Archive for the ‘Medieval Art’ Category

Astrology in the Middle Ages

 A Brief Overview: Astrology as Natural Science

Lynn Thorndike has called astronomy/astrology “the supreme natural science of the medieval world” (Carey 888). Hilary M. Carey notes: “It permeated most aspects of mediaeval intellectual, cultural and political life, and it is not possible to enter sympathetically into mediaeval society without understanding it” (888). We might consider as analogous modern day germ theory; while the non-medical professional doesn’t necessarily understand the science of microbes, this theory is still one epistemological model through which we understand our world. Therefore an in-depth knowledge of astrology is not necessary (we do not all need to read Ptolemy or Albumasar [Abu Ma’sar]), but a general awareness is helpful.  For example, to anyone who has read the works of Chaucer it should be apparent that a basic understanding might be helpful for understanding his work.



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As part of my assistantship in the VFL I was assigned the job of curating an exhibition in the lobby of Pius XII Memorial Library, on display Oct.1-Nov.1 2012 . Below are some representative images and further information on its organization and content:


“How shal the world be served?” Aspects of the Medieval Secular World

Curated by Ashley R. Nolan

Though the term secular might suggest any range of discourses concerning the separation of church and state in contemporary culture, for the medieval audience this differentiation is much more complex. In fact, the medieval application of the word secular distinguishes the spaces of religious life—a person who lives ‘in the world’ (secular)—from a person who lives in monastic seclusion (religious).

The first part of this exhibition’s title takes its sentiment from the monk of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whose exclamation “How shal the [earthly] world be served?” expresses his interest in earthly, rather than spiritual realms. The monk’s lavish clothing and yen for hunting further sets him at odds with the discipline of solemn study and physical labor followed by his Benedictine order, revealing fluidity—perhaps problematically—in what constitutes religious and secular pursuits. This exhibit of medieval manuscript facsimiles focuses on secular themes in vernacular and Latin manuscripts:

Secular Origins features manuscripts concerned with The Matter of Troy, or the texts that adapt the classical stories of the Trojan War, including the adventures of Aeneas.

Secular Adventure encompasses a wide assortment of early adventure narratives that span the regions of Germany, Budapest, and Spain; these facsimiles include some of the oldest and best-known manuscripts of this genre.

Secular Leisure develops the idea that those who had lots of money also had lots leisure time. These facsimiles detail some manifestations of this leisure in the hobbies of hunting and falconry, as well as in courtly love (amour courtois), and will demonstrate that the range of leisurely activities often extends into discourses of love.

Secular Health brings together a variety of texts concerned with health and wellbeing, and includes medical miscellanies, anatomical images, and herbal treatises.

Secular Animals displays an assortment of realistic and imaginary illustrations of animals. Perhaps the greatest appeal of these representations lies in the proximity with which humans interact with these animals and the imaginative influence they aroused in the medieval artists who rendered them.





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The Annolied is a hagiography of Saint Anno, a theocrat who lived from 1010 to 1074, who was immensely popular with his parishioners but not terribly popular with rival bishops or other political rivals. The text sets up his history with two backgrounds, first sacred and then secular history, which are integrated in the person of Saint Anno. After discussing his ascent to sainthood, the text portrays a blasphemer Volprecht being punished by having his eyes destroyed for denying Anno’s saintliness, and then restored after giving confession. The text ends with a sentence on remembering the signs God has given us.

My reading of this poem’s aesthetic of “two worlds which combine to make a third,” that is, human beings, is symbolized by the combination of the sense of sight and of sound in the written world, which itself combines with the twofold (secular and sacred) history of the human race, which explains the aesthetic purpose of Volprecht’s mode of punishment. For the meeting I brought in a paper I am revising for publication, which essentially presents this thesis statement. Thomas Rowland helpfully pointed out some imprecisions in my language, initially objecting to the notion that the Annolied, in any simplistic sense, privileges one part of the sensorium over the other. He’s quite right – both the aural and visual knowledge play key roles in this text, although the roles do, I think, play out a bit differently with different emphasis. Thomas also pointed out the deeply political nature of this text, something covered in scholarship such as Benjamin Arnold’s essay in the bibliography, but Thomas drew out some very useful passages where the poem seems to be valorizing some sense of Germanic pride, or at least pride of Cologne. Thomas also brought up the notion of “spots,” whether present or absent, being a sign of holiness – such as the Pearl maiden being without spot, and some points of comparison between the Annolied and the 7 fold history of the world found in Bede.

Beth asked why the secular details were so expanded, which may have many reasons, but I think at least two are appropriate: first, the poem seems, as Thomas pointed out, to be very politically motivated, and secondly that the disparity of sacred versus secular is something combined by the guiding aesthetic of the poem – secular history is not simplistically separate from sacred history. Beth also pointed out an apt parallel between Volprecht’s punishment and Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus.

Amanda Barton brought up Mircea Eliade (sp?), a theologian I confess no conversance with, but who apparently has worked with the notion of believing without seeing. She also mentioned the oral nature of confession in Catholicism, which seems connected to the sensibilities of the poem in interesting ways.

Below is the handout I gave for the poem. Comments and questions are welcome.

Annolied (ca. 1077-81): “Song of Anno”, a.k.a, Eyeball Explosions

Early Middle High German Hagiography of “Saint Anno” (ca. 1010-1074):

  1. Sacred History: Creation, Fall of Lucifer and Adam, Christ’s Victory, Disciples Evangelize, Cologne Christianized, Anno among the saintly bishops. (st. 1-7)
  1. Secular History: Origin of Cities, Ninus founds Nineveh, Four Beasts of Daniel Prophesies Translation of Empire: Babylon, Chaldea, Greece (Alexander), Rome. Caeser – Backtrack to Troy – Caesar, Augustus, birth of Christ, Rome Christianized by Peter, Cologne Christianized by Romans, Anno is 33rd bishop to preside in Cologne since then. (st. 8-33)
  2. History of Anno: Anno welcomed to Cologne, Ecclesiastical Rockstar, Wholly Holy, makes 5 monasteries, including Siegburg (where he is now buried), Persecution by secular lords and compared to David, Holds a Grudge, Gets Sick, starts going to heaven but he has a stain on his heart, so he forgives Cologne and is admitted into heaven. Performs many miracles. Volprecht, servant of a nobleman named Arnold, goes in league with the Devil and starts to blaspheme against God and all of the saints, including Anno. When he begins to insult Saint Anno one of his eyes melts. He persists in defaming Anno until he has a stroke, falls to the ground, and his other eye goes shooting out. He is persuaded to confess, and then his eyes grow back and he is reconciled to Arnold and to God. Final comparison between Anno and Moses, then closes with comments about the goodness of God. (st. 34-49)

Guiding Aesthetics:

  1. 3 Worlds, the material and the spiritual which make up the third, the human
  2. Concern to show Anno as a positive figure (hagiography)
  3. Concern to have ecclesiastical literature stand up to heroic literature (chronicle)

Important Background:

  1. Patristics – i.e., Augustine
  2. Numerology
  3. Orality and Literacy

My Take:

I think the best way to read this poem is as establishing a sacred aesthetic of the sensorium, to use Ong’s terminology. Hearing and seeing are the two stressed senses, and while seeing is important, it is hearing which rules the day – hearing which represents best the spiritual world. With the deep code of numerical structure, it is the ear, not the eye, which for most in the audience will matter, and the punishment of the servant suggests that visual knowledge must be subordinated to auditory knowledge to attain spirituality for the lay person. But this is reversed for the ecclesiaste: Anno is not admitted into heaven until the visual stain on him is removed. And yet the stain is something only heard about through the song, thus reasserting the primacy in right-hearing over right-seeing in the pursuit to live the good life.

Relevant Primary Sources:

Augustine’s City of God (Latin)

Vita Annonis (Latin)

Kaiserchronik (Middle High German)

Book of Daniel (Probably Latin rather than Hebrew-Aramaic?)

Relevant Secondary Sources:

Arnold, Benjamin. “From Warfare on Earth to Eternal Paradise: Archbishop Anno II of Cologne, The History of the Western Empire in the Annolied, and the Salvation of Mankind.” Viator 23 (1992): 95-113.

Batts, Michael S. “Numerical Structure in Medieval Literature (with a Bibliography).” Ed. Stanley N Werbow.  Formal Aspects of Medieval German Poetry. University of Texas Press, 1969. 93-122.

—. “On the Form of the Annolied.” Monatshefte 52.4 (1960): 179-182.

Dunphy, R. Graeme. “Historical Writing in and after the Old High German Period.” Ed. Brian Murdoch. German Literature of the Early Middle Ages. Camden House, 2004. 201-226.

—. Dunphy, R. Graeme. Opitz’s Anno: The Middle High Gerrman Annolied in the 1639 edition of Martin Opitz. Glasgow, 2003.

Green, D.H. Medieval Listening and Reading: The primary reception of German literature 800-1300. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Schultz, James A. Sovereignty and Salvation in the Vernacular, 1050-1150. Western Michigan University, 2000.

Thurlow, P. “Augustine’s City of God, Pagan History and the Unity of the Annolied.” Reading medieval studies: annual proceedings of the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies in the University of Reading 6 (1980): 44-67.

Walshe, M. O’C. “Early Middle High German Literature.” Medieval German Literature. Harvard UP, 1962. 34-70.

Whitesell, Frederick R. “Martin Opitz’ Edition of the ‘Annolied’.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 43.1 (1994): 16-22.

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My interest in medieval demons began with my research for an entry in the Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. I have been interested in monsters in general for a long time now, such as Beowulf’s Grendel and the draugar of Icelandic sagas, but it was a fascinating experience to focus specifically on demons, creatures that I define as fallen angels and malign supernatural beings of a nature intermediate between gods and men. In the early stages of this process I began to think more critically about what exactly a medieval demon is, and the wisdom of those who are more knowledgeable than I was a big help. For instance, in an email Peter Dendle pushed me away from simply classifying kinds of demons and towards thinking about different manifestations of “the demonic” in the medieval world, what he calls “a more nebulous, porous, [and fluid] conceptualization of a force, diffuse agency, or set of active principles, that may take on specific forms but is not necessarily bound by those forms.” Therefore, my revised understanding of “the demonic” refers to fallen angels, of course, but can also include elements of the natural world (storms, floods, and crop failure), harmful animals (whales and wolves), and even humans (invading armies, heretics, Jews, and Ethiopians). Along similar lines, Dendle mentioned how some prayers in the medieval liturgy use the same terminology for casting out demons and fighting storms, and some medical literature conflates demons (or demonic agencies) with elves, poisons, and worms, and considers these the cause of a wide range of physiologic dysfunctions.

After completing my research and my encyclopedia entry, I have come up with a working thesis that tries to account for many manifestations of the demonic in medieval European texts. I claim here (and possibly in a future published project) that medieval conceptions of the demonic evolve over the centuries, from an anonymous demonic plurality in earlier texts (e.g. Anglo-Saxon poetry) towards individually classified, named, and acting demons in later texts (e.g. the writings of Caesarius of Heisterbach, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante). These later medieval literary and philosophical texts describe the activities of individual demons and seek to classify demonic nature. Furthermore, the precise definition of “demon” and “the demonic” expands in the later medieval centuries to include not only fallen angels but also evil spirits in general, especially as we transition into the Early Modern World.

Question 1: Do you have any initial objections or points of clarification for my thesis? In addition to the examples that I list below, what other early or later medieval texts, art, or other sources would you add to this discussion that fit into my thesis, complicate it, or even contradict it? (For instance, my fellow Woode-walkers brought Anselm and Augustine into the conversation and added a great deal to my understanding of demons in medieval theological thought, specifically their ordering among moral and immortal beings and their possible intercessory nature.)

Early Medieval Demonic Plurality

Peter Dendle describes anonymous and plural demonic nature in Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature. This manifestation can be found in texts like St. Boniface’s letter of 746 or 747 to King æthelbald of Mercia, in which Boniface describes how a single evil spirit (“malignus spiritus”) drove the king’s predecessor to a “madness clamoring with [multiple] demons” (“cum diabolis sermocinans”) (Dendle 90). Such coordinating (and often apposite) descriptors of demons fluctuate between a singular presence and a host of demons, and this manifestation occurs in Old English as well. Vercelli Homily 12 apposes the plural “helle gæstes” and “dioflum sylfum” (“evil spirits” and “devils themselves”) with the singular “dioful” (Dendle 91), and in the poem Juliana, the son or emissary of Satan is described as “wrohtes wyrhtan” and “fyrnsynna fruman” (“worker of evil” and “author of old sins,” lines 346 and 347), but this individual demon claims responsibility for endless evil and all of the crimes against humanity, including the original temptation in the Garden of Eden. In these examples and many others, demonic nature is a collective entity and one that fluctuates indiscriminately between a singular presence and a host of creatures. Demons also figure prominently in the Latin and Old English texts on the Anglo-Saxon saint Guthlac of Mercia, and I will write about him in the next blog post!

This plurality is also shown in the tenth-century Old English poem Christ and Satan, which centers on Christ’s triumph of Satan in the desert, while looking backwards towards the expulsion of Satan and the rebel angels from heaven, as well as forwards to Christ’s death, the harrowing of hell, and the resurrection. The early section of the poem includes a lot of “woe is me” sentiment by Satan and the demons, as they look back on their short existence in heaven and their current dire fate in the fires of hell, and the poet uses such sentiment to remind his reader to follow the righteous path and avoid such eternal punishment. The poem describes the demons in many colorful ways, including: “atole gastas, swarte and synfulle” (hideous spirits, black and full of sin (line 51)); “earme æglecan” (wretched monsters (74)); “blacan feond” (black fiend (195)); “godes andsacan” (God’s adversaries (279)); and “werige gastas, helle hæftas” (accursed spirits, prisoners of hell (628)). The poem also includes a further description of demonic classification, as one of the demons describes their nature: “Now this multitude must lie here according to its crimes; some to flutter aloft and fly above the ground. Fire envelopes each one, though he may be on high. He is never allowed to touch those blessed souls which seek upwards there from the earth; but I with my hands am allowed to snatch down to the depths the heathen chaff, God’s adversaries. Some are to roam about through the land of men and often stir up strife in the families of men throughout middle-earth” (254ff, all translations are from Bradley). In this poem the demons speak as a collective “we,” but also as a singular “I,” and they/ it are forever intertwined with Satan, but they/ it also seem to hate him for his overweening pride, telling him: “your appearance is hideous; we have all fared as wretchedly because of your lies. You told us a truth that the ordaining Lord of mankind was your son; now you have all the more torment” (53ff).*

Question 2: What connection or similarity exists between the demons (and specifically Satan) and other miserable exiled wanderers in Old English literature? In terms of the circumstances and reasons for exile, or the duration of the sentence, does a comparison between Christ & Satan and The Wanderer (for instance) reveal anything about Anglo-Saxon cultural and religious values?

Late Medieval Individual Demons

John Shinners’ textbook Medieval Popular Religion includes the chapter “Devils, Demons, and Spirits,” which describes a number of encounters with demons in rural Western Europe. In these stories and in texts like the fourteenth-century mystical vision Piers Plowman, we encounter individual demons with fabulous names and distinct personalities—Langland’s Gobelyn, Ragamoffyn, and Astarot are a few demons that immediately come to mind. Dante’s vision of hell in the Inferno includes the demon Alichino (the Allurer), who wields a hook and keeps the souls of the damned in boiling pitch, and he is assisted by Barbariccia (the Malicious), Draghignazzo (the Fell-dragon), and Malacoda (the Evil Tail). Demons also feature prominently in medieval drama, such as the buffoon like “stage demon” who appears in various works, including “Fall of Man” from the fifteenth-century York Mystery Plays, and Tutivillus, from the fifteenth-century morality play Mankind, who parodies monastic life. Also, one of my colleagues mentioned how Satan transgresses traditional dramatic boundaries by starting out in the audience  in the York Plays, and this invasion is echoed and answered by Christ’s invasion of hell in the harrowing episode after his crucifixion.

The later medieval period also featured many religious and philosophical texts that classified demonic nature by describing the different types and characteristics of the demonic. Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages describes a number of these demonological texts, including Caesarius of Heisterbach’s thirteenth-century Dialogus Miraculorum, which describes demons as a collective, infighting, and chaotic group that is often referred to as “the devil.” Caesarius (among other authors) describes human susceptibility to demonic sexual harassment and nocturnal intercourse by the female succubus and the male incubus, and these demons could fashion their earthly bodies from wasted human seed. Thomas Aquinas writes on demonic nature in his thirteenth-century texts, including De Malo and De Trinitate, where he claims that demons could change sex (and shape) to acquire human seed from a man and deliver it to a woman to propagate monstrous offspring. The Visio of fourteenth-century peasant woman Ermine de Reims describes how she suffered through nightly visitations by demons in the forms of animals, people, angels, and even God, and these demons often engaged in lascivious sexual acts. (During our discussion we also talked about related manifestations of the demonic in medieval visionary literature, such as the writings by and about women like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.) The late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century German churchman Johannes Trithemius furthers demonic classification in his writing—the Mystical Chronology divides demons by their elemental nature into Igneum (fiery demons), Aereum (air demons who cause overcast skies, thunder, and lightning), land-demons (who inhabit the woodlands and caves), and Aquaticum (water demons who topple ships and drown humans). Leander Petzoldt describes Trithemius’ demonology in the essay “The Universe of Demons and the World of the Middle Ages” in Ruth Petzoldt and Paul Newbauer’s Demons: Mediators between this world and the Other, which also describes the demonic spirits through which magicians could communicate over long distances in the Stenographia, including the water demon Hydriel, the air demon Icosiel, and Buriel the cave-dwelling light-shunner. (By the way, Jeffrey Cohen provides an insightful meditation on the demonic origins of Merlin in the writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his blog In the Middle.)

Finally, medieval manuscripts showed the evil and chaos of Satan and demons through their illuminations. In stark contrast to the bright, peaceful, and graceful depictions of angels, the demons of medieval manuscripts are often dark and shadowy creatures with scowling or lascivious expressions and contorted bodies, shaggy hair, horns, long pointed or hooked noses, gaping jaws, faces that combine human and animal elements, goat or bird legs, hooves or claws, tails, and bird- or dragon-like wings. The thirteenth-century De Brailes Psalter (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 330) shows the demons being cast out of the orderliness of heaven and into the folio’s bottom half (image to the left), where they gain snarling and hideous demonic faces. The fifteenth-century Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 134) features numerous images of Satan and his attendant demons, such as fol. 98r at the top of this post. This astonishing manuscript depicts numerous demons attending to Satan or torturing humans with pitchforks, and no two share the same monstrously animalistic facial and bodily features. The overall effect is a haunting tableau of beaks and horns, tails and wings, and the many faces of evil, all with snarling and sadistic grins that forever seek to tempt the innocent and torture the damned. In addition to these visualizations, demons are also pictured as more human-like creatures, albeit with deformed and barbaric features. Norbert H. Ott’s essay “Facts and Fictions: The Iconography of Demons in German Vernacular Manuscripts” in Petzoldt and Newbauer’s collection describes the demonic as “a manifestation of the different, the non-human, the sub-human, signifying a disordered and therefore threatening nature” (27). Because of this sub-human nature, demons were also equated with the cultural and geographic “Other” as defined by medieval Christian Europe, especially Jews, dark-skinned Ethiopians, and the fantastic monsters of travel literature.

Question 3: Where does this impulse to understand and categorize demonic nature come from, and what connection do these texts have to medieval concepts of science and medicine? What changes in religious thought, philosophy, or even English (French, German, etc.) culture lead to such a seemingly different and more complex understanding of demons and demonic nature?

Question 4: How does medieval demonology connect with or progress towards the early modern witch-hunting craze and a broader definition of the term “demon”?

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

*There are also a lot of fascinating spatial dimensions to Christ & Satan, and my fellow Woode-walkers know that I am intensely interested in spaces, places, and landscapes. These insights will have to wait for a future post, however, where I will examine how the demons are exiled from the “settled abode” and “wine-hall of the doughty” of heaven and forced to walk to earth as exiles, but also, paradoxically, remain trapped in the dark (but full of blazing fire) and confining (but also cavernous) abode of hell. There is something really interesting about heaven and hell as contrasting (or perhaps negatively related) homes or halls, each of which is heavily fortified in its own right, but such thoughts will have to remain on the back burner for now.


Anderson, M. D. “The Stage Demon.” Drama and Imagery in English Medieval Churches. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1963: 171- 180. Print.

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. “The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims (c. 1347- 1396): A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints.” Speculum 85.2 (2010): 321-56. Print.

Boureau, Alain. Satan the Heretic: The Birth of Demonology in the Medieval West. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2006. Print.

Bradley, S. A. J., Ed. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: David Campbell, 1982. Print.

Brann, Noel L. Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe. Albany: State U of New York P, 1999. Print.

Dendle, Peter. Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature. Toronto: U Toronto Press, 2001. Print.

Elliot, Dyan. Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1999. Print.

Ott, Norbert H. “Facts and Fictions: The Iconography of Demons in German Vernacular Manuscripts.” Demons: Mediators between this World and the Other: Essays on Demonic Beings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Ed. Ruth Petzoldt and Paul Neubauer Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998. Print.

Roberts, Gareth. “The Bodies of Demons.” The Body in Late medieval and Early Modern Culture. Darryll Grantley and Nina Taunton. Aldershot: Ashgae, 2000: 131- 142. Print.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1984. Print.

Shinners, John. Ed. “Devils, Demons, and Spirits.” Medieval Popular Religion, 1000- 1500: A Reader. 2nd Edition. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2007. 229- 280. Print.

Strickland, Debra Higgs. Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

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