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…

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