The Arc Blog and Podcasts

Demons in the Middle Ages Q&A

What is the book about?

The book looks at different ways that demons were understood in medieval Europe, from the era of the New Testament texts to the time of the witch hunts in the early modern era, so approximately 1500 years.

You say the book is about demons, but what exactly are demons?

Many cultures around the world include demons, or evil spirits, within their cosmologies. This book is focused on Western Christian culture, so the demons it discusses are those of Christian theology. In this belief system, demons are understood to have been created as good angels, which are purely spiritual beings. However they turned against God through pride and were thrown down out of Heaven; until the Day of Judgment at the end of time, their task is to tempt humans away from the proper love and respect of God and to torment dead sinners in Hell.

Your book is about belief in demons in the Middle Ages, but why did medieval people believe in demons?

As I show in the book, medieval people had inherited a Christian tradition going back to the Old Testament, Gospels, and New Testament letters, all of which spoke about demons. Indeed, Jesus Christ himself was believed to have been tempted by the Devil and to have exorcized demons from people. This gave enormous authority to the existence of demons for Christian believers. Then in the early Christian era, many lives that were written about the great saints contained episodes in which the saint was tempted by a demon or expelled demons from others, which further embedded the idea of demons in the Christian imaginary.

I’m not sure I believe in demons. Will your book tell me whether demons are real?

The book is about the way medieval people experienced the supernatural world, and to these people, demons were very real. As I show, to the monks who lived isolated lives of poverty, prayer, and contemplation in the deserts of North Africa, the existence and temptation of demons was a fact of life with which they had to deal, and about which they wrote handbooks for guidance. To the academics of the early universities, demons were a part of a properly hierarchized cosmos and so were as real to them as was God, angels, other humans, and animals. For ordinary people, demons were real as a means of explaining the misfortunes and accidents that befell them in their lives.

El Ángel Caído, in the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid, Spain, which was sculpted by Ricardo Bellver in 1877. Copyright: Juanita Feros Ruys.

Are the demons you write about necessarily evil?

In Christian belief, demons are necessarily and irretrievably evil. This is not the case for all cultures, and the daimons of ancient Greek philosophy, for instance (which influenced Christian conceptions of demons), were indifferent, being necessarily neither good nor evil. As I discuss, however, while some early Christian thinkers tried to argue that demons would be redeemed at the end of time, it was quickly established as orthodox belief that demons could never be saved and indeed, would never want to be, because their evil was so indelibly rooted in them.

Were medieval people afraid of demons?

As understood in Christian theology, demons were definitely something to be afraid of. Their purpose in life was to tempt humans away from God and have them die in an unrepentant state, so that they would be consigned to the torments of Hell for all eternity. The book outlines numerous cases where people reacted in terror, even to the point of paralysis, to their experience of demonic intervention. However, we need to remember that in medieval theology, demons as agents of evil were offset by the good angels, who worked to safeguard humans from demonic temptation, and it was generally believed that every human was protected by a personal guardian angel.

Do you talk about the difference between demons and the Devil?

Yes, this distinction was important to medieval people. Demons were believed to exist in hordes, but to most ways of thinking, there was always one supreme demon, generally known as the Devil, set above them all. In Christian belief, this Devil had been the brightest angel in Heaven, known as Lucifer (the Light-Bearer), who had through pride desired to be as great or greater than God, his creator. Upon being thrown down from Heaven for his rebellion and apostasy, he had become known as ‘Satan’, a Jewish term for an adversary, because he now became the eternal enemy of humankind. Many of the stories I recount in the book depict the Devil ruling as a judge or king over the other demons.

Will your book tell me what demons look like?

Because demons were understood as spiritual creatures (former angels), technically they had no body and should not have had a physical presence, but in fact the medieval accounts I discuss in the book are full of imaginative descriptions of demons. In the earliest Christian era, it was believed that only the highly spiritual could see demons, but increasingly throughout the Middle Ages, demons were represented in various forms. These varied widely, and in many cases we can see that these descriptions drew  from social and cultural prejudices, so that demons might be said to look like peasants, or have red hair, or appear as Scotsmen, or have hooked noses. Many sightings of demons describe them as animalistic, particularly in the frightening or disgusting (to medieval people) forms of bears, pigs, large black dogs, or apes. Sometimes their appearance is indeterminate, so that they might be experienced only as a strong wind or a bad smell. I also include a number of stories where demons took on forms to tempt the unsuspecting, appearing as knights, monks, beautiful women, or even saints and angels of light.

From British Library, Arundel 484, fol. 245.

What did you most enjoy discovering when you wrote about the medieval history of demons?

I really enjoyed researching  the work of the Scholastic or early university thinkers who wrote about demons. As I discuss in Chapter 3 of the book, these philosopher/theologians tried to parse out every aspect of demonic being, entering into long and detailed debates about the abilities and rights of demons in relation to human beings, whether they could feel emotions, and, using incipient scientific understandings of the functioning of the human body, how the mechanics of demonic temptation might work. As I show in my book, for these thinkers, demons were not only a theological reality but also an interesting intellectual problem.

By Juanita Feros Ruys