“Devil Be Gone!” : Temptation, Sin, and Satan in Medieval Manuscripts

By Jenny Weston

For most God-fearing medieval Christians the Devil was ‘legitimately scary’. He (and his band of demonic followers) presented a very real threat to one’s spiritual fortitude—always out to trick, torment, and tempt good Christians into a life of sin. It was very easy to be fooled by the Devil, and Christians were constantly reminded to be vigilant and wary of temptation.

(Monk fighting off some devils with a club—Royal 10 E IV, fol. 247 © The British Library)

Monk Fighting Off Some Devils with a Club (Royal 10 E IV, fol. 247 © The British Library)

To educate and fortify themselves against the Devil’s potential schemes, many medieval readers turned to the Scriptures and other homiletic or hagiographical texts. The Gospel of Mark, for example, not only describes Jesus’s own encounter with Satan, but also recounts a number of successful demonic exorcisms. In the Life of Saint Anthony (written c. 360), the Devil tempts the saint with memories of his previous wealth and love of women—even going as far as to masquerade as a pretty lady for a night (just to test Anthony’s vow of celibacy). After much devoted prayer and pious resolve, Anthony overcomes the Devil’s efforts and enters into the ascetic life.

Many medieval books also contain illustrations of the Devil, often in the form of a small painted miniature or a sketch in the margin. He is typically portrayed as a beast-like monster with pointy horns or ears, hairy arms, sharp claws, and a sinister hunchback (more or less like a terrifying evil dog).

(© The British Library)

Depictions of the Devil (© The British Library)

(Or sometimes as an adorable musical bear):

Royal 10 E IV, fol. 201v © The British Library

(Royal 10 E IV, fol. 201v © The British Library)

It is interesting that images of the Devil can also appear in books that are not ‘specifically’ on the topic of Satan, such as Gregory IX’s Decretals or Justinian’s Digestum vetus, which implies that the Devil was a common and familiar illustrative trope. This also suggests that some medieval bookmakers felt it was appropriate to warn readers of the perils of sinful behaviour by adding images of the Devil, with or without providing much context for such discussions.

Some manuscript illustrations were quite explicit in their warnings, showing how specific sins might provoke the Devil. In the image on the left we see the Devil swooping down from the ceiling as two lovers embrace. On the right, we see the Devil alongside a man adoring his fine clothing:

(Royal 19 C I, fol. 203v, © The British Library)

(Royal 19 C I, fol. 203v, © The British Library)

Even relatively minor sins could lead to trouble. Alcuin of York (born 735) famously recounts a story of his own temptation. He explains that as an 11 year-old boy, he was awoken in the middle of the night by a group of satanic demons who threatened to beat him up. Assuming that this hellish visitation was sparked by his ‘less-than-zealous’ spiritual devotion and his love of classical literature, he cried out “O Lord Jesus, if thou wilt deliver me from their [demons’] bloody hands, and afterwards I am negligent of the vigils of the Church and of the service of lauds, and continue to love Virgil more than the melody of the Psalms, then may I undergo such correction…” (1). With this promise, the Demons left his bedchamber and Alcuin never again (openly) praised the merits of pagan literature.

In addition to warning medieval readers about specific sins (such as vanity or a preference for the classics), there are many other illustrations of the Devil that focus on the consequences one faces upon death. In the following images we see the Devil happily carting away a condemned soul — in some cases, he literally sucks the soul out of the deceased person’s mouth. (Click on the images for a larger view).

© The British Library

Condemned Souls (© The British Library)

If this did not terrify the reader into adopting a more pious lifestyle, one only needs to look at some medieval depictions of Hell to reconsider one’s sinful actions.

© The British Library

The Mouth of Hell (© The British Library)

While it is impossible to know if these illustrations and stories of the Devil actually struck fear into the hearts of medieval readers, I know that if I ever encountered an evil winged dog telling me to stop adoring my clothes or reading Virgil, I would probably listen.

1. Herbert de Losinga, The Life, Letters, and Sermons of Bishop Herbert de Losinga, Vol. 1, ed. Edward Meyrick (Oxford and London: James Parker and Col, 1878), p. 48.
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