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Giving the Devil His Due

Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages

by Jeffrey Burton Russell
Cornell University Press, 356 pp., $29.95

During the past two decades Jeffrey Burton Russell has established himself as a respected historian of medieval religion. Though some of his extraordinarily abundant writings have dealt with the Roman Catholic mainstream, more have dealt with varieties of religion that flourished outside, and in opposition to, the Church. Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages (1965), Religious Dissent in the Middle Ages (1971), Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (1972), and (with C.T. Berkhout) Medieval Heresies: A Bibliography (1981) are all concerned with types of belief and behavior that lay well beyond the limits of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. In the work of which Lucifer is the concluding installment Russell has cast his net much wider still. Taken together, the three volumes—The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (1977), Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (1981), and the recent Lucifer—are an impressively wide-ranging history of the theme of the Devil, starting in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and ending in fifteenth-century Europe. The third volume can be fully appreciated only when it is considered in relation to its precursors.

Early in the first volume Russell indicates the angle from which he has approached his vast theme: the work belongs to “the history of concepts.” The history of concepts differs from the history of ideas in that “it attempts to integrate the study of ‘high’ thought with ‘low’ thought, theology and philosophy with myth and art, the products of the unconscious with those of the conscious…. A concept, then, is different from an idea in that (1) it is socially and culturally more broadly based, and (2) it includes psychological levels deeper than the rational.” Such an approach is not, of course, novel. Many writers have adopted it, in varying degrees, in their analysis of the social and political myths of the past three centuries; while others, including myself, have followed it in their attempts to interpret various beliefs current in the Middle Ages.

What is new about Russell’s enterprise is the period it covers in dealing with its subject. Admittedly, the opening chapters of the first volume deal with personifications of evil which, because of their remoteness in time or space or both, have little bearing on the Western concept of the Devil—but even with these excluded, the period covered is still enormous. In fact it is longer than Russell realizes. Quite correctly, he finds the origins of the Western concept of the Devil in the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, commonly known under his Greek name of Zoroaster. But the date that he gives for Zarathustra, around 600 BC, is no longer accepted by specialists; it is now generally agreed that Zarathustra lived several centuries earlier, some time between 1400 and 1000 BC.

Russell’s account of the teachings both of Zarathustra himself and of later Zoroastrians is not very accurate—not surprisingly, since he has relied overmuch on that well-known but misleading work, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, by the late Robert Zaehner, and obviously did not come across the first volume of Mary Boyce’s History of Zoroastrianism, which was published some two years before his own first volume. Nevertheless, Russell certainly does bring out the deep originality of Zoroastrian thought.

Zarathustra conceived of the existing world as the scene of a prodigious struggle between the first and greatest god, Ahura Mazda (meaning “Lord Wisdom”), and the spirit of disorder and destructiveness, called Angra Mainyu (later Ahriman). For the purpose of fighting Angra Mainyu, Ahura Mazda brought time into existence; but he has also set a limit to the struggle, and to time. In the end Angra Mainyu will be defeated and destroyed. Thereafter the world will continue not in time but in eternity, where change, old age, death will be unknown—and which will be enjoyed by all faithful Zoroastrians, including the dead, resurrected for the purpose. Russell is absolutely right to stress the influence which these teachings exerted on Judeo-Christian notions of the Devil, his works, and his final fate.

Hebrew religion as presented in the Old Testament has no place for a figure personifying the principle of evil, because God himself is perceived as responsible for evil as well as for good. But this changes during the period between 200 BC and 100 AD. In the body of literature generally known as apocalyptic, which includes such works as the First Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, responsibility for evil is shifted from God to angels who, for one reason or another, have fallen from heaven and become demons roaming the earth. Their leader, variously called Azazel, Mastema, Belial, or (already) Satan, is clearly recognizable as the Devil.

Now God and Devil each stand at the head of an angelic host, ready for the impending final conflict at the end of the world. Human beings too are involved: it is open to each Jew to choose to remain faithful to the God of Israel or else to abandon God in favor of the Devil. The Common Rule of the Qumran community (or Dead Sea sect) presents the same picture; here too the present age is shown as delivered over to the Devil, who is struggling to forestall the triumph of God. God will triumph nevertheless, the Devil and his hosts will be cast down and punished for ever and ever, his human followers—meaning everyone except members of the community—will meet the same fate. Then the age of the Lord will dawn, pure goodness and light will reign forever.

The similarity between all this and Zoroastrian beliefs is striking, and Russell is fully justified in suggesting that the apocalyptic writers and the Dead Sea sect alike may have come under Zoroastrian influence. He could indeed have made the point far more strongly, and found powerful support in more recent studies than the ones he cites.

The books of the New Testament were composed over a period from 50 to 100 AD, by Jews whose world view derived in part from the apocalyptic tradition. Some present-day theologians slur over the central importance of the Devil in that world view. Not Russell: with admirable forthrightness he insists that the notion of a cosmic struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, which elevates Satan almost to the status of a principle of cosmic evil, is an essential part of original Christianity. And he has found an appropriate label for that religion: semidualist. In the Christianity of the New Testament God’s goodness is preserved by giving him an antagonist almost as powerful and autonomous as the Zoroastrian Ahriman. Almost, but not quite: for unlike Ahriman, the Christian devil is himself a creature of God—a creature who became evil by his own free choice, but who remains in a sense subordinate to and dependent on God.

In Judaism the Devil soon lost his importance. In the teachings of the rabbis in the Talmud the dualistic tendency of apocalyptic is consciously rejected. The early Christian church, on the other hand, was convinced that human beings from Adam and Eve onward have always been living under the Devil’s dominion. The late second century saw the development of the doctrine of original sin. For the first time, the tempter in the Garden of Eden was identified with the Devil; and for the first time, too, the sin into which he lured Adam and Eve came to be seen as something in which all human beings have participated ever since. The early Christian theologians drew the conclusion that, because our first parents turned their backs on God of their own free will, Satan was entitled to hold us in slavery—unless and until we were redeemed. On the basis of this belief various theories were developed concerning the meaning of redemption. These granted that the power of the Devil and his cohorts to attack, tempt, and torment human beings will be finally destroyed only when Christ returns in majesty to carry out the Last Judgment; but already here and now that power has been weakened by the Incarnation and the Passion of Christ. Just what that meant was a subject of intense debate from the second century onward. Russell’s analysis of the two main competing theories, the sacrifice theory and the ransom theory, is a model both of learning and of lucidity.

The first two volumes of Russell’s work carry the story down to the mid-fifth century; Lucifer is concerned with the concept of the Devil during the following thousand years. In both western Latin and eastern Orthodox Christianity, the idea of the Devil grew out of the thought of the Fathers of the early Church; but it did not attain the same importance in both. Russell notes that intensely mystical and unitary models of religious thought tend to allow little place for an active spirit of evil, since all things in the cosmos proceed from God and return to him; and he is no doubt correct in saying that this is why the Devil seldom looked very large in Byzantine thinking. The great exception is the Bogomile heresy, which was founded in Bulgaria around 950 and which some two centuries later spread to Western Europe in the form of Catharism. According to the Bogomiles the very cosmos in which we live is the creation of the chief of the fallen angels, Satan; only the human soul comes from the true, good God, and even that is trapped inside a disgusting, Devil-created body. At the end of time the entire material world, including all bodies, will be destroyed, to be replaced by a cosmos of wholly immaterial spirituality: the Bogomile version of the kingdom of God.

By far the greater part of Lucifer is devoted to the Latin West. Here at last Russell moves into his own field, and the treatment of his theme rises from the competent to the expert. The available sources are so numerous that rigorous selection was essential. Russell has drawn on the most varied material, ranging from scholastic and mystical theology, through art, literature, and drama, to popular religion, sermons, saints’ lives, and folklore; and he has selected most judiciously.

The Devil in the medieval West is a very complex figure indeed. In folklore he is commonly presented as ridiculous or powerless, and, curiously, this is still the case in the folk dramas of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, at the very time when supposed witches were being burned by the hundreds for supposed dealings with the Devil. Russell suggests a plausible explanation of the paradox: the more that preachers in their sermons dwelt on the appalling aspects of the Devil for the purpose of terrifying their auditors into good behavior, the more lay folk made him comic in order to relieve the tension of fear. In many plays he certainly appears in a most undignified light. On his expulsion from heaven, for instance, we find him lamenting, “Now I make my way to hell to be thrust into endless torment. For fear of fire I crack a fart.” And he has a curious habit, too, of placing his hand on the genitals of the lesser demons, in parody of priestly benediction. But popular imaginings too had their grim aspects and sinister consequences: both Moslems and Jews were regarded as worshipers and agents of the Devil, and this has some bearing on the ruthlessness with which Moslem civilians were slaughtered by crusaders and Jews were slaughtered in pogroms.

As for professional theologians, their ideas changed greatly during the thousand-year span we call the Middle Ages. The ideas of such early medieval thinkers as Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, Isidore of Seville in the seventh, Bede and Alcuin in the eighth, and Gottschalk in the ninth, were still very dependent on traditions inherited from the first centuries of the Church. But later, from the twelfth to the thirteenth century, leading scholastics such as Anselm, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas greatly reduced the Devil’s status. As they saw it, God willed balance and harmony for the cosmos—but he also built freedom into the cosmos. No doubt it was the Devil who, by the exercise of his free choice, introduced the option of sin into the world—but it is human beings who, by choosing to sin, have continously shattered the state of balance and harmony. Moreover, in the typical scholastic world view (which owed much to Neoplatonism), evil had no being—it was simply privation of good. In such a world view the concept of the Devil was bound to become very abstract indeed.

In imaginative literature the Devil is presented with far greater force. In Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) texts he figures above all as a rebel against his lord, God, and so against the proper order of society. But the sermons that proliferated in the later Middle Ages draw on an even more picturesque tradition. The Life of Saint Anthony, by the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria Athanasius, tells how on one occasion the Devil appeared to the saint in the form of a pretty woman and almost seduced him; how on another occasion demons irrupted into his cell in the form of lions, bulls, bears, leopards, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves; and again, how the Devil and a pack of demons waylaid him, beat and whipped him, and left him unconscious on the ground. Such tales, imitated over and over again in later “biographies” of saints, were still inspiring preachers, and terrifying their flocks, a thousand years later.

Even while theologians were finding less and less to say about him, in the imagination of parish priests and their flocks the Devil was looming ever more terrifyingly. It was largely thanks to the influence of biographies of saints not only on sermons but on the theater that the Devil retained and strengthened his grip on the mind of the laity. Some mystics, too, have left horrifying accounts of their personal encounters with the Devil, as a monster who beat or choked them, and through whose huge, gaping nostrils they could see the fires of hell. In his treatment of all these aspects of medieval conceptions of the Devil Russell shows an admirable mastery of a vast and varied array of sources, and an equally admirable skill in summarizing them.

Russell’s three volumes can be read simply as a history of the concept of the Devil down to the close of the Middle Ages, and as such it is easily the most considerable study available. Not since Gustav Roskoff’s two-volume Geschichte des Teufels has anything on a comparable scale been attempted—and that appeared in 1869. If Russell declines to pursue his subject beyond the close of the Middle Ages, that is his right. It is a pity, nevertheless, that he did not extend his study to cover the great European witch hunt—which, though it began in the fifteenth century, reached its height only later, between 1580 and 1660. That extensive killing was surely the most devastating result ever to be produced by obsession with the Devil. Russell does indeed glance at it, but he allots it only five pages out of a text that numbers more than three hundred. It is true that he has dealt with the medieval antecedents of the great witch hunt in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, and with the witch hunt itself in A History of Witchcraft. But the former is in many respects out of date, and the latter was never meant to be more than a popular introduction. A less cursory treatment here would have enabled Russell to show how, during the past seven years or so, our understanding of the great witch hunt, and of the role of Devil-beliefs in it, has been transformed by the work of such scholars as Robert Muchembled (Culture populaire et culture des élites, 1978) and the late christina Larner (Enemies of God: The Witch-hunt in Scotland, 1981). It would also have ensured that the conclusion of his story would be at the same high level as the rest.

Less puzzling is the omission of any reference to the history of the concept of the Devil in modern times (and I am not thinking of the ridiculous cult of Satanism). Russell may not be aware of the extent to which the Devil was still a living presence in peasant imagination, from Russia to France, right down to the late nineteenth century, or of the part that fantasies about the Devil and his human servants played in nineteenth-century anti-Masonic and anti-Semitic propaganda. He may never have heard of such works as La Franc-Maçonnerie, Synagogue de Satan, by Archbishop Meurin (1893); he may not know that the famous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion first became a force in world history when it appeared, in the revolutionary Russia of 1917, as part of a mystical work entitled He is Near, At the DoorHere comes Antichrist and the reign of the Devil on earth. Or perhaps he knows all that, and has simply decided that enough is enough. Nobody could blame him for that.

My major criticism lies elsewhere. Sometimes Russell writes as a historian, concerned to produce an accurate historical survey of the concept of the Devil—or rather, of the various concepts of the Devil that have appeared down the centuries. Sometimes he writes as a twentieth-century Christian, wrestling with the problem of evil. And the two enterprises do not harmonize at all well.

Russell makes it abundantly clear how deep his Christian commitment is, and the inspiration behind his work clearly comes from that commitment. At intervals throughout the three volumes he asks the question: If the world is the creation of a good God, why is there so much evil in it? The clarity with which he poses the question, the honesty with which he disposes of various pseudoanswers, are impressive. In a noble peroration to Lucifer he propounds the one answer that he finds convincing:

…that a real force is actively present in the cosmos urging to evil. This evil force has a purposive center that actively hates good, the cosmos, and every individual in the cosmos. It urges us too to hate good, the cosmos, other individuals, and ourselves…. For Christians, then, the person of the Devil may be a metaphor, but it is a metaphor for something that is real, that really brings horror to the world every day and threatens to lay the entire earth waste.

The incongruity that I find is that the kind of evil that preoccupies Russell has little in common with the evils which, in the days when the Devil was taken most seriously, were commonly attributed to him. Russell stands appalled at the amount of suffering and cruelty there is in the world; it so dominates his thinking that he equates evil with “the infliction of pain upon sentient beings,” “abuse of a sentient being, a being that can feel pain.” He is particularly horrified by the sufferings of the defenseless, especially children. Nor does he draw much distinction between suffering “from natural causes” and suffering deliberately inflicted by human beings; in both he sees the work of the same evil, purposive agent. He sees it also in nuclear weapons, and draws a conclusion from this: “Only by grappling with evil now, with clear sight and with courage, can we have any chance of avoiding the ruin that looms.”

I find it strange that such a widely read and gifted historian should be unaware of the extent to which his own values derive less from two thousand years of Christian thought and experience than from the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and from the European and American humanitarianism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Russell insists that “the Devil is what his concept is, and his concept is the tradition of human views about him.” Yet, as his work abundantly shows, the sins to which the Devil of Christian tradition has tempted human beings are varied indeed: apostasy, idolatry, heresy, fornication, gluttony, vanity, using cosmetics, dressing luxuriously, going to the theater, gambling, avarice, quarreling, spiritual sloth have all, at various times, figured in the list. Only rarely—notably in the thought of Augustine—have the sufferings of children been ascribed to the Devil; and I have looked in vain for a single instance, in Russell’s great panorama, of the Devil tempting a human being to cruelty. On the other hand, if the Devil has seldom been imagined as encouraging cruelty, belief in him has often done just that. The conviction that certain categories of human beings—Jews, dissident Christians, supposed witches—were servants and agents of the Devil has at times sanctioned torture, killing, and burning alive on a vast scale.

We are left with a paradox. A twentieth-century American historian, inspired by the loathing of cruelty and injustice that is characteristic of American civilization at its best, has produced a huge study of a concept of evil which, through the ages, has seldom laid much stress on cruelty and injustice—and which, treated by another historian, could be shown itself to have legitimized enormous amounts of cruelty and injustice. Still, this is a work of historical scholarship that, within its limits, is likely to remain authoritative for many years, if not for generations, to come.

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