. The chapters tend to move chronologically across this period, but the demands of thematization mean that some chapters may initially backtrack, especially to biblical sources. Within chapters, the excerpts are for the most part arranged chronologically.

The excerpts have been translated from original languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Latin, Old English, Middle English, Old French, Veronese, and Tuscan. Some existing translations have been cited, but several of these have been revised by the editors, and many excerpts have been translated here freshly or for the first time by the editors themselves. For obvious reasons, the majority of the texts were originally written in the biblical languages or Medieval Latin, but the editors have made a concerted effort to diversify the linguistic bases of their sources where they can.

The volume begins with a short (four-page) but well-written introduction that outlines how the Devil became a tool for thinking through culture and difference and creating social cohesion in Medieval Europe. Lurking insidiously at the heart of various disciplinary technologies, the Devil gave European life both a teleology and a set of boundaries as a contest between the forces of Good and Evil.

Raiswell and Winter are candid about the limits, problems, and biases of medieval sources and clear about their remit in compiling this volume. They are dealing with demons and the Devil, not with monsters. Their excerpts do however include consideration of who or what the Antichrist was/is/will be and his relationship to the Devil.

Each chapter is headed by a concise and insightful one-page introduction. Each excerpt is headed by an introduction giving the likely time, place, and language of its creation, and authorship if relevant, and concludes with a series of questions designed to encourage readers to interrogate the limits and contexts of the texts included. Because the volume has been designed as a teaching tool, the editors are concerned to draw out the relationships between texts, including across thematic chapters, and texts and their questions explicitly cross-reference other documents in the volume to stimulate discussion. In some sourcebooks, excerpts can be too short to be representative. Here all the excerpts are of a sufficient length to give a genuine sense of the full text and its intention (I would go so far as to say that some excerpts are overly long).

In relation to terminology, the editors claim that “We make no differentiate the devil from devils or demons” (xv), but I would argue that demons and the Devil travelled along different trajectories into the Middle Ages. Despite the editors’ argument that “some sources use the terms [devil or demon] interchangeably” (xvi), I find that medieval texts and authors are generally quite specific about which of these they are referencing, and that where both appear in the one story, there is an important existential and hierarchical distinction between them.

For this reason, I had concerns about the editors not elaborating the role played by Greek daimons, such as appear in the De deo Socratis, in contributing, by way of Augustine, to the construction of the medieval demon. These Greek daimons are referenced in the volume in excerpts from Plato’s Symposium and Laws (17-19), but the term is translated as “demon” without comment, and the constitutive role of these creatures in the medieval Christian understanding of demons is not drawn out. By the same token, I felt that altering the translation from “daemones” to “demons” in a thirteenth-century book of ritual magic (348) elided a meaningful distinction.

I was also confused in Chapter 1, “Sources for the Medieval Devil,” about how the editors addressed the concept of a satan. They make it clear in their introduction to Document 3 that “Among the angels of the Old Testament is a certain type referred to as a satan, a Hebrew term that translates into English as ‘opponent’ or ‘adversary’” (9). Yet only a few pages later in Document 6, they represent the biblical Job being tormented by “a character identified as Satan--the first time the figure is given a ‘leading role’ in scripture” (15). This is despite the biblical text referring to the beings who gathered before God on that day as “the sons of God” (Job 1. 6) amongst whom “the satan” was present. It is generally understood that the definite article in front of the term “satan” in the Hebrew indicates that this is a title or role rather than a distinct personality. [1]

Clearly a sourcebook cannot be comprehensive, and choices must be made as to what to include and what to exclude, so the following comments are made more by way of conversation than criticism. In Chapter 4, “The Early Monastic Devil,” I was surprised by the omission of the writings of Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian on spiritual warfare. These texts could have illustrated how desert eremitism was conceived as a constant life-and-death battle of the monk against demonic forces, with Evagrius actually producing a handbook on waging spiritual warfare for the besieged solitary. I did also wonder if the development in the High Middle Ages of the major theological concept of Purgatory could have been referenced by an excerpt in Chapter 6, “The Devil’s Domain,” but unlike Hell, Purgatory was not always connected with demonic torment, so I think it was rightfully excluded.

Another interesting omission--which could have fitted into Chapter 9, “Theorizing the Devil and Society in the High Middle Ages”--is that of Pseudo-Dionysius on the nine orders of angels, which had become a central tenet of medieval angelology by the high Middle Ages. While this text may have been overlooked because it is not primarily about demons, it did powerfully affect the way that the Devil was conceptualized, especially in terms of what angelic order he had originally been placed in and what his temptations to rebel may therefore have been. In addition, the angelic hierarchies were later mirrored in the demonic hierarchies of the high Middle Ages, theorized in detail by Alan of Lille and William of Auvergne, which are for this reason also not canvassed here. In this same chapter, I felt that readers not familiar with the scholastic method might have appreciated some guidance regarding the construction of the academicquaestio in the introduction to the excerpt from Thomas Aquinas. I would also question the reference to Aquinas as “one of the most important theologians of the Middle Ages” (276), since this is partly retrospective, and elides the fact that he had many detractors in his own day.

The range of texts and themes included in the volume is admirable. Chapter 7, “Varieties of Possession and Exorcism,” raises the pertinent question of the contemporary understanding of the distinction between demonic possession and disease and where the power for exorcism lies: is it in the charisma of the exorcist or is it inherent in the ritual? It also showcases the little-recognized development of demonic dispossession into the sacrament of baptism. Chapter 8, “Demonizations,” takes an interesting side-step into how all forms of belief outside orthodox Christianity became refracted through the lens of the demonic, while Chapter 11, “Toward the Early Modern Age,” includes a fascinating range of heresies and inquisitions, including substantial excerpts from the trial records of Joan of Arc.

It is unfortunate that the Index of Topics is not as comprehensive as it could be and does not contain the names of any of the sources quoted in the volume. To search for a particular author, then, the reader can consult the list of Sources for that name, but even if it is present, there is no guidance as to where in the volume that author’s excerpt might be found.

The Medieval Devil is a wide-ranging, vibrant collection of well sourced and translated texts that will introduce the reader to the multiplicity of understandings and constructions of the demonic in the European Middle Ages and the uses to which these have been put. As a reference text for students of the European Middle Ages, it is highly recommended, allowing insight into the orthodoxies, exclusions, and phobias of this time and place. It is indeed telling that a focus on this one continually mutating concept of embodied / disembodied evil can prove so informative of a Christian culture spanning continents, countries, and centuries.



1. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 2nd revised ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 727-728.