Now that my dissertation is finally done and dusted, I can turn my attentions to this blog. To explain a complicated situation in brief, I would love to do a PhD but can’t, because the Singaporean government has paid for my education so I have to head back and work as a teacher for 6 years. Not an ideal situation, but I’m thankful for what I have. Hopefully, this blog will allow me to discuss my ideas in the absence of a formal academic setting.
With my dissertation still fresh in my mind, perhaps I should return to the crux of my project – demons. On this blog, I’ve wandered into the realm of elves, smiths and even vampire-zombies. But when it finally came to writing the actual dissertation, I found myself focusing more and more intently on demons. Elves and their kin were relegated to a handful of footnotes and a few paragraphs towards the end.
In a sense, this is how demons have been treated in Anglo-Saxon historiography, passing references in the search for paganism. But the further I delved into my research, the more I discovered that demons were worthy subjects of study in their own right. As my paper to the MEMSA conference in Durham indicated, the Anglo-Latin hagiographers constructed demonic power in rather interesting ways – throwing rocks, carrying humans and using iron whips, to name but a few examples. Following that paper, my supervisor, Dr Sophie Page at UCL, reminded me that I couldn’t say that Anglo-Saxon constructions of demonic power were ‘unique’ without a comparative angle. I did dabble with a few Irish and Carolingian analogues, but I found that it would take too much time and too many words to fit into the limitations of my dissertation.
What I did do was to launch into an unplanned exploration into Gregory’s Morals on the Book of Job and Dialogues, two works of his where demons (or the devil; see Dendle, ch. 5 for the complex relationship between singular and plural devil(s) in Anglo-Saxon sources) appear most heavily. According to Leslie Lockett, Gregory’s Dialogues was one of the most influential books on the intellectual landscape of Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. Whilst I am generally in favour of her thesis, the Dialogues did not seem to shape Anglo-Saxon ideas about demonic power quite as much as we might have expected. A few of the examples, such as phantasmal fire, were directly borrowed by the Anglo-Latin hagiographers. But all of the creative appropriations of demonic power that I have highlighted above are nowhere to be found in Gregory’s Dialogues.
I found that the most intriguing comparison between the Dialogues and the Anglo-Latin hagiographies was in a specific example of a child being thrown into a fire. In Gregory’s Dialogues, an evil spirit masquerading as a wandering traveller abuses the hospitality of his host by possessing his child. The possessed child then hurls himself into a fire, which kills him (Dialogues 1.10). There is vaguely analogous episode in Alcuin’s Life of Willibrord. There is a house which is haunted by an evil spirit, who plays all sorts of malign tricks on the poor occupants. The worst of these occurs when the spirit snatches a baby from his parents’ arms whilst they are asleep and throws him into a fire. The parents are awakened by the baby’s screams and eventually rescue him.
Of course, there are a number of differences between the two demonic encounters, but there is undoubtedly the shared trope of an evil spirit casting a child into the flames. What I found fascinating was the description of how the demon sent his hapless victim into the fire. In Gregory’s Dialogues, the child is impelled from within through demonic possession; in Alcuin’s hagiography, the baby is carried into the flames. If we believe that Alcuin was trying to model his account after Gregory’s, he inexplicably alters the language of possession, instead describing the demon as carrying the human body into danger. It might be that there were certain negative connotations related to possession that Alcuin wanted to avoid, but this description of demons carrying the human body is found only in the Anglo-Latin hagiographies (Life of Guthlac, c.31; Life of Cuthbert, c.22). In contrast, Gregory’s demons never carry the human body.
The one precedent that I could find was in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and Paul, where the wicked Simon Magus is carried into the air by invisible demons so as to give the appearance that he was flying. Blickling Homily 15 contains a straightforward rendition of this apocryphal tale and Aideen O’Leary has also argued that this apocryphal work had been circulating widely in Anglo-Saxon England as early as the early eighth century. I was unable to demonstrably prove that the Anglo-Latin hagiographers were copying directly from this apocryphal model, but it does problematise our assumptions about the Anglo-Saxon appropriation of Gregorian ideas.
In brief, I believe that demons can be meaningfully analysed in the culturally specific context of Anglo-Saxon England. Many times, historians are quick to suggest that pagan beliefs and practices were ‘demonised’. This is not untrue, but it also requires us to dig deeper into conceptualisation of demons, to understand what exactly the Christian writers were imposing upon the pre-Christian world. What I found interesting in my research is that the Anglo-Saxon demon was not exactly the same as the demons of Augustine’s, or even Gregory’s, works. As Peter Dendle has said, ‘[e]ven the most orthodox and erudite author or poet, while adhering to patristic conceptions and sometimes rigid narrative conventions, recognized certain open registers in the conceptualization of the devil’ (p.118). These ‘open registers’ fascinate me, and I hope to continue addressing this lacuna in the study of the supernatural world of the Anglo-Saxons.
Alcuin. ‘The Life of Willibrord’. In The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, edited and translated by C.H. Talbot, pp.1-23. London; New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954.
Bede. ‘Life of Cuthbert’. In The Age of Bede, trans. J.F. Webb and D.H. Farmer, pp.41-104. Penguin, 1965.
Dendle, Peter. Satan Unbound. University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Gregory the Great. Dialogues, 4 vols., edited and translated by Edmund Gardner. London: P.L. Warner, 1911. [available here: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#Gregory_Dialogues].
Felix. The Life of Guthlac, translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
O’Leary, Aideen. ‘Apostolic Passiones in Early Anglo-Saxon England’. In Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg, pp.103-19. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
The Blickling Homilies, translated by Richard Morris. London: OUP, 1967.