My current research project centres around the power ascribed to demons by the Anglo-Saxons. As one who likes to read his sources while travelling on the train, I have become quite accustomed to the quizzical look across the table and the odd concerned parent scurrying their children away from me. But my inquiries are academic, rather than occult, in nature.
The existence of demons can be found widely across the corpus of Anglo-Saxon sources. Most references come from hagiographies, where saints could demonstrate their holiness by exercising authority over demonic forces. This model of hagiographical writing originates from the Lives of the desert fathers of the early church, which draws its own roots from the temptation of Jesus by the Devil in the wilderness. The medical texts from the late tenth and eleventh centuries form the other important set of sources for Anglo-Saxon conceptions of demonic power at work. There are numerous illnesses ascribed to the influence of demons or evil spirits, and these medical texts describe both preventative and curative measures to counter these illnesses.
Although this is still very much a work in progress, I have made some curious observations even in these early stages of research. Interestingly, the Anglo-Saxons appear to use ‘demons’ and ‘the Devil’ interchangeably. Peter Dendle mentions this briefly in Satan Unbound, but his explanation that ‘differentiating between the devil and demons is a modern problem’ (p.87) is simply unsatisfactory. This has been discussed by Audrey Meaney in a recent article, ‘The Devil Can Seriously Damage Your Health’, where she suggests that the conventional conception was of Satan operating at the head of demonic forces, while individual demons were like his limbs, his agents of evil. Meaningful questions can be raised about whether there was a hierarchy of demons and whether they acted with one accord under the all-encompassing power of Satan.
There is also the further question of whether demons could actually cause real, physical harm. Traditionally, the answer has been taken from the writings of Augustine of Hippo, which was a definitive ‘no’. Demons were believed to be incorporeal spirits who could not cause corporeal harm. However, the Anglo-Saxon hagiographical and medical sources suggest otherwise – particularly in the complex situation of demonic possession. Leslie Lockett has convincingly challenged the primacy of Augustinian thought in Anglo-Saxon England, and it would be worth investigating the impact of her thesis on the Anglo-Saxon understanding of demonic power.
This is just a brief spiel on my work, which is still undergoing that torturous process of refinement. In the grander scheme of things, academic interest in demons and demonic power is a growing field, stretching over a wide spectrum of periods ranging from ancient Assyria to the seventeenth-century witch trials. I had the privilege of attending the recent Demons and Illness conference at the University of Exeter, whose proceedings are due to be published by Brill. Hopefully, the increasing interest in the forces of darkness will eventually match the attention that has been given to saints and sanctity during this period. After all, why study the blasé do-gooders when the complex villains are always much more interesting?
Augustine of Hippo. The City of God. Particularly Book IX.
Dendle, Peter. Satan Unbound. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
Meaney, Audrey. ‘The Devil Can Seriously Damage Your Health: Reflections on Anglo-Saxon Demonology’. In The Devil in Society in Premodern Europe. Edited by Richard Raiswell with Peter Dendle, pp.69-108. Toronto: CRRS, 2012.
Demons and Illness: Theory and Practice from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period (2013 conference). http://centres.exeter.ac.uk/medhist/conferences/Demons%20and%20Illness/index.shtml.