Anglo-Saxon demons appear to have had a rather unpleasant penchant for throwing things around – not just objects but even people themselves. In B.’s Life of Dunstan, the devil is blamed for hurling not one but two stones at the saint. The first incident occurs, rather interestingly, in a church, where the devil attempts to kill Dunstan and the bishop accompanying him with a large stone – ‘the stone was hurled down in a fit of madness by the malign enemy of every just work, drawing upon the armoury of his wickedness’ (c.8). In the second instance, the stone comes even closer, managing to ‘project the cap he wore a perch measure or so from his head’ (c.18). Curiously, Dunstan elects to preserve this second stone in a church, in memory of the impotence of the devil’s schemes. The stone-throwing tendencies of demons in the Life of Dunstan mirror an earlier hagiography, Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert. It is only given a passing mention, but Cuthbert is nevertheless quoted as saying: ‘How often have the demons tried to cast me headlong from yonder rock; how often they have hurled stones as if to kill me’ (c.22).
The first part of Cuthbert’s statement alludes to an even more frightening demonic power – the ability to throw the human body itself. Guthlac is brought to the gates of hell as the demons threaten to hurl him into it (c.31). He mocks them for their impotence since he believed that they did not truly have the power to act on their threats. Yet, the evidence suggests that he might have been foolhardy in daring them to do so. In the tenth-century Blickling Homilies, the homily of ‘The Story of Peter and Paul’ recounts the apocryphal tale of demons dropping Simon the Magician from the sky onto the street, causing his body to ‘burst asunder in four parts’ (Homily XV, according to Morris). Ouch. Even more wince-inducing still is an account in Alcuin’s Life of Willibrord, where an unclean spirit snatches a little boy and ‘hurled him into the fire, and it was only with great difficulty that the parents, roused by the child’s screams, rescued him from the flames’ (c.22). Indeed, the house eventually burns down to the ground as a result of these demonic attacks. I find the incidents reported in Bede’s and Alcuin’s hagiographies particularly fascinating since both of them are normally heralded as bastions of theological orthodoxy. Their descriptions of these demonic attacks may not completely undo that reputation, but it does call into question what an ‘orthodox’ demonology would have looked like in Anglo-Saxon England.
The occupational hazard of researching about demons is that these are the sort of images that flit through your mind as you try to fall asleep after a day’s research. Being the good historian, I felt that I ought to share the joy. I shudder to think what sort of images of went through Jeffrey Russell’s mind when he was writing Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Remind me to pick a more jovial subject for my next research project. Fairies, perhaps. And sugary cupcakes. Not being hurled into flames, preferably.
Alcuin. ‘The Life of Willibrord’. In The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany
Bede. ‘The Life of Cuthbert’. In The Age of Bede. Edited and translated by D.H. Farmer and J.F. Webb, pp.41-104. Penguin, 1965.
Felix. The Life of Guthlac. Edited and translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Lapidge, Michael, and Michael Winterbottom, trans. The Early Lives of Dunstan. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011.
Morris, Richard, trans. The Blickling Homilies. Cambridge, ON: Old English Series, 2000.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 1984.