The Emotional Nature of Belief in Demons

By Juanita Feros Ruys, The University of Sydney

One of the most interesting aspects of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages is the question of epistemology: how people ‘knew’ things. This is a particularly pertinent question when, as a researcher, you have to deal with how medieval people ‘knew’ about things that modern secular Western culture no longer accepts as part of the ‘real’ and verifiable world – such as angels, demons or witches. Yet to medieval thinkers, these supernatural or unnatural beings were not only part of a Christian cosmos, they had characteristic attributes and behaviours that could be observed, codified and debated.

Psalter and Hours, Use of Arras, British Library, Yates Thompson 15, fol. 96. Courtesy of the British Library.
Psalter and Hours, Use of Arras, British Library, Yates Thompson 15, fol. 96. Courtesy of the British Library.

This was particularly true for the medieval philosopher-theologians known as the Scholastics or Schoolmen. Questions about beings like angels and demons could be posed and answered: could demons enter the soul? No, only God in the form of the Holy Spirit could have interior access to the soul. Demons, though, as spiritual creatures, could enter a person’s vital spirit, which circulated around the body as the means of communication between the soul and the flesh, and influence thoughts and behaviour from there. Could demons experience emotions? Technically, no, insofar as emotions were understood as passions of the soul that necessarily had a somatic component, and so were obviously denied to incorporeal demons. Demons could, however, experience simple acts of the will, which meant that they could rejoice if their will was attained, and experience anger and frustration if it was denied. It might be hard for us to believe, but Scholastics spent the better part of a century debating whether every single angel constituted a species unto itself, as Thomas Aquinas declared, or not (which was the final consensus opinion).

The knowledge that the Scholastics transmitted about demons had to be refracted through numerous lenses. It had to accord, most importantly, with biblical teachings, but also with the writings of the Fathers, most particularly Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius (actually a sixth-century author, but who was believed in the Middle Ages to have been the personal convert of Paul mentioned in Acts). It then needed to make sense in a scientific way, so that the writings not only of Aristotle, but also of recent Jewish and Arabic thinkers such as Avicenna or Averroes, were brought into play. The result is a form of knowledge that is deeply academic, finely argued to its most minute particulars, but utterly free from any claims of personal experience or the effect of emotions. In part this is due to the generic form of the academic quaestio, which requires ‘just the facts, ma’am’ to be assembled and argued for and against any given proposition.

Yet I can’t help recalling that all these academic men were also churchmen who had to care for the souls of others, which must have included dealing with the demonic temptations and molestations that those in their pastoral care experienced. Where do we find expressions of the Scholastics’ personal experience, their personal knowledge, of the demonic? I wonder if it can be found in the colourful and imaginative depictions of demonic communities envisaged by some of the Scholastics? When William of Auvergne depicts the seething hatreds of demons, ‘just like a tempest’, who loathe each other but are yoked together for eternity in their communal hatred of God, angels and humans, do we see his emotional reaction to demons? What of Peter of John Olivi’s poignant portrait of demons see-sawing ‘just like drunks’ between their elation at a soul snatched from God and their despair as they remember their eventual and eternal damnation?


Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d'Amor, British Library, Royal 19 C I, fol. 33: Courtesy of the British Library.
Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d’Amor, British Library, Royal 19 C I, fol. 33: Courtesy of the British Library.

To find a truly personal emotional response to the knowledge of demons we can travel back to the late eleventh century and the writings of the monk Otloh of St Emmeram, who lived a century and more before the Scholastics began to parse the demonic into explicable, comprehensible, articulable chunks of knowledge that could be treated in distinct quaestiones and articuli. For the Scholastics, demons were bound by rules: they could do this, they couldn’t do that. Yet the collections of miracle tales from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries assembled by monastics like Peter the Venerable and Caesarius of Heisterbach reveal that demons did not always play by the rules the Scholastics would set them.

Otloh wrote personal accounts of his demonic experiences in texts that read like early forms of autobiography, although technically they cannot lay claim to that title. Some of these can be generically described as visions, while the Book of the Temptation of a Certain Monk (Liber de temptatione cuiusdam monachi) is a strange, fractured, composite text in which Otloh begins by speaking of himself in the third person, then switches to the first person, before the Devil suddenly breaks into the monologue to address Otloh directly. Thereafter God speaks to Otloh, and the text concludes with an autobibliobiography as Otloh sums up his life through the texts he has written (as in composed) and the texts he has copied out for others as a scribe.

Not only do Otloh’s texts give us a powerful insight into a medieval person’s emotional response to demons, they also reveal the demons’ emotional response to him. Unlike the Scholastics, Otloh’s knowledge of demons – that is, the knowledge he transmits to us through his writings – is personal and deeply inflected by the emotional; he himself describes it in the prologue to his visions as knowledge born of experience. Yet he also recognises that no vision can be accepted at face value: even though Otloh is writing before the genre of treatises on the discernment of spirits had become standard, he is aware that every vision must be received on the merits of its teachings, and thought applied as to its likely source, whether that be God or the Devil.

Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d'Amor, British Library, Royal 19 C I, fol. 204v: Courtesy of the British Library.
Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d’Amor, British Library, Royal 19 C I, fol. 204v: Courtesy of the British Library.

In one demonic incident, Otloh finds himself being whipped every night by a terrifying figure to the extent that when he wakes he is sure that the bed and his clothing must be bloody, but is distressed to find that this is not so. Is he going mad? At last he asks the young man who sleeps in the bed next to his whether he hears these nightly attacks. The young man says he does not, a reply that disturbs Otloh’s sense of his own sanity, but when Otloh lifts his shirt for the young man to see if there are any wounds there, it turns out that Otloh’s back is indeed criss-crossed with swollen welts. The physical evidence thus accords with and confirms Otloh’s emotional experience of his own terror at the demonic attack and the violent anger of his attacker. In another vision, Otloh is spirited away by demons to an open grassy field where the demons are having a raucous time filled with clapping and cacophonous laughter. The more they rejoice in their demonic way, however, the sadder and more frightened Otloh becomes in response. This in turn arouses the anger of the demons who tell Otloh that if he is not prepared to share their joy – that is, to join their demonic emotional community – then he can have sorrow, and in spades.

Perhaps the most perplexing demonic emotional response conveyed by Otloh – at least to a modern reader – is that expressed by the Devil as he speaks to Otloh in the course of Otloh’s first-person life narrative. The Devil sets out to reason quietly and articulately with Otloh, leading him to despair by using the words of the Bible – usually an incontrovertible source of knowledge – to prove to Otloh that not all are or can be saved. Otloh’s response to this is deeply emotional, so that, as he confesses, he could do ‘nothing else but cry’. At this point, the cunning tempter changes his approach and stops attacking Otloh, instead ‘consoling me and taking compassion on my suffering’ by pointing out how badly he has been treated by God despite all his best efforts. Through compassion, the Devil aims to lead Otloh to a blasphemy of divine goodness and justice that would be fatal to his soul. This offers a disturbing instance of how medieval monastic culture could view empathy as potentially a dangerous emotion.

Yet in the end this emotional rollercoaster provoked by the Devil, which has brought Otloh to the brink of blasphemy and despair, has its own epistemological reward: as he flings himself prostrate on the church floor, he comes to the knowledge of himself. The voice in his head (God?) says to him:

Surely you still do not fail to understand how great a thing it is to know what you are? Even if no temptation has yet made you stronger, it has made you more sure of yourself, because before you believed you were strong, which you weren’t, but now with experience of the truth of your weakness, you can acknowledge yourself to be infirm.

God, the Devil, emotions and experience, have led him to a knowledge and understanding of the self: a truly medieval epistemology.

Dr Juanita Feros Ruys is Director of the Sydney node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her monograph, Demons in the Middle Ages, has just been released by Arc Humanities Press. Read the fascinating blog for more information about the book. She is currently completing a monograph on Otloh of St Emmeram for Brepols that will include translations of his autobiographical visions and life narrative.

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