Haunting Matters: Demonic Infestation in Northern Europe, 1400-1600

This is part of the book- research doctorate degree dissertation 

Haunting Matters: Demonic Infestation in Northern Europe, 1400-1600

Rex Delno Barnes III
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor
of Philosophy at Columbia University

Haunting Matters: Demonic Infestation in Northern Europe, 1400-1600
Rex Delno Barnes III
A profound concern with demonic spirits was central to a large body of literature from the Latin
Middle Ages and early modern period. This dissertation will show the ways in which learned
writings about demons reveal insights into the cultural and intellectual history of fifteenth- and
sixteenth-century western Europe. In particular, an interest in how and in what (visible or invisible)
form demonic beings afflicted humanity emerged as larger issues of theological debate from
approximately 1400-1600 CE. As I will demonstrate, orthodox theologians maintained that
demons existed solely as fallen angels, and that they were the primary culprits of myriad haunting
phenomena (e.g., visible apparitions, unsettling movements, and wayward sounds and feelings).
In rebellion against the Christian divinity, these wicked spirits were consistently associated with
sinful behavior, temptation, and illusory tricks. At the same time, vernacular and folk storytelling
suggest that fallen angels were but one of many possible spiritual creatures inhabiting the cosmos.
Rather than a strict binary between good and evil spirits, many instantiations of spiritual creatures
resisted and survived alongside ecclesiastical teachings on the subject. Informed by multiple
overlapping traditions, the premodern Christian imaginary perceived a world filled with invisible
agents of both benevolent and malevolent intentions, as well as other ethereal forces with moral

A profound concern with demonic spirits was central to a large body of literature from the
Latin Middle Ages and early modern period. This dissertation will show the ways in which learned
writings about demons reveal insights into the cultural and intellectual history of fifteenth- and
sixteenth-century western Europe. In particular, an interest in how and in what (visible or invisible)
form demonic beings afflicted humanity emerged as larger issues of theological debate from
approximately 1400-1600 CE. As I will demonstrate, orthodox theologians maintained that
demons existed solely as fallen angels, and that they were the primary culprits of myriad haunting
phenomena (e.g., visible apparitions, unsettling movements, and wayward sounds and feelings).
In rebellion against the Christian divinity, these wicked spirits were consistently associated with
sinful behavior, temptation, and illusory tricks. At the same time, vernacular and folk storytelling
suggest that fallen angels were but one of many possible spiritual creatures inhabiting the cosmos.
Rather than a strict binary between good and evil spirits, many instantiations of spiritual creatures
resisted and survived alongside ecclesiastical teachings on the subject. Informed by multiple
overlapping traditions, the premodern Christian imaginary perceived a world filled with invisible
agents of both benevolent and malevolent intentions, as well as other ethereal forces with moral
In exploring this historical imaginary, my thesis traces the significance of a particular type
of infernal creature said to disturb human habitations, namely what churchmen called “lesser” or
“minor” demonic spirits. Often described as morally ambivalent and producing minimal or trivial
disturbances, these furtive beings appear in a variety of medieval and early modern sources,
including demonological treatises, poetic compositions, exemplary moral tales, and popular lore.
One thorough description of the kind of demon this dissertation is concerned with can be found in
a treatise on witchcraft written in the late sixteenth century by Johann Weyer, a physician and lay
demonologist from Brabant in the Low Countries; it provides insight into how theological authors
often conceptualized relatively innocuous demonic mischief. Looking back to antiquity, and then
squarely at early modern Europe, Weyer notes that
Latin speakers also distinguished evil spirits on the basis of their functions…Those who
possessed the home in comparative peacefulness were called Lares, or, if they caused terror
and disturbed households by their attacks, Larvae…The ancient Romans used to call these
last spirits Lemures, and the Italians call them Folleti and Empedusae. There also exist
spirits who belong to the family of the Lares and Larvae and are called “earth dwarfs” by
the people of our country. Now that some of the obvious impostures of demons have been
exposed, these creatures are less common than before. They are of two kinds. Some of the
them are gently and deserving of the title Lares familiares; they are active in households
especially at night during the first period of sleep, and, by the noises that they make, they
seem to be performing the duties of servants—descending the stairs, opening doors,
building a fire, drawing water, preparing food, and performing all the other customary
chores—when they are really doing nothing at all…The other dwarf-like spirits are
horrid—disturbing and terrifying the household in every way imaginable…Certain
philosophers call these and similar demons, who are harmful and wicked by nature,
“brutes” and “irrational.” But when these spirits are peaceful, some of the Germans (as also
the Greeks) call them kobaloi [rogues, or mischievous goblins] because they are imitators
of men.2
Although the distinction between Lares and Larvae—which could also be applied to benevolent
and malevolent spirits of the human dead—was not universally adopted in demonological
literature, Weyer rehearses a conventional understanding of minor household demons. He indicates
throughout the first book of his De praestigiis daemonum (On the Illusions of Demons) that
demonic disruptions in the premodern home could assume several different forms, including the
appearance of hostile spiritual forces and rather harmless domestic presences. In some instances,
as Weyer suggests later in the same chapter, minor spirits could interact with humanity on far more
familiar terms as guests of the home and helpful social companions.3

Johann Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance: Johann Weyer, De praestigiis
daemonum, trans. by J. Shea (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991), 72-73.
Ibid., 74-75.
For our purposes, the above passage calls attention to a brand of demonic manifestation
that “possessed the home in comparative peacefulness.” These spirits were widely reported to be
of kinder disposition, “performing the duties of servants” and carrying out menial tasks within the
household. Theologians also frequently contrasted these with other “similar demons, who are
harmful and wicked by nature,” thereby intimating that while most fallen angels evidenced evil
purposes, some spiritual creatures were not easily identifiable as demonic spirits. Several authors
reiterated these perspectives as an opportunity to comment upon the duplicitous nature of the
Devil. Weyer notably frames his discussion in terms of orthodox Christian theology: the seemingly
gentle spirits of (pagan) Roman, just like the those of (modern) Italian homes, are labelled “evil
spirits.” Connecting the distant past with the immediate present, the physician from Brabant argues
that regardless of Latinate and vernacular designations, ostensibly benign household spirits have
been revealed as the “obvious impostures of demons.” With this in mind, the notion that certain
domestic demons existed in “comparative peacefulness” with humanity foregrounds a degree of
alarm and admonishment. Where some fallen angels were said to evoke “gentle,” “familiar,” and
“peaceful” attributes and personalities, Weyer cautions that such apparitions are all disguises or
mere imitations of human behavior.
The official stance of Christian theologians held that the Devil and his fallen angels were
uniformly antagonistic toward God’s creation. Akin to Weyer, Christian authorities warned that
demons manufactured subtle deceits, imitating angels of light, terrifying monstrosities, and other
morally ambiguous figures. Commenting on demonic apparitions, for example, the Swiss
Reformed minister Ludwig Lavater remarked that “they appeare also in the fourme of brute
beaastes, sometime fourefooted, as of a Dogge, a Swine, a Horse, a Goate, a Catte, or a Hare: and
sometimes of foules, and creeping wormes, as of a Crow, a night Owle, a schritche Owle, a Snake,
or Dragon…Spirits haue sometimes appeared in a pleasant fourme, and sometimes in a horrible
shape.”4 Noël Taillepied, a Capuchin friar and detractor of Lavater, likeswise affirmed that “the
bodies they [demons] assume are plastic, easy to mould and fashion, and can receive any form or
likeness, colouring itself prismatically with as many hues as the chameleon…they can, with the
utmost facility assume the image and fantastical likeness of any animal, or indeed of anything else
just as serves their present purpose.”5 For Weyer and his peers, one primary way in which fallen
angels haunted houseshold was by producing both familiar and disturbing apparitions.
Trained demonologists thus exhorted Christians to beware the potentially harmful nature
of astonishing events in the home, wherein unexpected sights and sounds could arise without clear
comprehension of how and why such things occurred.6
Intriguingly, anxieties over domestic
disruptions of this sort were not exclusive to the late sixteenth-century. Twelfth- and thirteenthcentury exempla, chronicles, courtly and imaginative literature reflect on helpful and penitent
demons confusingly occupying Christian homes. In the fourteenth century, the prominent bishop
and natural philosopher, Nicole Oresme, similarly attempted “to set people’s minds at rest”
regarding “the causes of some effects which seem to be marvels and to show that the effects occur
naturally.”7 At the end of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth century, preachers

4 Of ghostes and spirites, walking by night, edited by J. Dover Wilson and May Yardley (Oxford:
Shakespeare Association at the University Press, 1929), 92.
5 A Treatise of Ghosts. Trans. by Montague Summers (Ann Arbor: Gryphon Books, 1971), 105.
6 That the events orbiting demonic activities were labeled “marvelous” is especially apposite in late
medieval and early modern demonology, because they emphasize the non-miraculous nature of demonic
illusions and abilities. Repeatedly, Weyer, Lavater, Taillepied, and others stress how Christian folk wrongly
feel wonder or astonishment at the seemingly miraculous deeds of fallen angels. On the emotional qualities
of medieval “wonder”, see Caroline Walker Bynum, “Wonder,” The American Historical Review 102
(1997): 1-26. For the importance of the marvels produced by demons, see Lorraine Daston, “Marvelous
Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe” Critical Inquiry 18:1 (Autumn, 1991): 93-124.
7 Nicole Oresme and The Marvels of Nature: A study of his De causis mirabilium with Critical Edition,
Translation, and Commentary, trans. by B. Hansen (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies,
and theologians like Johannes Nider, Geiler von Keysersberg, and Johannes Trithemius would also
call attention to those “demons, which wander the earth, completely disturb people where they live
with noises by throwing and breaking things.”8 Decades later, a young Martin Luther would also
preach on the subject.9
In nearly all such accounts, the type of demon fomenting noisy distractions or befriending
the inhabitants of the home is said to possess “less power from God.” Labeled deleterious in their
commerce with humanity, these spirits differed markedly in their propensity for surreptitious
mischief rather than, say, human possession or sexual relations and explicit pacts with women (and
men) designated as witches. This is an important distinction because scholarship on Christian
demonology has largely ignored accounts of “lesser demons.” A number of erudite studies have
addressed themes of medieval and early modern possession, exorcism, ghosts and witchcraft.10 My

1985), 136-7. Oresme would also comment on demons and natural marvels in Nicole Oresme and the
Medieval Geometry of Qualities and Motions: A Treatise on the Uniformity and Difformity of Intensities
known as Tractatus de configurationibus qualitatum et motuum, ed. and trans. by M. Clagett (Madison:
University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), II.xxv-xxxv. On Oresme, magic, and demons, see Joel Kaye, “Law,
Magic, and Science: Constructing a Border Between Licit and Illicit Knowledge in the Writings of Nicole
Oresme,” in Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe, ed. by Ruth Mazo Karras, Joel Kaye, and E. Anne
Matter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 225-37.
8 The quote is my translation from Johannes Trithemius, Antwort Herrn Johan Abts zu Spanhaim auff act
fragstuck, jme von weylandt Herrn Maximilian Röm. Kayser [et]c. hochlöblichster gedechtnuß,
fürgehalten. (Ingolstadt: durch Alexander unnd Samuel Weyssenhorn gebrüder, 1555), III, p. 43: “Teüffel,
die auff erden umb geen, wandlen umb die leüdt wonen ganz ungestümb mit gerümpel werffen unnd
schlagen.” The original Latin version can be found in Liber octo quaestionum, qu. 3, in Busaeus, ed.,
Paralipomena opusculorum Petri Blenensis et Ioannis Trithemii, aliorumque nuper in typographeo
monguntino editorum (Mainz: Apud Balthasarum Lippium, 1605), lib. II, cap. III, p. 460. For Geiler von
Kaisersberg on domestic demons, see Die Emeis, dis ist das büch von der Omeissen (Strasbourg: Johannes
Grieninger, 1517), fol. 44r. Geiler draws directly from Johannes Nider, Preceptorium Divine Legis (Basle:
Berthold Ruppel, c. 1470), prec. I, ch. XI, sect. 17, qu. 14.
9 Martin Luther, Decem Praecepta Wittenbergensi praedicata populo (1518), in M. Luther, Werke:
Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 58 vols (Weimar, 1883-1948), vol. 1, p. 406.
10 Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern
Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and
Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Walter Stephens, Demon
Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).
analysis will converge only obliquely with these, highlighting instead descriptions of lesser
demonic hauntings in urban and rural settings. By exploring the complex relation between minor
demons and human communities, this study centers on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century responses
to the Devil’s presence in Christian homes. I will argue that orthodox theologians attempted to
explain household spirits as one facet of demonic evil by incorporating reported phenomena within
inherited patristic and scholastic teachings about the Devil. In so doing, extant literature on minor
demons also reveals that learned authors by no means spoke with one voice; rather, perspectives
on the nature and power of the Devil were multifaceted, often contradictory, and changed over
Study of demons and demonology has proven attractive subject matter. For medieval
portrayals of the Devil and fallen angels, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Norman Cohn, Robert
Muchembled and Alain Boureau have contributed seminal scholarly narratives. In different forms,
these authors address the question of how the Latin Middle Ages adapted delineations of the Devil
from antiquity. With broad strokes, Russell, Cohn and Muchembled argue that the twelfth through
fourteenth centuries produced forms of a “radical” demonology.11 Russell and Muchembled

11 Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000); Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972); Jeffrey Burton Russel, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); Robert Muchembled, A History of the Devil: From the Middle
Ages to the Present, trans. by Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003). On the notion of a “radical”
demonology, see the excellent historiography in Fabián Alejandro Campagne, “Demonology at a
Crossroads: The Visions of Ermine de Reims and the Image of the Devil on the Eve of the Great European
Witch-Hunt,” Church History 80:3 (2011): 467-97. Peter Dinzelbacher’s Angst im Mittelalter: Teufels-,
Todes- und Gotteserfahrung: Mentalitätsgeschichte und Ikonographie (Paderborn: F. Schöningh, 1996)
shares a very similar perspective.
examine scholastic systems of thought that engendered a unique break with past traditions. Cohn
(and to some extent Russell) follows a line of argument based on the oppression of distinct nonChristian “others” (e.g., Cathars, Jews), akin to the famous anti-heresy theory espoused by R. I.
12 From this perspective, invisible but palpable devilry existed at every level of medieval
culture and reveals an “atmosphere of morbid fascination…[that] fills the medieval
descriptions.”13 Boureau’s research represents something of an outlier, in that he views high
medieval expatiations of Satan and demons as distinct from fifteenth-century and early modern
demonologies. Where Thomist metaphysics (of the thirteenth century) produced long-lasting
methods of natural-philosophical exegesis that could be applied to angels and fallen angels,
Boureau locates the rise of “demonology” as a specific form of natural science in later texts like
the Malleus maleficarum.14
Other scholars, including Richard Kieckhefer, Nancy Caciola and Carl Watkins, have
proffered sophisticated accounts of more ambiguous spiritual beings. In his exposition of a
fifteenth-century necromancer’s instructional book, for example, Kieckhefer admits that some
conjured spirits were of unfallen and indeterminate provenance.15 According to Kieckhefer, the
demons of the Munich handbook (and learned magical texts more generally) fit awkwardly with

12 R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-
1250 (New York: Blackwell, 1987).
13 Ibid., 23.
14 Alain Boureau, Satan the Heretic: The Birth of Demonology in the Medieval West (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2006); “Demons and the Christian Community,” in The Cambridge History of
Christianity: Vol 4, Christianity in Western Europe c. 1100-c. 1500, eds. Miri Rubin and Walter Simons
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 420-32.
15 Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century (University
Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 155-6. See also, European Witch Trials: Their
Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976),
orthodox theological expectations. In her Discerning Spirits, Caciola includes an important chapter
on the distinctions between erudite and “popular” conceptions of demonic possession.16 Where the
former generally foregrounded the sinfulness of the possessed person, the latter tended to espouse
portrayals of a spontaneously activated landscape or environment filled with elemental spirits near
forests, streams, mountains, and so forth. Lacking any explicit mention of sinful behavior, these
elemental beings possessed humans much more randomly for entrance into their domains. More
recently, Watkins has contended that twelfth- and thirteenth-century depictions of demons were
much more varied than has been assumed heretofore. Working almost exclusively with medieval
English chronicles, Watkins shows how collected stories and testimonials often stressed that evil
demons, as well as imaginative domestic and natural spirits, functioned as morally instructive
examples for Christian communities.17

Equally abundant is the copious amount of literature on the rise of witchcraft theories. My
dissertation will not deal with witchcraft per se, although the second half of my research will work
extensively with fifteenth- and sixteenth-century treatises that underscore the theological threats
posed by witches and magical practices. I rely on this body of literature because witchcraft theorists
engendered detailed accounts of demons and the ways in which fallen angels interacted with
Christian communities. Though hardly a guiding motif in these works, several theologians
concerned with maleficium include passages on the theme of minor demons to show the scope of
demonic deceits.

16 Caciola, Discerning Spirits (2003), 49-77; also see the introduction in “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in
Medieval Culture,” Past & Present 152 (1996): 3-45, and “Spirits Seeking Bodies: Death, Possession and
Communal Memory in the Middle Ages” in The Place of the Dead (2000), 66-86.
17 Carl S. Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2007), 55-67.
The most influential book to ignite sustained critical inquiry into demonological discourses
is Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons. In this landmark examination of early modern
demonological epistemologies, Clark covers a vast array of texts on witchcraft that suggest dyadic
hierarchies of good/evil, God/human, man/woman, inter alia formed the systemic basis for
persecuting witches.18 Hans Peter Broedel’s study of the Malleus maleficarum and similar texts
has more recently drawn from Russell, Cohn, Muchembled and Clark to produce a highly nuanced
view of late medieval and early modern demonologies. Suggesting that the sixteenth-century
science of demonology was a dynamic mixture of both traditional adoption and innovative
adaptation of Patristic perspectives, Broedel highlights the multiple medieval views of demons
(and witches) that depended on different geographical areas.19
Three important studies also deserve mention that have taken a broader view of the above
issues from the perspectives of popular magic, belief, and ritual. First, Keith Thomas’ Religion and
the Decline of Magic constitutes a monumental investigation of religious assumptions, premodern
cognition, and social interaction.20 Placing the normative cultural values of preindustrial England
in the context of historical practices, Thomas handles the complex nexus of Christianity and magic.
While specific to premodern English history, Thomas’ analysis is particularly useful in its synthetic
treatment of witchcraft, demonology, popular magic and related issues. Second, in Enchanted
Europe Euan Cameron examines late medieval and early modern “superstition literature.” Akin to

18 Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1997).
19 Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular
Belief (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
20 Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century
England (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971).
Thomas’ work in its analysis of overlapping practices and beliefs, but with emphasis on theological
treatises that condemn “vain observances”, Cameron explores the shared and unique criticisms of
late medieval theologians, pastors, Protestant Reformers, and early modern Catholics against
magic, materialistic ritual practices, and unorthodox Christian cosmologies.21 Likewise, Michael
Bailey’s Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies probes debates over and representations of superstition,
albeit primarily in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.22 Bailey demonstrates just how mutable
a category “superstitious” activities could be in the period and the complex ways in which such
activities could be related to developments in theological doctrine, church reform, natural
philosophy, and condemnations against witchcraft and illicit magic.
In view of this secondary literature, it is important to note how little has been written on
the notion of premodern household spirits in anglophone scholarship. Thomas and Cameron both
include important sections on fairies and morally neutral spirits, as does Carl Watkins, although
these themes comprise only a small portion of their overall analyses. Richard Firth Green and
James Wade have also recently explored rich fairy traditions in the later Middle Ages, while
deliberately avoiding the subject of household spirits.23 Recent German scholarship, on the other
hand, has produced sustained studies of “Hausgeister” (house spirits/ghosts/demons), albeit with

21 Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250-1750 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2010); also, “Angels, Demons, and Everything In Between: Spiritual Beings in Early
Modern Europe,” in Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period,
eds. C. Copeland and J. Machielsen (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 17-52.
22 Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 2013). See also his Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late
Middle Ages (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003) and “A Late-Medieval Crisis
of Superstition?” Speculum 84 (2009): 638-9.
23 Richard Firth Green, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2011).
sparse focus on premodern sources.24 My research builds on the works listed above so as to
illustrate the nuances of demonological materials stemming from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century
northern Europe. It demonstrates that demonological literature from this period perceived demonic
influence, not just in terms of possession, witchcraft, and general cosmic evil, but also in the
mundane happenings of quotidian life.
Dissertation Outline
The first half of my dissertation will survey orthodox demonological principles within the
Latin Christian tradition (Chapter 1) and then high medieval accounts concerning morally neutral
angels, helpful demons, and non-angelic spirits (Chapter 2). The first two chapters accordingly
address questions and responses prompted by Weyer above: What kinds of spiritual creatures
manifest in spaces proximate to Christian residence and activity? Do peaceful demons exist or are
fallen angels all invariably malevolent? What roles do demons and domestic spirits play in the
lives of human beings? How is one to interact with their kind and why do some demons exhibit
redeeming characteristics?
Chapter 1 will thus outline theological descriptions of demons from which late medieval
and early modern sources would repeatedly draw. Its purpose is to delineate a synoptic model of
Christian demonology as presented by traditional auctores. While a vast corpus of inherited

24 Erika Lindig, Hausgeister: Die Vorstellungen übernatürlicher Schützer und Helfer in der deutschen
Sagenüberlieferung (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1987); Dagmar, Linhart, Hausgeister in
Franken: Zur Phänomenologie, Überlieferungsgeschichte und gelehrten Deutung bestimmter hilfreicher
oder schädlicher Sagengestalten (Dettelbach: J. H. Röll, 1995); Tobias Gartner, “Hausgeister im
Mittelalter: Schriftliche Überlieferung und Archäologische Funde,” Mitteilungen der Berliner Gesellschaft
für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, Bd. 26 (2005): 19-28. In very general terms, excepting
Gartner’s short article, these studies do not provide any substantive medieval or sixteenth-century analysis.
Rather, they rely heavily on Teutonic mythology, as collected by Jacob Grimm.
wisdom on angels and demons exists, discussion will be limited to key Christian figures—those
most often cited in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century demonologies. The most influential early
Christian thinker to produce a theory of demons was Saint Augustine. In several of his writings
the bishop of Hippo expatiates on an image of the Devil as a trickster and catalyst for temptation
to sin.25 Originally created good, demons were once angels that deliberately chose to turn from
God.26 Augustine also equated pagan deities with demonic spirits—a product of infernal deception
and the remarkable abilities of demons. In general terms, Augustinian demonology represents evil
in moral or spiritual rather than physical terms. Encounter with a demon, from this perspective, is
frequently governed by soteriological concerns—meaning demons were represented as obstacles
to salvation.
27 Yet, early commentaries on the Devil and demons did not exclusively restrict fallen
angels to forms of temptation into sin. The writings of Gregory the Great, for example, express
caution before material disasters, such as storms, plagues, and corporeal harm. Following PseudoDionysius, many averred that a hierarchy of angels and demons existed, granting certain spirits
more potential for physical injury than others.28 John of Damascus indicated that the Devil “had
been entrusted by God with the custody of the earth,” emphasizing that fallen angels could never
repent for their rebellion against the Christian divinity.29

25 The City of God against the Pagans, ed. and trans. by R W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998) bks II, III, and IX; The Divination of Demons, trans. by R. W. Brown, in Saint Augustine:
Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects, ed. by R. J. Deferrari (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc.),
IV, 8.
26 City of God (1998), XIV, 27.
27 G. R. Evans, Augustine on Evil, 5
th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 32.
28 David Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 50-69.
29 Saint John of Damascus: Writings, trans. by Frederic H. Chase Jr. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic
University of America Press, 1958), bk II, ch. IV.
Patristic and early medieval theories of the demonic qualify that any earthly calamities
occurred by means of divine permission. Gregory the Great’s famous exegesis of the Book of Job
repeatedly emphasizes this point, “that the will of Satan is always evil, but his power is never
unjust, for his will he derives from himself, but his power he derives from God. For what he himself
unrighteously desires to do, God does not allow to be done except with justice.”30 The Devil,
limited by God, was only as powerful and influential as permitted by divine allowance.31
Moreover, devils were culpable as the primary agents of evil, usually by means of inflaming human
passions, as sermon stories and exempla would demonstrate. Thus, early imagery of the Devil and
demons depicts such beings as agents of trial and subject to the judgment of God.
Alongside earlier authors, the thirteenth-century Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, features
prominently as an authority on demons. Aquinas systematized—with all of creation—the
hierarchical placement, abilities and general nature of angels.32 Described as “intellectual
substances”, the Devil and angelic beings were limited to complete material disembodiment, able
to perform marvels (or wonders) and their behavior became a sustained quarry of natural
philosophical inquiry. As Hans Peter Broedel has remarked, “from this derived a belief in diabolic
potency that was correspondingly greater and more threatening than Augustine’s.”33 While lacking
physical bodies, demons were able to manipulate human perception by means of their enhanced

30 Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, trans. with notes (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1844) 2:17.
31 Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville., ed. and trans. by Stephen A. Barney, W. J.
Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 8; 10.
32 In a highly condensed form, see Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. by J. Oesterle (Notre Dame: University
of Notre Dame Press, 1995), question 16. Aquinas’ writings on angels and demons can be found scattered
throughout his Summa Theologica, Summa contra Gentiles, and other works.
33 The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft (2003), 44.
speed, intellect, and cunning. These general points of scholastic discussion would later become
demonological principles that most fifteenth- and sixteenth-century thinkers would take for
Thereafter, Chapter 2 transitions from Thomist theology of the High Middle Ages into
accounts of spirits according to courtly, poetic and exemplary literature. It analyzes a second body
of inheritance that tended to obfuscate the clarity of scholastic demonology. Formal ecclesiastical
teachings urged that encounter with a demon would always involve duplicity. Fallen angels could
assume countless forms and employ their subtle natures to deceive humans. Prescriptive
theological discourse on demons, however, did not cauterize creative descriptions of ambiguous
spirits. Fairies, kobolds and helpful “others” frequented folk tales and popular texts in a fashion
that was both symbiotic with and unconventional for orthodox theology.
One theme I explore in this chapter is that certain fallen angels chose to side neither with
Heaven nor Hell. The idea of neutral angels or harmless demons was unthinkable for scholastic
theologians; yet, high medieval literature and folklore could dwell in expressive ambiguity in ways
impossible for orthodoxy. Imaginative accounts, such as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival,
Dante’s Inferno, and the various forms of St. Brendan’s voyage, represent neutral angels that are
encountered and said to inhabit earthly abodes.34 One also finds plentiful instances of morally

34 In Inferno, Dante and Virgil first encounter in Hell those “angels, who were not rebellious, nor were
faithful to God; but were for themselves. Heaven chased them forth to keep its beauty from impair; and the
deep Hell receives them not, for the wicked would have some glory over them.” The Divine Comedy, trans.
by Geoffrey L. Bickersteth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), Canto III. In the Navigatio
Sancti Brendani, the monastic voyagers encounter an isle of semi-fallen angels called Walserands that
explain “we are from the great ruin of the ancient enemy…our just and true God…sent us to this earthly
place where we endure no punishment, except that we cannot see the presence of God.” The Voyage of
Saint Brendan: Representative Versions of the Legend in English Translation, ed. and trans. by W. R. J.
Barron and Glyn S. Burgess (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002), 82. In Parzival, Wolfram von
Eschenbach describes “those who joined neither side when their great battle began [and] all the neutral
angels…had to come to earth.” Parzival, vol. 1, ed. by Karl Lachmann (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker
Verlag, 1994), 780.
ambivalent spirits in the “entertainment literature” of Gervase of Tilbury and Walter Map.35 In his
book of marvels written for the emperor, Otto IV, Gervase describes spiritual creatures called
follets, which are unaffected by exorcism or holy water and throw kitchen utensils at home
owners.36 Gervase admits how many folk consider them to “be helpful but do no real harm.”37 In
his De nugis curialium, the cleric, Walter Map, also recorded a number of elaborate tales about
“prodigious apparitions”, which included the capture of fairy brides that hide and speak under
water, a centaur encountered by Saint Anthony and demonic infanticide.38 Map repeatedly
interrupts his narratives in order to wonder at the positive results engendered by spiritual
encounters. Finally, Caesarius von Heisterbach’s Dialogus miraculorum and Thomas of
Cantimpré’s Bonum universale de apibus contain a number of exempla relating the behavior,
tendencies, and often benevolent commerce between humans and explicitly penitent demons.39
The inventive variety of high medieval literature and experiential accounts presented formidable
challenges for later pastoral theologians. Any examples of neutral spirits required assimilation into
models promoted by the church; ambiguities nevertheless flourished well through and beyond the
Latin Middle Ages.
The final two chapters comprise an historical approach to how late medieval and early

35 For the genre of “entertainment literature” I use Caroline Bynum’s description in “Wonder,” The
American Historical Review 102 (1997), 13.
36 Otia Imperialia: Recreation for an Emperor, ed. and trans. by S. E. Banks and J. W. Binns (Oxford:
Clarendon, 2002), p. 99.
37 Ibid., p. 677.
38 De nugis curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles, ed. and trans. M. R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), dist.
ii, cc. 11-16.
39For an insightful study of both medieval authors, see Alexander Murray, “Demons as Psychological
Abstractions” in Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry: Their Function and Significance, ed. by I.
Iribarren and M. Lenz (Abingdon: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2008), 171-84.
modern writers debated and represented minor haunting spirits. Discourses on and experiences
with diverse apparitions were not held in a vacuum; they informed and were informed by sundry
continuities and ruptures. While reports of demonic infestation exist in earlier centuries, from 1400
to 1600 western Europe witnessed considerable social and religious changes, especially heightened
anxieties over maleficent magic and witchcraft (Chapter 3), as well as the Protestant Reformation
(Chapter 4). In the second half of the dissertation, I thus identify the ways in which domestic
demons came under intense and differentiated scrutiny in light of these developments. In
particular, I investigate the prevalent association of minor, noisy demons with quotidian
experience. In these chapters, my dissertation examines the various aspects attributed to household
demons and why these wicked spirits garnered increasing attention in the later Middle Ages and
early modern period.
Chapter 3 begins with pastoral accounts from Geiler von Keysersberg, Johannes
Trithemius and a young Martin Luther. It treats late medieval and early sixteenth-century treatises
that deal with household and poltergeist demons. Superficially similar in content to the exempla
of Caesarius or the entertainment literature of Gervase, lay and clerical accounts of fallen angels
were increasingly associated with magical practices and noxious sorcery, rather than solely
marvelous occurrences. Texts, such as Johannes Nider’s Formicarius, the Malleus maleficarum
and others, engendered an archetypal (albeit variegated) view of maleficent magic.40 While
“magic” was generally understood as deleterious throughout earlier Christian (and pre-Christian)
history, the coupling of new elements of “heresy”, putative conspiratorial satanic covenants and
Thomist natural philosophy gave this later conception a distinct form.41 At the same time, not all

40 Bailey, Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies (2013); Battling Demons (2003).
41 Richard Kieckhefer, “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” The American Historical Review 99
(June 1994): 813-36; Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Claire

critiques of magical arts were equated with maleficium; one could admonish against witchcraft or
the conjuring of spirits while asserting, as later Protestants would, that misfortune and suffering
stemmed from God’s providence.
A prominent concern in the treatises I examine is that Christians might unknowingly
propitiate demons of the home by means of so-called superstitious beliefs and rituals.42 At a general
level, “superstition” could translate into a host of varied practices.43 One prevalent concern was
that Christians often erroneously sought to appease obscure spirits coinhabiting the household. As
experiences with these beings were increasingly reported, the more important it was to account for
their provenance from either God or the Devil. Chapter 3 therefore analyzes accounts that
underscore the difficulties associated with discerning the implications of minor demonic spirits.
The fifteenth-century French theologian, Petrus Mamoris, for instance, flatfootedly tells of a
nobleman he knew personally. We are told that familiar spirit called “Dragon” constantly attended
the nobleman until “it” was confronted and eventually imprisoned by a stronger, unnamed “maior
44 Just over a decade later, Trithemius would recount how a certain spiritual creature

Fanger (ed.), Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic (Gloucestershire: Sutton
Publishing, 1998); and Fanger’s Rewriting Magic: An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a
Fourteenth-Century French Monk (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015).
42 An “implicit pact” refers to the performance of magic that involved occult communication
(unintentionally) with demons. By the fifteenth-century, pastoral preachers and theologians sought to
persuade laity that seemingly innocuous practices and beliefs were, in fact, a gateway to demonic
commerce. An example of this can bee seen in Jean Gerson, De erroribus circa artem magicam, in Œuvres
complètes, ed. by Palémon Glorieux, vol. 10 (Paris: Declée, 1973), 77-90. For a concise explanation, see
Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010), 106-10.
43 Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010); R. N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215-c. 1515
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Bailey, Fearful Spirits (2013); K. Baumann, Aberglaube
für Laien: Zur Programmatik und Überlieferung spätmittelalterlicher Superstitionenkritik (Würzburg:
Königshausen u. Neumann, 1989).
44 “Et maior diabolus minorem alligare in lapide vel anullo vel alio corpore potest uti confessus est quidam
vir nobilis qui habebat demonem familarem nomine Dragon. Adveniente alio eo fortiori alligabat eum in
modica cera vel anullo et ponebat illum retro hostium vel in aliquot foramine quo adus[?] alius forcior
named “Hutgin” appeared visibly and invisibly to the community of Hildesheim—helping cooks
in the kitchen, wearing “rustic garb”, and hurting those humans that caused the spirit hardship.45
Alfonso de Spina includes reports (often from personal experience) of minor demons said to plague
domestic spaces.46 Rather unconventional texts, such as Dives and Pauper or The Distaff’s Gospel,
voice beliefs and practices that reflect certain concerns from more learned writers.47 The sixteenthcentury Zimmern Chronicle similarly exhibits courtly fascination with hauntings and familiar
spirits.48 Even in the illustrious Reformer Martin Luther’s “Tischreden”, one finds numerous
accounts of poltergeist activities in which the Devil literally does nothing but make noise.49 My
reading of these stories illuminates the circuitous maze of pastoral, theological and entertainment-

demon de illa domo exiret vel a camera.” Flagellum maleficorum a magistro petro mamoris editum cum
alio tractatu de eadem material per magistru[m] he[n]ricu[m] de colonia co[m]pilatu[m] (Lyon: 1498),
45Opera historica, 2 vols, edited by M. Freher (Frankfurt: Minerva, 1966), Vol. 2, 123-4. “Hutgin” can also
be found translated in Johann Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance: Johann Weyer, De
praestigiis daemonum, trans. by J. Shea (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies,
1991), 74-6. Another version of the tale is found in Annalium Hirsaugiensium, 2 vols. (St Gallen, 1690), 1:
395-97. The two versions provide varying degrees of detail as to the spirit’s activities. As this shows textual
variation, I will need to do extra research on which versions Weyer and others read. A condensed portion
of the tale of Hutgin would also be retold later by the German Jesuit, Petrus Thyraeus in his Loca infesta:
hoc est, De infestis, ob molestantes daemoniorum et defunctorum hominum spiritus, locis, liber unus
(Cologne: Cholinus, 1598), Ch. I, pp. 8-9.
46 Fortalitium Fidei (Lyon: Gulielmus Balsarin, 1487), book 5, consideration 10.
47 Dives and Pauper, Vol. 1, ed. by Priscilla Heath Barnum (London: Oxford University Press for the Early
English Text Society, 1976-1980), commandment I, p. 157, references “fedyn Al-holde (or Gobelyn),” just
as Pauper responds to the question “pat sprytis walkyn so aboutyn men ben dede” that “comonly swyche
sprytis arn fendys”, commandment I, p. 171. The Distaff Gospels: A First Modern English Edition of Les
évangiles des quenouilles, trans. and ed. by M. Jeay and K. Garay (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Editions,
2006) is replete with references to charms and diverse rituals for keeping away demons, goblins, and fairies.
See pp. 107, 131-33, 143-49, 221-27, 241, 247-55.
48 The Zimmern Chronicle includes a number of tales about “erdenmendle” and “wichtelmendle” which
suit the concept of household spirits; see, Christof Graf von Zimmern, Zimmerische Chronik, hrsg. von K.
A. Barack (Tübingen: Litterarischer Verein in Stuttgart, 1869), 227-44.
49 Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Tischreden, 6 vols (Weimer:
Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1912-21), see indices under “Gespenst” and “Poltergeist”.
literature on superstitious practices, beliefs and stories associated with domestic spirits. These
narratives suggest that a vague ranking of demons existed and that some demonic spirits enacted
comparatively minimal harm (e.g., make noise, collect misspoken words, incite confusion). My
examination will demonstrate how the transition from scholastic demonology (in the university)
to pastoral counsel (in public sermons) situates demonic affliction in the context of lived
experiences, rather than learned debate. In this literature, the Christian home emerges as a locus of
pastoral oversight in order to purge the household of competing systems of religious thought and
Probing sixteenth-century confessional debates on demonic spirits, the fourth and final
chapter further situates haunting spirits within the realm of experiential knowledge. This chapter
looks primarily at Ludwig Lavater’s seminal treatise called Das Gespensterbuch (“The Book of
Spirits”). This Reformed Protestant work enjoyed considerable influence in sixteenth-century
Western Europe, prompting numerous vernacular and Latin translations. It also provoked rebuke
from influential Roman Catholic authors. For the purposes of this dissertation, I rely on Lavater to
show that perspectives on spiritual apparitions could evince radically different religious
assumptions, depending on one’s confessional identity. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation,
accounts of ethereal beings often served polemical purposes in demonstrating the validity of
Protestant and Roman Catholic beliefs about ghosts and demons.50 Lavater reminds us that stories
about spiritual creatures could be employed to condition Christian sensibilities concerning
demonic interventions and illusions. Drawing on a vast array of ancient, medieval, and

50 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), 587-614; Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010), 156-
210; “Angels, Demons, and Everything In Between: Spiritual Beings in Early Modern Europe,” (2013), 17-
52; Bruce Gordon, “Malevolent Ghosts and Ministering Angels: Apparitions and Pastoral Care in the Swiss
Reformation,” in The Place of the Dead (2000), 87-109.
contemporary sources as evidence, the Swiss minister evinces a perspective of noisy demonic
distractions that places readers within demonological narratives themselves, while demonstrating
the inefficacy of Roman Catholic rituals against spectral apparitions.
In many ways, this dissertation covers what learned theologians wrote about fallen angels,
how they explained haunting phenomena, and what they perceived to be pious and erroneous
perspectives concerning demonic spirits. More importantly, I hope to exhibit how the authors
examined above proffer competing views of evil and struggled to explain unseen movements,
misplaced objects, and general misfortune in the home. In this, Christian demonology often
foregrounds the importance of appropriately sensing or feeling spiritual interferences in daily
Christian life. This could be expressed in terms of didactic instruction. Ludwig Lavater, for
example, admonishes that “God dothe also suffer them [Christians] to be exercised with haunting
of spirites, for this cause, that they shold be the more humble and lowely.”51 Beyond didacticism
as a form of social disciplining, however, I will also interpret the emotionally laden language of
demonic infestations.52 Indeed, accounts of domestic demons carry affective elements of fear,
anticipation, and wonder. In many instances, they exhibit expectations of controlled
responsiveness, as well as unexpected bodily reactions, when encountering household spirits.
When Noël Taillepied warns that spirits tend to “appear in places where in times past there have
been horrid deeds, assassinations, riot and rape,” he seems to suggest that certain locations retain
a presence or evocative environment replete with emotional and spiritual nuances.53 Quoting

51 Of ghostes and spirites, walking by night (1929), 176.
52 On “social discipline”, see R. Po-chia Hsia, Social Discipline in the Reformation: Central Europe 1550-
1750 (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), chs. 7, 8.
53 A Treatise of Ghosts, trans. by Montague Summers (1971), 98.
Augustine via Aquinas, Johann Weyer would caution that the evil of demons “creeps through all
avenues of sense: it lends itself to shapes, adapts itself to colors, adheres to sounds, incorporates
itself into odors, and infuses tastes.”54 The Devil exemplified the manipulator par excellence of
the human sensorium. In what follows, the analysis will exhibit the implications of this influence
on humankind and how demonological authors described encounters with demons in domestic

54 Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 186.
CHAPTER 1: Orthodox Demonology and the Metaphysics of Demonic Affliction
In Book 22 of his City of God, Augustine of Hippo recounts how an ex-tribune named
Hesperius owned an estate (fundus) plagued by demonic spirits. According to the bishop, a group
of demons attacked the servants and animals belonging to this area of land called Zubedi (in
Fussala North Africa). No details are given on what form of specific suffering the people and
wildlife endured, although we are told that the spiritual beings did not directly harm the man
Hesperius, for he kept a relic of “sacred earth taken from Jerusalem where Christ was buried and
rose again on the third day” to protect against their assaults. His own personal wellbeing
notwithstanding, Hesperius pleaded with Augustine for a Christian presbyter to come and purge
the residence of the malign presence. Shortly thereafter, a priest arrived and “offered there the
sacrifice of Christ, praying with all his might that the molestation should cease. God straightway
took pity, and the trouble came to an end.” Once the infestation was successfully removed, the
former Roman officer no longer wished to keep the “sacred earth” (terra sancta) for himself. With
Augustine’s consent, he buried it at a site for Christians to utilize as a place of worship. The
anecdote concludes that a paralytic rustic promptly visited the newly blessed location and was
miraculously healed in this “sacred place” (locus sanctus).55
In the context of Augustine’s fifth-century life and writings, the recorded experience was
exemplary of the spiritual power manifest in God’s mercy and victorious intervention. Hesperius’
status as a converted Roman legionary, for example, informs at least part of the story’s
triumphalism. Presumably now a Christian, the actions of Hesperius demonstrated the inspired

55 The City of God against the Pagans, ed. and trans. by R W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998) bk 22, ch 8, p. 1039. For the Latin text see Sancti Aurelii Augustini…Opera Omnia, ed. the
Benedictines of St-Maur, 11 vols (Paris: 1841-2), vol. vii, incorporated in the Patrologiae Cursus
Completus, Series Latina, (PL) ed. Jacques-Paul Migne, vol. 41, cols. 12-804.
efficacy of Christian practices by means of hallowed ground and priestly intercession. Similarly,
the narrative substantiated the miraculous nature of hallowed soil taken from Christ’s tomb for
effectively establishing a Christian religious shrine. Most importantly, however, it was the
proliferation of such accounts which sustained their significance. As Augustine later remarks in
the same book: “these modern miracles are not so widely known” although “at Hippo we have
started the practice of reading to people the accounts of those who receive such blessings.”56
According to Brouria Britton-Ashkelony, “Augustine’s description of healing miracles and other
forms of personal salvation in book 22 of the City of God can therefore be seen as a fundamental
weapon used to rebut the pagan claim that Christians have no miracles.”57 The tale—like many
others included in the final book of the City of God—required telling and retelling because it
attested to the authority and validity of the Christian religion.
Interestingly, sixteenth-century demonologists retold the miraculous story albeit with
differentiated emphases. Rather than illustrative of God’s blessings and the institution of a locus
sanctus, the travails of Hesperius affirmed the presence of evil spiritual forces tormenting
humanity for over a millennium. For instance, the Jesuit theologian Petrus Thyraeus (1546-1601)
began his influential work on demonic and spectral afflictions, entitled Loca infesta (1598), with
reference to the African farm called Zubedi. As Thyraeus repeatedly describes the incident, the
haunted estate of Hesperius revealed a physical territory harrowed by demonic spirits in and of

56 Ibid., bk 22, ch 8, p. 1045.
57 Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2005), 131. Another brief analysis of Hesperius’ encounter to which Britton-Ashkelony
is responding can be found in Robert Louis Wilken, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History
and Thought (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992), 125.
itself (infesta per se), rather than according to human activity (infesta propter homines).58 Instead
of the traditional theological position that human sinfulness provoked demonic invasion, the Jesuit
theologian argued that some fallen angels attached themselves to human habitations of their own
volition. For Thyraeus, the environment of Zubedi illustrated a landscape spontaneously and
intimately animated by unclean spirits.
Contemporaries of Thyraeus noted other facets of Augustine’s report. The French
Capuchin Noël Taillepied (1540-1589) cited Hesperius’ encounter (twice) and clarified that
“spirits appear in order to frighten men, especially the evil ones.” In comparison with the “good
angels” who appeared to humans for “consolation,” Taillepied didactically insisted that demons
emerged in material places “in order to plunge men into despair.”59 Closer to Augustine’s
intentions, the Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio (1551-1608) averred that the story confirmed the sacral
potency of the Christian religion.60 However, Delrio framed this potency—alongside the proper
ecclesiastical use of baptism, confession, prayer, a guardian angel, lustral water, inter alia—in
terms of a demonstrable Roman Catholic means for alleviating demonic vexation and

58 Loca infesta: hoc est, De infestis, ob molestantes daemoniorum et defunctorum hominum spiritus, locis,
liber unus (Cologne: Cholinus, 1598), ch 1, p.12.
59 Noël Taillepied, Traité De L’Apparition Des Esprits. A Scavoir, Des ames separees, Fantosmes, prodiges,
& accidents merveilleux, qui precedent quelquefois la mort des grands personnages, ou signifient
changemens de la chose publique (Rouen, 1588), 206: “les esprits s’apparoissent pour espouvanter les
hommes, & specialement les meschants. A l’heure de la mort, quelquefois les diables s’apparoissent aux
hommes pour les faire tomber en desespoir: aussi les bons s’apparoissent pour les consoler.” An English
translation exists in A Treatise of Ghosts, Being the Psichologie, or Treatise upon Apparitions and Spirits,
of Disembodied Souls, Phantom Figures, Strange Prodigies, and of Other Miracles and Marvels, which
often presage the Death of some Great Person, or signify some swift Change in Public Affairs, trans. by
Montague Summers (Ann Arbor: Gryphon Books, 1971).
60 Ibid., 305. Like Delrio, Taillepied also related Hesperius’ experience to the efficacy of celebrating the
holy Mass.
61 With quasi-Protestant leanings, Johann Weyer (1515-1588) stressed that Hesperius
had benefited from communal prayer as a “goodly shield to repel all the adversary’s flaming
missiles.”62 Yet another position can be seen in the writing of the Swiss Reformed theologian
Ludwig Lavater (1527-1586). In contrast to the establishment of a sacred place at the story’s end,
Lavater wagered that Hesperius inadvertently introduced pernicious superstition (aberglaub) into
the Christian history. Lavater lauded Hesperius’ prayer to God, but likened so-called remedies
against wicked spirits to snow falling in the Swiss mountains (im hochgebirg). On this view, the
actions of Hesperius precariously snowballed into pagan custom, thereby implying the continued
influence of demons in human affairs.63
As these examples indicate, sixteenth-century theologians invested the early account
(among numerous others) with variegated meaning. They drew from Augustine’s report in order
to corroborate and address diverse concerns of demonic infestation occurring in their own
historical context. That theologians would cite Augustine’s vignette a millennium later is
unsurprising. As one of the church fathers, Augustine was remembered and referenced in nearly
every aspect Western European theology. To turn to his authority for adducing the nature, expected
behavior, and ultimate fate of the Devil and his fallen angels was usual among those who wrote

61 Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex, 3 vols (Venetiis: Apud Ioan. Antonium & Iacobum de Franciscis.,
1606), bk 6, pt. 2, q. 3, sect. 3, pp. 717-18 (183).
62 Johann Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance: Johann Weyer, De praestigiis
daemonum, trans. by J. Shea (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991), 455.
Weyer is here quoting St. Ambrose.
63 Ludwig Lavater, Von Gespaenstern, unghüren, faeln, und anderen wunderbaren dingen, so merteils wenn
die menschen sterben soellend, oder wenn sunst grosse sachennd enderungen vorhanden sind,
beschaehend, kurzer und einfaltiger bericht (Zurich, 1569), part 3, bk 10, p. 117: “Uß[?] welchem wol
abzunehmen ist wie der aberglaub zytlich angefangen unnd wie gern ß[?]schicht ye lenger ye grosser
worden ist als so man ein schneeballen wyter meltzet oder ein loeuwin im hochgebirg angadt und alles [?]
und breit mit schnee überdeckt.”
about demons. In addition to Augustine’s thought and example, late premodern thinkers would
gather precepts from myriad authors ranging from antiquity to the later Middle Ages—a point
addressed in detail below. Yet, as we have seen, this did not mean that all premodern thinkers
shared the same emphases as their forebears. Theological writers and preachers of fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries reported striking concerns over how and why demonic hauntings occurred,
adopting ancient examples to address contemporary systems of religious thought and practice.
Where earlier Christian sources elicit conceptually similar anxieties, late medieval and early
modern authors wrote about and theorized demonic encounters in far more obsessive terms than
their predecessors.64
In order to better comprehend historical accounts of demonic encounter, the current chapter
considers what orthodox theologians understood demons to be and how fallen angels were said to
afflict humanity by means of their immaterial presence. To this end, the chapter is divided into
three related sections. The first two survey theological descriptions of demons from which figures
like Thyraeus, Delrio, Taillepied, Weyer, and Lavater would repeatedly draw. The first section, in
particular, examines the some of the most influential writings on demons from Saint Augustine,
Gregory the Great, and Isidore of Seville, among others. The second section then turns to scholastic
medieval perspectives of the demonic and the ways in which Thomist metaphysics subtly alters
learned discourses on fallen angels. Thus, one of the chapter’s primary purposes is to delineate a
synoptic model of orthodox Christian demonology as presented by traditional auctores (e.g.,
Augustine, Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and others). Complementing this broad
theological synopsis, the third and last section investigates the issue of demonic encounter through

64 On early medieval loca infesta and the conversion of the landscape, see Valerie Flint, The Rise of Magic
in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 204 ff.; Ellen Fenzel Arnold,
Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 179-80.
the modern analytic rubric of “affective space.” Here, I briefly outline how contemporary
scholarship defines “affective space” and apply the category to premodern exemplary narratives
involving demonic spirits. It is in this last part that we move to descriptive analyses of how
malevolent spiritual forces were reported to invade Christian lives and the ways in which demons
were diagnosed in widespread accounts of demonic infestation.
Augustinian Demonology in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
Modern scholarship tends to divide the history of Western Christian demonology into two
chronological and interpretive camps. The first exhibits the predominant influence of Augustine’s
thought on demons in the fourth and fifth centuries up until around the twelfth century. The second
of these groupings generally moves to the thirteenth-century scholastic writings of Thomas
Aquinas, which carry forward into the seventeenth century.65 To be sure, the jump from Augustine
to Aquinas is monumental. My intent is not to reduce conceptions of “the demonic” to ahistorical
maxims or to obscure historical nuance. Rather, the first two sections of this chapter aim to provide
workable ideal types, as it were, of Christian demonology that diversely informed later medieval
and early modern worldviews. In this sense, the “chronological” framework given below is only
superficially helpful, for later demonologists did not divide theological approaches to the Devil
into first- and second-millennium schools of thought. Instead, they argued from varied

65 This distinction is most explicitly made by Fabián Alejandro Campagne, “Demonology at a Crossroads:
The Visions of Ermine de Reims and the Image of the Devil on the Eve of the Great European Witch-Hunt,”
Church History 80:3 (2011): 467-97. However, see also this division in Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus
Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2003); Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250-
1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); also, “Angels, Demons, and Everything In Between:
Spiritual Beings in Early Modern Europe,” in Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in
the Early Modern Period, eds. C. Copeland and J. Machielsen (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 17-52; Michael Bailey,
Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2013).
perspectives informed by the very continuities and discontinuities modern historians seek to
understand and explain. This approach, therefore, imposes discursive boundaries that were likely
not apparent to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century thinkers themselves. Nevertheless, historians use
the distinction (between Augustinian and Thomist demonologies) in order to highlight important
differences that emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and which later authors diversely
accepted or sought to repudiate. The advantage of such an approach lies in considering how
understandings of the Devil and demons changed in subtle measure over time and in different
In this first section, I will elucidate notions of Christian demons in the first millennium. It
must be stressed at the start, however, that no single author was considered most authoritative on
the subject.66 This was not only true in antiquity but in the Latin Middle Ages and early modern
period as well: authors selected examples that would serve their own pastoral and theological
agendas. Where, say, one fifteenth-century preacher or theologian might rehearse particular
passages from Augustine of Hippo, Gregory the Great, and Isidore of Seville, for example, another
could refer to other patristic, contemporary, or even pagan sources according to preference.67 For
instance, Johann Weyer qualified his enormous sixteenth-century tome concerning demonic
illusions with introductory remarks on Plato, Proclus, and Plotinus, among others. In Weyer’s

66 In early Christian demonology alone, a barrage of authors addressed the issue of demons. See, for
example, Dayna Kalleres, City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity
(Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015); Gregory Smith, “How Thin Is a Demon?” Journal of
Early Christian Studies 16:4 (Winter 2008): 479-512.
67 Michael Bailey wryly notes that “late medieval writers addressing superstition were, in fact, so
circumscribed in their acknowledged influences that to restrict ourselves exclusively to the sources they
regularly cited would have us jumping from Augustine in the fifth century to Isidore of Seville in the seventh
to William of Auvergne and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth.” See, Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies:
The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 36.
estimation, these prominent thinkers wrote copiously about demons, although their depictions were
largely “imaginary.”68 He would nevertheless include their testimonies but explicitly favored
biblical and Augustinian interpretations as a conventional starting point of Christian demonology.
Weyer was neither the first nor the last to do so. To a considerable degree, premodern
demonologists followed in established traditions of theological analysis, often leveraging accepted
Christian theology against pagan accounts.
Furthermore, the corpus of patristic and early medieval sources on demons is enormous,
and some texts proffer more details than others. In most cases, the Devil was discussed as a
universal problem relating broadly to the existence of evil in a world governed by an omnipotent
and just God. Hence, malevolent spirits feature in the works examined below in order to address
this specific issue. Above all else, the Christian bible was regarded as a reliable, if at times opaque,
channel through which perspectives and interpretations were voiced—commonly via trained
theologians and ecclesiastics of the church. Biblical episodes, like the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel
28), the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20; Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-39), the suffering of Job,
and several others, provided premodern demonologists with a stock of authoritative narratives
from which to draw. To this end, later Christian thinkers lauded the exegesis of biblical and
contemporary sources by figures like Augustine, Gregory, Isidore, and others. This is not to say
they did not also rely on experiential or reported accounts for proof of the existence of demons.
They most certainly did, as seen in the example of Hesperius. However, such accounts had to be
explicated through biblical precedents and the teachings of received tradition. With these
qualifications in mind, we now turn to early orthodox sources that describe the characteristics of
the devil and demons.

68 Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 3.
The church fathers provided late medieval and early modern demonologists with
foundational perspectives on demonic spirits. Among patristic sources, Saint Augustine is a
towering authority, and his City of God was a typical point of entry. In this seminal work,
Augustine introduced demons by referencing the purported existence of both good and evil gods.
These spiritual entities, he states, are often referred to as “daemones.”
69 Indeed, depending on
author and audience, the designation “demon” carried a number of valences in antiquity. The broad
Greco-Roman understanding of a daimon or daimonion, for instance, could be conflated with the
term theos, such that pagan spirits and gods were synonymously representative of divine or semidivine powers.70 Homer, to take but one example, had employed the appellations as equivalences.
Augustine, however, aligned the wicked daemones of Christian scripture with all extra-Christian
gods and spirits (good or evil). The bishop argues that the so-called deities of the Romans were
“not real gods…but abominable evil spirits, eager to deceive mankind.”71
For Augustine, as with later demonologists, demons indulgently reveled in the obscene
shows and fantasies of pagan poets and lore, eager to be regarded as gods. How they achieved the
illusion of godliness related to their spiritual abilities; namely, they simulated omnipotence and
The demons do not behold the eternal causes of temporal events, the cardinal causes, so to
speak, in the Wisdom of God, but they have much more knowledge of the future than men
can have, by their greater acquaintance with certain signs which are hidden from us…to
conjecture temporal matters from temporal evidence, mutable things from mutable
evidence, and then to interfere in events in a temporal and mutable fashion by the exercise
of will and power; this is, in a restricted sense, permitted to the demons.72

69 The City of God (1998) bk. 9, ch. 1, p. 343.
70 Diana Lynn Walzel, “Sources of Medieval Demonology” Rice University Studies 60:4 (1974), 83.
71 The City of God (1998) bk. 2, ch. 13, p. 61.
72 Ibid., bk. 9, ch. 22, p. 368.
Dressed in the ruse of divine power, Augustine averred, demons were always and forever subject
to the temporal order and unchanging laws of the Christian God, no matter how much they might
claim to the contrary. On this view, the remarkable dexterity, primeval knowledge, and general
adaptability of evil spirts afforded fallen angels extraordinary expertise in matters relating to the
vagaries of human life but never the city of God.
In affirming this point, the Bishop of Hippo polemically reiterated a discussion of
intermediate divinities (demons) tendered by Apuleius of Madaura (c. 123-170) in his Latin
philosophical writing entitled On the God of Socrates. Bewailing the confusing nature of the
treatise, Augustine suggests, first, that the author would have benefited from renaming the treatise
On the Demon of Socrates. Thereafter, Augustine employs the core descriptive language of
Apuleius, noting that despite his reverence for Socrates and the Greeek philosopher’s daimon,
Apuleius never has anything redeeming to say about such spirits. In the words of Augustine,
Apuleius perceived demons as “situated between gods and men, belonging to the ‘animal’ species,
with a rational mind, a soul subject to passions, and a body made of air, a life-span of eternity.”73
Though critical of Apuleius’ conclusions, Augustine notably abides these descriptive
characteristics, accepting that demons are located above earth but below the heavens; they are
endowed with aerial bodies, akin to the element they inhabit; and where the Romans maintain that
humans are susceptible to unstable passions and the pagan gods immortal, balance is found in
demons sharing both parts.74 Broadly speaking, the City of God stresses that the “middle situation”
of all fallen angels governs their defining attributes and location.

73 Ibid., bk. 9, ch. 12, p. 356.
74 Augustine had earlier also given some description of demons and their dwelling place in the misty
atmosphere after the fall. See The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. by J. H. Taylor, S.J., (New York:
Newman Press, 1982), bk. 3, ch. 10, pp. 83-4.
To the mind of Apuleius, these descriptions exhibited sublime and lofty characteristics
worthy of praise for those inspired by their spiritual companions (as in the example of Socrates).
Augustine, however, counters that people should never give reverence to demons for their elevated
position (above the earth), nor for their superior bodies. While ancient in age, adept in advanced
knowledge of nature, and inhumanly strong, demons were always inferior to humans for their
inability to cultivate moral goodness.75 Most importantly, Augustine remarks that there is no
biblical warrant or mention of so-called good demons.76 Hence, any examples of purportedly
helpful demons were considered a remnant of pagan belief systems and ought to be absolutely
Within orthodox Christian theology, moral commerce with demons was thus an
impossibility and most often occurred as the feigned result of reprehensible magical arts.77 While
humans and demons were said to share in their capacity as rational beings, the former used the
passions for training in pious virtues, whereas the latter were defined by contagious emotional

75 The City of God (1998) bk. 8, ch. 15, p. 320: “divine providence has bestowed certain physical advantages
on beings which are unquestionably our inferiors, the purpose of this is to encourage us to be more careful
to cultivate the faculties in which we surpass the beasts than to develop the body, and to teach us to take no
account of the physical superiority which, as we realize, the demons enjoy, in comparison with moral
goodness, which gives us pre-eminence over the demons.”
76 Ibid., bk. 9, ch. 19, p. 365: “we read of good and bad angels, but never of good demons.”
77 In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. by J. H. Taylor, S.J., (New York: Newman Press, 1982), bk. 2,
ch. 17, p. 72, Augustine would explicitly note that “we must admit that when astrologers speak the truth,
they are speaking by a mysterious instinct that moves a man’s mind without his knowing it. When this
happens for the purpose of deceiving men, it is the work of evil spirits.” Thereafter, Augustine clarifies that
this is possible because “to these spirits some knowledge of the truth about the temporal order has been
granted, partly by reason of their keen and subtle senses, since they possess bodies of a much more subtle
nature than ours, partly because of their shrewdness due to the experience they have had over the long ages
they have lived, partly because the good angels reveal to them what they themselves have learnt from
Almighty God, at the command of His hidden justice. But sometimes these wicked spirits also feign the
power of divination and foretell what they themselves intend to do.” For these reasons, Augustine
admonishes Christians to avoid any such men who dabble in magic.
disruptions. Forever and constantly disturbed by anger, fear, and hatred, Augustine comments that
demons definitively lack “a centre of resistance against turbulent and degraded passions.”78
Impassioned and utterly unstable, the “degraded passions” of demons were consistently associated
with their status as divine intermediaries. Where the Christian God (in Christ) embodied love,
charity and humility, demons no longer shared in divine affects. Once blessed angels, early
Christian (and later) theologians reasoned that demons fell from grace—at some (speculative)
point after creation—through the sin of pride (superbia). This first choice determined their
everlasting displacement from God’s presence.79 For these reasons, Augustine and later
demonologists admonished that to court a demon in order to achieve a greater degree of piety,
righteousness, or any favor from God was tantamount to demonic enslavement. From this
perspective, demons were never helpful mediators seeking to aid humanity; to the contrary, they
consistently rejoiced in the hardship, demise, and suffering of humanity, obstructing humanity
from (rather than binding them to) the glory of God.80
It is often said that Augustinian demonology is principally concerned with an image of the
Devil as a master illusionist. The most blatant example of the Devil’s power of illusion was
observed in how wicked spirits cunningly tricked humans into believing demons were proper
deities. Isidore of Seville echoes such concerns two centuries after Augustine, equating pagan
demon-worship with idolatry. Citing a host of conventional examples (e.g., the specific names of
Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities), Isidore also demonizes a number of “fabulous fictions of
the pagans.” These included fauns, nymphs, incubi, inter alia, which he claimed “the common

78 The City of God (1998) bk. 9, ch. 3, p. 345.
79 Ibid., (1998) bk. 11, ch. 13, p. 445.
80 Ibid., (1998) bk. 9, ch. 18, p. 365.
people” impiously worshipped and feared.81 For similar reasons, Isidore’s younger contemporary,
Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), states that the Devil exercises a “dominion of wickedness”
over humans.82 Small wonder that the language of demonic dominance often conveyed a failure to
demonstrate pious Christian practices and beliefs. These ethical considerations would have longlasting and often political applications. In the eleventh-century, Pope Gregory VII famously
defended his unprecedented condemnation of King Henry IV by stating:
over all kings and princes of the earth who do not live in a religious way and who in their
deeds do not fear God as they should, demons (it is grievous to say) have dominion, and
they confound them by wretched slavery.
After describing the distinctions between pious Christians and evil princes, the pope concluded:
“These are the body of Christ the true king, but those are that of the devil.”83 For most, if not all
premodern Christians, demons represented a sort of “virus with which the whole sinful world was
In addition to Augustine, Isidore, and Gregory, late medieval and early modern
demonologists also cited other early authors on the moral attributes and station of angels and
demons. Writing in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, for
example, furnished later authors with speculative details on angelic hierarchies.85 Having

81 Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen Barney et al. (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 183-90; quote at 189.
82 Pope Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, trans. J. H. Parker (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1844-50), bk. 4, sect. 71, p. 238: “For it is written, Every one that sinneth is the servant of sin. For whosoever
yields himself up to bad desire, submits the neck of his mind, till now free, to the dominion of wickedness.”
83 The Register of Pope Gregory VII 1073-1085, ed. and trans. by Cowdrey (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2002), 8.21, p. 392.
84 Aron Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception, trans. by J. M. Bak and
P. A. Hollingsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 186.
85 “The Celestial Hierarchy” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York:
Paulist Press, 1987), chs. 3-7.

systematized angels into three hierarchies containing three orders (first: seraphim, cherubim,
thrones; second: dominions, virtues, powers; third: principalities, archangels, angels), later figures
like Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure drew heavily from these foundations in
modeling the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church.86 Lombard, in particular, noted that degrees of
rule existed among benevolent angels, humankind, and demons alike: “among good angels some
preside over others, and thus among the wicked ones, some have been given preference over others,
and some are subject to others. For as long as the world endures, angels preside over angels, and
humans preside over humans, and demons preside over demons.”87 For the most part, however,
premodern demonologists rarely delineated a systematized organization of demons. More often,
they considered where demonic spirits typically dwelled. Orthodox Christianity tended to place
demons in hell or the atmosphere above earth, where they enticed humans into wicked action. The
Desert Fathers located devils in their immediate and isolated environs. John Cassian, for example,
qualified that certain demons called Plani “have taken possession of certain places or roads [where]
they delight themselves not indeed with tormenting the passers by whom they can deceive, but
contenting themselves merely with laughing at them and mocking them try to tire them out rather
than injure them.”88 Later, in the eighth century, John of Damascus reasoned the Devil was of a
terrestrial angelic order and then equated the heavenly fall of certain angels with the finality of

86 David Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 52.
87 Peter Lombard, Sententiae in iu libris distinctae (Turnout: Brepols, 2010), vol. 1, pars 2, p. 356: “Et sicut
inter bonos angelos alii aliis praesunt, ita et inter malos alii aliis praelati sunt, et alii aliis subiecti. Quamdiu
enim durat mundus, angeli angelis, et homines hominibus, et daemones daemonibus praesunt.”
88 Conferences, in P. Schaff et al. (eds.) A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2
nd series
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), vol. 11, bk. 7, ch. 32, p. 374.
human passing: “for, just as there is no repentance for men after death, so there is none for the
angels after their fall.”89
Such perspectives stress that demonic affliction existed as a form of “soul-building”
theodicy, wherein demonic evil served to cultivate human wisdom through experience.90 Having
committed their first sin before humanity’s creation, demons were frequently used as an
explanatory device for testing Christians and the suffering they endured. Even before Augustine,
orthodox writers emphasized the moral wickedness of demons over any pervasive physical
destruction they might wreak. The archetypal example of the Devil as tempter is commonly
referenced from the Life of Antony, recorded by Athanasius in the fourth century. While in pious
contemplation in the desert, demons repeatedly attack Anthony. Isolated in a remote desert cave,
the demons besiege the hermit again and again, making “such a racket that the whole place seemed
to be shaken apart. The demons acted as though they had torn down the four walls of the little
room and seemed to be entering through them, having taken on the fantastical appearance of wild
beasts and reptiles.”91 His physical suffering notwithstanding, Antony remains steadfast in prayer
and ascetic contemplation, ultimately spurning the demonic assault from within. Antony’s travails
are invoked in later treatises to illustrate the wicked temptations endured by pious Christians in
the ancient world.92

89 Saint John of Damascus: Writings, trans. by Frederic H. Chase Jr. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic
University of America Press, 1958), bk. 2, ch. 4, pp. 209-10.
90 Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1988), 96.
91 Athanasius, Life of St. Antony, trans. Tim Vivian et al. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2003),
92 For an excellent study of early monastic demonic battles, see David Brakke, Demons and the Making of
the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
At the same time, the Devil was also culpable for tangible harm in the material world.
Fomenting tempests, waves of pestilence, minor and extreme forms of human injury, demons
assumed the capacity to achieve more than disruptive lies. In the late sixth century, Gregory the
Great recapitulated Augustinian teachings on demons while also espousing prominent ascetic
concerns reminiscent of the Desert Fathers. The demonic afflictions recounted by Gregory portray
the Devil as an ancient enemy intimately intertwined in material human affairs. In one famous
example from the Dialogues of Gregory that was quoted by later theologians, a nun found and ate
a piece of lettuce without the requisite blessing, and “immediately the Devil threw her to the
ground in a fit of pain.” Thereafter, the convent’s abbot entered to aid the religious woman with
prayer. At this point, however, the spirit complained: “‘I haven’t done anything! I was sitting here
on the lettuce when she came and ate me!’.”93 In another account, Gregory rehearses how an
unclean spirit, masquerading as a stranger, bemoaned the lack of a night’s shelter within the city.
A young boy heard the spirit’s pleading voice and invited the demon into his house. In turn, “the
evil spirit suddenly took hold of the little boy and cast him into the hearth where the flames quickly
caused his death.”94 In both examples, Gregory teaches that the Devil’s wickedness lay potentially
everywhere in the world and often in seemingly benign or asinine forms. Despite innocuous
appearances, he admonished that “an act which results from an evil intention becomes bad in itself,
though outwardly it may still appear good.”95

93 Gregory the Great, Dialogues, trans. Odo John Zimmerman, O.S.B. (Washington D.C.: The Catholic
University of America Press, 1959), 18.
94 Ibid., 43.
95 Ibid., 44.
For each of the authors listed above, the physical irruption of malevolent spiritual beings
into the human world always occurred within the limits set by divine providence. In the examples
proffered by Gregory especially, the pontiff admonishes his audience that the servants of God must
constantly be “aware of the hidden designs of Providence.”96 The lessons of Augustine and Isidore
also repeatedly affirm that demonic vexation was never autonomous from God’s will. To the
contrary, the omnipotence of God and unity of divine dispensation would always maintain this
universal truth. For this reason, diabolical influence held two main functions in Augustinian
demonology. First, demons acted to uncover the sinful deeds of wicked humans, while
demonstrating the pious resolve of holy Christians.97 Second, wicked spirits emboldened those
who might encounter the Devil’s snares. First-millennium demons, therefore, represented a form
of divine justice with the Devil himself was an unlikely minister of God. On this perspective, early
Christians never need to completely fear the Devil, because he always “flees in terror before the
virtues of holy souls.”98 Rather than an unrestrained force of evil operating within a precarious
world, Augustinian demonology perceived the Devil as serving God’s loving purpose. In effect,
fallen angels were unwittingly defeated the moment they rebelled against the Christian divinity,
existing as providential instruments that didactically revealed sin and inspired the pious.

96 Ibid., 82.
97 Ibid., 136: “the ancient Enemy invariably drags evil men to their shame through the very good deeds that
make men shine with glory.”
98 Ibid., 152.
Scholastic Demonology of the High Middle Ages
In its original setting, the City of God was written within the larger framework of validating
an authoritative Christian religion. After relinquishing Manicheism and a brief career teaching
rhetoric, Augustine famously converted to orthodox Christianity as witnessed in his text The
Confessions. That Augustine once entertained Manichean teachings informs his rejection of “evil”
as the antithesis of “good.” Rather than a cosmic struggle between forces of good and evil, light
and dark, material and immaterial, Augustine presents an understanding of evil as the deprivation
or lack of good. In general terms, evil is considered defective from rather than ontologically
opposite to God. With episcopal experience in north Africa, Augustine set out in The City of God
to confront rival philosophical and religious systems of thought (including competing Christian
ones) in an empire on the brink of collapse.99
In the context of sixteenth-century western Europe, Augustine’s account of Hesperius and
the subject of demons carry considerably different cultural weight. True, demons are still the
defective “wicked spirits” of scripture, just as the language of “pagan” rites and beliefs is also
present. However, as Michael Bailey has argued, other cultural reasons inspire the use of these
designations in later texts. Bailey notes that late medieval demonologists, in particular, relied
heavily on the great names of the past (i.e., Augustine, Gregory, Isidore, and others) in order to
create “a self-perpetuating rhetoric,” a “literary tradition” that was structured and restructured with
great subtlety in later periods.100 Jan Machielsen has recently shown that this was true of early

99 See, G. R. Evans, Augustine on Evil, 5
th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Peter
Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Augustine,
Confessions, ed. and trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
100 Bailey, “A Late-Medieval Crisis of Superstition?” Speculum 84 (2009): 638-9.
modern authors as well.101 Indeed, we find interesting rhetorical strategies for debating—often
demonizing and exorcizing—the sixteenth-century religious landscape of premodern Europe.
As seen from the examples of Noël Taillepied, Martin Delrio, and Ludwig Lavater in the
introduction above, arguments in favor of rituals for dispelling wicked spirits could reveal
confessional and inter-confessional points of reference orbiting Protestant and Roman Catholic
theologies. To suggest, as Taillepied and Delrio do, that the Tridentine Church possessed
efficacious remedies against demonic infestation functioned (at least in part) as evidence of
Catholicism’s historical and contemporary effectiveness. The rhetorical use of Hesperius’
liberation from demonic torment can thus be seen as a polemical rejection of Protestant critiques
against the Catholic sacraments and sacramentals.102 On the other hand, Ludwig Lavater denied
that the story of Hesperius involved priestly intercession. Instead, he cited Augustine’s vignette,
along with several other accounts, in order to carefully demonstrate how the Devil had since then
become “seated deeper in the hearts of humanity on account of superstitions.”103 This is a marked
Protestant perspective on spiritual beings in particular, and an aspect of premodern cosmology in
general. Chapters 3 and 4 of this dissertation will provide detailed examination of late medieval
and early modern developments which were formative for these and other discourses on demons.
More to the point, if we view these later references to Augustine and Hesperius as mere
rhetorical strategies, we risk reducing the import of the narrative’s diverse usages. On a more

101 Machielsen, Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2015), 234.
102 On the difference between sacraments and sacramentals see Robert Scribner, “Ritual and Popular
Religion in Catholic Germany at the Time of the Reformation” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 35:1 (Jan.
1984): 47-77.
103 Lavater, Von Gespaenstern (1569), part 3, bk. 10, p. 121: “so sitzt er [der teufel] doch dester tieffer durch
aberglauben in die hertzen der menschen.”
nuanced view, we may suggest that the significance of Zubedi was invested with continuous and
discontinuous forms of religious significance in different periods and places. A key component in
this exchange are the very demons premodern thinkers described at length in subsequent centuries.
Especially striking is how later demonologists tend to foreground a far more autonomous role for
diabolical potency and presence than their forbears. In the thousand years between the writing of
City of God and the texts produced by sixteenth-century demonologists, specialists produced
countless, often contradictory, expositions of diabolical activity in the material world. An historical
perspective on infernal spirits thus reveals how definitions of the demonic can be understood in
different contexts. Here, we turn to the adoption and adaptation of so-called Augustinian
demonology within prominent threads of scholastic theological analyses.
By the twelfth century, innovations within the Christian imaginary manifested alongside
new interpretive methods, practices, and assumptions. These were reflected in broader changes
within western intellectual culture. M.-D. Chenu has eloquently described how,
the realization which laid hold upon these men of the twelfth century when they thought of
themselves as confronting an external, present, intelligible, and active realty…[was] that
they were themselves caught up within the framework of nature, were themselves also bits
of the cosmos they were ready to master.104
As “nature” became a legitimate instrument for explaining reality, medieval theories of causation
intersected with novel conceptions of reason, law, and theology. Aristotelian philosophy and
Arabic learning were integrated with Christian doctrine, while human intellection and the sensible
world gained renewed primacy in the nascent universities of Latin Europe.
Learned interest in reason’s synthetic power, in particular, had significant impact on
descriptions of the Devil and fallen angels. This is not to say that medieval demons were utterly

104 Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century: Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin
West, trans. Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 5.
divorced from earlier espousals. With broad strokes, Latin Europe inherited the early church’s
readings of angels and demons and maintained remarkable points of continuity. Akin to patristic
and early medieval sources, malevolent spirits remained the tempters and tricksters of celestial
provenance, who through their audacious pride were irrevocably fallen for all time. From the
atmosphere and within monasteries, demons regularly tormented impious and ascetic Christians
alike. In many cases, demonic interference was attributed to divine providence, as it had been with
Augustine and Gregory, although the influence of the Devil could also be attributed to hatred of
God and humanity. Any suspicious or potentially “superstitious” beliefs and practices might be
labelled diabolical; the same general designation suited claims against heretical sects for different
Theologically, we may recall that the Augustinian demon was a created and intellectually
corrupted being with somewhat ambiguous ethereality—“a body made of air.”106 Moreover, this
fallen angel was ethically inferior to humanity. As scripture was silent on the precise nature of
demons, Augustine remained reluctant to speculate too far into demonic being. For the Bishop of
Hippo, “nature” held explanatory value—“God works in whatever is natural and he is not apart
from the wonders of nature”—but this valuation always paled in comparison to the revealed truths
of God from Christian scripture.107 Without abandoning Augustinian precepts, scholastic authors
developed a synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian faith. Led by the examples of

105 On the juxtaposition of superstition with diabolism, see Bailey, “A Late-Medieval Crisis of
Superstition?” (2009) and Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies (2013); Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010).
On designating heresy as diabolical see Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology
in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
106 City of God (1998)., bk. 9, ch. 12, p. 356.
107 Augustine, De cura pro mortuis Gerenda, PL 40:606-7, quoted in Ward, Miracles and the Medieval
Mind: Theory, Record, and Event, 1000-1215 (London: Scholar Press, 1982), 4.
figures like Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, Gratian, and others, scholastic authors increasingly
examined and wrote about sensory experiences and natural phenomena (including demons). Where
Augustine stressed certain fallibilities in human reason, many twelfth- and thirteenth-century
theologians asserted that the truths of faith and reason were not contradictory.108 Relative to the
Book of Scripture, the Book of Nature was used in later centuries to helpfully clarify (not prove)
Christian articles of faith.
As objects of natural philosophical inquiry, high and late medieval devils emerged as more
pronounced, autonomous beings in scholastic writings. The most influential scholastic theologian
to spearhead second-millennium demonology was the Dominican, Thomas Aquinas. Of course,
other notable scholars, such as William of Auvergne, Alexander of Hales, and Bonaventure, also
gave impetus to an orthodox demonic tradition.109 Moreover, Aquinas was by no means
immediately accepted as a theological authority; it would take more than a century after his passing
for his thought to gain predominance.110 Yet Thomist theology, especially the systematic study of
spiritual creatures, carried forward into the late Middle Ages and early modern period in an
unrivaled manner. When Petrus Thyraeus, for example, remarks at the close of the sixteenth

108 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (1941), pt. 1 qu. 1 art. 8: “Grace does not destroy nature, but
completes it.”
109 See, Baily, Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies (2013); Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The
Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000);
Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972); Jeffrey
Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); Robert
Muchembled, A History of the Devil: From the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge:
Polity Press, 2003); Elliott, Fallen Bodies (1999). David Keck considers medieval angelology through
Bonaventure but also repeated references demonology in Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages (1998).
110 Alain Boureau, “Demons and the Christian Community,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity: Vol
4, Christianity in Western Europe c. 1100-c. 1500, eds. Miri Rubin and Walter Simons (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2009), 426. Boureau usefully discusses Aquinas in the context of medieval
demonology and notes the views of Aquinas were not immediately accepted, but in fact fervently
challenged by prominent figures, such as William de la Mare, and Peter de Falco.
century that the “Order [of Spirits] follows nature, and Spirits always retain this same nature,”111
he invokes the theological framework exemplified in the writings of Aquinas, which would
become a staple of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century demonology.
Thomas’ thought on fallen angels is spread throughout specific sections in his Summa
Theologiae and Summa contra Gentiles.
112 In a highly condensed version, the quodlibetal
discussion of demons in his De malo features quintessential elements of Thomist demonology and
will serve as a heuristic model for the following examination. De malo utilizes the format of stating
a topic (e.g., evil), discussing authoritative assumptions on said theme (articulus), enumerating
common or generally accepted counter-arguments (sed contra), and proffering the author’s own
dialogic resolution (responsio). The treatise is organized around sixteen questions, each containing
numerous metaphysical and theological articles building upon one another. These questions
approach the interconnected themes of evil, sin, human choice, and in the final question, demons.
In the sixteenth quaestio, Aquinas proffers twelve articles that consider the nature of demons and
the devil, their potentialities, and their relation to humankind within creation.113 Before looking at
Aquinas’ naturalization of demons, two discursive assumptions in Thomist writings warrant
First, within the framework of Aristotelian metaphysics, Aquinas adheres to a distinction
between potency and act: “power [potency/potential] and act divide being and every kind of
being.”114 In scholastic natural philosophy, potency communicates the capacity of an object or

111 Loca infesta (1598), ch. 6, p. 24: “Naturam sequitur Ordo: naturam eandem semper retinent Spiritus.”
112 On these contexts, see Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010), 92.
113 I have used Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Richard Regan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
114 Summa Theologiae, pt. 1, qu. 77, art. 1.
being to become or do something, whereas an act constitutes the natural state of an object’s
potential for becoming or doing something. Thus, for example, water has the potency or power to
become hot or cold, a rock has the potency to fall, and humans have the seminal potential to
produce offspring. The acts of being water, a rock, or human are distinguished by their relative
and collective potentialities. The contrast between potential and act allowed Aquinas to address
conceptions of spiritual creatures along several avenues of inquiry, discussed below. Second,
Aquinas’ thought is axiomatically governed by a unified organization of being “arranged
hierarchically and ordered in degrees.”115 This great chain of existence extends from pure spirit to
corporeal being, and is constituted by order and proportionality. At its apex, God as creator and
manager of the universe is eternal, perfect, and absolutely spiritual; all of creation is sustained by
and subject to the Christian divinity alone. In turn, angels and fallen angels exist as spiritual
creatures with natural potentialities greater than those of humans but still limited in relation to
God. Akin to Augustine’s description, angels in Aquains’ writing were correspondingly positioned
between the divine and human.
To the specific nature of angels and demons, Aquinas avers that spirits are strictly
incorporeal beings. From Pseudo-Dionysius and John of Damascus, the Dominican Master
inherited the designation of angelic creatures as “separate intellectual substances.”116 Preferring
Aristotle’s distinction in De anima—that the activity of intellection did not require a bodily
organ—Aquinas reasoned that pure immateriality existed within God’s perfect creation. Where
Saint Augustine had voiced reservations about the complete disembodiment of spirits (as would
Aquinas’ contemporary Bonaventure), Aquinas and many later demonologists argued that spiritual

115 Ibid., pt. 1, qu. 47, art. 2.
116 On Evil, qu. 16, art. 1, p. 443.
creatures were entirely immaterial. Scholastic theologians accepted Augustine’s assertion that
demons sometimes occupied regions of the air whence they might torment humanity. However,
Augustine’s vaporous ethereality was deemed an unsuitable category for demons, because it
suggested that the formless atmosphere itself might contain vitality. Worse still, Aquinas feared
that such an argument might lead to a notion of the ubiquity of spiritual creatures—an attribute
fitting only to God’s omnipresence. Instead, the Angelic Doctor argues that devils could unite
themselves with aerial matter in order to move it locally.
On the specific theme of angelic locomotion, Aquinas proffered an entire articulus:
“Whether the demons can move bodies locally?” In De malo, the question relates directly to
ancient and contemporary concerns over whether demons could steal human semen for furtive
procreative purposes. Assimilating Augustine’s interpretation in On the Trinity, Aquinas asserts
that spirits could manage this feat and many others. Despite the absence of physical bodies, spirits
can move “some material substances simply at the command of their will,” as when the human
mind or soul wills the body to move.117 Aquinas opines that spiritual substances held the sole
powers of intellect and will; in turn, the potency of their intellect engendered causal interactions
by virtual (from the Latin virtus) rather than corporeal contact. Again here, the unity of creation
and the inspired hierarchy of angels (including fallen) are important, for the order of creation
included an order of movements. Since the passive, target object (e.g., human semen or a human
body) was not inherently changed in the process of angelic locomotion, Aquinas concludes that
spiritual creatures were capable of moving bodies and objects of proportional size. The notion of
exceptional spiritual movements makes logical sense, because, in Aquinas’ view, angels
constituted a distinct, even privileged, ontological category.

117 Ibid.
We noted earlier that, according to Saint Augustine, demons were always inferior to
humans because they could not generate virtuous moral character. Even with superior bodies and
acuity, the Bishop of Hippo resolutely denigrated wicked spirits for this universal ineptitude.
Aquinas, too, admits that in their inordinate pride demons “sin regarding everything they choose,
since the force of their first choice abides in their every choice.”118 For Aquinas, God would never
recall the fallen angels to divine glory by infusing them with grace. The binary division of blessed
and wicked spirits remains forever immutable as a result of the latter’s perverted will. In addition
to Augustine’s opprobrium of malevolent spirits, however, Aquinas restricts demonic influences
in novel ways while allowing greater freedom in others. Within a hierarchical schema inspired by
Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas argues that angels and demons are unequal in their respective
knowledge and power, for higher intellects (intellectual substances) command greater
potentialities respective to their hierarchical placement. It followed that blessed angels possessed
higher intellects because they remained with God rather than having rebelled. In some (later)
instances, this logic was applied to an opaque ranking of demons. For example, the fifteenthcentury demonologist, Petrus Mamoris, commented on a minor demon held captive by a superior
malicious spirit. According to Mamoris, the captured spirit was forced to witness a series of
household disruptions enacted by the senior devil. In the story reported to Mamoris, the lesser
spiritual creature had been imprisoned in a ring and subjected to the superior will of a maior
diabolus. The anecdote not only demonstrated the relative ordering of spiritual powers, but also
exhibited the greater demon’s ability to employ local motion.119

118 Ibid., qu. 16, art. 5, p. 472.
119 Hans Peter Broedel found this account of the minor devil called “Dragon” in Mamoris. See, The Malleus
Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft (2003), 46-7.
For Aquinas, demons never shared in the “supernatural light” of divine grace; only
benevolent angels enjoyed this distinction. Where the seraphim (the highest order of angels),
sometimes performed miracles by acting as divine instruments, according to Aquinas, demons
were definitively excluded from miraculous performances of their own volition. This is an
important point, because Aquinas divided spiritual potency along natural and supernatural (or
miraculous) lines. Augustine had been hesitant to distinguish the natural from the miraculous: “For
how can an event be contrary to nature when it happens by the will of God, since the will of the
great Creator assuredly is the nature of every created thing?”120 Aquinas adopts Augustine’s
language, but adds clarity to the division of nature and miracles: for Thomas, God alone works
supernaturally (literally above nature), whereas all created beings never transcended the order of
nature.121 The Devil, in particular, was restricted from enacting miraculous works. Knowledge of
the future, for example, is explicitly limited to God’s infinite perfection, as demons (and all
creatures) were finite beings created within time. Aquinas emphasizes how God “sees as present
all things that are related to one another by the relationship of present, past, and future, which none
of those whose view falls within the succession of time can.”122 Similarly, God alone knows the
movement of the human will. Demons could encourage sin but could not change the human heart
nor a human’s intellectual capacity to understand God through reason. Aquinas also denies that
demons can transform human bodies into other substantial forms.123

120 The City of God (1998) bk 21, ch 8, p. 980.
121 Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010), 95. I will further develop this theme in the next section below.
122 On Evil., qu. 16, art. 7, pp. 485-6.
123 Ibid., see qu. 16, articles 7, 8, 11, and 12.


We noted earlier that, according to Saint Augustine, demons were always inferior to
humans because they could not generate virtuous moral character. Even with superior bodies and
acuity, the Bishop of Hippo resolutely denigrated wicked spirits for this universal ineptitude.
Aquinas, too, admits that in their inordinate pride demons “sin regarding everything they choose,
since the force of their first choice abides in their every choice.”118 For Aquinas, God would never
recall the fallen angels to divine glory by infusing them with grace. The binary division of blessed
and wicked spirits remains forever immutable as a result of the latter’s perverted will. In addition
to Augustine’s opprobrium of malevolent spirits, however, Aquinas restricts demonic influences
in novel ways while allowing greater freedom in others. Within a hierarchical schema inspired by
Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas argues that angels and demons are unequal in their respective
knowledge and power, for higher intellects (intellectual substances) command greater
potentialities respective to their hierarchical placement. It followed that blessed angels possessed
higher intellects because they remained with God rather than having rebelled. In some (later)
instances, this logic was applied to an opaque ranking of demons. For example, the fifteenthcentury demonologist, Petrus Mamoris, commented on a minor demon held captive by a superior
malicious spirit. According to Mamoris, the captured spirit was forced to witness a series of
household disruptions enacted by the senior devil. In the story reported to Mamoris, the lesser
spiritual creature had been imprisoned in a ring and subjected to the superior will of a maior
diabolus. The anecdote not only demonstrated the relative ordering of spiritual powers, but also
exhibited the greater demon’s ability to employ local motion.119

118 Ibid., qu. 16, art. 5, p. 472.
119 Hans Peter Broedel found this account of the minor devil called “Dragon” in Mamoris. See, The Malleus
Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft (2003), 46-7.
For Aquinas, demons never shared in the “supernatural light” of divine grace; only
benevolent angels enjoyed this distinction. Where the seraphim (the highest order of angels),
sometimes performed miracles by acting as divine instruments, according to Aquinas, demons
were definitively excluded from miraculous performances of their own volition. This is an
important point, because Aquinas divided spiritual potency along natural and supernatural (or
miraculous) lines. Augustine had been hesitant to distinguish the natural from the miraculous: “For
how can an event be contrary to nature when it happens by the will of God, since the will of the
great Creator assuredly is the nature of every created thing?”120 Aquinas adopts Augustine’s
language, but adds clarity to the division of nature and miracles: for Thomas, God alone works
supernaturally (literally above nature), whereas all created beings never transcended the order of
nature.121 The Devil, in particular, was restricted from enacting miraculous works. Knowledge of
the future, for example, is explicitly limited to God’s infinite perfection, as demons (and all
creatures) were finite beings created within time. Aquinas emphasizes how God “sees as present
all things that are related to one another by the relationship of present, past, and future, which none
of those whose view falls within the succession of time can.”122 Similarly, God alone knows the
movement of the human will. Demons could encourage sin but could not change the human heart
nor a human’s intellectual capacity to understand God through reason. Aquinas also denies that
demons can transform human bodies into other substantial forms.123

120 The City of God (1998) bk 21, ch 8, p. 980.
121 Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010), 95. I will further develop this theme in the next section below.
122 On Evil., qu. 16, art. 7, pp. 485-6.
123 Ibid., see qu. 16, articles 7, 8, 11, and 12.
Particularly striking in all this is how Aquinas nevertheless grants demons a much higher
premium for “natural” action and knowledge than Augustine ever allowed. In Aquinas’ evaluation,
demons at no point lost “what belongs to their nature, and their natural gifts abide intact and most
splendid.”124 Both benevolent and malevolent angels were an approximate manifestation of
metaphysical perfection in their disembodied intellects and individuation (i.e., as separate
substances). By the end of the sixteenth century, Johann Weyer would echo that “since his [the
Devil’s] angelic essence has not perished (although it has degenerated because of the disposition
of his own will)…his extraordinary observance and remarkable experience has increased.”125 As
exceptional creatures, later demonologists generally agreed that good and bad angels could use
their “higher order of nature” in astonishing, albeit natural, ways. Within the order of creation, for
instance, the elements and celestial bodies were subject to angelic and demonic influence.126 They
also employed advanced processes of conjectural knowledge to determine what effects might be
produced from natural causes. With increased speed and knowledge of nature, they possessed a
heightened capacity for discerning causes and effects invisible to the human eye. In Aquinas’
words, demons cannot tell the future, but they can “foreknow effects in the effects’ natural causes”
by experiential knowledge—say, when and where a tree might fall naturally or the precise rate at
which organic generation and decay take place.127 Similarly, Aquinas remarks that beings of pure
intellection can intuit bodily signs and habits in order to know human actions before they occurred.

124 Ibid., qu. 16, art. 6, p. 478.
125 Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 31.
126 On Evil, qu. 16, art. 6, p. 500.
127 Ibid.., qu. 16, art. 7, p. 488.
More troubling was that they do so “much more than any human being can.”128 In other words,
spirits could anticipate human gestures and proclivities more accurately than humans
conventionally did themselves. This presumably made suggestive advocacy for sinful behavior
easier to accomplish.
That spiritual creatures engendered effects by means of their advanced nature raised
questions about the location of spiritual substances. In attempting to explain why demonic
influence was so pervasive in the physical world, Aquinas invoked John of Damascus, suggesting
that, because demons were originally among higher angels, they held considerable authority over
the terrestrial order.129 Following Augustine, however, Aquinas clearly denied the physical locality
of spirits—the notion that spiritual creatures were tied to one material location.130 Scholastic ideas
about space convey the specific principle that space was “an interval or the distance between two
determinate points or places.”131 Defined by their perpetual movement and incorporeality, spirits
were never subject to the restraints of the material world. Imprisonment was futile, for example,
with the notable exception of when a greater spiritual being (including God) might choose to
confine a lower demon. This did not mean, however, that angels and demons were incapable of
inhabiting physical spaces. Elsewhere Aquinas contends that “an angel is said to be in a corporeal
place through the application of its angelic power to some place.”132 Spiritual substances moved

128 Ibid., qu. 16, art. 8, p. 493.
129 Ibid., qu. 16, art. 1, p. 444. See above n. 51.
130 Ibid.
131 Tiziana Suárez-Nani, “Angels, Space and Place: The Location of Separate Substances according to John
Duns Scotus,” in Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry: Their Function and Significance, ed. Isabel
Iribarren and Martin Lenz (Burlington VT: Ashgate Pub. Ltd., 2008), 89.
132 Summa Theologiae, pt. 1, qu. 52, art. 1.
unencumbered through locations according to the operations of their will and intellect.
Interestingly, this freedom of movement allowed angels and demons a certain mastery of space:
“as air, since it is a material substance, cannot be in the same place with another material substance,
nor even confined by locks or doors, since it can escape through the thinnest cracks, so also can
we speak of the bodies of devils.”133 The difference was observed in the fact that demons were not
“material substances.” They could occupy impossible spaces, even with legions of devils, as they
had done in the Bible (Mark 5:9).134 For this reason, Aquinas chided magicians that believed they
could control or capture spiritual creatures; this feigned servitude would always end in the spirit’s
favor rather than actual human dominance. Demons were absolutely free to enter and exit physical
places, including the human body by means of possession.135
In Thomist theology, then, the most significant innovations can be perceived in terms of
emphases rather than theological content. For Augustine, wicked spirits were important because
their angelic origins and downfall at the world’s end were relevant to Christian salvation—
demonic evil was a perversion of divine goodness but also a useful ministerial tool. Encounter
with a demon, on this view, was a divinely controlled, providential event. As such, devils were
connected to human history insofar as they cosmically performed illusions, tempted humans, and
caused limited disorder by means of divine permission. This final idea intimates that the Devil was
an agent of God’s loving oversight. Thomist metaphysics accepted the reality of demons from this

133 On Evil., qu. 16, art. 1, p. 444.
134 Ibid., qu. 16, art. 1., 438.
135 Thomas has surprisingly little to say about possession; he makes only one remark at the conclusion of
De malo, qu. 16, art. 12, p. 513. On demonic possession see, Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit:
Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2007); Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).
tradition but foregrounded previously uncharted aspects of demonic influence. Demons were not
solely auspicious sources of moral, Christian instruction; they were also finite creatures imbued
with natural operations and permitted to move within the created world without altering divine
principles regulating the cosmos. In this, Aquinas examines fallen angels as part of both divine
order and the natural world. He perceives demonic spirits as perverted and completely incorporeal
beings whose cunning intellect and natural abilities were superior to those of humankind. Most
importantly, Thomist theology asserts that, as created beings, demons can be objects of natural
philosophical inquiry; like animals, plants, and minerals, they evince fixed properties that the
trained observer can record and interpret.
Demonic Contagion, Sensory Disorder, and Marvels
Where the previous two sections surveyed the basic tenets of Western Christian
demonology as recounted by theological authorities, this final section examines the theoretical
problems associated with how demons afflicted humanity. Specifically, this section charts the
affective mechanisms by which demonic encounters were said to be felt among premodern
communities. In so doing, my analysis relies loosely on modern insights and approaches from the
burgeoning field of affect theory, detailed briefly below. My intent is not to discount historicist
analyses of the subject but to demonstrate that this field can complement and help elucidate the
ways in which premodern authors described immaterial fallen angels as haunting material spaces.
Although there is no single definition of “affect” or affect theory, modern scholarship on
the subject tends to highlight varying degrees of corporeal responsiveness and complex relational
experiences.136 In several studies of affect theory, the human body emerges as a nexus of sudden

136 The body of literature on affect is immense. I have consulted works such as: Jonathan Flatley, Affective
Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008);
and often fleeting sensations that inform distinctions between “emotions” and “affects.” Kevin
Lewis O’Neill, for instance, lucidly describes affective experience as “similar to emotion or
feeling, but has much more to do with the body than either. Affect is raw, reactive sensation. It
takes place before consciousness and before discourse. Hair standing on the back of a neck, the
warm glow of holiday festivities, the rush of enthusiasm at a political rally—this is affect.”137
Rather than an immediate emotional awareness of reality (e.g., as happiness, fear, or anger),
scholars like O’Neill maintain that “affective experiences” constitute spontaneous somatic
movements that occur before they are cognitively or socially identified. On this perspective, an
“affective experience” is felt but difficult to immediately recognize; it communicates a mood or
atmosphere awakened, subtly or violently, in response to gestures, expressions, or sensations from
both internal (i.e., within the body) and external (i.e., foreign bodily) influences. To put it another
way, the questions that govern an affective mapping of human experience ask: How does one sense
a body, place, or object into existence? What processes provoke differentiated feelings or emotions
that are unexpectedly or intentionally transmitted to others? Can we critically evaluate the dread,
enthusiasm, or excitement spatially experienced through noises, smells, and other sensory
In what follows, I employ the term “affect” as a means to demonstrate how premodern
authors described demons manipulating the human sensorium from within (i.e., at a biological

Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Nigel Thrift, Nonrepresentational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (New York: Routledge, 2008); Barbara Rosenwein,
Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006). Sally Promey
(ed.), Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Places (New Haven: Yale University Press,
137 “Beyond Broken: Affective Spaces and the Study of American Religion” Journal of the American
Academy of Religion 81:4 (Dec., 2013): 1095.
level) or by producing apparitions outside the body. As noted above, affect theories often draw
distinction between emotion and affective feeling, noting that the former can be labelled as, say,
“fear” or “happiness” only after an affect has been initially felt. I maintain this contrast as far as is
possible with the texts discussed below. The distinction is useful, as will be demonstrated, because
both affects and emotions appear in demonological exempla, especially after a pious figure arrives
(or the author himself interjects) and appropriately labels what the demonically affected have
emotionally experienced. In what follows, then, “affective experience” is a heuristic device that
can help indicate the ways in which premodern Christian communities were said to intimately and
often unknowingly sense demonic presence. This is an admittedly substantial jump from the
previous two sections which highlight prescriptive, orthodox valuations of Christian demons. And
yet, explanations of demonic encounters entailed more than metaphysical propositions on spirits
inhering in the cosmos. Late premodern demonologists commonly deployed descriptive anecdotes
alongside theological precepts so as instructively excite, alarm, and entertain their audiences. To
this end, the model of affective experience suggests that demonic encounters were described as
interactive engagements, wherein response to the demonic became manifest through visual,
auditory, olfactory, and kinesthetic qualities.
Importantly, not all demonological exempla contain vivid depictions of spiritual assault.
Saint Augustine’s report of the travails of Hesperius, for example, offers little detail on the demons
vexing Zubedi, stating only that the animals and servants of Hesperius suffered “cum afflictione.”
Countless narratives portraying demons give minimal attention to the manner in which such spirits
haunted humanity. At the same time, later demonologists drew from a cornucopia of exemplary
accounts that did. The sixteenth-century Jesuits, Petrus Thyraeus and Martin Delrio, for instance,
included in their respective treatises a tale of demonic infestation markedly similar to Augustine’s
seminal story about Hesperius. The excerpt is originally found in the life of Saint Theodore of
Sykeon (also called Theodore of Byzantium or Theodore the Archimandrite) whose hagiography
was written in the seventh century. Thyraeus transcribes only a few lines from Theodore’s vita
(citing it repeatedly), whereas Delrio includes three discrete tales from Theodore that are compiled
together from the same source. In order to provide a more robust account of demonic infestation,
I have translated Delrio’s longer version for analytic purposes below:
Saint Theodore the Archimandrite used to repel all harm with blessed water, even illnesses
inflicted by demons. He did this with Pherentinus near Tautaendia, who met a demon in
the form of a dog. Just by yawning at him, the demonic dog struck him with a most grievous
malady [lying half-dead for a long time his face was twisted right round to the back]. Also
the saint did this in the house of one Theodore, a tribune, where the humans and all the
animals were tormented by demons. When they would dine, stones were thrown on the
tables. From this a great terror invaded everyone, and the women’s beds were broken, and
a great number of snakes and mice occupied the house, such that no one dared to enter the
home. Thus the servant of God entered the household for the entire night, and by leading
prayer to God and sprinkling the whole house with lustral water, he freed the home from
the unclean spirits. This the priest Gregory often quoted. He also recited afterwards this
illustrious miracle: The inhabitants of the village Apoukoumis had killed an ox in order to
eat its flesh. But it happened that all those who consumed the meat fell ill, laying down as
if they were dead, and whatever meat was leftover turned black and fetid. Therefore, those
who did not taste the meat announced what had happened to the saint. The holy man
responded that the ruin came from a company of demons that passed through the cooking
pots. Since at that time he could not go with them, he blessed some water which one of the
brothers sent to sprinkle over the sick and to offer for them to drink. When this was done
they all rose as if from sleep, except one who was dead. For, the procurator John, whose
brother had been afflicted, did not wait for the blessing of the saint, but ran to a woman for
help and while applying her incantations to the brother he died.138

138 Delrio, Disquisitionum Magicarum (1606), bk 6, pt. 3, q. 3, sect. 3, pp. 202-3; Thyraeus, Loca infesta
(1598), ch 1, p. 3: “Beatus Theodorus Archimandrita noxas omnes aqua benedicta solebat repellere, etiam
morbos a daemonis illatos, ut a Phetino illo apud Tantendiam, qui obvius daemoni in forma canis, solo
illius hiatus in gravissimam agritudinem inciderat: ut a Theodori cuiusdam tribune domo, in qua homines,
& animantia omnia a daemonibus cruiciabantur, & cum domestici praederent, aut coenarent lapides super
mensas iaciabantur. Ex quo magnus omnes terror invadebat, & mulierum tela rumpebantur, & tanta
serpentum, & murium multitude domum occupabat, ut praeformidine in eam ingredi nemo auderet. Domum
igitur Dei servus ingressus, totam noctem psallendo, & Deum obsecrando traduxit, & aquam cui
benedixerat, totam domum aspergens, eam a spiritibus immundis liberavit. Hactenus Georgius presbyter
saepus iam citatus. Idem postea hoc quoque recenset illustre miraculum: Apocomensis vici incola bovem
occiderunt, ut carnibus eius vescerentur. Contigit autem ut omnes qui ex illis carnibus comederant, in
morbum inciderent & iacerent ut mortui, & quicquid carnis reliquum fuit, nigrum evasit ac foetidum. Qui
igitur ex carne illa non gustarunt, id quod acciderat, viro sancto nunciaverunt. Qui respondit exitium illud
a phalange daemonum, qui per lebetes pertransierant, provenisse. Et cum eo tempore non posset cum illis,
In very general terms, the account typifies a representative understanding of how demons might
attack humanity and manipulate the human senses: the spirits invade an ordinary location,
graphically torment its inhabitants, and a servant of God triumphantly addresses and alleviates the
spiritually vexing situation. It makes good sense that Thyraeus and Delrio would couple this story
(or collection of stories) with the tale of Hesperius from City of God—along with numerous other
antique and contemporary anecdotes. The attendance of demonically vexed humans and animals,
as well as the introduction of an authoritative Christian leader to resolve the infestation, affords
the two accounts overt similarities.
Premodern demonologists made use of such examples to convey the universal truth that,
despite singularities found in diverse reports of demons, the narratives vividly expressed uniform
convention relating to diabolical evil. For our purposes, Saint Theodore’s exemplum provides
descriptive features of how demons were said to affectively invade or attack spaces. Three
prominent and interrelated tropes are noteworthy in this and other narratives: 1.) the demonic as
contagion, 2.) as disordered sensory experience, and 3.) as marvelous occurrence. While these
broad themes are not universally present in all exemplary accounts of demonic encounter, stories
like the one above were often deliberately included (among copious amounts of others) to prompt
these recurrent motifs in different forms.

discedere, benedixit aquae, quam per unum e fratribus misit, ut periclitantes conspergeret, eisque
bibendam propinaret. Quo facto, cuncti tamquam e somno surrexerunt praeter unum, qui mortuus est.
Ioannes enim procurator, cuius fratri ea calamitas contigerat, non expectans viri sancti benedictionem,
accurit ad mulierem veneficam, & dum eius incantations adhiberet fratri, ille animam egit” (italics are
Delrio’s). Thyraeus only includes two sentences from the second narrative concerning the beds, tables,
snakes, and mice. I have also included the extra sentence in brackets—included in the life of Theodore—
qualifying that the dog yawned at Pherentinus, from Elizabeth Dawes (ed.), Three Byzantine Saints:
Contemporary Biographies translated from the Greek, trans. Elizabeth Dawes and Norman Baynes
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1948), pp. 156-9, #106; pp. 174-5, #131; pp. 180-1, #143. I have used this last
source from Dawes in aiding my translation.
The three motifs function at two overlapping levels of interpretation and inquiry. First, the
motif of demonic contagion, and to some extent that of sensory disturbance, works within the
framework of narrative aesthetics. By this I mean that an affective mood is awakened in such
stories in order to convey how sensate experiences were generated by and described in the meeting
of hostile spirits and humans. Depictions of spiritual contagion, and more broadly the issue of
demonic affliction of the sense, begged consideration of how the presence of fallen angels was
descriptively felt within the stories themselves. Unsurprisingly, the stories are often framed in
fifteenth- and sixteenth-century demonological works as puzzles to be solved by the trained
theologian or preacher; they are meant to reflect how demons worked seemingly inexplicable feats
that could be explained by expert exegetes.
Second, and following from the first level of inquiry, premodern demonologists were
principally concerned with issues of metaphysical causation. Here, a set of conventional
theological questions were raised (or assumed to be present) in reporting the phenomena: 1. Within
the such tales or experiences, did these events actually take place or where they the result of
diabolical illusions? 2. Whether authentic manifestations or illusory events, how could the
unfolding events be respectively explained (as real or illusory afflictions) in terms of metaphysical
causality? The latter two motifs (sensory interruptions and marvelous occurrences) were generally
approached under the assumption that a rational order of causes could be deduced. As such,
disturbances in the sensorium and wondrous happenings transpired, scholastically trained
theologians argued, because devils possessed very specific attributes and potencies, which were
natural rather than supernatural. Drawing logical conclusions from the teachings of Augustine,
Aquinas, and others, the trained demonologist, therefore, set out to elucidate standard demonic
behavior and capabilities within exemplary accounts. A closer look at the example from Saint
Theodore will help illuminate the differentiated affective work within these motifs.
With regard to the first motif, the notion of contagion communicated how an “immundus
spiritus” (unclean spirit) might spoil the human body, home, and environment. One explicit way
in which contagion could be represented was through the language of “infestation.” Petrus
Thyraeus, in particular, favored the designation “loca infesta” when annotating how historical
spaces (loca)—like those described by Augustine and Theodore—were plagued (infesta) by
malevolent spiritual invasion. Derived from classical Latin of antiquity, Thyraeus and others
assimilated the language of human warfare to demonic assaults. The Oxford Latin Dictionary
registers the verb infesto to mean 1. to repeatedly attack, harass, molest, 2. to make unsafe or
unsettled, to disturb peace or repose, 3. to have a bad effect on, damage, impair. The past participle
infestus similarly signifies something hostile, antagonistic, marked by strife, inimical, unsafe,
insecure, and threatened. Moreover, infesto is etymologically related to the root words fendo and
fensus. In turn, these inform the terms found in literature on demons like infenso (to strike or attack)
and defendo (to ward off, avert or defend against). Drawing from these militaristic expressions,
“infestation” at once connoted a demonic siege on the human body and its senses, often spreading
from one individual to the next.
Where Saint Theodore’s narrative is framed by the broader theme of demonic infestation
(in Thyraeus’ telling), contagion is represented in the first lines by way of collapsing the physical
distance between the human and nonhuman. This is witnessed as the infernal dog yawns at
Pherentinus, striking “him with a most grievous malady.” The single sentence account records
what modern readers would understand as an oral reflex, the canine’s yawn. The act, however, is
not depicted as involuntary; to the contrary, it establishes deliberate and visceral contact between
the doggish apparition and Pherentinus. And instead of a gesture that would normally produce a
reflexive response (i.e., another yawn), the demon forcibly (or what Thomist natural philosophy
would later call “virtually”) compels the man to buckle under the force of the dog’s gaping mouth.
Pherentinus is also thereafter described as incapable of controlling his own posture and body,
“lying half-dead for a long time his face was twisted right round to the back.” Hence, the demon’s
yawn conveys a sense of proximate ravishment, as the man’s face is descriptively contorted in
haptic discomfort. By extension, the irruption of the demonic into the ordinary world reinforces
the idea of a demon contagion that transmits or triggers an unexpected violation of the man’s
bodily control.
Often depicted as source of spiritual impurity, the presence of demons similarly
transformed safe, mundane locales into spaces lacking any semblance of sanctuary. Saint
Theodore’s second encounter indicates how the site of infestation was no longer a proper “domus”
(or home) but a location of violent intrusion which “no one dared to enter.” Within this polluted
area, the identity-slippage from familiar home into a space of insecurity galvanizes unstable
categories of communal distress and trespass. In the house of the tribune Theodore, the demons
disrupt the tables and beds, while noxious vermin (i.e., snakes and mice) are described swarming
the household. Notably, the hostile spirits only reveal themselves through concealed actions and
sounds but also at crucial sites of human activity: where the people eat, sleep, and congregate.
Throughout this short account, the demonic presence registers palpable absences, for the
inhabitants are never able to point to a discrete object to show that “this” or “that” is the group of
demons. Instead, the demons are descried enacting spuriously visible disturbances which produce
the combined feeling of “magnus omnes terror.” On this reading, demonic contagion need not
overtly relate to the spread of bodily illness; instead, it becomes a spectacle of concatenating
torments that display the transmission of “terror” within the at-one-time home. The source of

distraction is finally identified only upon the saint’s arrival and then confronted with the
therapeutic procedures of prayer and sprinkling holy water.
In the third episode of Saint Theodore’s entry, another extended series of chain events
occurs as the inhabitants of Apoukoumis become infected with demonically rancid meat. The
communication of disease is made legible from the cooking pots, to the ox flesh, to the humans
that consume the animal. Here, the sickness itself is expressed by means of conspicuous inactivity.
Having eaten the animal’s plagued flesh, the humans become completely supine, “laying down as
if they were dead.” In fact, they no longer exhibit the ability to use reason, to move, eat or function
at all. As such, the contagion has not only dispossessed Apoukoumis of its original domestic
identity (i.e., a docile living space), the entire community itself has lost its defining human
faculties. In this way, the narrative illustrates the limited lay comprehension of the troubling
situation: hearing of the illness, Theodore arrives and instructs the inhabitants that the “ruin came
from a company of demons.” The saint effectively diagnoses the malady afflicting those who
partook in the meal. Thereafter, the holy man’s inspired medical powers reanimate all but one of
the inhabitants.
For these reasons, the holy figure of Theodore represents an appropriate contrast of
remedial presence to the demonic pollution. He is physically and visibly “there”, just as his
curative measures miraculously spread across the infected space. Akin to the terra sancta
Hesperius possessed in Augustine’s account from the City of God, Theodore’s vita communicates
how the saint transmits godly blessing by means of holy water. Significantly, the narrative
accentuates an affective mood by means of recognizable disparities between demonic clamor and
“prayer to god”, between stones “thrown on the table” and the sprinkling of holy water, between
eating rancid meat and drinking blessed water, and even the language of invasion (invadebat) and
freedom (liberavit). In short, the human body becomes the terrain upon which demonic encounter
comes to be felt, exciting and distorting the body itself. The three narratives are meant to
descriptively convey how premodern folk were paradoxically bound together by the experience of
contagious disorder—a demonic perversion of healthy community formation.
Dovetailing with the motif of demonic contagion, accounts of demonic encounter were
frequently charged with visceral insecurity as foci of sensory disorientation—the second motif.
Following Augustine, and Aquinas citing the Bishop of Hippo, later demonologists warned
Christians to:
take heed that the wicked spirit may never foul this habitation, and that, intermingled with
the senses, it may not pollute the sanctity of the soul and becloud the light of the mind.
This evil thing creeps stealthily through all the entrances of sense: it gives itself over to
forms, it adapts itself to colors, it sticks to sounds, it lurks hidden in anger and in the
deception of speech, it appends itself to odors, it infuses tastes, by the turbulent overflow
of passion it darkens the senses with darksome affections, it fills with certain obscuring
mists the paths of the understanding, through all of which the mind’s ray normally diffuses
the light of reason.139
On the one hand, Augustine’s statement served as a seminal admonition to protect and discipline
the thresholds of sense perception. On the other, the reference to “habitation” is equally important,
as the human body represented a vessel for the soul, as well as an evocative analogy for
More relevant here is how, by associating devilry with the activities of the human
sensorium, demons were allotted mastery over the entire field of sensory input. In De malo,
Aquinas explained that, because the human soul was hierarchically positioned below angelic

139 “Eighty-three Different Questions” in The Fathers of the Church, v. 70, trans. by David L. Mosher
(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 43. See also Aquinas, On Evil, qu. 16,
art. 12, p. 511; Johann Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 186.
natures, humans were incapable of perceiving spiritual substances as such. Aquinas explained by
way of analogy that, just as humans could not discern another’s soul with their eyes, so they were
unable to behold the pure intellection of angelic being. Yet, angels and demons could project
incorporeal semblances or forms by means of local motion, whereby they either affected the
internal gases, fluids, and humors of the human body to perceive an object or being that was not
actually present, or they could just as easily produce visible aerial bodies.140 From these
perspectives, the yawning canine perceived by Pherentinus, for example, could represent either a
demonic illusion generated from internal (i.e., humoral) impressions or an aerial shape. As Stuart
Clark has argued, in all such instances, “the devil could control (and subvert) each of the stages of
Aristotelian cognition—manipulating the world of perceived objects, tampering with the medium
through which visual species travelled, and altering the workings of both the external and the
internal senses.”141 The five senses and the bodily humors could be affectively disarranged,
excited, or depressed in an attempt to obstruct the Christian from knowledge of God.
Several late medieval and early modern authors commented on these facets of demonic
affliction. “It is not without great reason,” warned Noël Taillepied, “that one should fear when at
night we perceive [i.e., see, hear, feel] something unfamiliar. For spirits often attack people while
sleeping, sometimes forcing the inhabitants to abandon their homes and not without great injury
to those living there.”142 With greater detail on the organs affected, Johann Weyer noted that for

140 On Evil., qu. 16, art. 11.
141 Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007),
142 Traité De L’Apparition Des Esprits (1588), 184: “Non sans grande raison donc l’homme a peur quand
de nuict apperçoit quelque chose inaccoustumee de voir. Ces esprits aussi empeschent les gens de dormer,
quelquefois font abandoner les maisons, ce qui ne se fait pas sans grandement endommager ceux qui y
habitent.” My translation of “de voir” is admittedly loose, although in this section of the treatise Taillepied
melancholic women in particular, demons interrupted visual experience of the world “through the
medium of the optic nerve.”143 Weyer alludes to an understanding of cognition founded upon
premodern theories of vision. The human faculty called the imagination (imaginatio) was said to
physically preserve impressions (or in Augustine’s words above “forms”) in the mind by means
of tactile, visual contact. Two predominant optical theories in the Middle Ages (and earlier),
commonly called extramission and intromission, suggested that either the eye itself emitted rays
of light which communicated an image back to the organ of sight or that a visible object actively
transmitted its impression to the human eye. In both cases, demons could interrupt and manipulate
the transmission of haptic object-impression. One common and long-lasting debate involving
extramission related to discourses on “fascination”—the idea that malicious power could be
deliberately communicated in a glance by enchantment or charm. For demon-theorists, the
potential transmission of noxious intent—often called the “evil eye” or “the lust of the eyes”—
meant one had to guard against inimical intentions and sensory invasion by diabolical forces.144
Visual disruptions, however, were only one type of sensory experience within loca infesta.
Akin to Taillepied’s warning, Ludwig Lavater claimed that by the devil’s “speed, and by his
experience in natural things, he can deceive the human eye and other senses.”145 Martin Delrio,

discusses a whole range of sensory disturbances that suggest perception (de voir) is more than mere visual
143 Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 186.
144 On the evil eye, see Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010), 33; for Augustine and fascination, see Patricia
Miller, The Corporeal Imagination: Signifying the Holy in Late Ancient Christianity (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 86-8. On medieval optical theory, see Michael Camille, “Before
the Gaze: The Internal Senses and Late Medieval Practices of Seeing,” in Visuality Before and Beyond the
Renaissance, ed. Robert Nelson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 197-223.
145 Von Gespaenstern (1569), part 2, bk 17, p. 177: “Durch sin geschwinde und durch die erfarnuß der
natürlichen dingen kan er die gesicht der menschen und andere empfindtnussen betriegen.”
too, averred that demons excited the imagination “into fear, shame, anger, or sadness; these
affections indeed so affect a man that heat or cold are altered, that his body pales or reddens, and
he almost becomes exhilarated, or torpid and dejected.”146 Understood as a set of bodily organs
and mental faculties, demons often yielded mechanical control over the premodern mind. In Saint
Theodore’s example, wicked spirits demonstrated how sensory manipulation descriptively applied
to all the senses. Where Pherentinus beholds the illusory dog’s impassioned and fascinating yawn,
the inhabitants of the tribune Theodore’s home visually and audibly hear stones thrown on tables
and beds broken in their rooms. At Apoukoumis, the people taste and observe the meat’s hue turn
black. The aroma of decay would also likely fill the final scene with malodor. Such sensory
references indicated that appearances absolutely mattered. Taillepied commented, for example,
how “in our times there are some people so possessed with this melancholy humor that, spiritually
alienated from themselves, they describe themselves as the most wicked people of the whole
world.”147 Those afflicted with sensory degradation thus reflected the profoundly disordered moral
and spiritual qualities inherent to spaces filled with demons. Loss of control over bodily sensation
often indicated the Devil’s evil, and theologians commonly pointed to the moral connotations that
attached to a deficiency of the senses. Hence, sensory perceptions could exhibit how a demonically
infested space reflected both individual-human and communal-household assaults by evil spirits.
Strikingly, the conceptual overlap between the demonic as contagion and sensory disruption
stressed how demonic presence affected human experience at a biological level. In Aquinas’

146 Disquisitionum Magicarum (1606), bk 1, ch 3, qu. 3, p 13: “excitat potentiam appetitiuam ad timorem,
vel ad pudorem, vel ad iram, vel ad tristitiam; hae vero affectiones hominem sic afficiunt, ut calore vel
frigore alteretur, ut pallescat vel rubescat, ut quasi exiliat seu efferatur, vel torpescat seu deijciatur.”
147 Traité De L’Apparition Des Esprits (1588), 29: “de notre temps quelques uns si saisis de cest humeur
melancholique, qu’alienez d’esprit, se disoient estre les plus meschans de tout le monde.”
words, demons work “changes in the situs of vapors and fluids…[and] sentient spirits sink with
the blood and move the sources of sense perception.”148 Hence, the ecclesiastical admonishment
to guard and discipline the thresholds of sense perception at once stressed the limits and
vulnerabilities of the human body. Narratives like Saint Theodore’s offered demonologists an
opportunity to discursively “catch” historical instances of affective experience with demons.
Theologians authoritatively identified the emergence of demons in a household as sources of
destabilizing fear and communal disruption.
Finally, the third motif orbits Thomist definitions of spiritual beings as marvelous
creatures. As we have already seen, Thomist metaphysics placed fallen angels in the specific
category of “natural” rather than “supernatural” causes. In distinguishing between the two,
Aquinas recognized that extraordinary events would provoke inquiry into their origination. In
response, many medieval writes employed the Latin terms mirabilia or mira (marvels or wonders)
to convey naturally occurring phenomena for which the original causation was opaque.149
Conceptually related to the terms miroir and mirage, marvels typically presented an inverted image
of the usual (i.e., regularly observed) processes of nature.150 Frequently the occult properties of
certain stones, liquids, plants, and animals—sometimes categorized under “natural magic”—were
explained using this designation.151 Particular mountains, fountains, shrines, and other earthly

148 Aquinas, On Evil., qu. 16, art. 11, response.
149 Three useful articles on marvels include P. Harrison, “Miracles, Early Modern Science, and Rational
Religion” Church History 75 (2006): 493-510; L. Daston, “Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in
Early Modern Europe” Critical Inquiry 18 (Autumn, 1991): 93-124; A. Rüth, “Representing Wonder in
Medieval Miracle Narratives” MLN 126 (Sept. 2011): 89-114.
150 Jacques Le Goff, The Medieval Imagination, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1988), 27.
151 On definitions of magic see Richard Kieckhefer, “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” The
American Historical Review 99 (June 1994): 813-36 and Robert Bartlett, The Natural and Supernatural in
locations could similarly evoke marvelous effects and perceptions of singularity. That mirabilia
were deemed natural or sometimes classified as magical meant that they were subject to the
prescribed theological limits of divine creation. Marvels by definition exhibited exceptional
attributes but never violated the natural order of the world. They presented elusive albeit
profoundly meaningful boundaries for God’s creation. Importantly, the failure to understand these
hidden virtues in nature stimulated inquiry into how and why such things happened. Marvels
marked an occasion to “wonder” (admiratio) at a universe replete with new, if confounding, signs
and portents.152 This final point is crucial because marvels were pedagogically useful within the
integrated schema of medieval Christian cosmology: one could be taught to marvel at the unknown
for its moral and ontological significance in relation to God.
By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, marvels were contrasted with miracles (the term
miracula shares the root word mira); as we have seen the former were defined by an indeterminate
origin and a response to investigate the phenomenon. For the latter, the trigger of wonderment was
likewise paramount, although miracles were said to definitively transgress the ordinary workings
of nature. Divine miracles thus differed from marvels by degree of divine involvement: God alone
produced miracula through unmediated grace, whereas singularities in nature or created agents
like demons engendered marvels. The parting of the sea, resurrection of the dead,
transubstantiation, and the deeds of saints were considered miracles that demonstrated the direct
hand of God and the attendant suspension of natural operations. Attractive for their pastoral
applicability, miracles and miracle-stories promoted ecclesiastically sanctioned sites for pious
devotion (e.g., saints’ relics and canonizations, the Eucharist, and various acts in the Christian

the Middle Ages: The Wiles Lecture given at the Queen’s University of Belfast, 2006 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2008).
152 Caroline Bynum Walker, “Wonder,” The American Historical Review 102 (1997): 1-26.
Bible). Marvels, on the other hand, worked negatively to illustrate where miracles were absent.


Especially in those instances involving scholastically naturalized demons, marvels provided an
alibi for the miraculous: the supernatural work of God is not “here” (in demonic marvels) but in
the inspired actions of saints, the sacraments, and benevolent angels.
Drawing from theological tradition, demonologists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
were excessively preoccupied with describing demonic marvels. One historical proof of demonic
marvels was found in Book 21 of the City of God. Augustine remarked that at the temple of Venus
a lamp was observed to burn perpetually. The Bishop of Hippo reasoned that it was feasible a
demon, under the name Venus, manifested itself there permanently in order to “cunningly seduce
them [humans], either by imbuing their hearts with a secret poison, or by revealing themselves
under a friendly guise, and thus make a few of them their disciples, who become the instructors of
the multitude.”153 According to Augustine, where the weak of mind could be swayed by spiritual
intrusion of the senses (“imbuing their hearts with a secret poison”), humans predisposed to
wickedness were presented with illusory companionship and false miracles engendered by
demons. Aquinas’ much later discussion of spiritual local motion added further points of reference
when considering the marvels of demons.154 Thus, when Martin Delrio (and others) discussed
demonic feats in the sixteenth century, he divided the wonders produced by devils into two kinds
(with varied effects): 1. following Augustine, the marvels of demons occurred either as specious
miracles and/or, 2. relying on Thomas, devils might just as easily deploy deceptive acts through
local motion.

153 The City of God (1998) bk. 21, ch. 6, p. 974.
154 Aquinas would also repeat Augustine’s precepts on the false miracles of demons in his Summa contra
gentiles, see Bartlett, The Natural and Supernatural in the Middle Ages (2008), 20.
The Jesuit explained how, in the first case, “supposing an effect does not originate in local
motion and exceeds actively applied natural causes, such as resuscitating the dead or truly curing
blindness, then deceit and illusion are introduced.” Demons thus enacted one facet of their
marvelous works by appearing to furnish outcomes only possible for the Christian divinity (i.e.,
supernatural miracles). Delrio went on to assert that spirits could also contrive confusing mental
impressions called phantasmata in the human imagination to make the impossible appear
authentic. Akin to the ostensibly everlasting fire at the temple of Venus, demons manufactured
marvelous tricks in order to mislead humans into believing they were capable of seemingly divine
works. By moving latent memory perceptions (technically by local motion of the humors), wicked
spirits entered the human mind to make an illusion manifestly real to the human senses. This motif
was widely reported by demonologists in many forms, sometimes from personal testimonies or
when chastising magicians that claimed they could control the demons themselves.155 As will be
demonstrated in chapter 4 of this dissertation, Protestant authors also polemically engaged the
category of demonic marvels to neutralize claims of the miraculous within the Catholic church.
The second marvelous effect of demons Delrio called prestidigital machination: “when
something is seen and then suddenly vanishes, though not permanently.”156 Here, demonic marvels
extended beyond fantastic impressions in the imagination to elaborate acts of transvection (flight
typically associated with witchcraft) that nevertheless amounted to illusory activity. A famous

155 For a personal account see Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 72-3.
Interestingly, the marvelous deceptions of demons were often of a mundane flavor: throwing stones, making
noises, etc. For examples, see Taillepied, Traité De L’Apparition Des Esprits (1588), 78-80 and Lavater,
Von Gespaenstern (1569), part 1, bk 16.
156 Disquisitionum Magicarum (1606), bk 2, qu. 8, p 114: “Prima est, si effectus non oritur a motu locali,
& superat causarum naturalium applicatarum activitatem (v.g. suscitatio mortui, aut verae caecitatis curatio)
intervenit deceptio & praestigium. Secunda quando id, quod visum est, statim evanescit, nec permanet, est
praestigiosa machinatio.”
example of this effect was when an object (e.g., a human body) might be quickly withdrawn from
a room and substituted for an animal. To the human eye, the speed and dexterity of the invisible
spirit deluded the observer into believing a corporeal metamorphosis had taken place, when in fact
an extraordinary slight-of-hand had occurred.157 On this view, demons could not induce true
corporeal transformations or make material bodies completely disappear; rather, they rapidly
replaced proportional bodies through natural operations the human eye could not easily discern. A
major nexus of contention in demonological debates orbited whether demonic locomotion actually
took place (e.g., carrying witches during flight) or whether devils moved the bodily humors in an
ornate hoax within the imagination.158
That demons were said to perform elaborate marvels functioned as yet another way of
interpreting how demons generated affective experiences among premodern Christian
communities and audiences. Indeed, the act of diagnosing demonic marvels—and the complex
ways in which extraordinary phenomena stimulated embodied responses—evinces learned
concerns over representations of the Devil. Late premodern intelligentsia garnered countless
anecdotes similar to those of Augustine and Theodore in order to illustrate both inspirational events
in sacred history and profoundly troubling encounters within the natural world. In Thomist
demonology especially, the experience of wonder called attention to how demons sought to
obfuscate the boundaries between divine action and demonic cunning. Midway through Delrio’s
account of Saint Theodore, the term “miraculum” marks such a boundary, as the saint introduces

157 For a famous account of prestigital machination from the Malleus maleficarum on disappearing penises,
see Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 2002), 300-21.
158 On this debate, see the tale recounted by the Dominican, Johannes Nider, and its relation to the Malleus
maleficarum in Michael Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages
(University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 47 ff.
blessed water to heal those sick from demonic infection. The brief scene serves to distinguish the
miraculous acts of Saint Theodore from the spurious marvels of the demons. Even without such
an explicit marker (the word “miracle”), medieval and early modern authorities highlighted how
marvelous events triggered affective experiences of wonder at astonishing phenomena. In the next
chapter we will see that imaginative and poetic literature would confound and complement
traditional perspectives on demonic marvels. Christian demonologists—whether medieval,
Protestant, or Roman Catholic—cautioned their audience against investing erroneous belief in the
tantalizing feats of malevolent spiritual beings. With deft literary maneuverings, theologians and
preachers endeavored to demarcate the differences between demonic wonders and divine
The recording and compiling of such stories demonstrates that tales of demonic encounter
were repetitively diagnosed, experienced, and remembered. They registered sites of learned debate
but also shared responses to the extraordinary. Narratives about demons could at once inspire
Christian devotion and evoke instinctive fear toward the seen and unseen. In this sense, the
accounts from Aguustine and Theodore regarding Zubedi and Apoukoumis ring of pious
triumphalism, although they also gesture toward intense concerns of alarm and anxious
excitement. We know this because premodern demonologists fervently frequently designated the
appropriate reactions audiences should have in engaging such accounts. Johann Weyer, for
example, repeatedly remarked how the Devil “drives men to wonderment,” but carefully qualified
that “the more to be wondered at, or rather regretted” was how evil spirits were falsely accorded
honor for their deeds.159 As we shall see, the same rebuke was uttered repeatedly throughout the

159 Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 35 and 22 respectively.
preceding centuries: demons thrived on fomenting seemingly auspicious affective and emotional
qualities among premodern Christian communities.
This chapter has examined the distinctive features of Western Christian demonology. The
formative images of the Devil and his fallen angels offered by Augustine and other firstmillennium authors would provide later demonologists the conceptual vocabulary and arguments
for understanding wicked spirits through a framework of divine providence and moral action.
Alongside Augustinian precepts, Thomist metaphysics advocates for natural-scientific approaches
to the Devil’s nature and potency, arguing that demons were finite creatures with more freedom to
passively act within the natural world. Drawing from both traditions, late medieval and early
modern authors also wrote about how premodern communities affectively experienced demonic
encounters. When demonologists commented on the attributes and nature of demons, they
employed exemplary anecdotes to convey how wicked spirits behaved and engaged with humanity
in the physical world. It is in this last approach that we find motifs of demonic contagion, sensory
disturbance, and marvelous occurrence. And yet, the above investigation has left several
unanswered queries: Were all stories about demonic encounters the same in form and content?
Were there other sources from which late medieval and early modern demonologists would draw
that demonstrate ambiguous, even helpful spirits? If so, how were these reconciled with orthodox
prescriptions for demonic apparitions? These questions are the subject of the next chapter.
CHAPTER 2: A Second Demonological Inheritance: Neutral Angels, Helpful Demons, and
Non-Angelic Spirits
Moving adjacently from Augustinian and Thomist theology (in Chapter 1) into High
medieval accounts of morally ambiguous spirits, this chapter examines a second body of
demonological inheritance. It analyzes those spiritual creatures that were not irretrievably placed
on one side or the other of the angel/demon binary. Such imaginings are important to the overall
project of this dissertation, because they underscore how the identity of certain spirits remained
unclear in popular literature. In order to explain perceived human interactions with diverse spirits
in premodern homes (in the following chapters), this chapter tracks the theologically repugnant
notion that there existed spirits whose moral status was obscure.
A rich variety of visible and invisible beings co-inhabited the premodern world of Latin
Europe. As we have seen, ecclesiastical figures divided spiritual creatures into blessed and wicked
angels. According to theological tradition, a number of God’s angels were said to have fallen after
creation due to the sin of pride. Forever displaced from divine grace, these demons generally
tempted and tricked humankind into sinful behavior with sensory illusions. The opening decree
and declaration of faith at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 formulated a concise expression of
this idea: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created by God naturally good but they
became evil by their own doing. Man, however, sinned at the prompting of the devil.”160 For most,
if not all medieval Christians, fallen angels represented agents of moral disorder and displacement
from the Christian God.

160 Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Volume One Nicea I to Lateran V, ed. by N. P. Tanner S.J.
(Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 230.
Existing alongside this orthodox duality, ethereal spirits such as ambivalent angels,
hobgoblins, fairies, and ambiguous “others” sustained recurrent appearance in premodern stories,
texts, and imagery. These para-theological beings constitute the focus of analysis in this chapter.
Often described in poetic, courtly, and exemplary literature as morally tepid or vaguely
mischievous, many haunting spirits occupied the furthest borders of Augustinian-Thomist
To take one example, in book 3 of his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Cornelius
Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) rehearses a general hierarchical order of evil angels
according to “some of the school of the theologians.” A controversial Renaissance magician and
humanist, Agrippa begins with the biblical names attributed to specific devils: Beelzebub (Spirit
of False Gods), Pytho (Spirit of Lies), Belial (Vessel of Wrath), Asmodeus (Revenger of Evil),
and so forth. The sixteenth-century occultist then notes that within the nine degrees to which
demons are conventionally placed (and in contrast to angelic hierarchies),
some that are nigh to us wander up and down in this obscure air, others inhabit lakes, rivers
and seas, others the earth, and terrify earthly things, and invade those who dig wells and
metals, cause the gapings of the earth, strike together the foundations of mountains, and
vex not only men, but also other creatures. Some being content with laughter and delusion
only, do contrive rather to weary men, than to hurt them, some heightening themselves to
the length of a giant’s body, and again shrinking themselves up to the smallness of the
pygmy’s, and changing themselves into divers forms, do blasphemies…but the worst sort
of devils are those, who lay wait and overthrow passengers in their journeys, and rejoice in
wars and effusion of blood, and afflict men with most cruel stripes.161
The passage exemplifies a typical view of the myriad forms of demonic encounter. Agrippa was
well versed in scholastic philosophy and theological attitudes toward fallen angelic beings.
However, the last book of the Occult Philosophy also proffers perspectives concerning spirits on

161 Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. by John Freake (London:
1651; Reprint, edited by Donald Tyson, St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1995), 509-11.
the fringe of orthodox theology. Drawing from a mixed diet of biblical and apocryphal precedents,
early and medieval Christian authors, Jewish Cabbala, Neoplatonic thought, and premodern
European legend more generally, Agrippa’s demonology was unconventionally inclusive.
Providing a synthetic treatment of occult magic and Christian faith, the Occult Philosophy
demonstrates that theologians were not the only Christians to contribute meaningful discourses on
angels, demons, and other ill-defined spirits.162
To this end, Agrippa’s initial arrangement of devils in Book 3 of Occult Philosophy is as
instructive as the ambiguities he cites thereafter. For instance, he remarks how Origen, the thirdcentury theologian of Alexandria, opined that through the act of repentance, and after the
resurrection of Christ, demons could return to the grace of God.163 Capable of shedding their
ethereal bodies at the cosmic end of the temporal world, wicked spirits would—with the
appropriate pious disposition—ostensibly enjoy momentary embodiment and the potential for
salvific contrition.164 Christian theologians familiar with Origen’s thought firmly denied the
possibility of demonic contrition (and corporeality), “since the force of their first choice abides in
their every choice.”165 The sixteenth-century magician prudently includes Origen’s position with
an air of ambivalence; it is unclear whether he shares in Origen’s heterodoxy. Yet Agrippa goes

162 For a recent analysis of the Occult Philosophy and Agrippa, see Christopher Lehrich, Language of
Demons and Angels: Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophia (Leiden: Brill, 2003). For a seminal analysis
of Agrippa’s life and writings, see Charles G. Nauert, Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965).
163 Agrippa, Occult Philosophy (1995), 511.
164 This is Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis, which asserts that hell was not final and that demons would
be restored to their original state of blessedness. The doctrine was censured at the Council of Constantinople
in 543. See Wilhelm Breuning, “Apokatastasis: ‘Restoring all things’,” Theology Digest 31 (1984): 47-50.
165 Aquinas, On Evil (2003), qu. 16, art. 5, p. 472.
on to cite an equally provocative account of fallen angels. Referencing the popularity ascribed to
the medieval “Legend of Saint Brendan,” Agrippa gestures towards the “many people” who
believe the prayers of demons are heard by Christ. He states that several Christians contend “there
are many of the devils who are fallen, who hope for their salvation.”166 Linking the trope of
demonic sorrow to Origen and Saint Brendan, the Occult Philosophy provides a brief glimpse into
the theologically impossible: the existence of penitent demons.
This chapter will begin with Agrippa’s signpost in the “Legend of Saint Brendan” and how
it gestures towards the larger truth that many ideas about the spirit-world fit awkwardly with
orthodox demonology. In addition to the Legend of Saint Brendan, multiple other premodern
sources also evince imaginative descriptions of innocuous demons. For instance, the theme of socalled “neutral angels”—one I discuss below in reference to a small band of indecisive angels
before the fall of Lucifer—appears in the twelfth-century romance Parzival by Wolfram von
Eschenbach, as well as in Dante Alighieri’s epic masterpiece of the fourteenth century, The Divine
Comedy. On a slightly different perspective, one also finds clerical and monastic works of collated
miracle stories that delineate “helpful demons” working in the benevolent service of humankind.
Of a pastoral flavor, Jacques de Vitry and Caesarius von Heisterbach convey complex depictions
of purported demonic goodwill. Broadly speaking, the notion of neutral angels and helpful demons
was oxymoronic to the vast majority of theologians. Yet conceptions of these benign demons share
similarities with the idea that the cosmos contained spirits that were neither inclined toward good
nor evil, but located somewhere in-between. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century chroniclers and
encyclopedists also collected and compiled marvelous tales of ethereal creatures found diversely
represented throughout Europe. As we shall see, Walter Map and Gervase of Tilbury recorded

166 Agrippa, Occult Philosophy (1995), 511.
varied perspectives on the demonic and even non-angelic apparitions (e.g., fairies) of unknown
Chapter 2 is thus divided into three sections on the specific motifs of neutral angels, minor
or helpful demons, and non-angelic spirits. These ethereal beings deserve attention not just for
their furtive existence in the historical register, but also because they complemented and
confounded demonological convention. This is an important point: orthodox demonologists
accepted kobolds, passive angels, and fairies as a cunning facet of the Devil’s snares. Assimilated
into the angel/demon binary, theologians almost always positioned morally ambiguous spirits in
the latter (demonic) category. Formal teachings of the Catholic church urged that encounter with
a malevolent intelligence might be manifold and severely diverse. Since fallen angels could
assume countless forms and transform the appearance of material objects, they were capable of
employing their subtle natures to inventively deceive humanity. For these reasons, theological
discourses on demons did not cauterize creative descriptions of spiritual creatures. To the contrary,
the host of spiritual creatures that populate folk tales and exemplary texts helped to inform
orthodox demonology—meaning theologians and clerics could use such tales to demonstrate the
wide range of demonic deceptions and encounters in the premodern world.
Admittedly, the subject of mysterious apparitions and spirited presences does not easily
lend itself to critical historical study of premodern Christianity. For example, accounts of “neutral
angels” are recorded exclusively in poetic compositions and legend. To a considerable degree,
passive angels and demons existed in a literary tradition steeped in medieval entertainment,
storytelling, and fabula (fables), rather than proper historia (i.e., things done in history or res
gestae). The same could generally be said of tales in high medieval chronicles, as well as in courtly
and exemplary literature, which include “helpful demons” and “non-angelic spirits.” On the
surface, these imaginative conceptions may seem to present certain challenges to the teachings of
theologians. However, to premodern eyes and ears they commonly reflected a narrative “state of
exception,” in which benevolent devils and whimsical fairies revealed prominent forms of pious
didacticism.167 Hence, despite any unorthodox assumptions or claims about spirits inhabiting the
cosmos, these discourses did not attract sharp theological censure in their original setting. With
rather broad strokes, we can say that the type of “cultural work” performed in texts that mention
neutral angels, helpful demons, and non-angelic spirits is fictive and experimental rather than
theologically definitional.168
At the same time, “other” spirits do frequently appear in historiae rerum gestarum, as we
shall see. And it was precisely for this reason that later demonologists drew from many of the
sources interpreted below, appropriating their labile manifestations for theological and pastoral
purposes. In order to provide a representative and workable cross-section, I use sources primarily
from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While these are by no means the only examples one
might investigate, they are illustrative of concerns about spiritual ambiguity adopted in fifteenthand sixteenth-century demonological analyses. Moreover, the sheer wealth of material that derives
from this period did not go unnoticed in the following centuries. Johann Weyer, Ludwig Lavater,
Martin Delrio, and others found both useful and frustrating responses to preternatural ambiguity
from these earlier authors. Thus, Walter Map, Gervase of Tilbury, Jacques de Vitry, and Caesarius
von Heisterbach feature as authorities in later texts on the subject. These high medieval men
proffered their own pious responses to questions concerning demonic deceits as they emerged and

167 James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 15. A similar stance
is taken in Corinne Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance (Woodbridge,
UK: D.S. Brewer, 2010).
168 On the term “fictive” see Hayden V. White, The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and
Theory, 1957-2007, ed. by Robert Doran (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
re-emerged. This chapter, therefore, moves forward with an eye toward the late medieval and early
modern bricolage of spiritual beings. It takes seriously that, at the very least, premodern individuals
and communities claimed to have extraordinary experiences with diverse spiritual creatures—and
these would have significant implications for the cultures in which they were generated.
Literary Accounts of Neutral Angels
Medieval literature that features morally ambivalent spirits can be unwieldy. Our earliest
chronological source (or collection of sources), the broad corpus of premodern Brendaniana, is
exemplary in this regard. Extant copies of the Navigatio sancti Brendani survive in over 125
medieval manuscripts. These were translated between the eighth and sixteenth centuries from Latin
into nearly a dozen vernacular languages. They also exist in several textual variants across a wide
array of different times and places.
169 It is therefore understandable that some confusion would
arise over how the Navigatio was interpreted. As the varied stories of Brendan entail an exemplary
holy figure guided by divine providence, and therefore defined by sanctity, hagiography seems an
appropriate genre. However, the Navigatio was rarely treated as such; for it creatively blends
hagiographic tropes with those found in Irish voyage (immrama) and Latin visionary literature.170
In particular, the eighth-century Latin text tells of an Irish monk named Brendan and a
small group of monastic companions as they embark to find the “Promised Land of the Saints.”171

169 John J. O’Meara and Jonathan M. Wooding, Introduction in The Voyage of Saint Brendan (2002), 13-
18. For an annotated bibliography of sources for the study of the Navigatio, see Eileen Gardiner, Medieval
Visions of Heaven and Hell: A Sourcebook (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993), 51-52.
170 John J. O’Meara and Jonathan M. Wooding, Introduction in The Voyage of Saint Brendan (2002), 22-
171 There are numerous translations of the legend. I have chosen the collection of translations found in The
Voyage of Saint Brendan: Representative Versions of the Legend in English Translation, ed. by W. R. J.
Barron and Glyn S. Burgess (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002).
Exactly one year into their journey, the seafaring religious brothers anchor on a previously
uncharted island. Upon immediate landfall, Brendan spots a sizeable flock of white birds covering
an enormous tree and prays that God may reveal their purpose there. One of the feathered creatures
approaches the monk, explaining that
We survive the great destruction of the ancient enemy, but we were not associated with
them through any sin of ours. When we were created, Lucifer’s fall and that of his followers
brought about our destruction also. But our God is just and true. In his great judgment he
sent us here. We endure no sufferings. Here we can see God’s presence. But God has
separated us from sharing the lot of the others who were faithful. We wander through
various regions of the air and the firmament and the earth, just like the others spirits that
travel on their missions. But on holy days and Sundays we were given bodies such as you
see now so that we may stay here and praise our Creator.172
The angelic bird thereafter returns to the others. To the astonishment of the monks, the mysterious
spiritual beings chant vespers together in harmony later that evening. The following day they even
give reverence to God by performing the canonical hours.
In this earliest extant version of the Navigatio, the angels do not share “the lot of the others
who were faithful” but are given visible bodies on specific occasions in order to give praise to the
heavenly Lord. In later variations of the story, the narrative assumes a number of differing forms.
For example, in a late medieval German version—closer to Agrippa’s native language and
meaning above—we read of similar beings that assert:
We were close to him [God] in Heaven and lost our beautiful appearance because we were
Lucifer’s followers when he was thrown out of Heaven. When he rose against God, we did
not have enough judgement to be able to love or fear God. We also lacked discernment of
what was good or bad for us to do. When Lucifer fell, God saw our lack of judgement and
cast us out, together with Lucifer and the other angels who fell with him, who did not have
the power of judgement…Because we did not suggest it, God in his mercy excluded us
from Lucifer’s company and did not cast us into Hell. God gave us the land and we have
hope that in the future he will show us some mercy.173

172 Trans. by John J. O’Meara, The Voyage of Saint Brendan (2002), 37.
173 Trans. by Willem P. Gerritsen and Clara Strijbosch, The Voyage of Saint Brendan (2002), 148-50.
As Cornelius Agrippa intimates (above) in the Occult Philosophy, certain traditions orbiting the

legend attest to demons that are said to hope for divine mercy and salvation. These brief episodes
also imply that, alongside corrupted and blessed angels, a third coterie of partially fallen spirits
existed in popular storytelling. In the Latin version of the Navigatio, this third group of angels was
not expressly sinful during the celestial rebellion. In the later German telling, they were initially
“Lucifer’s followers” but remained morally indecisive during the war in heaven; they are also said
to still “wander through various regions of the air and the firmament and the earth, just like the
others spirits that travel on their missions.” The Navigatio thus creatively flirts with the idea that
these angels might also be encountered in the known world.
Yet, it is important to notice as these so-called “neutral angels” are encountered on the
outermost reaches of the known world—not in the premodern home. Likely the product of Celtic
monastic traditions, Brendan’s voyages exhibit typical motifs of otherworldly adventure,
discovery of fantastic islands, treacherous waters, and eventual arrival at Christian paradise. 174
This means that the stories of Brendan and his entourage show an interest in the marvelous, the
unknown, and the otherworldly. Indeed, the Navigatio represents a highly inclusive and crossbreed literary category—that of widely celebrated legend. With its broad readership in the Middle
Ages, the Navigatio exists as one of the most famous European legends to carry forward into the
early modern period and beyond.175 Small wonder that notable intellectual figures would comment
on the tale of wondrous seafaring voyage.

174 Barbara Hillers, “Voyages Between Heaven and Hell: Navigating the Early Irish Immram Tales,”
Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol 13 (1993): 66-81.
175 Seminal studies of the Navigatio are reprinted in Jonathan M. Wooding, The Otherworld Voyage in
Early Irish Literature: An Anthology of Criticism (Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2000). See also, Jude
S. Mackley, The Legend of St. Brendan: A Comparative Study of the Latin and Anglo-Norman Versions
(Leiden: Brill, 2008).
The eleventh-century chronicler and monk, Rodulfus Glaber, for example, includes
mention of Saint Brendan in his Five Books of History at the abbey of Cluny. A rather credulous
historian, Glaber claimed that Brendan was not Irish but English born, and that popular opinion of
the saint’s journey attested to the existence of a giant whale that “seemed like an island.”176 Others
doubted the legend altogether (seen below)—a highly conspicuous fact considering that incredulity
was not a common response in medieval thought. More often, stories of extraordinary
transformations or astonishing occurrences were interpreted as illusions or marvels rather than
fictions.177 It is therefore striking that in the twelfth century Giraldus Cambrensis poked fun at the
travels of Brendan, proclaiming that “these things might truly be thought incredible, except that,
to those who believe, all things are possible.”178 A century later, the great encyclopedist, Vincent
de Beauvais, similarly declared that the work was “apocryphal delirium.”179 The harshest attack
on the Navigatio, however, comes from an anonymous (high-late) medieval poem found in a
manuscript at Lincoln College, Oxford. The poem begins by ascribing a grave crime (grave
crimen) to the saint, calling the legend ridiculous (risu), full of absurdity (plenam stulticie), and
an outright fable (fabulosum). For our purposes, the short work of poetry denigrates Brendan’s
Christian orthodoxy regarding created spirits. Midway through the text, lines 24-28 read:
His fabellas addit plures, non cessando fingere,
Demones saluandos fore, laudes Deo soluere;

176 Rodulfus Glaber, Rodulfi Glabri Historiarum libri quinque: The Five Books of the Histories, ed. and
trans. by John France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 53.
177 Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001).
178 Giraldus Cambrensis, The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis: Containing the Topography of
Ireland, and the History of the Conquest of Ireland, trans. by Thomas Forester (London: George Bell &
Sons, 1905), 103.
179 Vincent de Beauvais, Speculum Historiale (Graz: Akademischer Druck- und Verlagsanstal, 1965), bk
xxi, ch. 81, p. 843: “Apocrypha quaedam deliramenta.”
Quod est nimis inimicum fidei catholice.
Recta quippe fides habet, quod, ruente principe,
Nullus nisi periturus secum posset ruere;
This little fable adds more, not ceasing to feign,
That demons, praising God, will be saved;
This is so contrary to the catholic faith.
Correct belief holds that as the prince fell,
None could have fallen with him unless they were destined to be lost;180
According to the poet, the legend contains a great deal of naïve and unworldly imagery, but some
images are more egregious than others. In particular, the notion that a portion of the angelic choirs
sided neither with God nor Satan was considered especially distasteful, if not suggestive of
heresy.181 In an admonishing tone, the anonymous poet is clear that these spiritual beings should
not be understood as neutral angels: they are labeled “demones.” The author also bemoans that
these demons are said to give praise to God and ask for divine forgiveness—an idea that suggests
some demons were not entirely driven by hatred for the creation and will of God. Perhaps for these
reasons some variations of the legend entirely omit the scene of neutral angels praying for
Whatever the Navigatio’s intellectual reception, one will be hard-pressed to find canonical
justification for neutral angels. Possibly alluding to Revelation 12:7-9, the biblical scene of battle

180 Charles Plummer ed., Vita Sanctorum Hiberniae partim hactenus ineditae ad fidem codicum
manuscriptorum recognovit: Prolegomenis, Notis, Indicibus, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 293-
181 The seriousness of such a charge was later witnessed in accusations of “Luciferanism”—the purported
belief that fallen angels could be restored to heaven—in the fourteenth century. See Robert Lerner, The
Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972),
25-31; Euan Cameron, Waldenses: Rejections of Holy Church in Medieval Europe (Malden, MA: Blackwell
Publishers, 2000), 99-100.
182 Two surviving Catalan manuscripts briefly describe the birds as birds (not spirits); Margaret Burrell,
trans., The Voyage of Saint Brendan (2002), 257.
between the Archangel Michael and the dragon—called the Devil and Satan—maintains that the
serpent was hurled down from heaven “and his angels with him.” Equally condemning,
Revelations 3:15-16 renounces tepidity as an acceptable moral position toward God.183 Scholars
have suggested that perhaps the legend draws from biblical passages concerning the sexually licit
actions of angelic Nephilim.184 These watcher angels, described in the apocryphal 1 Enoch,
brought to humanity occult knowledge and were associated with the Great Flood that followed.185
On the other hand, some have also endeavored to find precedents in Teutonic and Irish myth.186 In
all these accounts, the attempt to fully reconcile biblical or pagan accounts with the voyage of
Brendan remains tenuous. It seems plausible that the legend relies on imagery from the Bible and
elsewhere to make the scene both comprehensible and compelling to readers. On surer footing, we
can assert that the concept of neutral angels was disseminated with the Navigatio across Latin
Europe and refashioned in other literary accounts.
In two spectacular examples the tradition exists in the twelfth-century romance Parzival
and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. To the former, Wolfram von Eschenbach depicts a scene of chivalric
longing for the Holy Grail, an object which grants the reward of heavenly afterlife. Accentuating
the miraculous power of the Grail, Wolfram describes how

183 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because
you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (NRSV).
184 John Freccero, “Dante’s ‘per se’ Angel: The Middle Ground in Nature and Grace,” Studi danteschi 39
(1962): 9-10; Bernard J. Bamberger, Fallen Angels (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America,
1952), 15-32.
185 1 Enoch 7-8; James H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols (London: Darton,
Longman and Todd, 1985), vol. 1, p. 16.
186 See, for example, references to Zingerle, Alpenburg, and Lütolf in Seeber, “Über die ‘Neutralen Engel’”
(1892): 33-34; Jacob Grimm, Irischen elfenmärchen, hrsg. von Johannes Rutz (München: Piper, 1906).
those who stood on neither side when Lucifer and the Trinity began to contend, all such
angels, noble and worthy, had to descend to earth, to this same stone [the Grail]. The stone
is forever pure. I do not know if God forgave them or whether he condemned them from
that time forth. If He deemed it right, he took them back. The stone has been tended ever
since by those appointed by God to the task, and to whom He sent His angel.187
The introduction of angels “on neither side” functions to intensify the reader’s understanding of
the Grail’s fictive power. Set within a larger discussion of pious humility, Wolfram plays with the
idea that, even among the most seemingly ambivalent and obscure of God’s creatures, such an
imaginative object would prove enticing enough to draw the neutral angels to it. As hidden
guardians of the supernatural Grail, their location and divinely ordained fate remains unknown.
Both the Navigatio and Parzival thus depict these angels as cast from heaven but hoping for divine
Interestingly, the scene in Parzival is itself carefully framed by ambivalence and
uncertainty: “I do not know if God forgave them.” Later in the romance, the character Trevrizent
qualifies for the reader that “the tale I told you was that the expelled spirits, with God’s support,
were present by the Grail, waiting there until they won favour. God is so constant in His ways that
He contends forever against those I named to you as being in His favour.”188 The initial
introduction of neutral angels operates as a literary device meant to heighten the sense of wonder
orbiting the Grail’s power, stewardship, and salvific magnetism. However, this early astonishment
is later retracted, presumably in favor of compatibility with Christian theology. On the theme of
neutral angels, therefore, Parzival concludes that God will always mete out just punishment to
those who deserve it.

187 Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival and Titurel, trans. by Cyril Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2006), 199. See also, Will Hasty, ed., A Companion to Wolfram’s Parzival (Columbia, SC: Camden
House, 1999), esp. 91-93.
188 Wolfram, Parzival (2006), 334.
With similar penal emphasis, Dante masterfully includes mention of passive angels in his
fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy. Just beyond the gates of Hell in Canto 3 of the
Inferno, Dante and Virgil suddenly encounter the deafening din of spiritual anger, suffering, and
tumult. Inquiring into the source of this loud wailing, Virgil instructs his Florentine passenger that
This miserable mode the dreary souls of those sustain, who lived without blame, and
without praise. They are mixed with that caitiff choir of the angels, who were not rebellious,
nor were faithful to God; but were for themselves. Heaven chased them forth to keep its
beauty from impair; and the deep Hell receives them not, for the wicked would have some
glory over them…these have no hope of death; and their blind life is so mean, that they are
envious of every other lot. Report of them the world permits not to exist; Mercy and Justice
disdains them: let us not speak of them; but look, and pass.189
Dante offers the brief episode of non-rebellious angels, in part, to explain why certain human souls
experience a form of isolated torment and damnation in the afterlife. At first indistinguishable to
Dante, Virgil clarifies that morally indecisive humans and angels ultimately fail to recognize and
love God. The neutrals are, in other words, punished for moral indeterminacy. Unlike the
Navigatio’s positioning of the angels on a remote island, it is significant that Dante locates them
inside the gates of Hell: as in Parzival, they have been condemned to everlasting separation from
the Christian divinity.
That three of the most celebrated literary works of the high and later Middle Ages include
mention of neutral angels begs brief consideration of what orthodox theological teachings might
inspire their legacy. One recalls that, for Augustine, angelic existence was predicated on an
instructive facet of divine providence. Granted remarkable spiritual abilities, Satan and his fallen
angels represent evil as a deficiency from good, a dysfunctional relationship with a perfectly just
creator. Augustine maintains that there was no intermediate position between the angelic and the

189 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. by Carlyle Okey Wicksteed (New York:
Vintage Books, 1959), 23.
demonic; they represent two sides of the same spiritual coin.190 Almost a millennium later, Thomas
Aquinas would add further detail, interpreting intelligent creatures (i.e., spirits and humans) and
their voluntary activities along ethical and social lines. According to Aquinas, the activities of
intelligent beings have polarizing moral valences, namely good and evil. Evil, in particular, arises
from active causes that result in some voluntary moral fault. That is, wicked humans or spirit
choose to act wickedly, and this constitutes evil behavior. Yet, contrary to the processes governing
human thought and action, the moral character of corrupted and blessed angels never oscillated
between good and evil. Arguing explicitly against Origen, Thomas avers that no measure of
“repentant conversion” occurs for demons. Ethical reorientation was impossible because all angels
were judged once and for all by their initial voluntary choice to remain with or rebel against God.
The moral DNA of angelic beings, as it were, was made “immutable in either good or evil after
their first choice.”191 In very concise and consistent terms, early Christian and scholastic theology
asserted the impossibility of morally “neutral” spirits in the cosmos.
In a highly nuanced analysis, John Freccero has argued that the problem presented in
literary depictions of intermediate angels emerges from their refusal to choose and act—the
scholastic prerequisites for the commission of sin. On Freccero’s subtle reading, the accounts
found in the Navigatio, Parzival, and Inferno intentionally frustrate the Thomist paradigm of
choice and action by presenting angelic ambivalence at the crucial moment of either everlasting

190 See chapter 1 of this dissertation and its sources, pp. 14-24.
191 Aquinas, On Evil, qu. 16, art. 5, p. 472; Summa Theologiae, pt. 1, qu. 64, art. 2. Importantly, this idea is
not original to Aquinas. See Saint John of Damascus: Writings, trans. by Frederic H. Chase Jr. (Washington,
D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958), bk. 2, ch. 4, pp. 209-10. Damascus draws his
conclusion from the fourth-century philosopher Nemesius, see On the Nature of Man, trans. by R.W.
Sharples and P.J. van der Eijk (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).
fidelity or infidelity.192 With particular attention to the Inferno, Freccero concludes that “privation
of action, won for the per sè [neutral] angels complete isolation in Dante’s cosmos.”
193 From this
perspective, the notion of angelic ambivalence comes close to the original demonic sin of pride.
Yet angelic ambivalence is also distinct from Satan’s superbia (pride) even if it is a negation of
divine perfection. Specifically, these fanciful depictions of neutral angels are based upon
indecision and separatism from absolute goodness. As Freccero notes, Dante’s neutral angels come
closest to oblivion as denizens of a void and perpetual solitude: they are awarded a space outside
even Limbo and will forever exist on the outskirts of Hell’s moralized topography “frozen in a
state of aversion form God.”194
Strikingly, in the Navigatio, the neutral angels are placed on an isolated island (as
punishment) rather than in Hell (or by the Grail in Parzival). In all three texts, our authors have
cordoned the angels off from all but the most unusual of human contact. The Latin version of the
Navigatio does, as noted above, leave open the possibility that these partially fallen beings may
“wander through various regions of the air and the firmament and the earth, just like the others
spirits.” And on a generous reading of the Inferno, one might suggest that while the spirits are
isolated in Hell this-side of the River Acheron, they are still further from Lucifer and his demons
than scholastic theologians would ever admit. By and large, however, these angels that “were for

192 See Freccero, “Dante’s ‘per se’ Angel” (1962): 5-38, as well as his Dante: The Poetics of Conversion
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 110-18, and “Dante and the Neutral Angels,” Romanic
Review LI (1960): 3-14. In addition to Freccero’s analysis, see also Marcel Dando, “The Neutral Angels,”
Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 217 (1980): 259-76; and Peter Christian
Jacobsen, “The Island of the Birds in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani,” in The Brendan Legend: Texts and
Versions, ed. by Glyn S. Burgess and Clara Strijbosch (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 99-116.
193 Freccero, Dante (1986), 116.
194 Ibid., 117.
themselves” predominantly serve as a warning against lukewarm morality. Virgil warns Dante that
there is no thoroughly immanent neutrality, insisting that they “not speak of them [the angels]; but
look, and pass” because “report of them the world permits not to exist; Mercy and Justice disdains
them.” In the Dutch and German tellings of the Navigatio as well, Saint Brendan’s authority,
wisdom, and piety is consistently contrasted with the neutral angels’ displacement from divine
And yet, several versions of the Navigatio communicate a sense of sanctuary and a divine
congeniality when the neutral angels are encountered. For example, the angelic creatures always
appear first as white birds that are given bodies on certain holy days so as to sing praise of God.
In the Anglo-Norman voyage the avian transformation is permanent. Medieval references to white
could symbolize purity and peace, just as the figure of a white bird (especially the dove) could
represent manifestations of the holy spirit.195 Likewise, as Augustine teaches, the Latin term
“angelus” is derived from the Greek angelos, which means messenger.196 In the Latin version, this
is precisely the role performed by and the designation (“God’s messenger”) given to the bird with
which Brendan initially converses.197 The use of such symbolic imagery suggestively reinforces
the idea that the voyagers have happened upon a place of rest from the precarious ocean. Hearing
the birds chant vespers with the rhythmical sounds of their wings, Brendan tells his companions

195 See, for example, biblical references to doves as the Spirit of God at Luke 3:22; Matthew 3:16; John
1:32; also a dove or white bird that Noah sends out after the Flood at Genesis 8:6-11.
196 Ibid. See also, David Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1998), 28. Augustine, City of God (2003), bk x, ch 15, p. 393, and especially bk xv, ch 23, p. 637-38: “For
the Greek angelos, which becomes angelus in the Latin derivative, means nuntius, a ‘messenger’, in the
Latin language.”
197 O’Meara and Wooding, trans., The Voyage of Saint Brendan (2002), 36.
they will “repair our bodies, for today our souls are filled with divine food.”198 As Jude Mackley
has noted, this scenography “contains a didactic message of salvation, rather than damnation: the
birds are allowed to worship God, and draw comfort from the monks’ presence, and Brendan
describes the birds’ welcome as an example of God’s love for them.”199 In other words, the neutral
angels do not behave like wicked spirits; they communicate faithful worship of God and offer rest
to the holy voyagers. This is conveyed both symbolically through their visual appearance and
through their actions within the narrative.
It should be noted that despite their white, avian bodies, late medieval demonologist could
easily point out how demonic spirits were incorporeal and had no natural “appearance,” that these
manifestations were not a true reflection of their invisible being and essence. Other versions of the
Navigatio also strongly suggest a demonic pedigree. In the Dutch and German iterations, the fallen
angels have the conjoined appearance of dog and pig. Closer to medieval conceptions of the
demonic, the beings “had boars’ heads and teeth like wolves, human hands but dogs’ legs, human
bodies, but long necks like cranes. They wore silk clothing above their shaggy legs.”200 While
marveling at the creatures, the band of monastic brothers even become terrified at the sight of such
“horrible, frightening beings.”201 Unlike other versions of the legend, the encounter notably
accentuates physical rather than spiritual descriptions. In medieval portrayals of hybridity the

198 Ibid., 37.
199 Mackley, The Legend of St. Brendan (2008), 122.
200 Willem P. Gerritsen and Peter K. King, trans., The Voyage of Saint Brendan (2002), 125; for the German
version, Gerritsen and Strijbosch, trans., The Voyage of Saint Brendan (2002), 148.
201 Ibid., 148.
corporeal manifestation of monstrous attributes commonly communicated an externalization of
internal moral qualities. This is duly clarified in the text:
like swine, we lacked judgement. The swine does not know what to love or fear, nor even
its own nature; often it prefers to be in dung than in clear water. We also had to have bodies
like dogs, because once we had the habits of a dog; for a dog does not bark at someone he
knows, however much that person steals from his master. We did the same in Heaven: we
left Lucifer unreported when he rose against God, and did not stop him.202
For their celestial silence, the creatures have thus been punished with hybrid appearance meant to
outwardly reflect their inner dispositions during the war in heaven. As behavior and appearance
could reveal character, the spirits now partly embody the pig with its lack of discernment (“we
lacked judgement”), its implicit loss of identity (not knowing “its own nature”), and general
livelihood in filth (“prefers to be in dung”). They have also been given canine bodies, because the
angels did not alert God to Lucifer’s assaults. In the Latin Middle Ages, representations of dogs
were multifaceted, ambiguous, and often contradictory. In allegorical and devotional literature,
hounds traditionally evoked meanings of fidelity or loyalty, as they do today. However, in the case
of the neutral angels, canine reliability reveals a misplaced recognition of master-servant relations:
they mistook Lucifer’s actions as innocuous. In short, the mixture of dog and pig corresponds to a
“bestial confusion of inner and outer (a wolf in sheep’s clothing)” in which the purity of once
blessed angels was easily associated with demonic impurity.203
Accompanying these portrayals of infernal impurity, the creatures are also called
Walserands in the Dutch and German translations—a term possibly derived from the Germanic
Waldschrat, which was (and still means) a woodland demon discussed in Chapter 3 of this

202 Ibid., 126-7; 149.
203 Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (2001), 119. I, here, borrow the phrase from Bynum, who is
referring to Bernard of Clairvaux’s response to Arnold of Brescia—not “neutral angels.”
dissertation. At first glance, the designation supports the idea that the Walserands are nothing other
than demons. Curiously, however, the fallen are contrasted with explicit demons in the story: the
Walserands briefly report to Brendan’s group of their constant travails against veritably evil “wood
goblins” (waldschrantzen). The neutral Walserands liken this ongoing battle with other demonic
hordes to when they themselves “were cast from Heaven.” Here, the audience is presented with a
paradox: the spirits both attest to and resist imagery that would confirm their diabolical identity.204
In those versions of the Navigatio that include these spirits, their original vice (the fall with
Lucifer) and contemporary virtue (as helpful messengers/combatants against demons) leaves open
the question of their moral disposition. Whether singing white birds or horrendous dog/pig hybrids,
the narrative tension between good and evil is left unresolved.
Particularly compelling in the Navigatio, Parzival, and Inferno are those moral attributes
which the neutral angels are said to have rejected. The spirits resist orthodox demonological
categorization because they aligned themselves neither with rebellion nor fidelity, heaven nor hell,
damnation nor salvation, sin nor righteousness. In most cases, they are represented as quarantined
denizens on the remote periphery of divine creation. I have examined this body of literature
because it depicts spiritual creatures as “things expelled but not relinquished,” to borrow a phrase
from Nancy Levene.205 In treating the motif of passive angels as something of a cultural taboo, the
texts above imaginatively call attention to a paradigm outside opposition and negation—one that
creatively eludes, not dissolves, orthodox theology. The neutral angels are introduced as an
unorthodox idea through poetic and literary texts that was exceedingly popular throughout the later

204 Ibid., see translator’s note 12, p. 347 and note 21, p. 349.
205 This quote is taken from a lecture delivered at Yale University on October 22, 2012 by Nancy Levene,
“Kant and the Worlds of Religion and Reason,” cited in Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material
Practice, ed. by Sally M. Promey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 651.
Middle Ages. Besides the brief reference found in Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy, however, late
medieval and early modern demonologists seem to have all but ignored literary claims regarding
“neutral angels.” As we shall see in the next section, courtly and monastic exemplary literature
would creatively flirt with the subject.
Helpful, Harmless, and Minor Demons in Exemplary Literature
A final example of “neutral angels” can be found in the heterogenous text composed by
the twelfth-century English cleric, Walter Map. His work called De nugis curialium (“On the
Courtiers’ Trifles”) memorably includes an assortment of satirical fables, exemplary narratives,
and historical vignettes. These concern the lives of monks and nobles, as well as numerous human
encounters with angels, demons, and ambiguous spirits. Map’s eclectic repertoire of “apparitions,”
in particular, indicates a confluence of romantic-courtly and didactic-clerical motifs which guide
his imagery of a spiritual world enveloping this one.206 The lengthy account of purportedly passive
spirits is included in this section (and not the previous) because Map deliberately attempts to
dissolve the neutrality attributed to so-called ambivalent angels. In doing so, he proffers a
thoroughly orthodox anecdote steeped in Augustinian cosmology and the dialogic form of Gregory
the Great. His story of ambivalent spirits thus refigures their “neutral” identity as one meant to
disclose superficially helpful demons.
In Distinction IV of De nugis, Map introduces the tale of an English baron’s son named
Eudo, who has recently lost his family inheritance.207 While lamenting this misfortune, the young

206 For context and life of Walter Map, see “Introduction,” in De nugis curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles, ed.
and trans. M. R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), xiii-l.
207 The tale is found in De nugis curialium (1983), dist. iv, c. 6, pp. 314-41.
man encounters a stranger promising the return of Eudo’s former wealth and status. We are told
that Eudo has only to listen to the man’s advice and submit to his “lordship” (dominio).208
Suspecting demonic enslavement in the man’s meaning, Eudo prudently questions whether the
stranger is of infernal provenance. In response, the man states that he is a spirit called Olga who
was exiled from heaven with Lucifer. The creature stresses, however, that humans should
distinguish between those spirits that “followed that shining prince to the North; [for] some were
fosterers of schism, some helpers, some seducers of others, some acquiescing, some uncertain of
what was afoot, but all proud against God, or careless of prudence.” Pleading with Eudo, the spirit
Olga urges his human counterpart to discern that “we harmless ones are stained by their [the
harmful demons’] ill repute.”209
Akin to the passages found in the Navigatio, Parzival, and Inferno, Map’s audience is
immediately thrust into a narrative that approximates the theme of neutral angels. The episode also
implies that readers and listeners will understand the reference to a general hierarchy of wicked
angels. Occupying the nadir of demonic evils, Olga confesses he is capable of performing certain
affective abilities: he can “cast glamour, contrive hallucinations, cause apparitions so as to veil
reality and produce false and absurd appearance.”210 Despite this propensity for illusory activity,
Olga implores Eudo not to fear such spirits “on the authority of books” because they are not
“hunters of souls” nor even “criminal or cruel.” Map initially depicts Olga as a theological enigma,
then, by suggesting the creature is demonic but harmless. Modelled on human image and likeness,

208 Ibid., 316-17.
209 Ibid., 318-21.
210 Ibid., 320-21.
the spirit is endowed with recognizable emotions, passions, interests, and reactions. Moreover, the
character is appealing for his moral proximity to humankind.
The first half of this thirteen-page tale thus presents something of a climactic tension. By
depicting Olga as morally attractive, Map playfully portrays an ethereal being that ought under
any other circumstances have already been designated an evil demon. In a sense, the audience must
await proof that Olga cannot be what he claims. Partial release is given as the man (Eudo) concedes
fealty to the spirit by having “assented to the pact” (adquiescit in pactis).211 We will return to the
relevance of “the pact” shortly. For now, it is important to notice that as the story unfolds Eudo
falls further and further from the humanity he increasingly neglects. Gathering criminals to him,
he sleeps through his days and engages in nocturnal crimes which allow him to regain his former
wealth. Eudo’s exploits also notably earn him social isolation and episcopal condemnation. The
true nature and intentions of Olga are tacitly exposed only when the spirit assumes the form of an
“angel of light” (in angelum se transformans lucis).212 In an angelic plea for his moral innocence,
Olga claims that his human servant now practices “a wickedness that exceeds what is suitable to
my fairy nature.” Unsurprisingly, Eudo’s dreadful crimes end in death shortly thereafter, with the
moral of Map’s tale assuming an orthodox conclusion: despite any claims to the contrary,
engagement with ostensibly benign demons will consistently prove disastrous to the human soul.
Modern readers of this and similar stories might ask: What purpose do these rather
circuitous tales serve in making such a critical soteriological point? Why not just plainly state, as
orthodox theologians like Augustine and Aquinas do, that demons are never to be trusted, no matter
the visible or invisible forms they assume? Admittedly, De nugis is not quite paradigmatic of

211 Ibid., 328-29.
212 Ibid., 332-33.
medieval exemplary literature; it draws from and inspires a novel “emancipation of story” in the

In general, the association of any narrative figure, worldly or otherwise, with the pride of
Lucifer would cast them in a demonic mold. Even as one said to have rejected satanic rebellion,
Eudo’s proximity to and general identification with the fallen angels suggests something is amiss.
Moreover, the very obvious devolution of Eudo’s slavish character into criminal affinities points
toward the diabolical influences of Olga. With more nuance, Map relies on courtly and theological
motifs to make his point. Eudo’s initial reticence at the word “dominio” and his later assent to a
spiritual “pactum” combines medieval motifs of vassalage with Augustine’s notion of “a pact of
faithless and deceitful friendship.”214 By inverting conceptions of secular fealty (to a spirit rather

213 G. T. Shepherd, “The Emancipation of Story in the Twelfth Century,” in Medieval Narrative: A
Symposium, Proceedings of the Third International Symposium of the Centre of the Study of Vernacular
Literature in the Middle Ages (Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1979), 44-57.
214 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill/Library of
Liberal Arts, 1958), c. xxiiii, p. 59. For modern scholarly perspectives on the pact—these will be given
further attention in the next chapter of this dissertation—see Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus Maleficarum
and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 2003), 122-4; Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250-1750
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 84-127; Michael Bailey, Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies: The
Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 9-21.
than a Christian king or noble family), Eudo’s voluntary submission to Olga symbolically conveys
a rejection of both worldly protection and divine covenant (a biblical-historical “pact” with God).
The contractual transformation is made explicit toward the story’s end, where Eudo tells Olga:
“Henceforth I call you not a demon, but an angel of the Lord, not merely my master but my father
too.”215 Map thus aptly portrays the insidious manner in which Eudo’s original fear of demonic
enslavement has become a reality. Our author first implies and then explicitly communicates that
the character Eudo has turned away from God and relinquished his communion with Christendom.
Equally instructive, Eudo’s demonic enslavement is witnessed in Olga’s final
transformation into an “angel of light.” Every medieval schoolboy and courtier would have
recognized the phrase as an axiomatic reference to the Devil’s prevarication. It derives from the
apostle Paul’s words at 2 Corinthians 11:14: “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed
into an angel of light.” The passage also evokes the directive at 1 John 4:1 to “believe not every
spirit,” lest appearances prove deceitful. For Walter Map’s purposes, his audience is regaled by
the anecdote’s moral twists and turns, but with clear denouement: Eudo definitively lacks the
necessary discernment to secure salvation for his soul. That is, the baron’s son demonstrably
allows himself to favor a demonic spirit. In this case, fault lay not with the duplicitous demon per
se, but in Eudo’s failure to recognize the consistent exacerbation of his already faltering human
disposition. As Map himself remarks: Eudo patently becomes “worse than his former self.”216
In light of Map’s mixed ecclesiastical historia and courtly fabula, it is important to notice
that such colorful accounts were increasingly employed in the High Middle Ages for their
entertaining and didactic character. Indeed, demonic deeds, characters, and influence was

215 Map, De nugis curialium (1983), dist. iv, c. 6, pp. 334-35.
216 De nugis curialium (1983), 336-7. This phrase is repeated twice by Map in this section for emphasis.
extensively developed in the tradition of medieval exempla.
217 With broad strokes, exempla exist
as brief anecdotes or collections thereof and often convey edifying moral truths to an audience.
The employment of apologues in medieval sermons would become common practice until the
twelfth and thirteenth-centuries, especially among monastic and mendicant authors. In general,
these illustrative stories include details that communicate a familiar time, place, and associational
figures (e.g., a monk, noble, virgin, rustic, bishop). Widespread in this historical period, they
contained edifying narratives coupled with the emotional force of a well-delivered joke. The
combination of both was meant to register a reassuring tale to be repeated and remembered.
With this in mind, a number of influential pastoral figures in the High Middle Ages
emerged as theological authorities on demons within the medieval exemplum tradition. One such
author was Jacques de Vitry (d. 1240), a clerical preacher and later cardinal to Pope Gregory IX,
who garnered in his Sermones Vulgares numerous tales of marginally harmful demons.218 At times,
the illustrative narratives of Vitry’s sermons assume a satirical tone reminiscent of Map’s De nugis.
In such instances, the “story” might appear to take precedence over its “moral” illustration. This
is not to say that moralization was completely dismissed, but that it variously informed how the
narrative was interpreted and remembered. With playful levity, for example, Vitry tells of a
penitent woman confessing her desire to cease swearing but was unable to do so before her priest:
She replied: “Sir, God help me, I’ll not swear again.” The priest said: “You have just
sworn.” “By God, I’ll refrain from it again.” The priest told her her speech should be “yea,
yea,” and “nay, nay,” as the Lord had commanded, for more than this was wrong. She

217 Scholars have identified at least twelve different types of exempla. See, for example, Ernst Robert
Curtius, European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, trans. by Willard Trask (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1990). See also the introduction to The Exempla of Illustrative Stories from the Sermones
Vulgares of Jacques de Vitry, ed. and trans. by T. S. Crane (New York: B. Franklin, 1971), xviii; Claude
Bremond, Jacques Le Goff, and Jean-Claude Schmitt, L’Exemplum, pamphlet 40 in the series Typologie
des sources du Moyen Age occidental, ed. by Léopold Génicot and R. Bultot (Turnhout: Brepols, 1982).
218 T. S. Crane, ed., “Introduction,” in The Exempla of Illustrative Stories from the Sermones Vulgares of
Jacques de Vitry, (New York: B. Franklin, 1971), xxii-xxxviii.
replied: “Sir, you are right, and I tell you by the blessed Virgin, and all the saints, that I
will do as you command me, and you shall never hear me swear.”219
While the exemplum does not describe demonic interference, it illustrates the entertaining quality
some accounts assumed: each time the woman makes an oath, she instantly breaks the previous
with yet another venial sin. More relevant to our purposes, the example shows that one had to be
constantly vigilant in speech and action, which was a common motif in demonological literature.
In many instances, Christians inadvertently invoked the Devil with hasty words. Thus in one of
Vitry’s anecdotes, we are told that an anonymous man spoke to his servant: “Come devil, off with
my shoes,” at which point a devil appeared and loosened the man’s footwear with the realization
that “he found him [the devil] ready, who is always on the watch.”220 Vigilance in speech was
equally important in the context of cloistered monks. Margaret Jennings has traced the historical
lineage of what would become in the later Middle Ages a ledger demon named Tutivillus, who
collected misspoken verses in churches and monasteries.221 The earliest known account is found
in Vitry’s Sermones Vulgares:
I have heard that a certain holy man, while in the choir, saw a devil with the onus of a full
bag. However, when he abjured the demon to tell what he carried, the devil said: “These
are the syllables and syncopated words and verses of the psalms which the clerics omitted
from God during Matins; these I diligently preserve for their accusation.” Diligently
observe, therefore, the mystery of the altar lest indignation arise over the people.222

219 Jacques de Vitry, The Exempla of Illustrative Stories (1971), ccxx, pp. 91-2, 222.
220 Ibid., ccxcv, pp.124, 263. This is found originally in Gregory the Great, Dialogues (1959), bk. 3.20, p.
151. There are countless examples of accidental invocation: another of Vitry’s examples of demonic
utterances can be found in Goswin Frenken, Die Exempla des Jakob von Vitry. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte
der Erzählungs-Literatur des Mittelalters (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1914), no. 64; also, Caesarius, Dialogue
on Miracles, vol. 1 (1929), bk. v, ch. xi, p. 332; ch. xxvi, pp. 353-54; ch. xxvii, p. 354, ch. xliii, p. 376. On
this topic generally, see Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture (1988), 189.
221 Margaret Jennings, “Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon,” Studies in Philology 74
(1977): 1-95.
222 Vitry, The Exempla of Illustrative Stories (1971), xix, pp. 6, 141.
The tale was later repeated in different forms by such notable figures as Caesarius von Heisterbach,
Etienne de Bourbon, Johannes Herolt, and Johannes Gobius.223 To the “accusation” threatened by
the demon, the exemplum implies that the demon kept a tally of both mortal and venial sins and
was particularly keen to sniff out clumsiness with divine prayer. At least by the end of the thirteenth
century, the record-keeping demon was designated as Tutivillus but without any clarification for
what the names means. Several other stories in this tradition communicate how relatively
innocuous devils were prepared to enact relatively minor mischief rather than widespread
The above examples raise intriguing questions for modern readers: If demons represented
threatening forces that sought to cause human suffering, what about those wicked spirits which sit
inactive on lettuce, collect omitted prayers, and remove people’s garments by implicit command?
How did clerical preachers and theologians explain the diversity of experiences or accounts of
experiences with fallen angels? As noted in Chapter 1, most orthodox theologians argued that the
Devil and his demons constituted obstacles to salvation. The same lesson is found in Eudo’s moral
perversion and general attraction to Olga, as well as in the examples from Vitry above: despite
seemingly harmless appearances, demons sought to befuddle humanity with minor, albeit insidious
temptations and illusions. Other theological teachers admitted that particular names and affective
attributes could be given to a vague ranking among demonic beings. Following Gregory the Great,
one way to approach the subject was by associating demons (often the names of pagan deities in
the Bible) with the seven deadly sins: pride, sloth, envy, lust, anger, gluttony, and avarice.224 As

223 Jennings, “Tutivillus” (1977), 14.
224 Pope Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, trans. J. H. Parker (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1844-50), bk. 31, sect. 87, p. 490. See also Morton W. Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins: An
Introduction to the History of a Religious Concept, with Special Reference to Medieval English Literature
(East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1952).
an orthodox system of community ethics, these grievous acts were relatable to the deeds of fallen
angels.225 Alternatively, some theologians with Neoplatonic inclinations speculated that demons
might become allied with diverse forms of matter. For example, the eleventh-century dialogue
called On the Workings of Demons—attributed to the eleventh-century Byzantine philosopher,
Michael Psellus—asserts that “some demons are corporeal and palpable,” inhabiting the elements
of fire, wind, water, and earth.226 Akin to the early Christian heresy of Origen, the treatise declares
that demonic embodiment exists (but unlike Origen) for the purpose of explaining their immortal
suffering in Hell. The text attributed to Psellus acknowledges that all aerial, earthly, light-fleeing,
igneous, aqueous, and subterranean demons are uniformly evil. It asserts, however, that these
spirits lack the capacity to perform marvelous feats: for they “have not a particle of wit, and are
incapable of cunning.”227 Both arguments—that demon possess asinine characteristics and are said
to embody elemental qualities—are presented in order to elucidate different facets of misfortune
and suffering experienced in the physical world, suggesting that various types of demons afflicted

225 See John Bossy, Christianity in the West, 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 35-56;
Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 98-101.
226 The text attributed to Michael Psellus is Psellus’ Dialogue on the Operation of Daemons: Now, for the
first time translated into English from the original Greek, trans. Marcus Collisson (Sydney: James Tegg,
1843), 18-49 (the quote is at p. 28). While the text would become increasingly popular, if controversial,
only during the early modern Renaissance, it should be noted that a similar identification of demonic spirits
with elemental matter is found in more orthodox, Western texts and traditions. To take one example, the
Dominican preacher of the thirteenth century, Thomas de Cantimpré, included in his collection of sermons
a rough ordering of demons that were said to inhabit earth, water, and the air. Cantimpré, however, is careful
not to argue that the demons constitute the elements themselves; they only dwell there. See Thomas de
Cantimpré, Les exemples du Livre des Abeilles, trans. by Henri Platelle (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997), bk. 2,
ch. 57, p. 250: “Il y a des demons qui demeurent dans les eaux: les poètes les appellent des neptuni; d’autres
demeurent dans les grottes des montagnes ou dans la forêt; saint Augustin les appelle dusii (succubes);
d’autres enfin dans les airs: ce sont les espirits d’iniquité répandus dans les airs, dont parle l’Apôtre
(Ephésiens, 6, 12).”
227 Psellus’ Dialogue on the Operation of Daemons (1843), 33.
humanity according to their elemental characteristics. Orthodox theologians in the Latin West
accepted that demons occupied and manipulated the natural environment and atmosphere to lead
humanity into confusion. They rejected that fallen angels were in any sense trivial; moreover,
demonic spirits never constituted material aspects of the elements themselves. According to
received tradition, demons could act as animating forces that manipulated nature in order to throw
human knowledge and experience into confusion. Scholastic authors insisted that the inimical
qualities of demonic evil worked discretely, by divine permission, within the natural world.
In medieval courtly and exemplary literature, demons are generally introduced as didactic
set-pieces or as reported phenomena; very rarely do they represent abstract metaphysical
principles, as in scholastic theological treatises. In many cases, however, exemplary accounts
could reflect the conventional tropes encouraged by learned churchmen. The contemporary of
Walter Map, William of Newburgh, for example, told of a rustic man named Ketell who possessed
the unique ability of perceiving invisible devils in the physical world. According to William, his
reputable informant observed a range of malicious forms: “some demons were large, robust, and
crafty, and, when permitted by a superior power, extremely hurtful; others were small
contemptible, impotent in strength and dull in understanding; but all, according to their measure,
mischievous to men, and highly pleased at injuring him, if even only slightly.”
228 As Thomist
metaphysics would describe in greater detail a century later, fallen angels assumed both inimical
and seemingly innocuous forms as a method of corrupting human intellect and emotions.
In the thirteenth century, Caesarius von Heisterbach in his Dialogue on Miracles reiterates
results similar to those of William of Newburgh, adding that demons appear to laity “in the form

228 William of Newburgh, “The History of William of Newburgh,” in The Church Historians of England,
vol. 4, part 2, trans. by Joseph Stevenson (London: Seeleys, 1853-1858), bk. ii, ch. xxi, pp. 473-74.
of a dog or a pig, or again in the form of a bear or a cat or any other animal.”229 Most of the
Cistercian abbot’s moral tales convey how encounter with a demon translates into certain death or
misfortune. Through a continuous dialogue between the figures of a Monk and Novice, Caesarius
explains that demons “are called tempters, because they are either the authors or provokers of all
the temptations that draw men to sin.” Thus, the Monk relates to the Novice “that there are demons,
that they are many, and that they are wicked, I shall be able to show you by many examples.”230
In the majority of accounts scattered throughout the Dialogue on Miracles, demons attack, deceive,
and arrange various means to tempt Christians into sinful action. In one example, a demonic
incubus deals a priest named Arnold “so violent a blow in the breast, that he vomited blood, and,
within three days, was dead.”231 In another, a demon disembowels a knight named Thiemon after
gambling with dice—ending in the double loss of the knight’s money and life.232
Strikingly, some demons in Caesarius’ Dialogue also speak through and with humans, and
at times by means of benevolent counsel to Christians in need. In one spectacular instance, the
Monk conveys to the Novice that a demon—having possessed an unknown man—spoke the
unconfessed sins of a pious canon with the result that all “the brethren were much edified.”233

229 Caesarius, Dialogue on Miracles, vol. 1, trans. by H. von Scott and C C. Swinton Bland (London: G.
Routledge & Sons, ltd., 1929), bk. v, ch. xlvii, p. 382. For bibliography and background, see F. Wagner,
“Caesarius,” in Lexikon des Mittelalters, vol. 2 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1981), cols. 1363-6; and Wagner’s “Der
rheinische Zisterzienser und Predigtschriftsteller Caesarius von Heisterback” Cistercienser Chronik 101
(1994): 93-112; “Teufel und Dämonen in den Predigtexempleln des Caesarius von Heisterbach”
Cistercienser Chronik 102 (1995): 9-18; “Caesarius von Heisterbach: mittelalterliches Leben im
Rheinland” Cistercienser Chronik 103 (1996): 55-63. Also, Alexander Murray, “Demons as Psychological
Abstractions,” in Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry: Their Function and Significance, ed. by Isabel
Iribarren and Martin Lenz (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub. Ltd., 2008), 171-84.
230 Ibid., bk. v, ch. i, pp. 313-14.
231 Ibid., bk. iii, ch. viii, pp. 135-36.
232 Ibid., bk. v, ch. xxxiv, pp. 364-65.
233 Ibid., bk. iii, ch. v, pp. 128-29.
More ambiguously still, after a report on how the inhabitants of the German town Soest debated
whether “their [personal] demons” would protect them from death, the Novice asks if “all demons
are not equally malicious?” The Monk clarifies that “it is said that some [demons] simply consented
to join the others who with Lucifer rebelled against God, and while these fell with the rest, yet they
are less evil, and they do less harm to men.”234 In view of these few examples, it would appear that
certain demons could exemplify both good and evil traits, thereby suggesting some demonic spirits
demonstrated varying degrees of moral correctness and turpitude. The antics of these “less evil”
or minor demons usually amounted to inane childishness; they also had precedents in the earlier
Middle Ages. In the ninth-century Life of Charlemagne, Notker the Stammerer recorded a tale
concerning “a certain devil of the type called hobgoblins, whose particular function it is to foster
the petty foibles and deceits of human beings.” This fallen creature promised the local blacksmith
a full cup of daily wine, if he would allow the spirit to play with his hammers and anvils at night.235
In cases where exemplary literature directly addresses the theme, apparently harmless
demons are typically said to be part of a larger ruse manufactured by the Devil. In his Dialogue,
Caesarius notably begins Book V, entitled “Of Demons,” with the rhetorical question: “If the devil
tempted the first man in Paradise, if he presumed to tempt Christ in the Desert, what man is there
in the whole world that he will leave untempted?”236 The Cistercian abbot thus introduces his fifth
book with overt moral and theological gestures that connect the life and deeds of Christ to demonic
influence on humanity. As such, Caesarius frames his exemplary tales around an orthodox

234 Ibid., bk. v, ch. xxxv, pp. 365-66.
235 Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. by Lewis Thorpe (Baltimore, Penguin Books,
1969), 119.
236 Caesarius, Dialogue on Miracles, bk. v, ch. i, p. 313.
theological understanding of the demonic, echoing the declaration of faith at the Fourth Lateran
Council recounted in the introduction above. Hence, it is all the more surprising to find Caesarius’
Monk suggest to the Novice that moderately helpful devils were at the very least conceivable.
Resonating with Map’s account of Eudo, the figure of the Monk avers that a host of rebellious
angels were separated from God as punishment for their pride and malice. According to Caesarius,
however, there exist some angels that passively acquiesced “to join the others…with Lucifer” and
were punished for this reason. No biblical evidence is presented for the Monk’s explanation, nor
are we given references from the church fathers. Rather, the Monk frames his brief discussion of
the issue with the qualifying phrase “it is said,” at once indicating authorial distance from or
perhaps credulity towards the account and that conceptions of a diabolica bonitas were all but
Significantly, the issue of minor or helpful demons is not directly discussed in scholastic
theology, but assumed under the themes of demonic changeability and potency.237 In large part,
clerical exempla typify the most fertile source for conceptions of benevolent demons, presumably
for their entertaining and didactic character. Remarking on the possible provenance of Caesarius’
account, the Russian scholar Aron Gurevich has argued that notions of innocuous demons “entered
medieval Latin literature from popular fantasy.”238 Here, Gurevich endorses the contentious view
that a divide existed between vernacular and Latin worldviews in which “popular” and “elite” (i.e.,
learned) cultures held radically different understandings of the cosmos. On this perspective,
Caesarius (a literate monk) recorded an idea derived from “popular” folk tales and vernacular
storytelling for the purposes of didactic entertainment, rather than to make a theological point. The

237 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (1941), pt. 1 qu. 64.
238 Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture (1990), 191.
thorny problems orbiting theories of “popular culture”—reducing medieval mentalités to a twotier binary—have been dealt with at length (for decades) by scholars.239 Without wanting to
support a strict cultural dichotomy, contrast can be observed; namely, where ecclesiastical
discussions of demonic affliction focus on a cohesive moral framework orbiting fallen angels,
exemplary literature often foregrounds hapless spontaneity within the ambit of demonic and lay
interactions. In this latter body of literature especially, a moral purpose is not always apparent.
Instead of neatly fitted into received theological tradition, morally ambiguous spirits often serve
to describe the vagaries of human life in the forms of untimely death, illness, and general loss.
Questions of retribution and sin are generally sidelined in favor of grappling with slippery
examples of misfortune. These differences were sometimes diversely addressed by medieval
Walter Map, for example, inquired into “what is to be said of these and of like stories” in
which eremites, such as Saint Paul and Anthony, encountered centaurs and the ancient demon Pan,
who “has in him the form of all nature.”240 Map mentions most of his anecdotal apparitions without
clear delineation of a moral purpose, although here he seems to suggest that nature itself

239 Literature on medieval “popular culture” is immense. Some seminal studies include Jean Delumeau,
Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire (1977); Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work & Culture in the Middle
Ages, trans. by A. Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Le Goff, The Medieval
Imagination, trans. A. Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Jean-Claude Schmitt,
The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children since the Thirteenth Century, trans. by M. Thom
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The
Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994); M. R. O’Neill, “From
‘Popular’ to ‘Local’ Religion: Issues in Early Modern European History,” Religious Studies Review 12
(1986): 222-26; Peter Brown, The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 1981); Alexander Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1985); John Van Engen, “The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem,”
American Historical Review 91 (1986): 519-52, and the response in Jean-Claude Schmitt, “Religion,
Folklore and Society in the Medieval West,” in Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings, ed. by L.
K. Little and B. H. Rosenwein (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 376-87.
240 Map, De nugis curalium (1983), dist. ii, c. 16, pp. 164-65.
exemplified indiscernible moral qualities. More prominently, Caesarius rehearses several
anecdotes about invisible demons that push lay Christians into wells, foment storms and sickness,
manufacture misspoken words and awkward actions, appearing as an ominous cloud or a brush of
wind that blows out candlelight. Caesarius even highlights the distinction between: 1. “the
Religious and especially the monastic Orders, [where] temptation is penance or satisfaction for
sin,” and 2. “the worldly and carnal, who walk according to the flesh, [and] are not properly said
to be tempted.”241 As a Cistercian abbot, the Dialogue was composed largely for trained monks
whose purpose centered on enclosed monastic asceticism and pious perfection, thereby intimating
that where monks experienced veritable “temptation,” while the rest of Western Europe was prone
to wickedness even without temptations.
The ample number of exempla which delineate notions of minor misfortunes may well
“have entered medieval Latin literature from popular fantasy,” as Gurevich and others have
noted;242 they also certainly bespeak a universal anxiety concerning the precariousness of
premodern life.243 In this, vivid descriptions of demonic action become instructive for a much
broader audience that scholastic theology, especially if we acknowledge that the medieval world
was far from rigidly dichotomous with regard to demonic encounters. Whether theologically
comprehensive or locally particular, medieval thinkers produced and collected tales about demons
that could communicate a wide range of subtle and seismic afflictions. Above all else, Caesarius’
discussion of demons communicates how the entire premodern world was beset with devils in a
variety of forms. Like Walter Map, Jacques de Vitry, and others, he consistently perceives demons

241 Caesarius, Dialogue on Miracles, vol. 1 (1929), bk. iv, ch. i, p. 194.
242 Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture (1990), 191.
243 On such dangers and misfortunes, see Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010), 31-40.
as the “stumbling blocks in the way of our salvation,” while also demonstrating that the
heterogeneity of such obstacles was difficult to systematically discern.244
Non-Angelic Entrances and Entrancements
In addition to neutral angels and helpful demons, authors ascribed numerous names and
descriptions to a mixed lot of other “non-angelic” spirits from various vernacular traditions. In
fact, a good deal of premodern literature reminds us that we cannot always assume to know to
what many authors are referring when they call attention to “alii spiritus” (“other spirits”). Unlike
the accounts above of neutral angels and helpful devils, we now turn to reported phenomena that
exhibit highly parochial expressions and impressions. Broad terms like “spirit,” “angel,” or
“demon” thus often fail to accurately characterize beings variously called fairies (in Latin fata or
fatalita), fauns, satyrs, nymphs (or driads), neptunes, inter alia. At the same time, where these
elusive creatures often resist orthodox categorization and signification, interpretation is possible
where vivid acccounts are given for how these uncanny “others” were reported to appear, act, and
make demands before those privileged or burdened humans that encountered them.
Often found in narratives that convey a sense of wonder at remarkable bodies, abilities,
and environments, non-angelic manifestations occurred unexpectedly in naturalistic surroundings
(i.e., mountainous, wooded, and watery locations) and small cityscapes. In such cases, the spirits
themselves become visible of their own volition, which could be dangerous or salvific. In rarer
instances, engagement with “non-angelic” spirits could entail ritual practices predicated on an
opportunity for reward or punishment—the idea that by propitiating certain ethereal creatures, one
would gain access to spiritual favor or suffer some form of penalty. Small wonder that orthodox

244 Ibid., bk. v, ch. v, p. 323.
theologians were profoundly concerned with how, when, and in what form these spirits might
appear. Given the demonological traditions exemplified in Augustinian (and later Thomist)
theology, spiritual substances were said to assume manifold visible appearances while working
countless invisible deeds to lead humanity into sin. With this in mind, the accounts examined
below exhibit important, if contested, responses from the communities that generated them. Taking
examples from Gervase of Tilbury, Walter Map, and several other authors, this section explores
medieval traditions wherein humans happened upon highly capricious beings whose origins and
natures remain obstinately obscure.
To begin, the thirteenth-century encyclopedist and chronicler of marvels, Gervase of
Tilbury (c. 1160-1211), reported an impressive stock of spirit-encounters in his massive work
entitled Otia imperialia (“Recreation for an Emperor”). Organized into three books, Otia
imperialia begins as a modest “description, at least in brief, of the whole world” coupled with a
traditional commentary on the Book of Genesis.245 Gervase borrows freely from traditions
established by the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville and, later, Peter Comestor’s Historia
scholastica, among several others. The second book offers a lengthy entry on provinces found
around the world, their inhabitants, and general customs. The third and final book includes a
collection of the world’s marvels, either seen by or recounted to our author.246 The majority of
descriptions concerning haunting spirits are found in this last section. As Gervase tells the
audience, his purpose for writing the treatise was to “afford pleasure to a listener” rather than
evince theological precepts.247 Such “pleasure” is also notably balanced by a reverence for reliable

245 Gervase of Tilbury, Otia imperialia: Recreation for an Emperor, trans. by S. E. Banks and J. W. Binns
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), preface to the first book, pp. 14-15.
246 S. E. Banks and J. W. Binns, eds., “Introduction,” in Otia imperialia (2002), xli-lxiii.
247 Gervase, Otia imperialia (2002), preface to first book, pp. 14-15.
authority. In his preface to the third book, he qualifies how “no one should take the things we write
to be idle tales,” for such marvelous accounts amount to more than the whims of “mere storytellers.”248 Hence, Gervase endeavors to provide faithful descriptions of wonders found within the
wide world, whereas doctrinal teachings are afforded only minor attention.
Throughout Otia imperialia, Gervase demonstrates the complexities involved with
discourses on vaguely defined spirits and their classification. Early in the first book, for instance,
he calls attention to spiritual creatures “which the common folk call follets.”249 For orthodox
demonologists, follets invariably elicited the concept of minor demons that pelt people with stones,
mimic human speech, and mischievously interrupt the ordinary workings of the household. The
thirteenth-century theologian and bishop of Paris William of Auvergne commented that “among
the French people, the foolish expression follet is known to mean a spirit to whom a small portion
of natural wisdom has been left.”250 In a larger discussion of minor devils, William affirmed that
these provincial spirits were unquestionably demonic manifestations: these follets typically
haunted premodern homes by working noisy and trivial illusions therein.
In stark contrast to William, Gervase remarks that while “these inhabit the homes of simple
peasants,” they resist demonological convention and categorization because “they are not deterred

248 Ibid., preface to third book, pp. 562-63.
249 Ibid., bk. 1, ch. 18, pp. 98-99.
250 William of Auvergne, De universo, vol. 1, part II, ch. 4, p. 1019: “vulgari Gallico expressius a fatuitate
Folet cognominentur, modicum relictum est eis de claritate sapientiae naturalis.” See also William’s
discussion of demons called “joculatores” which manage similar feats through aggression toward humans;
ibid., p. 1030. William of Auvergne was second only to Thomas Aquinas (whom he certainly influenced)
as an authority on medieval demonology; see, Thomas B. de Mayo, The Demonology of William of
Auvergne: By Fire and Sword (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007). On the meaning and etymology
of terms follets, fauns, and fata see, Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound (1983), 20-22.
either by holy water or by exorcisms.”251 Here, sacramental rites could prove a deciding factor for
the discernment of spiritual friend or foe. Decades earlier, Walter Map told of a figure named
Henno with-the-teeth who forcibly took a fairy-like woman near the shores of Normandy as his
conjugal spouse. According to Map’s telling, Henno’s new wife attended church frequently but
“shunned the sprinkling of holy water, and by a wary retirement (making the crowd or some
business the excuse) anticipated the moment of the consecration of the Lord’s body and blood.”252
These dubious indices culminated in Henno and his family discovering that, while alone, the young
beauty revealed herself in the form of a “dragon” (draconem).253 Henno’s mother immediately sent
for a priest, who sprinkled the bride with lustral water and produced her permanent disappearance.
Tellingly, Map guides his audience to infer the lady’s demonic pedigree, affirming that such
creatures “must in the end be dragged downwards against their will.”254 If demons were, at least
in part, discernible by their abhorrence to ecclesiastical consecrations and sacramental ritual, the
follets described by Gervase were not easily defined as such.

251 Gervase, Otia imperialia (2002), bk. 1, ch. 18, p. 98-99.
252 Map, De nugis curialium (1983), dist. iv, c. 9, pp. 344-9.
253 This may well be an early reference to the legend of the mermaid-demon, later named Melusine. Gervase
also briefly discusses the creature; see Otia imperialia (2002), bk. 1, ch. 15, pp. 88-91. For a discussion of
Melusine in Map and Gervase, see Jacques Le Goff, “Melusina: Mother and Pioneer,” in Time, Work &
Culture in the Middle Ages (1980), 205-22. The theme would have a long afterlife, extending into the early
modern era. See, for instance, the Middle High German poem about Peter von Stauffenberg, a legend
concerning a man who married a water-nymph but then married a human girl after growing unhappy with
the spirit. The story was recorded in: Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, [‘Theophrastus Paracelsus’],
Opera Omnia, 3 vols. (Geneva: Ioannes Antonius & Samuel de Tournes, 1658), section 32 ‘De nymphis,
sylvis, Pygmaeis, salamandris et caeteris spiritibus,” ii. 395-6. See also Wahrhafte Geschichte Herrn P. v.
St. (Strasbourg: B. Jobins Erben, 1598).
254 Map, De nugis curialium (1983), dist. iv, c. 9, pp. 348-9.
With similar ambivalence, Gervase recalls how other seemingly demonic spirits “may
actually be corporeal wild beasts, called fauns and satyrs.”255 Invoking Saint Antony’s famous
encounter with a half-man, half-horse creature in the desert, he attentively acknowledges that
theological tradition interprets the hybrid monster as one involving a demonic apparition. Yet,
Gervase casts doubt on the familiar narrative by pointing out how a similar beast was preserved in
salt in order to halt decomposition. In an attempt to reconcile differing opinions on the subject, he
gives credence to the logical position that “if a body is embalmed in salt, it is because it rots after
death: that does not sound like an airy body.”256 In short, Gervase questions how Anthony’s
encounter could have been with a demon, given the creature’s capacity to putrefy.
Later, in the third book, the English encyclopedist also discusses other immortal visitors
typically identified as devils, but admits “that I do not know whether I should call them demons,
or mysterious ghosts [effigies] of unknown origin.”257 At an impasse about their spectral
provenance, Gervase yields instead to cultural particularism: “the French call [them] neptunes, and
the English portunes.” Rather than wager a conclusion on their ontology, he reports how these
creatures (like the follets) take special pleasure in domestic chores, engaging in activities within
the ambit of the premodern home: they close doors, catch frogs, move heavy objects, among other
rather trivial deeds. In a tone resembling that of Caesarius’ Monk, Gervase does consider their
unconventional moral leanings: “it is a law of their nature that they can be useful but cannot do
harm.” At most a minor nuisance, Gervase presents these spirits as capricious, rather than explicitly
malevolent, forces within the household. As we shall see in the next chapter of this dissertation,

255 Gervase, Otia imperialia (2002), bk. 1, ch. 18, p. 98-99.
256 Ibid.
257 Ibid., bk. 3, ch. 61, pp. 674-75.
the theme of domestic demons would emerge as an instructive facet of demonological treatises in
the late Middle Ages and early modern period.
Whether expressly demonic or something else entirely, it is a truism that spirits were
capable of changing their form and identity in high medieval literature. As in the example of
Henno’s serpentine bride, by appearing to viewers in disguise, there was an inherent difficulty
associated with precise visual identification. Gervase also commented on spirits called dracs,
which “put on human form…[and] their leaders come to a crowded market-place without anyone
recognizing them.”258 In other cases, detailed descriptions are provided with the presumable
purpose of explaining why humans might struggle to perceive these marvelous creatures. The
neptunes and portunes described by Gervase above are said, in fact, to “have an aged appearance,
and a wrinkled face; they are very small in stature, measuring less than half a thumb, and they
wear tiny rags sewn together.”259 Walter Map also told of a “pygmy in respect of his low stature,
not above that of a monkey” that held a fiery countenance and wore a long red beard.260 The tiny
stature of these creatures presumably makes their relative invisibility intelligible, if only barely so.
One wonders how a creature “less than half a thumb” in size could help in any household chores?
Most likely, the detailed descriptions of “a wrinkled face” with “tiny rags” or an intensely red
appearance serve to anthropomorphize—that is, make discernible and visualizable—spirits that
were barely visible but certainly wonder-full.
Most often, these non-angelic creatures existed somewhere between bestial, human, and
spiritual being. A powerful sense of spiritual presence, in particular, was said to stimulate the

258 Gervase, Otia imperialia (2002), bk. 3, ch. 85, pp. 618-19.
259 Ibid., bk. 3, ch. 62, pp. 676-77.
260 Map, De nugis curialium (1983), dist. i, c. 11, pp. 26-27.
imaginative faculties. Walter Map narrated how a certain man in Lydbury North encountered
ephemeral ladies “circling with airy motion and gay gesture, and from their subdued voices singing
in solemn harmony a delicate sound came to his ears.”261 As in orthodox discourses on demons,
sensory encounters with non-angelic beings entailed fair voices, aromas, mellifluous effects of
vocal and musical performance. In several instances involving fairy women especially, these
spirits are said to inconspicuously dance, sing, cry, and speak to humans. Yet, in their resemblance
to the tutelary spirits of classical antiquity, the association of spirits with specific locales afforded
a considerable degree of material presence.262 To a certain extent, follets, neptunes, portunes,
fauns, satyrs, and others afforded medieval authors an opportunity to explore the limits of human
knowledge about the known world.263
This idea was often communicated in imaginative stories that focus on fairy mistresses.264
On the surface, these tales can suggest metaphors of subjugation and sexual advance, as in the
example of Henno, who “grew hot with the fire that kindled in him.”265 Indeed, Map’s De nugis
includes many narratives of sexual human-fairy exploits. In one anecdote, a Welshman called
Gwestin perceived at night “bands of women dancing in his field of oats, and followed them till

261 Ibid., dist. ii, c. 12, pp. 154-55.
262 For an excellent chapter on this, see Verity Platt, “Sight and the Gods: On the Desire to See Naked
Nymphs,” in Sight and the Ancient Senses, ed. by Michael Squire (New York: Routledge, 2016), 161-79.
263 This is, no doubt, a product also of developments in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, discussed in
Chapter 1; see, pp. 30-32 above.
264 Scholars, especially folklorists, have pointed out that such tales commonly operate on a limited and
recognizable range of motifs and themes, such as that of fairy mistresses. On such themes, see, John Arnott
MacCulloch, Medieval Faith and Fable (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1932), 5-57, and on a much broader scale
Hans-Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, based on the
System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakaternia, Academia Scientiarum
Fennica, 2004), 3 volumes.
265 Map, De nugis curialium (1983), dist. iv, c. 9, pp. 346-7.
they plunged into the water of the lake; but on the fourth night he caught one of them.”266
Thereafter, we are told Gwestin forcibly married the lady of the lake, and that she bore him many
children. In another, a man named Eadric the Wild—“so named from his bodily activity”—
stumbled upon a large building at the edge of the forest after a late night of “hunting.” Apparently
unfinished in this predatory task, he peered into the mysterious edifice and saw extraordinary
women that were “desirable beyond any favourite of a king.” Unable to understand their language,
Eadric “recklessly” entered the structure, took one of the ladies “and for three days and nights used
her as he would.”267 No doubt, an erotic violence pervades these and similar vignettes as chivalric
characters expressly violate their otherworldly counterparts.
At the same time, perspectives of carnal desire are complicated by the semantic ambiguities
within these narratives. As we have seen in the previous section, a medieval courtly context
informs Map’s tales. In the second episode, we are told that the figure of Eadric has “heard tell of
the fables of the heathen…and the bands of Dryads and Lares.”268 The reference to “the heathen”
and “bands of Dryads and Lares” signals recollection of pagan spirits commonly associated with
woodland creatures called nymphs. These antique designations were a commonplace in medieval
schools and universities where Ovid’s Metamorphoses was studied in Latin grammar, as well as
in theological and philosophical discourses on the implications of hybrid beasts and semi-divine
spirits found within natural world.269 Significantly, the Latin terms driadum and nymphae

266 Ibid., dist. ii, c. 11, pp. 148-55.
267 Ibid., dist. ii, c. 12, pp. 154-61.
268 Ibid., 156-7.
269 Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (2001), 150-58; 166-89.
connoted both fairy women and young (human) maidens old enough for marriage.270 There is thus
a literary pun that heightens a sense of oscillation in the scene’s meaning. Especially compelling
is how dominance over these extraordinary women is dangerously transgressive. The desire to
overcome these curious beings, whether fairy or human, is coupled with explicit warning: “deadly
vision” and “sudden punishment [falls] on those who suddenly catch sight of them.”271 On this
view, premodern folk conventionally approached non-angelic spirits with dutiful caution and
trepidation, because they (the spirits) could presage imminent death and disaster. Exuding an aura
of uncanniness, the alluring appearances of such creatures mirrored a commensurate degree of
There is also a good deal of narrative attention to the enchanted dwellings which these
spirits were said to inhabit and embody. To some extent, this made fairies and their kind all the
more accessible to humanity. Whether occupying oat fields, cavernous mountains, or on the
forested peripheries of town, fairy bodies transposed spiritual signification onto bodies of land and
water. Marine locations, in particular, constituted such a haunting area. As we have seen in Map’s
story of Gwestin, the Welshman snatches his fairy bride from beneath the surface of water—
specifically called the lake of Brycheiniog (or Llangorse Lake). The penetrable, albeit dangerous,
space that separates the human (above the water) and fairy (below the water) represents an intimate
and potentially treacherous threshold to be violated. With similar warning, Gervase states that
certain spirits “make their home in the depths of rivers, and at times, in the semblance of gold rings
or goblets floating on the surface.” According to Gervase, these aquatic creatures lure women and
children bathing in the river with the appearance of artificial rewards. Should a human fall for the

270 Platt, “Sight and the Gods” (2016), 161-79.
271 Map, De nugis curialium (1983), dist. ii, c. 12, pp. 156-57.
deceit, “they are suddenly seized and dragged down to the bottom.”272 In certain cases, the proper
name given to a body of water could also be applied to spiritual beings. Gervase recounts how in
England, one finds horse-like demons called grants that commonly warn humans of imminent fire.
Interestingly, “Grant” was another ancient name for the River Cam, suggesting the spirits
functioned as a synecdoche for the river itself.273
In these stories, moments of human-spirit exchange exhibit how fairy-kin were thought to
reside hidden within the natural world. Concealment could portend forbidden trespass, as when
Gwestin and Eadric happen uninvited upon spirits and their elemental abodes in this world. In
other instances, mortals were reported to have opened or wholly punctured the veil of parallel
worlds enveloping this one. William of Newburgh told of a peasant who observed a spirited festival
take place within a hillside outside of town.274 In another account, he was “so overwhelmed by the
weight of so many and such competent witnesses” that he felt compelled to record how “green
children” were found in the fields during harvest season. Several people attested that these
mysterious children were (by their own admission) Christian, but came from the twilight land of
St. Martin, which “precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sun-set.”275 These bizarre and magical
accounts suggest that such beings could accentuate daily and seasonal change or liminality.

272 Gervase, Otia imperialia (2002), bk. 3, ch. 85, pp. 718-19.
273 Ibid., bk. 3, ch. 62, pp. 676-79 (on “grants”); for the reference to the River Cam, see editor’s note, 1, p.
274 This theme was diversely reported by other notable figures, such as Gerald of Wales and the author of
the miracles of Saint Cuthbert. See Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England (2007),
61-62. The premodern concept of “changelings”—infants replaced by spirits or born of human-spirit
relations—also overlaps the idea of spirit worlds aligned with this one. See Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound
(1983), 74-78.
275 William of Newburgh, “The History of William of Newburgh,” (1853-1858), bk. i, ch. xxviii, pp. 436-
37. On these “green children,” see John Clark, “Martin and the Green Children” Folklore 117 (Aug., 2006):
Appearing within the boundaries between day and night, the wilderness and the city, summer and

fall, they functioned to personify natural and supernatural forces operating within and outside the
temporal world.
In rare examples, time and space could be altered altogether. Walter Map’s fiery barbarossa
“pygmy” reportedly led the ancient Briton called King Herla to a cave in a high cliff where he
beheld an entire kingdom of similar beings.276 Upon return to his native land, King Herla learned
that his journey had lasted 200 years, rather than the three days by his counting. Herla would also
discover that his own human mortality had been permanently manipulated, for thereafter he
became immortal in his “eternal wanderings, without stop or stay.”277 With often transformative
effects, non-angelic spirits could even alter the bodies and faculties of those who witnessed them.
In the collection of miracles attributed to Saint Cuthbert at Farne, for example, a peasant named
Richard of Sunderland lost his ability to speak and reason after an abduction by mysterious green
Of course, moments of otherworldly encounter and transformation draw meaning from the
very real dangers that were associated with perception of the Devil and his demons. For orthodox
theologians, entrance into the spirit realm threatened entrancement, and slippage between realities
often suggested demonic manipulation. Where spiritual beings might appear friendly or morally
ambivalent, clerical authors tended to clarify that demons lay behind all such encounters. In the
eleventh century, Burchard von Worms admonished ten days of penance on bread and water for
the respective beliefs that “those who are commonly called the Fates exist.” He also discouraged

276 Map, De nugis curialium (1983), dist. i, c. 11, pp. 26-31.
277 Ibid., pp. 30-31.
278 H. E. Craster, ed., “The Miracles of St Cuthbert on Farne,” Analecta Bollandiana 70 (1952): 5-19.
the belief “that there are women of the wilds, called ‘the sylvan ones’ who they say are in bodily
form, and when they wish show themselves to their lovers and, they say, have taken delight with
these, and then when they wish they depart and vanish.”279 For Burchard, Christians who entertain
such things ultimately misuse “Divine Piety and hand it over to the devil,” failing to uphold proper
Christian values and, in doing so, more easily fall into superstition and sin.280 More egregiously in
Burchard’s estimation, some folk were said to have ritually anticipated spirits of this sort, having
“prepared the table in thy house and set on the table thy food and drink, with three knives, that if
those three sisters whom past generations and old-time foolishness called the Fates should come
they may take refreshment there.”281 In this case, propitiatory behavior was far more offensive—
presumably for the degree of participation it demanded—as Burchard advised one whole year of
penance on appointed days.
Importantly, the widespread beliefs associated with nocturnal female spirits would prove
controversial, especially later in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century witchcraft debates. One
irrepressible belief was that women would fly through the night in the company of the pagan
goddess Diana and her entourage of (usually) female spiritual creatures. As early as the tenth
century, a decree known as the canon Episcopi, written down first by Regino of Prum (c. 906),
condemned these nocturnal flights as diabolically inspired illusions. A shortened version of the
canon was recorded in the Corrector of Burchard von Worms; in the twelfth century, Gratian also

279 John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, eds., Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the
Principal Libri poenitentiales and Selections from Related Documents (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1938), canons 151-2, p. 338.
280 Ibid., canon 153, pp. 338-39.
281 Ibid.
included it ad plenum in in his Concordia discordantium canonum.
282 Officially censured a
demonic farce, the mere mention of Diana and her Wild Hunt or Wild Ride could prompt
ecclesiastical censure and condemnation.
Walter Map and Gervase of Tilbury memorably include mention of the belief and its
associations with demonic entrancement. In framing his tale of the huntsman Eadric and his
capture of fairy mistresses, Map intentionally juxtaposes Eadric’s familiarity with “the nightly
squadrons of devils” alongside his knowledge of the “heathen” deity “Dictynna.”283 In this, Map
is almost certainly alluding to popular medieval beliefs related to the Wild Hunt of Diana. Map
does so in order to pique his audience’s interest, casting yet another layer of interpretive meaning
onto the narrative. In addition to the dual valences of “hunting” marriageable fairies and courting
human maidens, his audience is lead to ponder a third, diabolical alternative: that the roles of
hunter and hunted have been inverted with demons stalking their human prey. On this reading, the
ethereal mistresses constitute demonic spirits that have lured Eadric into cunning trap.
Gervase also alludes to “the wretched lot of some men and women…[who] cover great
distances in a swift nocturnal flight” and enumerates a long list of spiritual creatures—masks
(mascas), stries, lamias, larvas, lares, silvani, pans, incubi, fays, and duses—variously associated

282 For Regino, see Wilfried Hartmann, Das Sendhandbuch des Regino von Prüm, Ausgewählte Quellen
zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters, 42 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2004). For
the canon found in Burchard, see Joseph Hansen, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des
Hexenwahns und der Hexenverfolgung im Mittelalter (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1963), 38-40. An English
translation with further indices for the canon’s inclusion in Ivo of Chartres and Gratian is found in Alan
Charles Kors and Edward Peters (eds.), Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, 1st
Edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 28-32. For scholarly works on the canon
and its later influences, see Werner Tschacher, “Der Flug durch die Luft zwischen Illusionstheorie und
Realitätsbeweis: Studien zum sog. Kanon Episcopi und zum Hexenflug,” Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung
für Rechtsgeschichte 116, Kan. Abt. 85 (1999): 225-76; Michael Bailey, Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies:
The Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 205 and
283 Map, De nugis curialium (1983), dist. ii, c. 12, pp. 156-57.
with the belief. Intriguingly, rather than explicitly condemn these nocturnal flights and his
inventory of “demonic” names, he expatiates on spirits in France called “duses.” The reference
would have been well-known in theological circles. In City of God, Augustine proclaimed how “it
is widely reported that Silvani and Pans, commonly called incubi, have often behaved improperly
towards women, lusting after them and achieving intercourse with them…then there is the story
that certain demons, whom the Gauls call Dusii, constantly and successfully attempt this
indecency.”284 Isidore of Seville makes similar mention of such demons two centuries later.285
Commenting on these “duses,” Gervase echoes Augustine’s account, but personally confesses “I
do not know what these things mean…it must be, then, that those who sided with the devil but
whose pride was less grievous were reserved to provide phantoms of this nature to punish
humankind.”286 Tending toward a moveable middle ground between theological teachings and
provincial expressions, Gervase ambivalently concludes that these creatures may or may not be
what theologians call demons. In his estimation, the only thing that he could say about his cache
of marvelous spirits is that they resembled both angels and demons, but acted like spirits that were
less malicious than Lucifer.
Theologically, this is a bold position to hold. In the same century, the Dominican preacher,
Thomas de Cantimpré (d. ca. 1270), briefly remarked on the existence of aqueous demons called
neptuni, terrestrial incubes, and other demons called dusii (or succubes) that haunted French
mountains and forests.287 Cantimpré weighs in on many of the spirits identified by Gervase, as

284 Augustine, City of God (2003), bk. xv, ch. 23, p. 638.
285 Isidore, The Etymologies (2006), 190.
286 Gervase, Otia imperialia (2002), bk. 3, ch. 86, p. 730-31.
287 Thomas de Cantimpré, Les exemples du Livre des Abeilles (1997), bk. 2, ch. 57, p. 250.
well as those registered by Augustine and Isidore. It was conventional (following Augustine) to
describe incubi and succubi, in particular, as artificially gendered demons which tempted and
molested humans in carnal lust.288 Cantimpré does not explicitly comment on their sexual exploits;
instead, he depicts them as demons that inhabit natural locales in the French countryside. The
contrast between Cantimpré and Gervase is telling. Where Cantimpré affirms their demonic
pedigree, Gervase positions his collection of marvels oblique to orthodox theological teaching on
demons. He notes at the start of Otia imperialia that demons exist in the world, as the bible teaches,
and thereafter even presents a number of accounts to support this conclusion.289 Yet, Gervase also
repeatedly questions whether all reported phenomena must fall exclusively on the angel/demon

288 In the thirteenth century, some debate existed over whether demon had lustful desires, especially in
goading inter-species sexual relations and miscegenation. Scholastics argued that demons could manage
this miscegenation, but their desire to enact artificial insemination stemmed from hatred rather than erotic
lust. William of Auvergne, for example, rhetorically asks the question: “What libidinal desire can there be
in these spirits for another species, and one that is comparably more ignoble than they are?” William of
Auvergne, De universo, IIIa-IIae, c. xxv, p. 1070bG-H: “Quae concupiscentia libidinosa potest esse
hujusmodi spirituum in substantias alterius specie, & longè ignobiliores, quam ipsi sunt?” Accordingly, he
argued that, were it the case that demons could lust after the beauty of sensual bodies, they would do so
with their own kind exclusively. Moreover, because demons are immaterial, William notes they are
incapable of emitting semen—the primary pleasure of human ejaculation. De universe, ibid.: “Dico in hoc,
quia nulla est voluptas conjunctionis hujusmodi, cum voluptas concubitus potissimum consistat in effusione
seminis, nulla autem est voluptas libidinosa in translatione seminis hujusmodi.” Juanita Feros Ruys also
notes in an interesting study of the subject that William adds another criterion: “If demons were truly driven
mad by the raging fires of lust, he suggests, there would be no limits as to their sexual targets, and males
would be as much at risk of demonic copulation as women apparently are. Yet, he contends, there is and
never has been any account of demons behaving in a sodomitic manner.” See “Love in the Time of Demons:
Thirteenth-Century Approaches to the Capacity for Love in Fallen Angels,” Mirabilia 15 (2012): 42. For a
study on Aquinas, scholastic theology, and demonic lust, see Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft,
Sex and the Crisis of Belief (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), as well as Dyan Elliott, Fallen
Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 52-60.
289 Gervase, Otia imperialia (2002), bk. 1, ch. 15, pp. 86-91.
At least by the start of the thirteenth century, William of Auvergne asserted that blessed
and fallen angels were absolutely immaterial beings.290 And in the previous chapter we noted how
Thomist metaphysics would later insist on this point. Gervase, however, proposes that these
creatures may not all be demons or illusions created by them. He writes: “If anyone asks the
meaning of these wonders…I reply with the words of Augustine…that the whole matter should be
referred to the mysteries of divine justice,” and “[w]hen the question of the bodies of demons and
bad angels of this kind arise, I answer that, like Augustine, I am not sure.”291 While this quote
speaks directly to issues of demonic embodiment, in many ways it also represents Gervase’s broad
approach to reports of diverse spirits: he cannot be sure that his ethnography of marvels and spirits
aligns with orthodox theology.
By concluding with Gervase of Tilbury, we have come full circle to the initial gesture made
by Cornelius Agrippa at this chapter’s start: that theologians were not the only Christians to evince
meaningful discourses on spirits in the world. This chapter has examined descriptions of neutral
angels, helpful or harmless demons, and non-angelic spirits of different stripes found lurking in
many corners of premodern Christian storytelling and literature. In the following chapters
(Chapters 3 and 4), we turn to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century demonological writings, which
appropriated many of these tales and motifs. However, rather than imaginative narratives
concerning wonderous spirits, later demonologists approached past and contemporary accounts of
such creatures as important examples of the Devil’s presence in the world.

290 De Mayo, The Demonology of William of Auvergne (2007), 5, 125, 128.
291 Otia imperialia (2002), bk. 3, ch. 86, p. 724-25 and 728-29. See Augustine’s rhetorical framing of his
discussion of Dusii, which expresses some doubt about their corporeality, City of God (2003), bk. xv, ch.
23, p. 638. Augustine’s discussion of angelic embodiment did not go unnoticed by medieval theologians;
see, Peter Lombard, Sententiarum libri IV: The Sentences, trans. by Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical
Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007), bk. 2, dist. 8, and Aquinas, On Evil (2003), qu. 16, art. 1.
CHAPTER 3: Perilous and Peril-less Hauntings: Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century
Discourses on Minor Demons
In his Lenten sermon series known as Die Emeis (delivered in 1508), Geiler von
Keysersberg handles a troubling pastoral question: What causes noisy, unseen disturbances in the
premodern home (frag von dem gerümpel in einem hausz)? A famous Swiss preacher and
theologian in Strasbourg, Geiler’s response is manifold. He concedes that forms of domestic unrest
occur—bizarre sounds and misplaced or broken home furnishings—although he rejects human
ghosts from the afterlife as the source thereof: “those in Hell do not come out and thus cannot do
this; those granted the eternal life do not complete such foolish works; and those in Purgatory have
other things to do.”292 The dead, in other words, cannot haunt houses because the souls of the
departed are dutifully busied elsewhere. What, then, generates this unseen racket and disorder?
Not unreasonably, Geiler suggests that the perpetrators might well be this-worldly humans.
One’s neighbors, for example, may cause harassment as when “some evil people make noise to
cause disquiet in another’s house” (so thünt es etwann böß leutt in einem hauß, das sie die andern
unrüwig machen). Or when certain homeowners are set against selling their property, they might
“feign that a ghost lives there” (so macht er das man went es gang ein geist da) to ward off buyers.
According to the Swiss preacher, the living rather than the dead frequently devised a number of
furtive methods for misleading their fellow Christians. Alternatively, Geiler notes that human
illness could produce (false) impressions of a spiritual presence. As Geiler outlines, “due to

292 Johannes Geiler von Kaisersberg, Die Emeis, dis ist das büch von der Omeissen (Strasbourg: Johannes
Grieninger, 1517), fol 44r: “Die inder hellen kummen nit herauß das sie es theten. Die in dem ewigen leben,
die gond nit mit dem narrenwerck umb. Die in dem fegfeuer dy hond anders zeschaffen.” For reference to
the in-text parenthetical citations, the entire sermon on “gerümpel” is found on fol 44r. I have consulted the
transcribed, collected, and annotated passages of Die Emeis in Zur Geschichte des Volks-Aberglaubens im
Anfange des XVI. Jahrhunderts. Aus der Emeis von Dr. Joh. Geiler von Kaisersberg, ed. by A. Stöbwer
(Basel: Schweighauserische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1856), 35-6.
sickness…one hears a knocking in the house here and there and thinks is must be a spirit” (so
kumpt es von kranckheit her…so went er es klopfft also in dem hausz hin vnd her vnd es sei ein
geist.). The majority of responses proffered in this sermon thus demonstrate that not all things
which goes bump in the night could be attributed to spiritual creatures.
At the same time, Geiler’s use of the German term “gerümpel” (disruptive noise) clearly
suggests that acoustic and physical disruptions were regularly associated with unseen spiritual
presences, even when many of the causes themselves were not necessarily spiritual in origin. This
is evident not only from the responses listed above–each implies or explicitly states that a spirit is
not responsible—but also from the overall context of the sermon. Leading up to the inquiry on
“gerümpel,” Geiler assessed the purported flight of women on Ember days, the existence of
changeling children, and a variety of other demonic illusions (“das teuffels gespenst”) reported to
occur in premodern Europe.293 After addressing these issues, he then enumerates causes typically
associated with invisible domestic racket. The preacher thus raises the question of “gerümpel”
after a series of sermons on devilish mischief, suggesting that his audience will anticipate another
sermon dealing with similar subject matter.
Moreover, Geiler’s immediate source in this sermon is Johannes Nider’s Preceptorium
divine legis (1438). A century earlier, the Dominican reformer listed the same arguments with
regard to the question of “Quis faciat illos strepitus…ut in inquietationibus domorum
294 Following the Preceptorium point for point, Geiler echoes teachings from one of

293 Ibid., fols. 43r-44r.
294 Johannes Nider, Preceptorium Divine Legis (Basle: Berthold Ruppel, c. 1470), prec. I, ch. XI, sect. 17,
qu. 14. The latter half of Die Emeis stops following Nider’s Preceptorium and instead draws from the
sermons of Martin Plantsch in Opusculum de sagis maleficis (1507). On Geiler’s sources and sermons, see
Eugen Breitenstein, “Die Autorschaft der Geiler von Kaysersberg zugeschriebenen Emeis,” AEKG 13
(1938): 149-98; id., “Die Quellen der Geiler zugeschriebenen Emeis,” AEKG 15 (1941/42): 141-202;
Luzian Pfleger, “Zur handschriftlichen Überlieferung Geilerscher Predigttexte,” AEKG 6 (1931): 195-205.
the most influential demonologists of the fifteenth century.295 And like Nider before him, Geiler
identifies inhuman spirits as the primary cause of household gerümpel. Most often, Nider and
Geiller affirm, the offenders were a particular type of devil: “the first cause is wicked spirits which
have less power from God; for like humans, spirits are as distinct in kind. The same simple spirits
make noise with pots and pans, engendering proper disturbances.”296 Geiler’s homily thus indicate
that the most formidable threat to domestic wellbeing was demon, “distinct in kind,” that possessed
less potency other fallen angels.
As I will demonstrate in this chapter, a host of late medieval and early modern authors
voiced similar concerns about parochial disruptions manufactured by wicked spirits. For instance,
the same year as Geiler’s sermon cycle, the former abbot of Sponheim and Renaissance magician,
Johannes Trithemius, responded to eight questions composed by Emperor Maximilian at the Diet
of Cologne (1505). In the third question—“On the Miraculous Signs of the Impious”—Trithemius
explained to his sovereign how “several demons, which wander the earth, completely disturb
people where they live with noises (gerümpel) by throwing and breaking things. These evil spirits
our ancestors called Bacuceos homines; that is Schrätlin or spirit men or poltergeists, which
frighten people and want nothing other than to be perceived as gods and holy spirits.”297 Through

295 On Nider’s influence as a demonologist see Michael Bailey, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and
Reform in the Late Middle Ages (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003); Werner
Tschacher, Der Formicarius des Johannes Nider von 1437/38: Studien zu den Anfängen der europäischen
Hexenverfolgungen im Spätmittelalter (Aachen, 2000).
296 Die Emeis (1517): “Zuo dem ersten vonn den schlechten bösen geisten, die nit viel gewalt von got habent
empfangen, wan wie die menschen vngleich seind, also die geiste auch; die selben einfeltigen geist rümpeln
also im schüssel korb vnd Machen ein semlich gefert.”
297 Johannes Trithemius, Antwort Herrn Johan Abts zu Spanhaim auff act fragstuck, jme von weylandt Herrn
Maximilian Röm. Kayser [et]c. hochlöblichster gedechtnuß, fürgehalten. (Ingolstadt: durch Alexander
unnd Samuel Weyssenhorn gebrüder, 1555), III, p. 43: “Also thun etlich Teüffel, die auff erden umb geen,
wandlen umb die leüdt wonen ganz ungestümb mit gerümpel werffen unnd schlagen welche böse gayster
unsere vorelter Bacuceos homines, das ist Schrätlin oder nachtbuzen und boldergeister genent haben. Dise
erschrecken die leüdt und gegern darmit von den menschen nichts merers dann das man sie für Götter und
a pair of similes Trithemius likened the Devil to an ape in “his” production of false miracles
(wonders); demons are likewise compared to children in their wicked games of “hide and seek”
(verbergen/lauffen) with humans. To the chagrin of Trithemius, too many people acquiesced to the
company of these ethereal creatures—thus failing to appropriately perceive the deceptions of
household devils.298 A decade later, Martin Luther would articulate a comparable complaint before
the people of Wittenberg. He bemoaned how many Christians propitiated demons called lares
familiares in Latin or Helekeppelin and Wichtelen in the German vernacular.299
In the examples of Geiler, Trithemius, and Luther, demonic spirits were reported to have
plagued domestic spaces. In and around the home, unexpected misfortune seemed to arise without
clear lay comprehension of how and why such things occurred. In response, many churchmen
admonished ordinary Christians against misunderstanding the potentially harmful nature of such
marvelous events.300 Rather than mere mischance, these men argued that the imminent and
pernicious presence of demons threatened individual families, as well as the collective Christian

haylige gayster halte.” The Latin version, which omits the German-specific words Schrätlin, nachtbuzen,
and boldergeister, can be found in Liber octo quaestionum, qu. 3, in Busaeus, ed., Paralipomena
opusculorum Petri Blenensis et Ioannis Trithemii, aliorumque nuper in typographeo monguntino editorum
(Mainz: Apud Balthasarum Lippium, 1605), lib. II, cap. III, p. 460.
298 Ibid., “Daher so geschichts als dann, das sie vor disen leütten, bey welchen jenen ainer gleichhait halben
zu wonen, vergunt wirdt, zu zeiten vil unnd mancherlay ludification und betrügnuß uben[?], erzaigen sic
him gamut der menschen nach dem sich der fal begibt ganz erschrockenlich.”
299 Martin Luther, Decem Praecepta Wittenbergensi praedicata populo (1518), in M. Luther, Werke:
Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 58 vols (Weimar, 1883-1948), vol. 1, p. 406.
300 That the events orbiting demonic activities were labeled “marvelous” is especially apposite in the
writings of Geiler and Trithemius, among others, because they emphasize the non-miraculous nature of
demonic illusions and abilities. Repeatedly, Geiler and Trithemius stress how German folk wrongly feel
“Wunder” at the seemingly miraculous deeds of fallen angels. This is especially apparent in the pointed
title of Trithemius’ third response (On the Miraculous Signs of the Impious). On the emotional qualities of
medieval “wonder”, see Caroline Walker Bynum, “Wonder,” The American Historical Review 102 (1997):
1-26. For the importance of the marvels produced by demons, see Lorraine Daston, “Marvelous Facts and
Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe” Critical Inquiry 18:1 (Autumn, 1991): 93-124.
community. Through their condemnations of such uninvited visitors, these authors suggest that
many Christian folk held relatively complex relationships with domestic spirits. Geiler’s sermon,
for instance, insinuates that one might mistake demonic infestation for a ghostly visit. As is well
known, the high medieval development and later reification of the doctrine of Purgatory produced
a constellation of rituals and beliefs centered on a reciprocal relationship between living Christians
and their perished associates.301 Geiler warns, however, that wicked spirits (or human fraud)
obscured the roles of human spirits in the Christian afterlife. Equally troubling, the response
proffered by Trithemius, much like Luther’s own addition, implies German folk actually found the
attendance of Schrätlin or Helekeppelin in the home a familiar, even potentially desirable, accident
or regularity.
Strikingly, nearly all such accounts include the qualification involving demons said to
possess “less power from God.”302 Labeled deleterious in their commerce with humanity, minor
demons differed markedly in their propensity for seemingly innocuous mischief rather than, say,
human possession, sexual relations and explicit pacts with women designated as witches. This is
an important distinction because scholarship on premodern demonology has largely ignored
accounts of so-called “lesser demons.” A number of excellent studies have addressed themes of
possession, exorcism, ghosts and witchcraft.303 My analysis will converge only obliquely with

301 On ghosts and purgatory see, Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1984); Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval
Society, trans. by T. L. Fagan (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998); Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall,
eds., The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); P. Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
302 We have also already seen references to similar spirits in Chapter 2 of this dissertation. See my analysis
of the writings from Walter Map, Gervase of Tilbury, and Caesarius von Heisterbach, pp. 23-35; 39-42.
303 Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern
Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and
these, foregrounding instead descriptions of minor devils inhabiting urban and rural households.
The current chapter, therefore, examines the complex cultural ramifications for why
explicitly “lesser” demonic creatures were considered a veritable threat in fifteenth- and sixteenthcentury theological and pastoral literature. The chapter is divided into four sections. In the first, I
give a brief contextual overview of demonological approaches to minor demons in the later Middle
Ages. Where earlier representations of haunted houses exist, late medieval thinkers addressed less
potent fallen angels and the locations they inhabited in a novel manner. Specifically, the tendency
to marvel at such spirits is replaced by ecclesiastical condemnation. Furthermore, many late
medieval authors deal publicly—Geiler and Luther preach to Christian congregations and
Trithemius delivers his response to the Emperor–with issues of metaphysical causality that
complement didactic narratives.
In the second section, I examine fifteenth- and sixteenth-century discussions of
poltergeists, arguing that the term and its general cultural meaning helped demonologists account
for reported demonic distractions of a relatively innocuous variety. The third section, then, turns
to the related theme of “household spirits.” In contrast to widespread accounts of poltergeists as
relatively harmless (though still frightful) spiritual creatures, there existed vernacular traditions
which held that some ambiguous spirits thrived on reciprocal social relations with humans. One
finds numerous cases in which ethereal beings were reported to emerge in homes, behaving as
quasi-human beings and interacting with their human counterparts as if they were social
companions. I conclude the chapter by discussing a little-known tale of demonic infestation related
by Johannes Trithemius. The tale deftly outlines the contours of late medieval assumptions and
attitudes concerning demons in the home. It also deserves special attention because later authors

Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Walter Stephens, Demon
Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).
repeated Trithemius’ account in order to demonstrate the profound influence of the Devil in
domestic situations.
Late Medieval Demons in Context
In Chapter 1, we explored the arguments of the Catholic theologians and how churchmen
insisted that demons existed solely as fallen angels. From the precepts of the church fathers to the
summae of scholastic authors, devils tempted humanity, created elaborate illusion, and broadly
sought to pervert divine creation. Drawing from and reconfiguring this orthodox tradition, certain
strands of Christian literature, legend, and vernacular storytelling expressed confusion about the
moral valences of other, ambivalent spirit-beings inhabiting the cosmos. As seen from Chapter 2,
the high medieval imaginary included numerous tales of obscure spirits, including so-called
“neutral” angels, helpful demons, or fairy-like creatures. In the later Middle Ages, the fusion of
these earlier ideations culminate in discursive concerns over two types of haunting spirits in
particular: poltergeists and benign household spirits.
Context is important here because the issue of minor haunting spirits becomes a discrete
demonological concern in the later Middle Ages. As we have seen, earlier texts presented spirits
in similar domestic situations. Walter Map and Gervase of Tilbury, for instance, recorded accounts
wherein spiritual creatures performed mundane tasks in the premodern home. In these examples,
however, the topic of minor spirits is a generic addition to broader themes of nature’s marvels (in
Gervase) and fanciful tales of twelfth-century courtiers (in Map). The neptunes, portunes, fairybrides, and others discussed within this body of literature were recorded to provoke wonderment
and demonstrate irregular occurrences within the natural world. By contrast, in later centuries
minor household spirits are described as far more sinister.
304 In fifteenth- and sixteenth-century
literature, the impetus to marvel at mysterious spirits is replaced with theological warnings that all
such stories are demonic events.
To take one memorable example, Martin Delrio rehearsed the twelfth-century account from
William of Newburgh about a peasant who witnessed a hillside banquet of fairy people near the
North Sea.305 In Historia Rerum Anglicarum, Newburgh recalls that a rustic man beheld ethereal
men and women inside a grassy mound celebrating a magnificent feast. The high medieval
chronicler unmistakably offers the tale as a res mirabilis. Delrio reiterates the entire story in his
Disquisitionum Magicarum but does so as evidence that witches and demons held assemblies
together in order to venerate the Devil. Rather than portray Newburgh’s account as containing
marvelous phenomena at the peripheries of the natural world, Delrio situates the tale among
contemporary reports of witchcraft and demon worship. The Jesuit author thus clearly associates
these fairy-kin with demonic beings that are closer to human affairs (not out on the peripheral
landscape) and, in this new context, representative a widespread threat to Christian society. For
many of Delrio’s contemporaries and immediate forbears, stories of ambivalent spirits affirmed
that demons often lurked in seemingly harmless situations.
In tandem with appropriating tales of marvelous spirits, later demonologists also extended
scholastic discussions of metaphysics into the province of pastoral theology and public awareness
more generally. Geiler von Kaisersberg is exemplary in this regard. He preaches material that

304 The one exception to accounts of ambiguous spirits from the High Middle Ages is William of Auvergne,
who handles the subject of domestic demons as a discrete phenomenological problem as early as the
thirteenth century. My point is that public discourses on minor demons do not become a debated
commonplace until the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
305 Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex, 3 vols (Venetiis: Apud Ioan. Antonium & Iacobum de Franciscis.,
1606), bk 2, qu. 16, p 157. Compare with William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum, Chronicles
of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I, ed. R. Howlett, I (RS, 1884-5), pp. 85-6.
centuries earlier was almost exclusively the province of theological disputation and speculation in
the universities. For instance, Geiler (and Nider before him) echoes the fourteenth-century thinker
Nicole Oresme, who discussed comparable issues of supernatural causality inappropriately
associated with purported spiritual phenomena. In the prologue to his De causis mirabilium,
Oresme states that he will “show the causes of some effects which seem to be marvels and to show
that the effects occur naturally, as do the others at which we commonly do not marvel. There is no
reason to take recourse to the heavens, the last refuge of the weak, or demons.”306 Thereafter
Oresme lists a number of instances in which “a stick or shadow” appears to be something more
frightening that it actually is. He also argues that when many people see the silhouette of a dog or
cat in the home, fear typically compels them to perceive a devil. Elsewhere, Oresme claimed that
magicians rely on quiet, dark places in order to produce psycho-physiological effects rather than
conjure actual demons. According to Oresme, “by all these things a simple mind is distracted and
shaken by terror.”307 He evinces a highly erudite account of nature’s regularity so as to assuage
human anxieties about unseen phenomena.
That Oresme, Nider, and Geiler all discuss physical and metaphysical causes is
unsurprising. Thomist metaphysics was piously debated and reiterated in varying forms by most
learned theologians from the fourteenth century onward. The difference is that Oresme writes for

306 Nicole Oresme and The Marvels of Nature: A study of his De causis mirabilium with Critical Edition,
Translation, and Commentary, trans. by B. Hansen (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies,
1985), 136-7.
307 Nicole Oresme and the Medieval Geometry of Qualities and Motions: A Treatise on the Uniformity and
Difformity of Intensities known as Tractatus de configurationibus qualitatum et motuum, ed. and trans. by
M. Clagett (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), II.xxvi, p. 339. On Oresme, magic, and
demons, see Joel Kaye, “Law, Magic, and Science: Constructing a Border Between Licit and Illicit
Knowledge in the Writings of Nicole Oresme,” in Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe, ed. by Ruth Mazo
Karras, Joel Kaye, and E. Anne Matter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 225-37.
a university-trained and highly limited readership in the fourteenth century, whereas Geiler
preaches similar material to a far broader audience at the start of the sixteenth century. This is an
important point because the sources examined below are not works of theological speculation or
natural philosophy, like Aquinas’ De Malo (as seen in Chapter 1) or Oresme’s De causis
mirabilium. They are pastoral-theological discussions meant to convey moral-theological and
practical points about demonic spirits to Christian congregations. One historical reason for this
development in preaching derives from what some scholars have called a late medieval “pastoral
revolution” that followed from the pronouncements and general impetus of the Fourth Lateran
Council (1215).308 A considerable goal of high medieval catechetical efforts was to instruct the
laity (and untrained clergy) in orthodox Christian doctrine. The nature and relevance of demons,
as outlined in the first canon’s lengthy profession of the Catholic faith, was consistently a part of
this pastoral program.309 In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries especially, preachers and
theologians reiterate the reality of demonic afflictions occurring in Latin Europe.
From these perspectives, men like Oresme, Nider, and Geiler expatiated at length about
natural sources that may appear supernatural but also all agreed that demons were capable of
producing the above effects through illusions or local movement. In the later sixteenth century,
Johann Weyer would similarly accentuate the problem facing his contemporaries at the start of his
treatise On the Illusions of Demons: the Devil “criminally violates the natural order for the

308 Ronald Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and
Early Modern Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 13-20; R. N. Swanson, Religion and
Devotion in Europe, c. 1215-c. 1515 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 2.
309 The opening decree and declaration of faith at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 reads: “The devil and
the other demons were indeed created by God naturally good but they became evil by their own doing.
Man, however, sinned at the prompting of the devil,” cited from Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils,
Volume One Nicea I to Lateran V, ed. by N. P. Tanner S.J. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University
Press, 1990), 230.
destruction of the human race, expertly counterfeiting natural effects with his deadly deceits, and
confounding many causes that are acting in accordance with their own rhythm and their own
progression.”310 It was universally accepted that the extraordinary power and influence of the Devil
made the discernment of natural and preternatural causes a perennial problem. For this reason,
trained authorities felt compelled to adduce reports of potential spirit visitation and identify the
type of spiritual being present in one’s home.
The Late Medieval Poltergeist
What are these demons which “have less power from God,” and how were they treated in
demonological literature from the later Middle Ages and thereafter? Precise definitions are often
difficult to come by, as many sources remain anecdotal with no immediately obvious point or
purpose. Premodern authors were far less concerned with contextualizing their material than
modern scholarship. In many cases, past accounts assume the audience will already understand a
given story’s moral-theological meaning and signification. The task of the historian is to uncover
what is generally taken for granted in such discussions.
Today we are accustomed to pop-cultural representations of poltergeists as disembodied
spirits of the human dead. Catherine Crowe’s novel The Night Side of Nature (1848) made the
term popular to Anglophone audiences in the nineteenth century.311 More recently, Stephen
Spielberg’s Poltergeist film trilogy of the 1980s and the 2015 reboot have contributed to this
mainstream understanding of poltergeists as haunting human ghosts. In pre-industrial Europe this

310 Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 36.
311 The Night Side of Nature: or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers (Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976-
meaning also existed, especially when the Latin equivalents “larva” and “lemur” were
employed.312 As modern scholars examining the cultural importance of premodern ghosts have
rightly shown, “the dead did not always sleep peacefully; they had a nasty habit of turning up
unexpectedly and might even be recalled.”313 Throughout the Latin Middle Ages, human specters
were widely reported to appear before family and friends in order to alleviate suffering in the
afterlife. In the later Middle Ages as well, authoritative ecclesiastics, such as James of Clusa, also
known as Jakob of Jüterbogk (d. 1465), accepted that Christian souls presented themselves to the
living to get through purgatory.314
At the same time, late medieval churchmen increasingly equated “geister” (ghosts or
spiritual beings) with demonic spirits. As R.N. Swanson comments, “by the 1400s ghosts were
perhaps being denied the opportunity to prove they were ghosts. This may explain cases where
spirits treated as demons act like purgatorial ghosts seeking liberation from the effects of sin by
demanding prayers, masses and other good deeds supposedly to liberate the souls of the people
they purported themselves to be.”315 Appearances were often deceiving, and demons were eager
to mimic the characteristics of ghosts and other relatively harmless spirits. This is not to say that

312 Wolfgang Neuber, “Poltergeist the Prequel: Aspects of Otherworldly Disturbances in Early Modern
Times,” in Spirits Unseen: The Representation of Subtle Bodies in Early Modern European Culture, ed. by
C. Gottler and W. Neuber (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 1-17; id., “Die Theologie der Geister in der Frühen
Neuzeit,” in Gespenster: Erscheinungen, Medien, Theorien, hrsg von M. Baßler, B. Gruber, and M.
Wagner-Egelhaaf (Wurzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005), 25-37.
313 R. N. Swanson, “Ghosts and Ghostbusters in the Middle Ages,” in The Church, the Afterlife and the
Fate of the Soul: Papers read at the 2007 Summer Meeting and the 2008 Winter Meeting of the
Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. by P. Clarke and T. Claydon (Saffron Walden: The Boydell Press, 2009),
314 See Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and
Popular Belief (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 48-49.
315 “Ghosts and Ghostbusters in the Middle Ages,” (2009), 153.
Catholic theologians and preachers denied the existence of ghosts, but that they thought in most
cases the Devil lay behind apparitions, invariably seeking to lead humanity astray. For many,
ecclesiastical mediation was the primary way to discern human from inhuman spirits, and without
priestly guidance, the laity were often encouraged to keep their distance lest the Devil’s illusions
lead humanity into error.
Commonly attributed to Martin Luther, the term “poltergeist” is German in origin and
signifies a spiritual being (geist) that generates noise (poltern/boldern).316 Like Geiler before him,
Luther employs the synonymous word “gerümpel” to convey indistinct spiritual noise. Hence the
premodern “rumpelgeist” is synonymous with a rumbling spirit. In his immense corpus of writings,
Luther includes a great deal of discussion on poltergeister and remains an authority on the subject.
Of course, most of Luther’s writings evince perspectives tempered by the effects of the Protestant
Reformation. His use of tales about such spirits, therefore, often serve the specific purpose of
critiquing the Catholic church. Moreover, scholars have rightly noted that, even as a Reformer,
Luther was exceptional in his highly personalized view of the Devil’s presence in the world.317
Yet many of his assumptions derive from and were shared by late medieval authors. Indeed, in
many ways, Luther participated in the same cultural world as Geiler and Johannes Nider. His
Tischreden or Table Talk, in particular, assumes the form of premodern exemplary literature,
meaning it offers apt comparisons with medieval exempla on demons. I will discuss Protestant

316 Neuber, “Poltergeist the Prequel,” (2008), 1.
317 On Luther’s exceptional arguments about the Devil as a Reformer, see Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man
between God and the Devil, trans. by E. Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989);
Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250-1750 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2010), 157-73.
attitudes towards haunting spirits in the following chapter. For now, I want to call attention to one
of Luther’s descriptions of the auditory distractions performed by demons in his residence.
Among the numerous conversations with friends and family, Luther displays a range of
first-hand experiences with poltergeists. In 1540, Luther addressed the topic directly:
Concerning Poltergeists: Osiander argues that poltergeists are nothing. To that the Doctor
[Luther] replied: I contend that there is something to them: Osiander must always have
very particular views. I have experienced it myself one time when I was tired from praying
the canonical hours, when a great noise arose behind the hearth and I was terrified. But
then I noticed that is was the Devil’s game, and I went to bed and prayed to God.318
A typical example of the poltergeist phenomenon, Luther expresses initial fright at the experience.
He recalls how during evening prayer he heard a loud commotion near the stove but could not
immediately identify whence the sound originated. In many tales of poltergeists, the events
orbiting these unseen spirits are described as both unwelcome and mysterious in origin; they also
often end as mysteriously as they begin. In this case, it is significant that the poltergeist interrupts
Luther’s performance of the canonical hours. As one of the Devil’s envoys, the poltergeist
obstructs Luther from a pious activity—one that notably requires some degree of concentration.
Rather than flee from the presence, Luther ignores the distraction and continues his prayer.
Like Luther’s account above, some of the most memorable accounts of poltergeist
affliction were related first-hand by theologians themselves. The fifteenth-century Franciscan friar
Alphonso Spina (d. 1491), for instance, described from personal experience how noisy spiritual
creatures delighted in hammering on wine casks and removing the sheets from one’s bed. In his
treatise Fortitalium fidei, Spina reports that he shared a bed with three companions one night, when

318 Werke, Tischreden, V, 5358b, p. 87: “Von Polter Geystern. Osiander helt, das nichts sey mit den
Poltergeistern. Daruff der Doctor gesagt: Ich halt, das was dran sey: Osiander mus altzeit was sonderlichs
haben. Ich hab es erfaren propria experiential, den da ich ein mall muede war von meinen horis canonicis
zu bethen, da hub sich ein gros gereusch hinter der hellen, das ich mechtig sere ershrack; da ich aber marckt,
das des Teuffels spiel war, giengk ich zu betth vnd bath Gott.”
out of nowhere they all heard mumblings and the sound of nuts being cracked. According to Spina,
“suddenly a small light appeared which we felt but we never saw again.” The oldest of Spina’s
companions explained that the commotion was caused by “a noble demon of the hierarchy, who
does not cause harm, except for those little games.”319 Some fifty year later, Luther affirmed
accounts like those of Spina and Geiler, noting that “it is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the
devil to bang around and haunt houses.”320 A familiar presence in Luther’s life, the Devil regularly
kept the former Augustinian monk awake at night by throwing nuts at the ceiling and rumbling in
his bed (rumpelt mir am Bette).321
Generally speaking, poltergeists were identified by indistinct noises and murmuring rather
than intelligible speech. Before composing his Preceptorium, the Dominican scholar and
ecclesiastical reformer Johannes Nider wrote the earlier text known as the Formicarius (1437/38),
which was very influential in the later Middle Ages and early modern period.322 Nider couches his
ideas in a kind of catechism, a dialogue between a learned theologian (Theologus) and his lazy
student (Piger). In his fifth book (Chapter 2), the pupil professes his desire to hear about “examples
of disquiet in the home” (De inquietantibus domos da exempla). In one longer response from the
theologian, the student learns of a rather mild demon haunting a priest’s house near Nuremberg.
Theologus relates how this unclean spirit repeatedly plagued the location with “hissings,

319 Alphonsus de Spina, Fortalitium fidei (Lyons: Gulielmus Balsarin, 1487), bk 5, consideration 10,
difference 2: “subito apparuit quidam parous splendor, et nunquam amplius vidimus nec aliquid
sensimus…quidam spiritus malus nobilis hierarchie, qui alia mala non operabatur nisi ludos illos.”
320 Werke, Tischreden, (1912-21), VI, 6832, p. 219: “Es ist aber nicht ein seltsam unerhört Ding, daß der
Teufel in den häusern poltert und umhergehet.”
321 Ibid., VI, 6816, p. 209.
322 On the Formicarius, see Tschacher, Der Formicarius des Johannes Nider (2000); Bailey, Battling
Demons (2003).
whistlings, and blows, not very distinct, but audible; for sometimes he would beat on the walls of
the house, and sometimes the joker would blow, as it seemed, on the various pipes of actors, and
he would indulge in a lot of unrestrained behavior doing these sorts of things, that nonetheless do
no harm.”323 The anecdote, like many from Nider’s treatise, demonstrated the widespread power
and influence of the Devil in often mundane human affairs. While the spirit is never explicitly
called a “poltergeist,” the general activities of the spirit are comparable. The afflictions
experienced in the priest’s home are rather mild, indiscernible annoyances of the sort described by
Spina, Geiler, and Luther, In this, the demon keeps the priest from performing his regular duties
as an ordained member of the Church. The poltergeist demon thus represents a source of minor
didactic distraction.
Alongside the obvious auditory significations for the terms polter and rumpel, these lesser
demons enacted multiple other disturbances as well. Numerous sources disclose how they moved
or broke small objects like kitchen utensils and pottery; they might also furtively relocate much
larger objects, including tables, beds, and heavier furniture. Home furnishings were not only
misplaced, they often times disappeared altogether or were then found in unexpected locations.
Nider’s theologian conveyed to his pupil how the demon of Nuremburg not only made irritating
clamor, but hid items of clothing in inconvenient places throughout the cleric’s residence. In rarer
instances, poltergeists were culpable for fomenting larger disasters resulting in real physical harm.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century, Nicholas Remy heard from servants in the village
of Dolmar how
Not twenty years ago a certain wanton Demon began to throw stones incessantly by day
and night at the servants of an inhabitant of this village; but after he had done this for a

323 Formicarius (1480; facsimile, Graz: Akademische Druck- under Verlagsanstalt, 1971), 5.2, 200:
“strepitibus et sibulis ac pulsibus, non multum excellentibus sed manifestis; ali-quando enim ad parietes
percutiebat; aliquando vero ioculator varias mimorum fistulas ut videbatur flabat, et talia non nociua
multum gestiebat.”
long time without effect, they began to treat it as a joke and did not hesitate to hurl back
taunts and insults at him. Therefore at the dead of night he set fire to the whole house in a
moment, so that no amount of water was enough to prevent it from being immediately
burned to the ground.324
Poltergeists could agitate sizeable disasters that threatened the wellbeing of the community as a
whole. The notion that such spirits sometimes threw stones to frighten or harm people would later
be coined as “lithobolia.”325 The Roman historian Titus Livy is often cited as one of the earliest
written accounts of the phenomenon, although notably without demonic causation. According to
Livy, flaming stones of unknown origin terrified Roman soldiers during the Punic Wars as they
fell from the skies.326 In the early Church, Christian saints like Daniel the Stylite (c. 409-93)
commonly encountered stone-throwing demons as a challenge to ascetic practices.327 Throughout
the Latin Middle Ages more generally, instances of demonic lithobolia intermittently appeared as
a warning that wicked spirits lay waiting to pester humanity and manufacture forms of relatively
tame suffering. William of Auvergne, for instance, claimed that he had personally experienced a
minor spirit which tormented him by throwing stones, knocking on walls, and stealing the sheets
off his bed.328
Another prominent theme was that poltergeists represented emotionally sensitive spirits,
reacting on a whim to the slightest discrimination. The sixteenth-century Saxon scholar Georgius

324 Demonolatry: An Account of the Historical Practices of Witchcraft, trans. by M. Summers (Secaucus,
NJ: University Books, 1974), bk ii, ch. xiii, p. 134.
325 Jane Davidson and Christopher John Duffin, “Stones and Spirits,” Folklore 123 (April 2012): 99-109.
326 Ibid.
327 Helen Saradi, “The Christianization of Pagan Temples in the Greek Hagiographical Texts,” in From
Temple to Church: Destruction, ed. by J. Hahn, S. Emmel, and U. Gotter (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 126.
328 De Universo, in Opera omnia, 2 vols. (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1963), 1:1030.
Agricola provided what would become one of the most widely repeated account of this
Among the number of subterranean entities of (as theologians prefer) ‘substances’, one can
include evil spirits who busy themselves in mines. These are of two kinds. They are
aggressive, frightening to look at and, for the most part, dangerous and hostile to
miners…Then there are the gentle ones which some of the Germans (like the Greeks) call
‘Cobali’ because they imitate human beings. These smile, as if longing for pleasure, and
seem to do many things when actually they do nothing…They wander about in wells and
burrows…they sometimes assail miners with gravel, they very rarely hurt them; and they
never hurt them unless they themselves have first been hurt with laughter or insults.329
Up to this point, poltergeists have been situated in domestic situations and not on the peripheries
of human habitation. Agricola, however, who was cited and copied by Johann Weyer, and then
virtually every demonologist copying from Weyer’s text, locates minor spirits in mines and
subterranean spaces. The idea that these spiritual creatures were found in uncultivated areas of the
world was not altogether novel. Luther eagerly pointed out that “there are many demons in the
forests, water, swamps, and deserted places, where they like to harm people; others are in black,
dense clouds and cause storms, hail, lightening, thunder, and poison the air.”330 Poltergeist demons
not only haunted houses, they every corner of the sixteenth-century European landscape.
As these examples show, it can be difficult to ascribe universal patterns to poltergeist
manifestations. They were broadly understood to be noisy spirits, but also physically disruptive
and emotionally reactive demons encountered in homes and elsewhere. Perhaps because of the
wide range of reported poltergeist afflictions, the issue of minor demons conformed awkwardly to

329 De animantibus subterraneis liber (Froben, Johann & Bischoff, Niclausen, 1549), pp. 76-78. Translation
from P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings
(London: Continuum, 2011), 4.
330 Werke, Tischreden, I, 1222, p. 609: “Es sind viel Teufel in Wäldern, Wassern, Wüsten und an feuchten
pfuhlichten Orten, dass sie den Leuten mögen Schaden thun. Etliche sind auch in den schwarzen und dicken
Wolken, die Machen Wetter, Hagel, Blitz und Donner, vergiften die Luft.” Luther also includes “houses”
at VI, 5375e, p. 105.
orthodox theological descriptions of fallen angels. Agricola’s entry, for instance, divides these
“subterranean entities” into malevolent and seemingly benevolent spiritual creatures. He begins
with the orthodox declaration that all such beings are harmful “evil spirits” but then entertains the
notions that some are perhaps “gentle ones.” Thereafter, Agricola circles back to the standard
theological position that these spiritual activities are either a trick of the Devil (they “seem to do
many things when actually they do nothing”) or the minor local movements of demonic spirits
(“they sometimes assail miners with gravel”).
Several learned authors struggled with the idea that “intellectual substances” were at once
a perennial threat to humanity and a source of minor distractions, that all evil spirits exhibited the
same universal attributes and infernal intentions but somehow enacted afflictions which were
relatively trivial in character. The modern historian Hans Peter Broedel describes the problem well:
late medieval and early modern authors had “to make evidence based on direct observation of
sensible demons square with evidence of the devil’s unseen presence and with his theologically
determined identity.”331 As Broedel points out, scholars and preachers wrestled with academic
descriptions of demons as spiritual intelligences, on the one hand, and the numerous reports of
mischievous spirits in the everyday settings, on the other.
One approach, most popularly derived from Augustine and widely employed by
Renaissance humanists, was to associate pagan names with demonic spirits. Greco-Roman
literature provided late medieval and early modern demonologists with a cornucopia of
designations for minor deities and spirits infesting diverse places. Agricola, for example, accounts
for the disparity between accounts of demonic beings by rendering the scholastic definition of
demons (i.e., “substances”) into Greek (“Cobali”). The latter cobali notably functions as an

331 The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft (2003), 44.
equivalent to minor household spirits in ancient Greek mythology. By blending the theological
understanding of demons as an abstract principle of evil with the Greek designation, the reader is
to infer that these beings are none other than demons in disguise.
Significantly, the Greek designation also converged with vernacular German conceptions
of the Latin mineral “cobaltum” or in German “kobelt.” In Bergpostilla, oder Sarepta (1578),
Johan Mathesius, a pastor in the mining town Joachimsthal (now Jachymov in Bohemia), explicitly
likens the mineral to the activities of demonic kobolds, attributing theological meaning to the
suffering caused in mines:
the Devil is a wicked, malicious spirit, who…work[s] much evil and mischief with
cobalt…the most poisonous of the metals, and with them one can kill flies, mice, cattle,
birds, and men. So, fresh cobalt and kisswasser devour the hands and feet of miners, and
the dust and fumes of cobalt kill many mining people and work people who do much
work among the fumes of the smelters. Whether or not the Devil and his hellish crew gave
their name to cobelt, or kobelt, nevertheless, cobelt is a poisonous and injurious metal.332

Mathesius indicates that the stinging caused by the mineral substance called cobalt was
conceptually associated with the physical effects agitated by minor demons.
The most prolific collector of ancient, medieval, and contemporary names of demons was
Johann Weyer. The physician from the Low Countries found Christian demons hiding behind the
apparitions of the Greek goddess Hecate, the daimon of Socrates, and the “penates,” “manes,” and
“lares” of ancient Rome. Supplementing ancient literature, he also reported how demons inhabited
distant places around the known world. To the east, Weyer announced that “the king of Calcutta,
the most famous trade center of India, worships and evil demon called Deumus,” just as to the west

332 Bergpostilla, oder Sarepta (Nuremberg, 1578), 154. Agricola also discusses cobalt in mines in De Re
Metallica: Translated from the First Latin Edition of 1556, trans. by L. H. Hoover (London: The Mining
Magazine, 1912), 214. However, Agricola does not make the direct association of demons and cobalt; he
merely notes that demons do occupy some mines later in the work (p. 217).
and south, wicked spirits called “Grigri” populate forest in Canada and Guinea.333 For this author,
both history and the known world proved that demons haunted Christians, as well as ancient and
foreign peoples.
On a slightly different approach, several theologians turned instead to earlier Christian
sources for precedent. A typical point of entry was John Cassian’s fifth-century treatise the
Conferences: Book 7, Chapter 32. There, the monastic author mentioned spirts called “Plani” and
“Bacucei” which “have taken possession of certain places or roads [where] they delight themselves
not indeed with tormenting the passers by whom they can deceive, but contenting themselves
merely with laughing at them and mocking them try to tire them out rather than injure them.”334
For ecclesiastical figures a millennium after Cassian’s lifetime, the excerpt was an authoritative
statement derived from one of the Desert Fathers. The passage draws distinction between a type
of devil that haunts specific locales with deception and mockery and other demons that sexually
tempted or physically tormented Christian individuals and communities. In effect, the passage
provided Christian theologians with a model of demonic being that enumerated different classes
of devils.
Discussing the whistling demon of Nuremberg, Johannes Nider cites the passage from
Cassian, rejecting suggestions that these noises and distractions were the work of demons called
incubi and succubi. Like Geiler, Nider also notably denies the opinion that human ghosts are the
culprits. Instead, he insists that among the several classes of demons, there are those that do no
harm except revel in childish deceits. 335 The same point is made by Heinrich Kramer in his

333 Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 72-78.
334 Conferences, in P. Schaff et al. (eds.) A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2
nd series
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), vol. 11, bk. 7, ch. 32, p. 374.
335 Formicarius, 5.2, 200.
infamous text on witches and witchcraft, the Malleus maleficarum. Again referencing Cassian,
Kramer prefigures Geiler’s sermon, noting that “demons come in many different varieties” and
there are “as many unclean spirits as pursuits among men.” Kramer then adds that the deceptions
and harassments performed by trickster demons were not only different in kind from the nocturnal
visitations of other infernal spirits, but also distinct from the torments of bodily possession enacted
by yet other demons. Rather than enticing men to lust or murder, Kramer claims, these teasers are
content with silly games and “are unable to harm anyone, at least not severely, but basically they
just play jokes.”336 Likewise, in his response to Emperor Maximillian, Johannes Trithemius evokes
the language of John Cassian when he speaks about “these evil spirits our ancestors called
Bacuceos homines,” whose sole purpose it to frighten and confuse pious Christians.337

The impetus to contrast minor demons with more harmful devils was also found in
exemplary literature. In a tale recorded by the thirteenth-century preacher Jacques de Vitry, the
Devil is said to have chaperoned a man’s adulterous wife while he was away on pilgrimage to
Compostela.338 The exemplum relates that the spirit invisibly protects the man’s wife by thwarting
the (apparently welcome) advances of several suitors and thereby preventing the sin of adultery.
At first glance, the story does not appear to involve a poltergeist demon, although we have later
clues that it was read as such. The sixteenth-century Zimmern Chronik retells the story, stating that

336 Heinrich Institoris, Malleus maleficarum, ed. and trans. by C. Mackay, vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2009), 102C, p. 248.
337 Antwort Herrn Johan Abts zu Spanhaim (1555), III, p. 43: “welche böse gayster unsere vorelter Bacuceos
338 Die Exempla des Jacob von Vitry: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Erzählungsliteratur des Mittelalters,
Quellen und Untersuchungen zur lateinischen Philologie des Mittelalters, 5: I: pt. 3, ed. G. Frenken
(Munich: C.H. Becksche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1914), No. 64. For translation I have used W.D. Paden,
“Mt. 1352: Jacques de Vitry, the Mensa Philosophica, Hödeken, and Tennyson.” The Journal of American
Folklore 58 (1945): 35-47.
the spirit engages in “noises or knocking” (“gerumpel oder klopfen”) in the man’s home.339
Johannes Trithemius, Johann Weyer, and the Jesuit Petrus Thyraeus also included the tale as an
example of demonic infestation. Weyer places the anecdote in his chapter on the vernacular names
attributed to so-called harmless demons, citing Trithemius specifically.340 Thyraeus repeatedly
tells of the “infestatem Spiritum” as evidence that wicked spirits haunt human habitations.341
What is interesting about the tale is how the demon guards the woman from her own lustful
inclinations. Rather than eliciting sinful behavior, as premodern accounts would often tell of
demons, the story exhibits an ironic inversion of orthodox theological teachings about wicked
spirits. Numerous scholars have noted how the bonds between demons and women, in particular,
were common stock for narratives concerning moral and sexual transgressions. Dyan Elliott has
argued for two different religious narratives wherein incubi and succubi received considerable
examination in clerical literature. On the one hand, Elliot notes the manner in which the feminized
succubus stalks churchmen and served as an explanatory cause for nocturnal emissions. On the
other, real and illusory sexual relations between women and masculine incubi were seen as
“consensual, giving rise to a binding agreement not unlike the pact imputed to the sorcerer and the
devil.”342 According to Elliott, medieval discourses on this sexually-charged apparition

339 Froben Christof Graf von Zimmern, Zimmerische Chronik, hrsg. von K. A. Barack (Tübingen:
Literarischer Verein in Stuttgart, 1869), 90.
340 Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991) 74-6. For Trithemius, the tale is found first in
Chronicon Monasterii Hirsaugiensis (Basileae, 1559) 160-61. In the last section of this chapter, I
demonstrate that another version of the story exists in Trithemius’ revised history of the monastery at
341 Loca infesta: hoc est, De infestis, ob molestantes daemoniorum et defunctorum hominum spiritus, locis,
liber unus (Cologne: Cholinus, 1598), ch 1, p.8.
342 Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 54.
demonstrates concerns over clerical purity and celibacy, bodily pollution, and especially claims of
carnal vulnerability orbiting women.
In his work Demon Lovers, Walter Stephens has similarly commented on the central
importance of incubi to demonological arguments from our period. Deftly arguing that “demontheorists” were skeptical about the reality of demonic beings, Stephens contends that “the real
demon lovers, the persons who most ardently desired physical relationships with embodied devils,
were the theologians themselves,” rather than the women reported to have had intimate relations
with demons.343 Like Elliott, Stephens highlights the importance of the incubus in widespread
debates over the possibility of human copulation with spiritual creatures. The studies of Elliot and
Stephens thus foreground how late medieval ecclesiastical authors wrote extensively about the
influence of succubi and incubi in human affairs.
Nider, Kramer, and many of their successors felt compelled to write at length about the
specific assaults of succubi and incubi, because their liaisons with humanity (often women) helped
substantiate claims of witchcraft. To some extent, Vitry’s devilish apologue even appears to suit
this conclusion. It emphasizes how the voluntary actions of the woman are especially licentious
and categorically worse than the those of the Devil. In later iterations of the story, the woman even
dabbles in practices that witchcraft theorists would have certainly associated with malefica: in
order to cure herself of the Devil’s contraceptive presence, she “used many and various remedies
made from shellfish.”344 Remarkable references like these could help establish and sustain learned
late medieval worries over malefic women in tales of demonic encounter.

343 Demon Lovers (2002), 26.
344 This comment is actually omitted from Chronicon Monasterii Hirsaugiensis (Basileae, 1559) 160-61,
as well as Weyer’s Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991). It is found in Joannis Trithemii
[. . .] Annalium Hirsaugiensium, 2 vols. (St Gallen, 1690), 1:395–97. I explain the differences between the
two accounts from Trithemius in the last section of this chapter.
Yet the anecdote also distances itself from the sole conclusion that the man’s wife is a
witch. Indeed, didacticism rather than condemnation is prominent throughout the tale. At the
story’s start, for instance, Vitry evokes the moral lesson of Gregory the Great. Upon leaving for
Compostela, the man casually commends his wife to the Devil with hasty words. As discussed in
Chapter 2, High medieval exempla often teach that careless words can invoke evil spirits that lay
ready to intervene in human affairs. Moreover, while the episode clearly exhibits the woman’s
moral failures by foregrounding the misuse of her body, it also highlights the culpability of her
lovers “in a campaign to reach the object of their evil desires.” In general, the Devil does more
than just a protect the wife from unchaste behavior. The infernal spirit comments on the morality
of human behavior, telling the man upon his return: “Take back your wife whom you commended
to me. I have guarded her with great difficulty and trouble. I would rather guard ten wild mares
than so evil a woman.” The scene ironizes how the wife ought not need a spiritual chaperone, nor
to this end should the husband commission a spiritual protector. Stated differently, the human
beings, rather than the spiritual creature, lack Christian virtues and common sense.
With regard to the broader subject of poltergeist demons, it is hardly surprising that later
authors would repeat this tale in varying forms. Vitry portrays the wicked spirit as a relatively
minor, even ambiguous nuisance. In many ways, the demon serves as something of an unlikely
spiritual guardian. For our purposes, the Devil’s unseen presence and demonic afflictions are
markedly less harmful than (and deliberately contrasted with) the many tales about sexualized
demons. In this sense, the story suits the later distinctions made by Nider, Kramer, and Geiler: that
minor demons were often considered distinct from conceptions of incubi and succubi. As pliable
instruments to catch an audience’s attention, medieval exempla that mention such spirits could
emphasize different aspects of demonic being for the purposes of moral reflection.
Given the spectrum of afflictions afforded poltergeist demons, the subject also appeared in
treatises dealing with witches and witchcraft. As we have seen, these spirits frequently irritated
humanity with muffled noises, although physical harm and human death were also real possibilities
easily relatable to the activities of malefic women and men. It is important to stress, however, that
while late medieval attitudes towards poltergeists could be absorbed into mainstream discourses
on witchcraft, they were by no means exclusive to them. Witches were said to serve and employ
demons for deeds that diversely informed grand theories of diabolical conspiracy against the
church and humankind. Uses of demonic magic and maleficia ranged from inciting mortal sins to
many of the physical misfortunes described above. Depending on the author and context witches,
demons, and magic had variegated roles to play in explaining human suffering.
Yet, scholars run the risk of overlooking other cultural motifs inherent to this literature, if
they focus solely on late medieval and early modern charges of witchcraft. In the eyes of many
churchmen, witches were an immediate concern, often dealt with at length and in great detail. The
very same authors also reflected on the realities of everyday life, where unexplained occurrences
perplexed the instinctive patterns of mass culture. One specific concern was that the home itself
might become a site of demonic infestation. For this reason, Christians had to be made aware of
the Devil’s capacity to manipulate the household and its inhabitants. From this perspective,
discussions of poltergeist demons might dovetail with anxieties over witchcraft, but they were also
a method by which the boundaries natural and supernatural causes were delimited. Rather than a
separate ontological category of spiritual being, they served the very practical purpose of
describing how demons disrupted tranquil spaces and Christian lives.
In many cases, this amounted to descriptions of how fallen angels wasted Christians’ time
and energy. Here, the breaking of pots and other noisy activities were detrimental insofar as they
demanded a great deal of unwarranted attention. In numerous accounts, demonic activities were
nothing but illusions that amounted to an elaborate hoax. As Georgius Agricola commented: the
Cobali “seem to do many things when actually they do nothing.” Johann Weyer echoed this
sentiment, claiming that ostensibly “gentle” demons “are active in households especially at night
during the first period of sleep, and, by the noises they make, they seem to be performing the duties
of servants—descending the stairs, opening doors, building a fire, drawing water, preparing food,
and performing all the other customary chores—when they are really doing nothing at all.”345 This
line of argument helped explain the ubiquitous claim that some spirits do less or no harm at all.
Quite literally, “no harm” could communicate that demonic illusions “do nothing.”346
Complementing this idea, the language of demonic games and tricks often suited the
critiques of court jesters and minstrels. William of Auvergne made the allusion explicit in the
thirteenth century, calling minor poltergeist spirits “joculatores” (professional entertainers) and
“joculares” (jugglers).347 The medieval practices of minstrelsy and juggling were never
ecclesiastically condemned, although churchmen often warned against the sinful vices associated
with forms of vain entertainment.348 The early Church Fathers emphasized how the banquets,

345 Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991), 72.
346 This idea is evident in William Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man, where the English scholar and
theologian ridiculed the rituals of the Catholic papacy by likening them to the illusions of the folk spirit
called Robin Goodfellow, thereby suggesting that neither the pope nor the demonic spirit actually perform
what they say they do. See The VVhole Workes of W. Tyndall, Iohn Frith, and Doct. Barnes […] (London:
John Day, 1573; Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery copy, Early English Books Online), p. 174.
347 De Universo, 1:1030. Johannes Nider also used this terminology, Formicarius, 5.2, 200.
348 Christopher Page, The Owl and the Nightingale: Musical Life and Ideas in France 1100-1300 (Berkeley
& Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 14-15; Nicoletta Caputo, “Entertainers ‘on the
Vagabond Fringe’: Jugglers in Tudor and Stuart England,” in English Renaissance Scenes: From Canon to
Margins, ed. by P. Pugliatti and A. Serpieri (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 311-26. In the sixteenth century,
this idea would be linked specifically to early modern theater; see, Emily Butterworth, “The Work of the
Devil? Theatre, the Supernatural, and Montaigne’s Public Stage,” Renaissance Studies 22:5 (Novemenber
2008): 705-22.
games, and theatrical shows of poets and performers helped preserve ancient paganism and,
therefore, the worship of demons. Medieval and early modern authors followed this line of
reasoning and equated vulgar entertainment with the magical arts. The Catholic Archbishop of
Uppsala Olaus Magnus, for example, affirmed that several of the so-called gods of the Goths and
northern peoples won “possession of simple folk’s minds by their skill in some marvelous trick of
jugglery.”349 Magnus reserved four chapters on the specific issue of actors, jesters, buffoons,
comics, natural fools, and “dumb music.”350 In his diatribe against these pointless activities, the
archbishop directly associated such dubious occupations with demonic oblations. Citing Vincent
de Beauvais, Magnus claimed that “to give anything to actors was tantamount to sacrificing to
demons.”351 The unspoken logic behind such critiques was that, like those humans skilled in
legerdemain, demons deceived Christians with counterfeit imitations of what was actually
happening. As such, Christians were better off ignoring them entirely by engaging in other pious
and communal activities.
Premodern Household Spirits
Orbiting human encounters with noisy demons, late medieval and early modern authors
also addressed a number of beliefs and practices associated with benign household spirits.
According to traditional lore, these ethereal beings occupied premodern homes and often either
demanded reward for keeping the house tidy or punished those who did not. Akin to learned

349 Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Rome: Ioannes Maria de Viottis, 1555); English edition, which
I use here, as Description of the Northern Peoples, trans. P. Fisher and H. Higgens, ed. P. Foote, 3 vols,
(London: Hakluyt Society, 1996-1998), bk 3, ch. 4, pp. 152-53.
350 Ibid., bk 15, chs 31-34, pp. 756-60.
351 Ibid., bk 15, ch 31, p. 757.
discourses on poltergeists, the standard position of the clerical elite regarding ambiguous spirts
was one of unrelenting antagonism. At the end of the fourteenth century, the ecclesiastical leader
and theologian Jean Gerson produced a list of twenty-eight theological “errores” included in his
treatise De erroribus circa artem magicam. The pronouncement, originally made by the Faculty
of Theology at Paris in 1398, rejected in error 23 “that some demons are good, others kindly, others
all-knowing, and others existed neither in a state of salvation nor in a state of damnation.”352
Johann Weyer attached the entire list of errors to his De praestigiis daemonum, as did copies of
the Malleus maleficarum in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Without citing all twentyeight condemnations, the French political philosopher Jean Bodin drew attention to error 23 twice
in his Démonomanie (1580), emphasizing the “resolution…to cut off the excuses and impiety of
those who call upon and invoke devils under the guise of good demons.”353 The statement
definitively denied that some demonic spirits were tepid in their hatred of humanity. This was a
non-issue with regard to poltergeist hauntings, for these noisy spirits usually provoked fear and
alarm appropriate to orthodox theological teachings. In cases of morally ambivalent spiritual
creatures, however, Gerson’s warning gave preachers a means to confront traditions that seemed
to welcome demons into Christian homes.
Multiple sources indicate that familiarity with such spirits was a relative commonplace.
The itinerant fifteenth-century singer and poet Michael Beheim commented that “many believe

352 Gerson, “De erroribus circa artem magicam ,” in Œuvres completes, ed. by Palémon Glorieux (Paris:
Declée, 1971), 89: “Quod aliqui daemones boni sunt, aliqui benigni, aliqui omniscientes, alii nec salvati
nec damnati.” I have used the translation in Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance (1991),
353 On the Demon-Mania of Witches, trans. by R. Scott (Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance
Studies, 1995), bk 1.1 and explicitly alluded to at 1.2.
that every home has a domestic spirit and those who honor it is given fortune and prestige.”354
Decades later, a young Martin Luther echoed these sentiments, explaining to the people of
Wittenberg how “some people have certain domestic demons, in the same way as there used to
once be lares familiares, who sometimes appear by day. Some people in the vernacular call these
Vichtelen, others Helekeppelin. It is believed that a house is most fortunate, if it is occupied by
these illusions of demons; people are more afraid to give offence to those demons than to God and
the whole world.”355 Where Beheim’s declaration is morally equivocal about these creatures,
Luther assumes the role of the orthodox theologian and preacher by demonizing spirits of the
home. The Lutheran chronicler Enoch Widmann recalled with similar scorn that “Schretlein and
little devils” were tame (kirre) and familiar (heimlich) manifestations in German households.
The above comments all indicate that many people variously accepted ethereal creatures as
relatively harmless domestic companions.
A recurrent German expression in these accounts is the spirit identified as a schrat, schretl,
or schrätlin. Beheim, Trithemius (in the introduction above), and Widmann respectively employ
the term schreczlin, Schrätlin, or Schretlein for purportedly spirits of the home, whereas Luther
calls similar beings Vichtelen and Helekeppelin. The origins of these designations remain obscure,
although folklorists have remarked that some meaning can be gleaned from their later usages. For

354 “Auch etlich glauben haben, Jeglichs haus hab ein schreczlin: wer das ert, dem geb es gut und er.” Cited
in J. Hansen, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Hexenwahns und der Hexenverfolgung im
Mittelalter (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1963), 208.
355 Decem Praecepta Wittenbergensi praedicata populo (1518), vol. 1, p. 406: “Habent quidam domesticos
quosdam daemones, velut lares familiares olim habebantur, qui aliquando per diem apparent. Hos vulgo
vocant alii ‘vichtelen’, alii ‘helekeppelin’, Et creditur domus fortunatissima esse, quae talibus daemonum
illusionibus occupata fuerit, et plus timent offendere eos daemones quam deum et totum mundum.”
356 Chronik der Stadt Hof, hrsg. von Heinrich Wirth (Hof: 1843), 106-107.
instance, the diminutive “schrätzel” may be related to the word “rätzel,” which in medieval and
contemporary German means “riddle.” In Dichtung und Wahrheit, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
speaks of rätzel in the traditional sense of a riddle or puzzle, but also adds that it can mean a person
of dubious character with adjoining eyebrows. Swiss, French, and German folklore also employ
the term rätzel to describe unsavory figures like dwarves, goblins, and demons, although I have
not found any reference to a monobrow.
357 Here, the implication is that the schrat is a mysterious
personality generally associated with some unpleasant appearance.
Equally puzzling, Luther calls household demons of this sort Wichtelen and Helekeppelin.
In modern German, the term “wichtel” is still employed to mean a furtive spirit of the home; it
may also refer to the practice of anonymously giving presents to friends and loved ones (usually
around Christmas). A wichtel in contemporary parlance thus communicates an invisible spirt and
something like having a “Secret Santa,” as it were. Most importantly, both meanings retain the
premodern idea of unseen or disguised action. A “helekeppel,” on the other hand, is synonymous
with the German word “Tarnkappe,” or cloak of invisibility. As Charles Zika has shown, in the
sixteenth century conceptions of magic hoods were associated in popular belief with diverse
invisible spirits and communicated the Devil’s duplicity and capacity for manufacturing
The premodern significations afforded spirits of the home differed according to geographic
location, as well as cultural and linguistic traditions. Alphonso de Spina, for instance, reported
domestic disturbances fomented by spirits of Spanish folklore called duen de casa. As would be

357 John Walz, “The Origin of the Word ‘Räzel’ in Goethe’s Dichtung und Warheit,” Modern Language
Notes 15:7 (Nov. 1900): 205-206.
358 Exorcising Our Demons: Magic, Witchcraft and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill,
2003), 481-521.
expect of an orthodox theologian, Spina reifies these household spirits as demonic beings within
the broader discourse of his Fortalitium fidei.
359 Akin to the German wichtel, duen de casa would
prove a remarkably durable expression, which is spoken in Spanish today as duende. The
twentieth-century poet and playwright, Frederico Garciá Lorca, famously expatiated on the
subject in his poem “Play and Theory of the Duende” (1933), which describs the modern
Andalusian appeal and cultural significance of household spirits. Garciá Lorca refers to these
creatures as Bacchic or Socratic daemons that artistically inspire authors, poets, artists, and
especially flamenco performers to this day. He even flirts with the idea that when an audience cries
“Ole!” in recognition of a flamenco performer’s talent (his inspired duende), the cry shares striking
parallels with those in Arab music and dance that explicitly praise “Allah! Allah!” Garciá Lorca’s
poem thus suggests that duende personify divine inspiration and possession which engender
artistic creativity.360
Garciá Lorca’s analysis is intriguing because it poetically suggests that the relationship
between spirit, human, and home was (and still is) one fraught with significant semantic and
cultural tensions. In effusive language meant to evoke mysterious appeal and playfulness, Garciá
Lorca writes:
I don’t want anyone to confuse the duende with the theological demon of doubt at whom
Luther, with Bacchic feeling, hurled a pot of ink in Eisenach, nor the Catholic devil,
destructive and of low intelligence, who disguised himself as a bitch to enter convents, nor
the talking monkey carried by Cervantes’ Malgesi in his comedy of jealousies in the
Andalusian woods. No. The duende I mean, secret and shuddering, is descended from that
blithe daemon, all marble and salt, of Socrates, whom it scratched at indignantly on the day
when he drank hemlock, and that other melancholy demon of Descartes, diminutive as a

359 Fortalitium fidei (1487), bk 5, consideration 10, difference 2.
360 Frederico García Lorca, Teoría y juego del duende, trans. by A.S. Kline, retrieved from
green almond, that, tired of lines and circles, fled along the canals to listen to the singing
of drunk sailors.361
On this perspective, duende was and is an elusive force or entity that mischievously generates
artistic inspiration. It obstinately resists ecclesiastical definition while participating in and thereby
giving meaning to the unseen processes of human history, literature, and life.
Admittedly, this modern literary perspective strays far from historical notions of medieval
household spirits, although the allusion to duende as an ambivalent source of spiritual meaning
resonates with ecclesiastical critiques of these creatures. For premodern churchmen, superficially
benign demons occupied Christian homes wanting, in Trithemius’ words, “nothing other than to
be perceived as gods and holy spirits.”362 This was all the more worrisome, as Luther preached,
because people were said to “believe that good fortune comes to a house, where such demons play
their tricks.”363 The vast majority of extant source material on household spirits express similar
condemnations, some of which date back to the thirteenth century.
In the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council, for instance, clerical authors handled a number
of penitential themes aimed at the spiritual care of Christian souls. One little known text in this
pastoral tradition refers to idolatrous customs in the home. Entitled the Summa fratris Rudolfi de
confessionis discretione, the document is attributed to the Cistercian monk Rudolf—about whom
very little is known. The author disparagingly recounts practices and beliefs held by German
settlers in Silesia between 1235 and 1250:
In novis domibus, siue In new homes or into
quas de nouo intrare contigerit, those which people should move,
ollas plenas rebus diversis diis they bury vessels filled with different
penatibus, quos Stetewaldiu things in corners and behind the hearth

361 Ibid.
362 Trithemius, Antwort Herrn Johan Abts zu Spanhaim, III, p. 43.
363 Decem Praecepta Wittenbergensi praedicata populo (1518), vol. 1, p. 406.
vulgus appellat, sub terra in for spirits that common people call
diversis angulis et quandoque Stetewaldiu. Nor do they allow the
fodiunt retro larem, vnde nec pouring of anything behind the hearth.
retro larem fundi quicquam And they throw from their food bits
permittunt. Et de cibis suis illuc to appease the spirits in the home.
quandoque proiciunt, ut habitantibus Should we not call this idolatry?364
in domo procipientur. Quid hoc non
ydolatriam appellemus?
The passage aligns customs involving spirits called Stetewaldiu (or Stetewalden in another extant
manuscript) with idolatry. Throughout the later Middle Ages, the critique of idolatry centered on
the attempt of Christians to earn material benefits through ritualistic practices. Here, Brother
Rudolf condemns activities wherein Christian folk either interred containers at the edges of the
home or behind the stove in order to “appease the spirits in the home.”
An abundance of textual evidence supports the idea that favorable spirits were associated
with the home. The author of the fifteenth-century Dives and Pauper alludes to the dubious
“obseruauncys in the new mone or in the new yere, as settynge of mete or drynke be nyghte on the
benche to fedyn Al-holde (or Gobelyn).”365 The reported ritual suggests that certain spiritual
beings expected diverse offerings (e.g., food or drink) from human communities and in return their
human counterparts received some form of service from the spirit. In the thirteenth century,
William of Auvergne similarly wrote with contempt about beliefs in “Satia” or “Abundia,” and
how people apparently left out dishes of food or flasks of wine “in the expectation that such gifts
would be rewarded with fertility and prosperity for the home.” Étienne de Bourbon also alluded to

364 Joseph Klapper, “Deutscher Volksglaube in Schlesien in ältester Zeit” Mitteilungen der Schlesischen
Gesellschaft für Volkskunde 17 z(1915): 26-27. For commentary on Brother Rudolf and “Stetewaldiu,” see
especially Claude Lecouteux, Eine Welt im Abseits: Zur niederen Mythologie und Glaubenswelt des
Mittelalters (Dettelbach: Röll, 2000), 20; 154-156.
365 Dives and Pauper, Vol. 1-2, ed. by Priscilla Heath Barnum (London: Oxford University Press for the
Early English Text Society, 1976-1980), commandment I, p. 157, lines 5-7.
beliefs of this kind among rural folk in France.366 Brother Rudolf, William, and Étienne align these
practices with idolatry because God alone was to be commended for gifts of prosperity.
Of course, it might reasonably be claimed that these traditions are nothing more than the
projections of theologians seeking to impose their own values on vernacular traditions. Yet the
wealth of archeological evidence substantiating customs similar to those described above is
considerable. The scholarship of Tobias Gärtner, in particular, demonstrates that numerous
household rituals involving kitchen utensils were not uncommon in the later Middle Ages. Pots,
pans, and other forms of kitchenware have been found in the corners of late medieval German
homes in Bad Saulgau, Göttingen, and Dahlenburg. Likewise, in late medieval Goslar, Hannover,
and Brandenburg an der Havel we find earthenware jars and small pitchers buried under hearths.367
As Gärtner points out, both literary accounts and archeological evidence indicate that many late
German folk propitiated spirits in their homes despite ecclesiastical warning against the prescribed
harm of such activities.
In Brother Rudolph’s Summa, the hearth is mentioned twice as a focal point for such
spirited activities. As Carra Ferguson O’Meara reminds us, “to a person of the fifteenth century,
the hearth was a basic necessity of life: it provided light, warmth and the source of heat for cooking
and baking.”368 In very basic terms, the pre-industrial fireplace was what made the home a safe

366 Nancy Caciola, Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
2016), 161. The citation above concerning William of Auvergne contains Caciola’s own words, not
367 Tobias Gärtner, “Hausgeister im Mittelalter: Schriftliche Überlieferung und archäologische Funde,”
Mitteilugen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte 26 (2005): 23-26;
id., “Zur Interpretation mittelalterlicher Bauopfer aus Hannover,” Nachrichten aus Niedersachsens
Urgeschichte 74 (2005): 195-208. See Gärtner’s extensive bibliography as well.
368 “‘In the Hearth of the Virginal Womb’: The Iconography of the Holocaust in Late Medieval Art,” The
Art Bulletin 63:1 (1981): 82-83.
haven. It was a place where meat and vegetables were literally transformed in the home for
consumption, but also a location where family and friends regularly met. From a socialanthropological perspective, activities in and around the hearth helped sustain domestic livelihood
and well-being. Intriguingly, Ferguson O’Meara also indicates that the altar-like form of the hearth
may have made analogies between baking bread and preparing the Eucharist conspicuous.
Examining artistic representations of the Eucharistic altar, the household hearth, and the teachings
of Thomist theology, she argues that a complex web of symbolism orbited the late medieval hearth
in which the Eucharist, fire, and light communicated themes of divine mystery, health, and
prosperity.369 Small wonder, then, that the house and hearth might have also been associated with
other spiritual presences. The mid-fifteenth-century author of The Distaff Gospels, for instance,
claimed that some women thought boiling water on a dormant stove revealed whether witches
inhabited the home and repelled demons.370 As Amanda Vickery has famously argued, the house
served as a metaphor for the body: “the weak points were its orifices: the doorway, the windows,
the chimney and hearth.”371 In medieval Europe, it was widely accepted that wicked spirits might
invade the house and its occupants through such openings. The reports of Brother Rudolf and
others above anxiously indicate that some Christians propitiated diverse spirits of the home. In
different forms, these ethereal beings animated domestic life in meaningful ways—whether as
tricksters or protectors of the home.

369 Ibid.
370 Anonymous, The Distaff Gospels: A First Modern English Edition of Les Évangiles des Quenouilles,
trans. and ed. by M. Jeay and K. Garay (Peterborough, Ont.: Orchard Park, 2006), II.9 and gloss, p. 109.
371 Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 28ff.
See also About the House: Lévi-Strauss and Beyond, ed. by J. Carsten and S. Hugh-Jones (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995).
While the provenance of these traditions remains elusive, a few studies have considered
earlier indices that may have informed beliefs in trolls, fairies, and their kin in domestic
situations.372 Tutelary deities were integral to Roman religions as guardians of the home and
empire, for example. Yet there is no direct evidence to suggest that late medieval vernacular
traditions were aware of, much less entertained, Roman systems of belief and practice. More
approximate to late medieval culture was literature on the Christianization of Northern European

territories that features plentiful spirits co-inhabiting the natural world with humans. The
thirteenth-century Kristni saga, for example, tells of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity in the
late tenth century. Often described as a “missionary” or projected ecclesiastical history of Iceland,
the retrospective narrative frames a proleptic division of the text: “the first half in heathendom and
the second in Christianity.”373 In the first half, the saga relates the deeds of the first bishop in
Iceland named Friðrekr and the ensuing process of miraculously converting the inhabitants there.
The Kristni saga begins by noting how a group of thirteen Icelandic men were initially
reticent to accept Christianity. Upon the arrival of Bishop Friðrekr, the men challenge the holy
man to prove his spiritual potency, explaining that they already have a source of spiritual sanctuary:
a stone at Giljá that has been “used to sacrifice, and they claimed that their guardian spirit lived in
it.” The brief scene posits an ultimatum of sorts in which the native Icelanders will only consent
to “the bishop or the spirit in the stone.”374 In typical hagiographical style, the bishop triumphantly

372 Erika Lindig, Hausgeister: Die Vorstellungen übernatürlicher Schützer und Helfer in der deutschen
Sagenüberlieferung (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1987); Dagmar Linhart, Hausgeister in
Franken: Zur Phänomenologie, Überlieferungsgeschichte und gelehrten Deutung bestimmter hilfreicher
oder schädlicher Sagengestalten (Dettelbach: J. H. Röll, 1995).
373 Íslendingabók: The Book of the Icelanders, Kristni Saga: The Story of the Conversion, trans. by Siân
Grønlie (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2006), 53.
374 Ibid.
breaks the stone after chanting over it—presumably banishing the residing spirit—and all but one
of the men thereafter receive baptism. The introductory episode thus communicates that the stone
was thought to possess some spiritual power and protective benefit. The natives are initially slow
to respond to the bishop for fear of angering the spirit and losing their spiritual custodian.
Thereafter, they witness the bishop’s holiness and power over the foreign spirit. In much of Norse
saga literature one finds the idea that spiritual inhabited portions of the landscape. While the
account does not feature household spirits, it nevertheless conveys the idea that spiritual beings
animated the physical world, serving as patron or guardian presence.
Valerie Flint has traced similar early medieval “complaints about persistent non-Christian
practice, a complaint found very widely in the sermons and the legislation of the period…[that]
deplores the reverence still displayed toward stones and trees and fountains, and poured out upon
places where the ways on highroads forked or parted or crossed.”375 With examples ranging from
Augustine to Burchard von Worms in the eleventh century, Flint elucidates the demonization of
pagan places of reverence as interpreted by early medieval theologians. More recently, Ellen F.
Arnold has found a ninth-century monastic account of demonic infestation.376 In the Vita Remacli,
the monk Remacle is glorified as a founder and leader in establishing Christian monasteries by
evangelization of the physical environment—in this case one associated with pagan ritual beliefs
and therefore demons. Both Flint and Arnold highlight varied processes of conversion of a pagan
landscape—physical and spiritual–into a Christian one.
Although the examples from Flint and Arnold, like the reference to the Kristni saga, are
much earlier than the fifteenth century, scholars have highlighted that the process of

375 The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 204.
376 Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 179-80.
Christianization did not end in the eleventh century. Stella Rock has shown that: “Rus, like
Scandinavia and the Baltic region, was Christianized comparatively late, and therefore by the
twelfth century had far more limited exposure to Christian ideas and culture than, say, France.”
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania officially adopted the Christian tradition only in 1387—with the
even later conversion of the ethnic region of Samogitia in 1413.377 These are important points
because a cultural awareness of Christian conversion in Northern and Eastern Europe may have
informed the presence and demonization of residual pagan beliefs and practices.378
In the late Middle Ages, conceptions of paganism, in particular, were often fitted into a
broader category of spiritual creatures, including beings such as trolls, elves, and night-flying
female spirits, among others. As the German scholar Karin Baumann has shown, the fifteenthcentury “Wiener Schule” created catechismal materials that designated multiple spiritual
apparitions as “superstitious” (ungelawben):
Martin von Amberg Thomas Peuntner Stephen von Landskron
“Gewissensspiegel” “Christenlehre” “Himmelstrasse”
“…Die do gelawben “…die da gelauben “…oder glauben…
an dy perchten mit an die perecht mit …an die fraw percht
der eysren nasen der eysnem nasen oder fraw hold
an herodiades an herodiadis an herodiadis
an dyana an dyana an diana
an dy heidenischen die haidnisch dy heidnisch göttin oder
an dy nachtvaren an die nachtuarunden an dy nach varünden
an dy pilweisen an dye pilweys an die pilweis

377 Popular Religion in Russia: ‘Double Belief’ and the Making of an Academic Myth (New York:
Routledge, 2007), 8.
378 Here, Olaus Magnus’s treatise, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1555) is exemplary. It relates the
process of historical conversion for people in the northern lands, often commenting on the persistence of
vernacular beliefs about trolls, elves, and many other spiritual creatures, which he calls demons.
an dy hynnepritten an die hinuirtigen an die hinbrigen
an dy truten an die truten an dye truten
an dy schretlen an dy schretel an dye schratl
an dy vnhulden an die unholden an dye vnholden
an werwolf an dy wifbolff an dye berbolff
an den alp an dye alpp an die alpp
oder waz solichs und was soliechs oder an ander gar
vngelawbes ist…” ungelawben ist…” manigerlay laicherey
lupperey vnd getichtung…”379
The three lists above translate roughly as: “To believe in Lady Perchten or Holda, Herodias, Diana,
the heathen gods, night flights, pilweisen[?], hynnepritten[?], trolls, domestic spirits, monsters,
werewolves, elves or any others like this is impious.” Vernacular claims about spirits and their
appearance could thus merge into wider debates about pagan superstitions and the type of invasive
spiritual creature seeking to infest Christian homes. The Vienna school assigns foolish
(“närrische”) and heathen (“heidenische”) beliefs to these traditions; it also importantly remarked
how “many Christians were also regrettably counted among them.” For this reason, fifteenth- and
sixteenth-century churchmen felt compelled to mediate on why such beliefs persisted.
It is also remarkable that in the catechismal teachings of the “Wiener Schule,” the authors
unanimously begin with reference to the diverse names associated with a “heathen goddess.” As
early as the eleventh century, Burchard of Worms compiled his Decretum, which covered an
extensive list of “superstitious” beliefs and practices. As noted in Chapter 2, Burchard included in
his collection of canons and codes a document called the “canon Episcopi” taken from Regino of
Prüm around the year 900. The canon would become authoritatively entrenched in canon law with
Gratian’s Decretum in the twelfth century. It recounted the delusion of “certain wicked women”
who held that they travelled with the goddess Diana at night as her mistress. The allusion to the

379 Aberglaube für Laien: Zur Programmatik und Überlieferung spätmittelalterlicher Superstitionenkritik
(Würzburg: Königshausen u. Neumann, 1989), 368.
Teutonic goddesses Frau Holda and Perchte, as well as the Greco-Roman diety Diana, in the
fifteenth century by Amberg, Peuntner, and Landskron suggests that these authors turned to canon
law when dealing with reports of other vernacular names attributed to spiritual beings. In the minds
of such late medieval clerics, the variety of vernacular terms for spirits could be explained as
illusory names falsely given to fallen angels. On this view, the miscellany of popular beliefs was
less remarkable than the threat posed by demons in counterfeiting pagan deities.
That prominent theologians and preachers sought to curb vernacular customs associated
with household spirits intimates these ethereal creatures enjoyed considerable popular currency.
Whatever the church taught them about the wickedness of minor demons, vernacular traditions
appear to have continued investing some amount of meaning into domestic apparitions. After all,
these spirits were reported to offer individuals and communities a sense of wonder and surprise
about the home. The story of the spirit Hutgin, to which we now turn, offers a charming illustration
of this idea.
Johannes Trithemius and the Tale of Hutgin
In his late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century annals of the Abbey at Hirsau, Johannes
Trithemius (1462-1516) recorded a lengthy narrative concerning an ambiguous creature named
Hutgin. Dated to the year 1132, Trithemius begins the entry by stating that a local spirit named
Hutgin wore a felt cap (pileus), and that the rural folk of the diocese of Hildesheim thus also
referred to creature as “Pileatus.” Likewise, the abbot recalls how the Saxons generally
distinguished the spiritual creature as “ein Hudeckin” or “Hütchen.” These introductory remarks
give the impression of a highly localized spiritual creature, one with which people in German lands
would have been relatively familiar. Trithemius then describes how Hutgin
appeared visibly in rustic garb to many persons as often as he wished…speaking, laughing,
and taking pleasure in people’s company; he answered questions put to him and worked
many marvels…and used to appear often in the kitchen, speaking to and assisting the cooks
sometimes visibly, sometimes invisibly. He did not hurt or offend anyone unless he had
been injured first. However, he remembered insults and resented mockery, paying back
those who inflicted abuse upon him.
Thereafter, Trithemius delineates four short, interconnecting episodes that were likely collated
from oral sources to make a more robust narrative: 1. Hutgin advises the bishop of Hildesheim in
successfully joining the neighboring county of Winzenburg to that of Hildesheim, 2. The spirit
takes horrific revenge on a young boy that harasses Hutgin while working in the kitchen, 3. An
anonymous man commissions the spiritual creature to act as a chaperone to his wife’s chastity
while he is away on a business, and 4. Hutgin fashions a laurel ring (annulum ex foliis lauri) for
an unnamed priest and turned “a simple and unlearned cleric…into a great scholar for a while.”
The entry abruptly concludes with the statement that the Bishop of Hildesheim permanently
banished Hutgin from the county of Hildesheim.
Notably, the third episode is an alternative version of Vitry’s exemplum above, one that in
the sixteenth-century existed as an entertaining tale of poltergeist affliction. To some extent, all
four episodes evoke this idea. Throughout the entry, Trithemius emphasizes Hutgin’s invisibility
and audible participation in the community of Hildesheim. At numerous points throughout the four
episodes Hutgin catches his human interlocutors unaware with his (at times) inconspicuous
presence and speech. For instance, the spirit is said to audibly wake the Bishop Bernard from his
sleep, terrify the master chef with a loud voice, keep the city guards alert with shouts, and invisibly
speak to a man gone on a long journey. The entry thus foregrounds how human figures react with
fright and surprise to Hutgin, because the spirit’s precise location remains indiscernible to the
majority of Christian observers.
Yet, the passage also accentuates the idea that haunting demons were household spirits that
act as “surrogate human beings, with bodies and passions and moral ambiguities.”380 Trithemius
frames the entire narrative by stating that the spirit regularly engaged in communal acts by day,
such as cooking, congenial conversation, and “customary behavior” (consuetudine familiaris
factus). We are told that the Hutgin delights to be with men (delectabatur esse cum hominibus),
“speaks familiarly to all” (respondens familiariter omnibus), and participates in multiple mundane
human activities. At different points throughout the tale, the spirit also counsels a churchman (the
Bishop of Hildesheim) regarding “many dangers,” and later Hutgin helps protect an unchaste
woman from vicious debauchery. The spirit of Hildesheim is even given the general qualification
at the entry’s start that “no one feared him.”
Furthermore, physical and anthropomorphic descriptions are conspicuous throughout
Trithemius’ anecdote. These presumably serve to portray Hutgin as an almost-human creature with
familiar attributes and inclinations. In this, the account seems to hedge in Hutgin’s spiritual (or
demonic) potency by emphasizing a certain materiality to the creature: Hutgin appears in “rustic
garb,” his head is “covered with a felt cap,” and works “with his hands.” The household spirit is
also given an actual name with the epithet “capped one,” suggesting an additional layer of
familiarity for the community of Hildesheim and Lower Saxony. In short, Hutgin is presented as
a relatively approachable figure but one that also resonated with ecclesiastical condemnations of
demonic spirits.
My interest in Trithemius’ tale stems from the ways in which it communicates learned
theological assumptions poltergeists and household spirits. In what follows, I will demonstrate

380 Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe (2010), 45. See also Cameron, “Angels, Demons, and Everything In
Between: Spiritual Beings in Early Modern Europe,” in Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of
Spirits in the Early Modern Period, eds. C. Copeland and J. Machielsen (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 17-27.
how the passage alludes to and appropriates elements from folklore to serve Trithemius’ own
moral-theological purposes. Before looking at how the story conveys orthodox demonological
attitudes, however, it is important to note the entry’s history of transmission because at least two
versions (or three, counting the Zimmern Chronik) exist, and these indicate subtle variations in
demonological emphasis and interpretation. Most importantly, Trithemius revised his first account
of Hutgin so as to provide a far more concise metaphysical explanation of Hutgin’s demonic
actions and intent.
Trithemius recorded his chronicle of Hirsau in two separate texts that are accessible today
via printed early modern editions: the Chronicon Hirsaugiense (Basileae, 1599) and the Annales
Hirsaugienses (St. Gallen, 1690). The earlier of these two works, the Chronicon Hirsaugiense,
Trithemius started in 1495 and finished as a manuscript in 1503. The Chronicon notably
commences as a Klostergeschichte with the year 1049 and ends its report with 1370. Then around
1509, Trithemius began the Annales Hirsaugienses, which is a much more extensive account of
Hirsau’s history in two volumes. Like the Chronicon, it starts in 1049 but continues to 1514, the
year in which Trithemius finished his second manuscript.381

381 The Chronicon version is found in Trithemius, Chronicon Monasterii Hirsaugiensis (Basileae, 1559)
160-61, and an English translation of the Hutgin tale is found in Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in
the Renaissance (1991), 74-76. The later Annales version is found in Joannis Trithemii [. . .] Annalium
Hirsaugiensium, 2 vols. (St Gallen, 1690), 1:395–97. The tale is also condensed in Petrus Thyraeus, Loca
infesta: hoc est, De infestis, ob molestantes daemoniorum et defunctorum hominum spiritus, locis, liber
unus (Cologne: Cholinus, 1598), Ch. I, pp. 8-9. Euan Cameron first identified the disparities between the
two tales and has helped by providing an English translation for the Annales account. For dating and
context, see Klaus Arnold, Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516) (Würzburg: Kommissionsverlag F.
Schöningh, 1991), 149, 150, 154, 240ff. On the transmission of the two texts, see Jos Bergman, Wunibal
Zürcher aus Bludenz, Conventual in Weingarten, letzter Abt zu Hirschau…Handschrift der Annales
Hirsaugienses vom weitberühmten Abte Johannes Trithemius: Aus den Mitteilungen der k. k. CentralCommission z. Erf. U. Ert. Für Baudenkmale. (Wien, 1869), lix-lxi.
Both the Chronicon and Annales relate noteworthy events orbiting the monastery, and these
are presented in chronological order. To be clear, the two iterations of the chronicle of Hirsau do
not center on the theme of demonic infestation, although Trithemius does rely on knowledge and
stories collected from earlier chronicles, hagiography, and oral legend which sometimes mention
angels, demons, and saints, among others. As Noel Brann has shown, the Chronicon and Annales
bear the mark of northern Renaissance humanism, meaning Trithemius focuses on virtuous
occurrences in the past in order to inform moral action in the present.382 The Abbot of Sponheim
wrote his chronicles to preserve the sacred history of Hirsau, as well as to champion Catholic
wisdom and holiness in his own time.
Trithemius’ life would become embroiled in controversy around the time he was finishing
the Chronicon. At some point in 1503 or 1504, the French philosopher Carolus Bovillus, also
known as Charles de Bovelles, visited the Abbey of Sponheim and, after viewing a partially
finished manuscript by Trithemius entitled the Steganographia (c. 1500), Bovillus accused his host
of necromancy. In very general terms, Steganographia exhibits Trithemius’ fascination with
cryptology and the possibility of summoning angelic spirits to communicate over vast distances.
It memorably earned Trithemius the dubious status of occult magician in many ecclesiastical
circles. Thereafter, he would nevertheless find patronage from Emperor Maximillian I and was
widely read by his contemporaries and successors as an authority on ecclesiastical history, church
reform, and demonology.

382 The Abbot Trithemius (1462-1516): The Renaissance of Monastic Humanism (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 313-
383 Noel Brann, Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in
Early Modern Europe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 96-100.
For our purposes, the two early modern editions of the Hirsau chronicle evince slightly
different accounts of the Hutgin narrative. At first glance, the disparities appear minute in detail.
Both versions generally recount the outline of four episodes given above but with minor omissions
and additions in each. One of the most obvious variations is that the later Annales (1690 edition)
omits the brief episode in which Hutgin transforms a simple cleric into a learned scholar. Instead,
it states that the spirit was ultimately exiled from Hildesheim and then seen among a crowd of
people in Aachen. In the concluding narrative, Hutgin pleads with an anonymous man, who
recognized the spirit, to ask permission from the local bishop that the he (the spirit) be allowed to
return to Hildesheim. The man follows through with Hutgin’s request, but the Bishop Bernard
denies Hutgin the possibility of return to the diocese. In this version, the entry assumes an overtly
orthodox conclusion: ill-defined spiritual creatures should be expelled from Christian
communities, despite any ostensibly redeeming characteristics.
The Chronicon and Annales also introduce and identify Hutgin’s spiritual status in different
ways. The former text opens by designating Hutgin a “certain wicked spirit” (spiritus quidam
malignus). In contrast, the latter omits the word “malignus” altogether, favoring the ambivalent
designation “spiritus” throughout the entry. The term “dæmonium” is used later in the Annales, as
in the Chronicon, when Hutgin becomes irate with the young boy harassing the him in the kitchen.
More strikingly still, Hutgin’s actions are described differently in the two records. The Chronicon
initially states that “this spirit Hutgin worked many marvels” (iste spiritus Hukin multa mirabilia
fecit) but then confusingly announces in the concluding section how “this spirit worked miracles”
(spiritus iste miracula fecit). The Annales employs the phrase “plura miranda fecit” at the entry’s
start without mention of marvels or miracles in its conclusion. As discussed in Chapter 1, the
distinction between marvels and miracles was important in later medieval analyses, because it
helped delineate the boundaries of the natural world and the capabilities of spiritual creatures
therein. Theologians argued that blessed and fallen angels existed as created beings; they were said
to possess the capacity to produce marvels but never miracles—at least not of their own volition.
God could manifest miracles through demonic actions, but rarely did so. Following the teachings
of Thomas Aquinas, demonologists tended to foreground that God alone, the creator and sustainer
of the natural world, transcended the order of nature. By calling attention to the marvels produced
by demonic spirits in particular—a point which is left unclear in the Chronicon—theologians
sought to identify the limits of demonic power in relation to the divine will. With this in mind, the
so-called miracles of the spirit Hutgin introduce theological error into the account, perhaps in order
to reflect on popular storytelling as a source of entertainment.
By and large, Trithemius’ two Hutgin narratives are not so much contradictory as they are
revealing of varying degrees of demonological erudition. This is most evident where Trithemius
describes how the spirit punished the young boy and master chef in the kitchen. In both texts, we
are told that Hutgin worked with humans in the prelate’s court and kitchen. In the Chronicon, after
incessant harassment and having “repeatedly asked the master chef to stop the boy’s wrong-doing,”
the spirit retorts: “because you are loath to correct your boy at my request, I shall show you in a
few days hence how I am afraid of him.” Thereafter, the spiritual creature enacts his exaggerated
retaliation on the boy and chef:
not long after, when the weary boy was sleeping alone in the kitchen one
evening…[Hutgin] strangled him, tore him into pieces, put him into a pot, and began to
cook him over the fire. When the master chef had seen this, he began to curse the spirit,
who became further enraged and on the following day squeezed some hideous toads over
a roast which had been set above the fire on spits for the bishop and the members of the
court. He sprinkled the meat with the toad’s poison and blood. Being reviled once again by
the chef, he hurled him down from some planks concealing a pit. Then, keeping nightly
watch most diligently upon the city walls and the castle walls, he constrained all the guards
to remain awake.384
Generally speaking, both the Chronicon and Annales depict Hutgin’s spiritual vengeance in this
particular scene as inhuman (i.e., demonic). The boy’s incessant teasing of the spirit, as well as the
master chef’s failed intervention, trigger a wild reversal of how Hutgin is presented in the

example, between a “Spectrum” (a spirit or “substance without a body”) and “Visum” (“an
appearance or sight of a thing with is not”).441 The chapter also garners a host of Latin names for
diverse spirits and monsters found in ancient and medieval literature. Noting that the reader will
encounter diverse terms for human souls and domestic gods, such as “Lares,” “Lemures,”
“Manes,” and “Penates,” there is mention of devils called incubi, succubi, and ancient monsters
of the sea like “Tritones, Nereides, and Syrenes,” among many others. Over roughly eight pages,
the author enumerates a sizeable list of learned designations for marvelous events and creatures.
This linguistic addendum presumably alerted sixteenth-century readers and listeners to the inherent
difficulty involved with interpreting stories about spirits and sought to provide authorial guidance
on what these historical terms communicated.
The addition of a new (first) chapter on demonological terminology exemplifies some of
the lexical challenges that crop up when reading Das Gespensterbuch in different cultural
contexts.442 In particular, the multiple translations contain varied names for spirits that depend on
the language in use. Where the Latin text, as we have seen, rehearses meanings for terms like Lares
and Lemures, which could indicate good or evil spirits, the English text includes mention of “bugs
& Elues” as instances of these same spirits. The qualification no doubt extended Das
Gespensterbuch into a specifically vernacular English context, helping anglophone audiences
comprehend what ancient Latin names for certain spirits typically conveyed. The same mechanism
of cultural association is featured at various points throughout the German, Latin, English, and

441 Of Ghostes (1929), pp. 1-2.
442 Scholars have noted the complex ways in which translating demonological treatises of this period
potentially carry different cultural valences in different contexts. See, for example, Jonathan Schüz,
“Bodin’s Démonomanie in the German Vernacular” in The Reception of Bodin (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp.
French editions. In the chapter on melancholics, for instance, we recall how Lavater referenced the
disease called Ephialtes. The German text, however, reads: “Ephialtes or Incubus is a sickness
commonly called Schrättele.”
443 Unsurprisingly, the Latin, English, and French translations
exclude the original passage on “Schrättele”—a word with specific connotations for Germanspeaking people concerning minor spirits of the home (discussed in Chapter 3). Numerous other
examples could be listed here to the same effect: there are multiple linguistic and semantic
variations informing the translations of Das Gespensterbuch. While these differences are relatively
minor, they nevertheless demonstrate that Lavater and his translators sought to establish
associations for haunting spirits across a range of cultural contexts.
With this in mind, the several editions of Das Gespensterbuch confront modern readers
with provocative questions: As Lavater endeavors (in German and Latin) to delineate haunting
phenomena across Europe, how are we to interpret the different vernacular names for haunting
spirits? To what extent do these designations reflect alternate conceptions of what haunting could
mean? In what ways do these terms and their received traditions resist the orthodox theological
assumption—voiced by both Catholic and Protestant authors alike—that all such apparitions were
demonic in origin? In many ways, these questions animate Lavater’s treatise and the attempt to
account for haunting as a universal occurrence, but one that also evinced distinctive characteristics
across several cultural and linguistic settings.
The Book of Spirits: Book One
Das Gespensterbuch is divided into three “parts” (Teile) or books. The first is comprised
of inherited wisdom about spirits. It commences with accounts of specious hauntings and delimits

443 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 4v : “So ist Ephialtes oder Incubus ein Krankheit die man gmeinlich das
Schrättele nennet” (English translation is my own).
occurrences often falsely ascribed to spiritual beings. Lavater then concludes Book One by
identifying similar accounts wherein rumbling spirits have genuinely manifested themselves.
Thereafter Book Two performs an exegetical deconstruction of the doctrine of purgatory in which
Lavater famously refutes the existence of ghosts. Relying on biblical and anecdotal evidence to
substantiate his claims, the author asserts that visitations from departed souls are the direct result
of demonic illusions. Book Three explains why such wicked spirits appear and “Hovv Christian
men ought to behaue themselues vvhen they see spirites” (Wie die Chriten denen unghür begägnet
/ sich halten).
444 In this final section, Lavater advises Christians on how they can protect
themselves against the disruptions of fallen angels.
As seen in Chapter 3 of this dissertation, late medieval theologians and preachers addressed
many of the issues raised by Lavater. We recall that historical figures, including Johannes Nider,
Geiler von Kaisersberg, and Johannes Trithemius, adduced cases of household “gerümpel” in the
late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. These Catholic authors identified both questionable and
authentic instances of domestic disturbances, discussing spiritual creatures that at once heightened
and muddled human sense-perception of the natural world. Typical of late medieval pastoralia and
exemplary literature, these earlier queries responded to anxieties over marvels and spirits in an ad
hoc manner. Juxtaposing scholastic definitions of natural and supernatural phenomena alongside
the broader theological problem of diabolical illusion, the discourses of Nider, Geiler, and
Trithemius offer relatively short analyses of haunting ghosts and angels alongside discussions of,
say, the night flights of women, the appearance of werewolves, and changeling children.
In Das Gespensterbuch, the potency of demonic deception is primary as well but with
particular attention to stories about domestic spiritual assaults. Moreover, in length (over 200

444 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 190; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 105r.
pages) and scope, Lavater’s treatise dwarfs prior discourses on the subject. It registers a massive
inventory of spirit-lore which dwells on and in the ways in which demons imposed emotional
suffering on Christian individuals and communities. Lavater also rarely mentions the figure of the
witch and completely ignores the technical problems of magic, sorcery, and transvection. When
he does make brief reference to werewolves and other monstrous creatures, these serve rather to
buttress the larger issue of how Christians ought to discern demonic infestation. This not only
distinguished Lavater from late medieval authors we have seen, but also from many
contemporaneous thinkers. As Timothy Chesters explains, Lavater’s was a “demonology on the
margins,” a subgenre of premodern demon-theory that “extended beyond the infamous sphere of
the witch trials.”445 Johann Weyer and Martin Delrio, among numerous others, also discussed a
plurality of diabolical assaults, but their primary focus lie in the discursive terrain of magic and
witchcraft, not domestic hauntings as such. More proximate to Lavater’s purposes, Pierre Le
Loyer, Noël Taillepied, and Petrus Thyraeus wrote at length about demonic infestation. The
difference, however, is that these men followed in what Lavater initiated, meaning Le Loyer,
Taillepied, and Thyraeus closely mirror Lavater’s analysis and respond directly to it.
In terms of Lavater’s own intellectual indebtedness, the first book of Das Gespensterbuch
draws heavily from and in many respects recasts late medieval demonology. Akin to Nider and
Geiler specifically, Lavater begins Book One with an analysis of mundane happenings and natural
marvels. Here, the Swiss minister demonstrates that what many people take to be wondrous
apparitions often have nothing at all to do with spiritual creatures. He notes how noises made by
quotidian animals (e.g., the crying sounds of rats, cats, and birds) were erroneously thought to
originate from spirits at night. Likewise, the sound of horses banging on the stable at midnight or

445 “Demonology on the Margins” (2007): 401.
the ticking of woodworm beetles in one’s walls and furniture could give the impression that spirits
play with anvils. “Also the wind,” Lavater affirms, “may throw things around the house” (Item der
wind wirfft etwas im huß umb) and aroused fear that a home was haunted.446 In Lavater’s
estimation, such examples were proof that untrained laity too often ascribed spiritual significance
to the vagaries of premodern life.
Book One also recapitulates the premodern commonplace that some hauntings were
regrettably manufactured by humans for fun and profit. Young men sometimes disguised
themselves with devilish costumes (tüfelskleider), for instance, wearing masks to provoke enough
fear as to make people believe think they have seen a wicked spirit (böß geist). At inns, travelers
played tricks on one another by either dressing up in white sheets or constructing more or less
elaborate hauntings. In one contemporaneous account, Lavater tells of young men in Zurich who
dressed up as spirits dancing through the city at night. The municipal guards apparently raised the
alarm, warning that “some plague or pestilence” (ein grosse pestilentz) was likely to follow.
Thereafter, Lavater cautioned that spectral imitations were not always mere play, for thieves too
employed fraudulent haunting to their advantage. By making calculated noises in the dark, robbers
sometimes engendered enough fear—under the pretense that wandering spirits exist—to keep their
victims paralyzed in bed.
In addition to human ingenuity, other factors contributed to misguided fear of spirits.
Lavater logically deduced that poor eyesight and hearing were major causes of misinterpretation
and misunderstanding. Alternatively, reduced cognitive faculties due to illness or disease could
give rise to imagined apparitions. Excessive drinking produced temporary deficits in the human

446 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 25r; this sentence is not in the English edition.
447 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 22; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 10v.
sensorium as well. Regarding sex and age, Lavater maintained that the mere mention of
“grümpels” at the dinner table (wenn man von Gspänsten und ungehüren ob einem tisch redt)
frightened women and children so intensely that they refused to venture outdoors at night.448 On
this point, Lavater intoned the medieval Catholic critique that there were those who imagined
spirits, such “herdmenli” and “hußvolck” or “elues and fairies,” which furtively resided in the
natural world. These spurious tales, Lavater chided, were “heard of their grandmothers and
mothers, howe they haue appeared vnto those of the house” (von jren müteren und großmüteren
gehört / wie sy dem hußvolck erschinen).449 Like late medieval preachers, early modern reformers
wrestled with inherited traditions for which rumbling demons in the home were considered nonangelic beings. In line with orthodox perspectives on spiritual beings, Das Gespensterbuch
consistently equates narratives about elves, fairies, and kobolds with demonic apparitions.
Less pernicious in Lavater’s view were natural marvels reported from natural
philosophical literature. While individuals and communities might mistake obscure happenings in
the natural world for malevolent spirits and monstrous beings, wonders could be instructive in
disproving spectral apparitions.450 The Swiss minister thus explained that sounds and intelligible
speech could travel and reverberate in certain environments, rather than from spiritual
intelligences. In forests, valleys, and hollow places especially, “many would be afrayd” of echoes
or a resounding voice “but especially in the night season, except he knew very well it were a

448 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 4r.
449 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 49; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 25r.
450 In this Lavater shares with his contemporary compatriot and pastor of Zurich, Johann Wick, an appeal
to marvelous sights and omens; see, Die Wickiana: Johann Jakob Wicks Nachricthensammlung aus dem
16. Jahrhundert: Texte und Bilder zu den Jahren 1560 bis 1571: mit Transkription ins Neu-Hochdeutsche
(Küsnacht-Zürich: Raggi-Verlag, 1975).
naturall thing.”451 No less astonishingly, the eyes of animals at night, like gemstones and the
luminescent glowworm, naturally radiate light in darkness. In some places, including Sicily,
Naples, and Iceland, volcanoes and geysers burst forth fiery stones that are nothing more than
sulfur burning in the open air. Lavater advised while extraordinary events regularly triggered
wonder, this need not portend interference from spiritual creatures.
Most forcefully, Book One attributed pervasive ignorance regarding spirits to events in
Catholic history and especially the papacy. Over several chapters on how “Preestes and Monckes
fained themselues to be Spirites” (München und Pfaffen habend sich für Geister und Gspänst
ußgeben), Lavater rehearsed accounts of clerics, monks, and popes involved in deceiving pious
Christians. In this, Das Gespensterbuch begins its radical departure from late medieval pastoralia.
The writings of Nider and Geiler discussed ubiquitous misconceptions of spirits, although they
never indicated that misunderstanding occurred as a direct result of ecclesiastical history and the
precepts of the Catholic church. Lavater, however, denigrated both medieval and contemporary
Catholic miracle tales, insisting that Rome disseminated the most egregious ignorance into the
Christian imaginary. He thus repudiates hagiographical stories claiming “that Frauncis and
Catherin of Sena, bare the markes of Chrystes fyue woundes in their body,” as well as ecclesiastical
promises of satisfaction for sin or the diverse uses of holy water.452 According to Lavater’s
philosophy of history, miraculous narratives of this sort derived from necromantic pontiffs.
Lavater gleefully related that the Life of Pope Gregory VII, as recorded by Beno of Santi Martino
e Silvestro, evinced how the bishop of Rome “was thoroughly seene in the blacke arte of

451 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 50; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 25v: “wurde vil sonderlich nachts übel darab
erschräcken / wenn man nit so wol wüßte daß es ein natürlich ding wäre.”
452 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 36; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 17r: “daß Franciscus oder Catharina von Senis die
wunden Christi an jrem lyb gehebt.”
Negromancie” (mit verbottnen tüfels künsten umgange).453 Equally condemning, the Italian
humanist Bartolomeo Platina (in his Vitae pontificum) provided proof for Lavater that the

pontificate of Pope Silvester II had been attained through propitiating the Devil himself.454 In
raising these initial critiques, Lavater primed his audience for what emerges as a much larger
polemical issue in Books Two and Three—namely that a substantial portion of lay
misunderstanding about spiritual creatures emanated from Catholic institutions.
The first eleven chapters of Das Gespensterbuch thus make a strong case against haunting
spirits. For a work purporting to expose demonic illusions, the way in which Book One begins
from this rather oblique angle is remarkable. In the previous chapter we saw that Nider, Geiler,
and others also discussed natural explanations for “Gerumpel” in the home. Yet these earlier
authors commenced their discussions with the broader theme of demonic influence, first, and then
enumerated the vagaries of human sense perception as subordinate causes. Lavater turns this
approach on its head and with a subtle twist. He begins with an exposition of how confusing the
material world appeared to untrained laity and then leaves the reader to infer the role that diverse
spirits played in manipulating the mundane and marvelous workings of nature.
To this end, Chapters 11-18 uncover abundant evidence for historical and modern accounts
of genuine spiritual encounters. By and large these narratives amount to standard demonological

453 On Beno’s condemnation of popes as sorcerers, see Benonis aliorumque cardialium schismaticorum
contra Gregorium VII et Urbanum ii, MGH, Libelli de lite imperatorum et pontificum saeculi XI, ed. K.
Francke (Hanover, 1891), 2: 376. Johann Joseph Döllinger, Die Pabst-fabeln des Mittelalters (Munich: J.G.
Cotta, 1863), pp. 151-59. On the longer rhetorical tradition of papal denunciation, see Edward Peters, The
Magician, the Witch, and the Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), p. 28.
454 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 47; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 24r. On Bartolomeo Platina’s Lives of the Popes
(printed first in 1479), see Helen Parish, Monks, Miracles and Magic: Reformation Representations of the
Medieval Church (London: Taylor and Francis, 2016), p. 129-131. As Parish notes, medieval chroniclers
repeated the claim that Gerbert of Aurilla, later Pope Sylvester II, had been a magician, meaning this was
not a particularly Protestant claim, although it was widely used in Protestant polemics.
exempla punctuated by commentary from Lavater on when, where, and in what form spirits
typically appeared. The reader is instructed that some spirits manifest visibly while others are only
heard. While conspicuous apparitions may manifest during the day or at night, Lavater logically
concluded that those which are seen will do so before midnight and those which are heard emerge
during the darkest of hours. Equally reasonable, he claimed that certain folk were more liable to
experience spectral visitations: due to the nocturnal and diurnal activities of specific professions
like travelers, watchmen, hunters, carters, and mariners were among the most likely to perceive
Although Lavater argues that some people were more prone to haunting, the wide range of
anecdotal examples in the first book intimate that all of humanity was vulnerable to such
visitations. This was true even across the confessional divide. Lavater relates how the humanist
reformer Philip Melanchthon “writeth in his booke de anima, that he himself hathe seene some
spirites, and that he hath knowne many men of good credite, whiche haue auoutched not only to
haue seene ghostes them selues, but also ÿ they haue talked a great while with them.”455 Likewise,
the Reformed theologian Johannes Willing reportedly perceived “a walking spirite in the night
season, [and] was so much altred, that at his returning home, his owne Daughters knewe him
not.”456 The same logic was then applied to where hauntings occurred. Lavater warned that
spiritual creatures were drawn to places of battle, slaughter, execution, and woodlands, or locations

455 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 70; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 36r: “schrybt in sinum buoch ‘De Anima’ / er selbs
habe etliche unghür oder gspänst gesähen / und kenne vil glaubwirdig lüt / die hoch und thür bezüget / sy
habind nit allein gspänst gesähen / sonder auch lang mit inen geredt.” The original quotation is found in
Liber de anima, Corpus reformatorum, Philippi Melanthonis opera quae supersunt omnia, eds. C.B.
Bretschneider et H.E. Bindseil, 28 vols., (Halle and Brunswick, 1834-60), XIII, 175: “Vidi ipse quaedam,
et novi multos homines dignos fide, qui adfirmabant, se non tantum vidisse spectra, sed etiam diu cum eis
collocutos esse. Existimabat autem vetustas pleraque hominum animas esse.”
456 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 96. This anecdote is missing from the German edition and first appears in the Latin
where devils have been conjured. Churches, monasteries, tombs, prisons, houses, and the ruins of
castles, too, constituted rife locations for spirits to appear.457 The sheer breadth of locations
mentioned in these passages suggest that every space in this world was susceptible to haunting. In
this sense, Lavater calls attention to so many familiar spaces in order to affirm that specters were
found virtually anywhere in the early modern landscape.
The concluding chapters of Book One thus thoroughly demonstrate that the mischief
caused by spirits had both visual and auditory dimensions. Regarding the former, Lavater
confirmed that spirits manifested in myriad visible forms: “The maner of apearing of spirits, is
diuers & manyfold as it apereth by those things which haue aleaged before. For they shew
themselues in sundry sorte: sometimes in the shape of a man whome we know, who is yet alyue,
or lately departed: & otherwhile in the likenesse of one whom we knowe not.”458 Likewise, ethereal
figures were seen “riding on horsebacke, or going on foote, or crawling vppon al foure. At another
time hath appeared a man al burning in fire, or berayde with bloud: and somewhile, his bowels
haue seemed to traile out, his belly being as it were rypped vp.”459 Different beasts and monstrous
beings also populate numerous narratives found in Das Gespensterbuch. According to Lavater, the
range of visible images and forms conjured by wicked spirits was beyond reckoning. Depending
on situation and circumstance, demons attempted to manipulate human optics to their own

457 As Bruce Gordon remarks, “Lavater’s account of the attachment of ghosts to particular locations has
clear echoes of late medieval ideas of Purgatory.” See his “Malevolent Ghosts and Ministering Angels”
(2000), p 96.
458 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 91; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 48r: “Dann sy erzeigend sich in mancherley gestalt.
Etwan in einer gestalt eins menschen der uns bekannt / unnd noch in läben / oder vorlangest tod ist. Etwan
in ein unbekannten menschen gestalt.”
459 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 92; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 48r: geritten uff einem rossz / den ist er zuo fuoß
gangen / ode ruff allen vieren krochen. Jetz hatt man ein fhürigen den ein bluotigen mann gsächen / oder
einen dem die kutlen uß dem buch fürhin ghanget sind.”
advantage. For this reason, faithful Christians had to be on guard against the emergence of both
familiar or foreign apparitions.
No less troubling were the auditory distractions fomented by spirits. Where visible
apparitions looked like friends, strangers, and monstrosities, the “noisiness” of spirits often
entailed muffled sounds and incomprehensible speech. To a considerable degree, the majority of
Lavater’s narrative accounts suit late medieval conceptions of poltergeist demons. In his influential
chapter on “daily experience” (täglich erfarung), for example, Lavater detailed afflictions of what
are unmistakably poltergeist phenomena: “It is reported, that some spirits haue throwne the dore
of from the hookes, and haue troubled and set all things in the house out of order, neuer setting thē
in their due place againe, and that they haue maruellously disquieted men with rumbling and
making a great noise.”460 While relating narratives of minor spiritual racket, Lavater regularly
situates human observers as passive participants in domestic disorder: doors are thrown off their
hinges, clothing is violently pulled off, and general disorder ensues as a result of some unseen
spiritual presence. In these multiple cases, where “in the nyght season, there haue beene certaine
spirits hearde softely going, or spitting, or groning” (vil hatt man nachts gehört), the sense of an
unspecified origin of action help depict something external to the home which has been uncannily
imposed on the physical location itself.461
Supporting the sights and sounds associated with apparitions, Lavater cautioned finally that
spirits could manifest in subtler terms. Some disrupted the tranquility of the home by turning the

460 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 73; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 38r: “Dargegen sagt man von etlichen unghüren / die
ein thüren uß dem angel glupfft / dört ußhin gworffen / ein ding im huß ummkeert / aber also haend ligen
lassen / und der wält vil plagen angethon.” On the importance of Lavater’s chapter on “daily experience,”
see Chesters Ghost Stories in Late Renaissance France (2011), pp. 79-84.
461 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 72; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 37v.
leaves of a book, playing dice, and engendering clapping noises. Others gently grabbed people by
the arm, woke men from sleep, or made dogs go lame. In many ways, the latter half of Book One
revels in those minute details which expand on how spiritual creatures were not merely seen or
heard but also sensually felt. As Lavater describes, invisible presences made people’s hearts
unexpectedly flutter and their heads swell, engendering “suche greate feare, that sometimes they
become grayheaded in one night”; they also “oftentimes awake men out of their sleepe, and cause
many to forsake their owne houses.”462 In another passage Lavater vividly describes how spirits
trafficked in the emotional weight of another person’s death: “Sometimes we thinke the house will
fall on our heads, or that some massie and waightie thing falleth down throughout all the house,
rendring and making a disordered noise: and shortlie within fewe months after, we vnderstande
that those things happened, the very same houre that our friends departed in.”463 A great deal of
Book One’s content catalogues what haunting descriptively looks and sounds like; yet, it also
demonstrates that spirits were responsible for the slightest of bodily disturbances. In Book Three,
Lavater will further elaborate on how these minor disturbances were often accompanied by much
greater changes (grosse enderungen), including great wars and the violent institution of new
kingdoms. In such instances—where one hears whispers in the night, feels an icy atmosphere of
death when waking, or intuits the fall of an empire—Das Gespensterbuch contends that spiritual
creatures were manipulating human understanding of the world. Where subtle and seismic bodily
reactions demanded attention from the afflicted, Lavater argues that, in reality, spirits exploited
the human sensorium and cognitive faculties, seeking to confuse Christians, to draw their attention

462 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 96; Das Gespensterbuch, 50v: ““erschreckend und plagend sy / daß sy etwan einer
nacht tubgraw werdend / machend daß die lüt nachts nit rüewig schlaaffen könnend.”
463 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 77; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 40r: “einer nit anderst meint / dann es falle etwas
schwärs durch das gantz huß nider / etwan thönt es gar wunderbarlich / hernach findt sich dz die ding der
stund ghört und bschähen sin dals sy verscheiden.”
away from God and Protestant preaching. This point is given more precise definition in Book Two,
to which we now turn, where Lavater explains that obscure and confusing sensations occur as a
result of demonic illusions.
Forging a Protestant Perspective: Book Two
Where Book One delineates specious and genuine accounts of haunting spirits, Book Two
introduces a Protestant framework for interpreting such accounts. As seen in the previous chapter,
several late medieval preachers and theologians maintained that human souls could not appear in
this world because they were occupied in heaven, hell, or purgatory. As authors like Nider and
Geiler explained, sinful souls were never permitted to leave hell, those in heaven would never want
to depart God’s grace, and those in purgatory were too busy in the afterlife atoning for their sins
on earth. Lavater rehearses the arguments and assumptions from this tradition but arrives at a
radically different conclusion: in Book Two he contends that ghosts never appear before humanity,
because purgatory itself was a Romanist fabrication.
In forwarding this argument, Lavater furnished readers and listeners with a scathing attack
on the doctrine of purgatory:
Wherefore saith holy scriptures, as the Fathers understand & interpret them, teache that the
soules of men, as soone as they departe from the bodies, do ascende up into heaven if they
were godly, descende into hell if they were wicked and faithlesse, and that there is no thirde
place which soules should be delivered, as it were out of prison, & that soules can neither
be reclaimed out of heaven or hell. Hereby it is made evident, that they cannot wander on
the earth & desire aide of men.464

464 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 118; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 62v: “Diewyl nun die heilig gschrifft leert wie es die
heiligen vätter auch verstanden / daß die seelen der menschen / so bald sy vom lyb scheidend in zwen teil
verordnet seyend / der ein teil / namlich der glöubigen in Himmel / der ander teil / namlich der unglöubigen
in die verdammnuß / unnd daß kein mittel ort oder stand seye / da den seelen möge als uß dem Himmel
oder uß der Hell nit wider kommind / so könnend sy ye uff erden nit wandlen / noch der hilff begären.”
The passage champions the idea that “when it has departed from the body, the soul immediately
enters heaven or hell.”465 Contrary to late medieval and early modern Catholic theology, Protestant
theologians insisted that no intermediate space existed for human souls after death. Because there
was mention of purgatory in scripture, Lavater reasoned “therefore there is no Purgatorie”
(deßhalb kein Fägfhür syn könne).466 Vincent Evener has shown that evangelicals favored similar
arguments as early as 1522. In a collection of 48 articles under the title Articles on the Conjuration
of the Wandering Dead, commonly attributed to Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt but likely the
product of Luther himself, both purgatory and the wandering dead are considered distractions from
faithful pursuits. Eight year after the publication of the 48 Articles, Luther would publish his
Renunciation of Purgatory in 1530, insisting that neither purgatory nor prayer for the dead had
any scriptural basis.467 Following in this early Reformation tradition, Book Two holds that the
souls of the dead have only two viable destinations in the Christian afterlife, heaven or hell.
For Lavater and other Protestant reformers, the whole issue of wandering spirits from
purgatory fed into a disastrous parade of false Catholic beliefs and practices. “By these apparitions
of spirits,” the Swiss minister bemoaned, “masses, images, satisfactiõ pilgrimages for religion
sake, relikes of saints, monasticall vowes, holidaies, auricular confession, and other kinds of
worshippings and rites, and to be shorte, al things whiche have no grounde in holy scripture, by

465 This quote is taken from the Articles on the Conjuration of the Wandering Dead (1522) in Evener,
“Wittenberg’s Wandering Spirits” (2015): 536.
466 Of Ghostes (1929) p. 156; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 85v.
467 Evener, “Wittenberg’s Wandering Spirits” (2015): 532. See also MacCulloch, The Reformation (2004),
pp. 580-81; Craig Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany,
1450-1700 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), pp. 34-39.
little and little grew into authority and estimation.”468 Lavater pointed out how the growth of
Catholic institutions paralleled a commensurate neglect of Christian lives and livelihood. On the
one hand, donations given to the institutional church (on behalf of perished associates) served to
proliferate unnecessary material excesses. Chapels, altars, monasteries and other physical
extremities were fraudulently built “to release their friends out of the torments of Purgatorie” (uß
der pyn unnd not des fägfhürs möchte erlösen).469 According to Lavater’s logic, Roman Catholic
belief in ghosts and purgatory constituted a foundation upon which the ecclesiastical elite (i.e.,
popes, monks, and clerics) benefited from worldly vanities.
On the other hand, Lavater denounced the ways in which these Catholic oblations and
institutions perpetuated the pernicious teaching that “men attained vnto saluation, by their owne,
and by other mens merits” (einer durch sin eigne and ander lüten wreck und verdienst / daruß
möge erlößt warden).470 Intoning the central Protestant critique of Catholicism, Lavater
condemned systems of belief and practice that promoted promises of ritual purification to alleviate
the burden of sin. As is well-known, the sixteenth-century Reformation challenged the economy
of salvation proposed and debated by theologians of the medieval West. The principal theological
message of mainstream reformers held that the saving work of God’s grace never depended on the
merits and ritual performances of humanity. This meant that divine grace was never responsive to
human actions and intentions; instead, it existed solely as an aspect of God’s providence and
constituted a freely given gift unencumbered by human requests or behavior. In Book Two,

468 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 111; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 58v: “Durch dises mittel sind die Mässen / Bilder /
Wallfert / Helthumm / Klosterglübt / Fyrtag / Bycht / und allerley ceremonien / und summa alles das so uß
der geschrifft sunst nit mag erhalten warden / in ein groß und träffentlich ansähen kommen.”
469 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 111; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 58v.
470 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 110; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 58r.
Lavater adopts this argument and stresses that “puritie and cleannesse consisteth not in our
woorkes, or in the paynes which we endure, but that God through faith in his sonne Iesus Christe
(who is our only redemption, iustification, satisfaction, and raunsom for our sinnes).”471 Where
the material excesses associated with belief in purgatory were detestable for Lavater, the Catholic
theology accompanying these excesses were far more harmful, because they encouraged a meritbased relationship with the Christian divinity.
Book Two thus constitutes a crucial turning point in Das Gespensterbuch. It denounces
Catholic doctrine and expatiates on the harm caused by beliefs, practices, and institutions
associated with the notion of purgatory. It also addresses the issue of haunting spirits in manner
different from Book One. In particular, Lavater ascribes metaphysical definition to spiritual
creatures by way of scriptural exegesis. The most important passage in this regard is found halfway
through the treatise (Chapter 7 of Book Two), where Lavater discusses the Witch of Endor and
how the dead prophet Samuel appeared before King Saul (1 Samuel 28). The biblical episode
posed considerable problems for Protestant exegetes. As canonical scripture, it recounted the story
of a purportedy human ghost returning to the world of the living. Pointing to inconsistencies in
Gentile, Jewish, and patristic interpretations of passage, Lavater concludes that “the spirit of
Samuel was not truely, & in deed raysed vp from his rest, but rather some vayne vision &
counterfet illusion” (es seye nit der recht Samuel / sonder deß tüfels gspänst gsyn).472 The author
then rehearsed a number of demonological commonplaces to support this conclusion, contending
that demons appear in myriad forms to confuse the faithful and bid them to do those things which

471 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 156; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 84v: “die reinigkeit komme nit uß unserem läben
oder lyden / sonder Gott mache uns allein durch den glauben an sinen Sun – der unsere einige erlösung /
gerechtigkeit / gnuogthüeng und bezalung für unsere sünd ist.”
472 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 131; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 71r.
are good or even avoid things that are evil. Lavater also acknowledged—by way of Thomist
metaphysics—the subtle celerity and knowledge afforded to fallen angels, as well as the ways in
which demons “may easily deceyue the eye sight, and other senses of man” (die gsicht der
menschen und andere empfindtnussen betriegen).473
The contention that Samuel’s apparition was demonic in nature had a number of ancient
and modern precedents. As Lavater himself boasted, early church fathers including Eustathius,
Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine (in his early works) believed that “the Deuill dyd
there represent Samuels soule” (Der tüfel habt sich für Samuels seel ußgäbe).474 In the later Middle
Ages the Malleus Maleficarum reasoned the same, as did several other authors.475 Likewise,
Lavater’s Protestant contemporaries, including Heinrich Bullinger, Jean Calvin, Guillame Farel,
and Pietro Martire Vermigli, voiced this conclusion. The publishers of the French translation made
the connection between Lavater and Vermigli, in particular, explicit to readers: the French edition
was often printed with Vermigli’s Latin commentary on the biblical episode of Samuel’s apparition
to Saul.476 As such, the primary focus and argument of Book Two would have been relatively
familiar to many learned readers.
The novelty of Lavater’s approach lies, then, not in his conclusion that ghosts and
purgatory did not exist, but in the unexpected transition between the first two books. Significantly,

473 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 167; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 91v.
474 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 131; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 71v.
475 On the long history of the biblical Witch of Endor, see Charles Zika, “The Witch of Endor Before the
Witch Trials” in Contesting Orthodoxy in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Heresy, Magic and
Witchcraft (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 167-191.
476 Note the title in French: Trois livres des apparitions…Plus trois questions proposes et resolves par M.
P. Martyr…lequelles conviennent à cette matiere (1571).

the argument that demons appeared before humanity as ghosts emerges only gradually over the
course of the entire treatise. The author dedicates half of the first book to discrediting tales of
spiritual distress. Here, human misunderstanding and mistake, rather than demonic trickery,
explain faulty accounts of spirits. Thereafter, the concluding chapters of Book One relate evidence
for what the Swiss minister deemed to be authentic spiritual encounters. Notably, in these chapters
Lavater never indicates whether the creatures he describes are ghosts, demons, or something else.
He only affirms the pervasive effects of fallen angels, as such, midway through the second book
(after discussing the Witch of Endor). As a result, initial entry into Das Gespensterbuch appears
to substantiate, rather than subvert, conceptions of ghosts and purgatory.477
One way in which Lavater manages this narrative tension is by employing ambiguous
narratives concerning spirits. To take one memorable example, Chapter 11 (of Book One) tells the
story of the “spirit of Athens,” originally recorded by Pliny the Younger. Among the lengthiest of
Lavater’s exempla, Pliny details how a large house in Athens was haunted by “an image or shape,
as it were an olde man, leane and lothsome to beholde, with a long beard and staring haire: on his
legs he had fetters, and in his hand caryed chains which he always ratled togither.”478 We are told
that the inhabitants of the home perished from the experience, and as a result the habitation was
left vacant. After some time the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus rented the home at a cheap price,
knowing the reason for its availability. While writing a book on philosophy one night, the
apparition appeared to Athenodorus and beckoned him to come to the courtyard. There, the
philosopher discovered some skeletal remains bound with chains. Immediately leaving the

477 Catherine Stevens argues that Book One actually demonstrates Lavater’s failure to remove ghosts from
the early modern Christian imaginary. See “‘You shal reade marvelous straunge things’” (2016), pp. 141-
162. I give a more substantial account of Stevens’ position below.
478 A longer German translation is provided below.
residence, Athenodorus asked and received permission from Athenian magistrates to unearth the
body, which was carried out, and finally the bones were buried in some anonymous place. The
anecdote concludes that once this was done, “the house…was euer after cleare of all suche
Pliny’s anecdote, like several others recorded in Book One, is at once appropriate and
awkward in a treatise that seeks to disprove the existence of ghostly apparitions. On the one hand,
it demonstrates the type of uncanny haunting Lavater desired to descriptively foreground for his
audience: humans inhabit a residence, discover a spectral presence, and finally evacuate (or perish
in) the location due to fear associated with the apparition. The opening lines of this anecdote
contain rousing language suited to this purpose:
There was in Athens a goodly and very large house, but evill reported and counted as an
infortunate and vnluckie house. For about mydnight, there was hearde the noyse of iron,
and if one marked it wel, the ratling of chaines, as it were a farre off at the firste, and so,
neerer and neerer: shortly ther appeered an image or shape, as it were an olde man, leane
and lothsome to beholde, with a long beard and staring haire: on his legs he had fetters, and
in his hand caryed chains which he always ratled togither. By means wherof, those that
inhabited the house, by reason of their fear, watched many heauie and pitifull nights; after
their watching folowed sicknesse, and soon after, as feare increased, ensued death. For in
the day tyme also, albeit the image were departed, yet the remembrãce thereof, was euer
presente before their eyes, so that theyr feare was longer than they had cause to feare. Vpon
this house stoode desert and solitarie, wholly lefte vnto the monstere which haunted it.479

479 Of Ghostes (1929), pp. 72-73; Das Gespensterbuch, pp. 30r-31v: “Zuo Athen ist ein hüpsch groß huß
gsyn / das was verschreit und ungesund. By nacht hort man erstlich von wytnuß neißwas als ob einer ein
kettinen nahin zuge / bald kame s noch näher zuohin. Daruf sach man einen alten mageren mann / mit
einem langen bart und schuderächten haar / der truog an sinen schenklen fuoßband / und ein kettinen an
er hand / welche er erschutt. Daher beschach daß die so in disem huß wonetend / schwärmüetig unnd trurig
warend / zuo nacht kondtend sy nit schlaaffen / wurdend kranck unnd sturbend. Dann auch by tag wenn
glych das bild oder das ungehür nit mer vorhanden / beduocht sy / sy sähind unnd hortind es noch /
forchtend inen übel. Also wolt niemant mer in das huß zühen / und stuond lang ledig.” Pliny the Younger,
Letters, trans. by W. Melmoth, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1915), II, pp. 67-77
(Book Seven, Letter XXVII). The tale was, as Timothy Chesters notes, “probably the most often-cited ghost
narrative in the period.” See Ghost Stories in Late Renaissance France (2011), p 153-54.
The passage is not only dramatic in its depiction of the visible apparition, it also deftly displayed
haunting as a process of subtle and then violent displacement. The first sentence sets the adjectives
“goodly and very large” (hüpsch groß) in tension with the inverse qualities of an “evill” and
“infortunate” (verschreit und ungesund). Likewise the staging of the specter’s appearance is
overtly climactic: at first the sounds were “farre off” (erstlich von wytnuß neißwas) but gradually
creep up “neerer and neerer” (bald kame sy noch näher zuohin) until the spirit is visibly seen.
Thereafter, Pliny’s account renders the deconstruction of the human body and mind as a tidy
equation: the culmination of auditory and visual terrors incited “fear” (schwärmüetig unnd trurig),
“sicknesse” (wurdend krank), and “death” (sturbend). The temporality of haunting is equally
compelling, for the loss of human life is explained by “remembrãce” (bedoucht) of the
apparition—a presence that is continually felt even after the specter itself has “departed” (nit mer
vorhanden). In effect, the anecdote displays a process of displacement whereby haunting
transforms human lives and the domestic setting. Just as the original inhabitants no longer have
life, so too the solitary house no longer constitutes a proper “home” (das huß…stuound lang ledig).
On the other hand, Pliny’s story suits late medieval stories of ghosts and purgatory in which
the dead communed with the living.480 It includes vivid description of an anthropomorphic
apparition (“an olde man, leane and lothsome”) whose materiality mysteriously demands physical
human response: as Pliny recalls, “the image shaketh his chaines ouer his head,” at which point
Athenodorus rose “vp without delaye, taketh the candle in his and foloweth [the apparition]…the

480 While Pliny precedes the late medieval doctrine of purgatory by more than a millennium, earlier ghostly
tales were often retrospectively employed to reinforce its invention. See Swanson, “Ghosts and
Ghostbusters in the Middle Ages” (2009), p. 154. For dates concerning the doctrine of purgatory, see
Chesters, Ghost Stories in Late Renaissance France (2011), p 21. With this in mind, Lavater
anachronistically employs the tale in a way that presupposes an intermediate space of the afterlife suited to
the Catholic imaginary of purgatory.
next day he [Athenodorus] goth to the rulers of the citie, and willeth them to commaunde the place
to bee digged up, which donne, they fynde boanes wrapped and tyed in chayns…those boanes
beeing gathered together, were buryed solemnely.”481 The tale thus appears to establish a
reciprocal, if mysterious, relationship between the philosopher and ghost wherein the former is led
to complete some task on behalf of the latter. More strikingly still, the narrative seems to explain
the spirit’s release from some vague form of past and present torment: “the house, after they [the
bones] were orderly layde in the grounde, was euer after cleare of all suche ghostes.” The specter
is ostensibly set free or influenced by the actions of the human agent Athenodorus—something
Lavater vehemently derides throughout the second and third books. Without any guidance from
the Swiss author in Book One, except that the story is included in a chapter entitled “A proofe out
of the Gentiles histories, that spirits and ghosts do often times appeare,” Pliny’s account appears
to undermine rather than underscore the broader conclusion of Das Gespensterbuch.
482 There is
no immediate indication that Lavater disapproved of any aspect of the story; nor does he designate
the spirit as “a demon.” Rather the reader is left, at least in Book One, to infer that Pliny’s spirit
exemplified something closely approximating a human ghost.483 Numerous other narratives in this
book follow the same confusing pattern of describing spirits as Catholic revenants.

481 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 31r: “Do erschutt e sim die kettinen ob sinem haupt / und als er aber umbsich
sach / wanck e sim wie vor. Do name r das liecht und gieng im von stundan nach…Deß volgenden tags kart
er für Radt / zeigt an man sölte daselbst graben. Do fand man todtenbein daran kettinen warend / der
lychnam was verwäsen / die bein laß man zuosamen und vergruobs. Von der zyt an hatt man das unghür
nit mer gespürt.”
482 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 27r: “Daß geister und unghür gespürt werdind / und andere wunderbare ding
warlich beschähind / wirt bewärt uß den historien der Heiden.”
483 These points are also made in Stevens, “‘You shal reade marvelous straunge things’” (2016), pp. 141-
Compounding the issue further, Lavater’s language in Book One is consistently colored by
ambivalent terminology. As the title suggests, Das Gespensterbuch favors the term “Gespenster”;
it also frequently employs words like “Geister” and “Ungehür” for would-be ghosts. The Latin,
French, and English translations respectively employ intentionally vague terminology, such
“spiritus,” “esprit,” and “spirit,” among others. This choice of vocabulary is significant, for it
evoked conceptions of both human ghosts and angelic creatures. At the close of Book One, Lavater
gathers this loose range of appellations, noting that “dise gspänst / unghür / geister / oder wie man
sy nennen wil” will appear in many forms before humanity.484 The point is that Das
Gespensterbuch rarely employs descriptive terms like Teufel or bose Geist. With few exceptions,
the author proceeds by emphasizing the significance of haunting in Western Europe but without
naming the type of offending spirit. There are a handful of exceptions to this rule, as when Lavater
clarifies that, despite the witless tales of grandmothers and mothers, “If suche dwarfes or elues
[hußvolck] haue bin seene at any time, surely they were euill Spirits [böß geist].”485 These “euill
Spirits”, accordingly to Lavater, were once thought to be household gods and given reverence for
their protection of the home. Or when demystifying geysers, the effects of an echo, glowworms,
and the like, he admits that “der tüfel” can just as easily delude early modern folk with similar
marvels of nature. For the most part, however, the first book maintains an open-ended question of
whether haunting was perpetuated by ghosts, fallen angels, or another kind of spiritual being.
As literary scholars have commented, early modern theatre would creatively exploit this
cultural ambiguity. Most famously, the apparition of Hamlet’s father represents an ambiguous

484 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 50v. The English simply reads: “These walking spirits…”, p. 96.
485 Of Ghostes (1929), p.49; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 25 v: “Hatt man sy warlich also gesähen / so ist es der
böß geist gsyn.”
spiritual being suited to Lavater’s discourse. Upon first sight of the spirited figure, Hamlet attempts
to interpret the visitation:
Angels and Ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. O answer me,
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canoniz’d bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements, why the sepulcher
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d
Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpse of the moon,
Making night hideous and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do (I.iv.39-57)
J. Dover Wilson was the first to argue that Shakespeare’s Hamlet invited the audience to consider
the Danish king’s appearance as a human ghost sent from purgatory or a demonic messenger
urging Hamlet to commit murder and suicide. Wilson draws from Lavater’s argument and suggests
that, for a Protestant audience, because human souls could not (at least in theory) appear to the
living, the apparition must have been an illusion manufactured by a fallen angel. At the same time,
Roman Catholic viewers could have easily seen the spirit’s description of the afterlife as consistent
with the doctrine of purgatory. Part of the appeal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, on this reading, lies in
the play’s invitation to speculate on what the spirit is.486
Despite the narrative and linguistic ambiguities of Das Gespensterbuch, we know that
Lavater considered virtually all apparitions to be demonic in origin; he makes this clear in Book

486 See the “Introduction” by J. Dover Wilson in Of Ghostes (1929).
Two. Yet, as modern scholars have argued, Lavater’s writing can be confusing in the way it
“creates a shifting framework of interpretation that provides little means by which his audience
might accurately assess spectral phenomena.”487 Catherine Stevens contends that the work is
ultimately unsuccessful in its endeavor to banish the ghost from the sixteenth-century imaginary.
She writes that “[a] haunting occurs within the text itself, as ghosts repeatedly emerge within the
discursive structures that delineate their absence and, in doing so, create the possibility of their
presence.”488 Stevens highlights how Lavater commences his dedicatory epistle with a concise
declaration that demons, not ghosts, haunt the affairs of the living and then drops this argument
until relatively late in Das Gespensterbuch. Her broader point is that Lavater too often leaves open
the interpretive possibility that what people have felt are specters of the dead. Accordingly, she
concludes that Lavater’s writing is inadvertently “haunted by that which he seeks to exclude.”489
Bruce Gordon has similarly shown that Das Gespensterbuch retains an uncertainty about
the existence of premodern ghosts. Gordon comments on how “[t]he fine lines of the Protestant
denunciation of revenancy become obscured in the anecdotes collected by Lavater. He was well
aware that the people remained persuaded of the reality of wandering spirits and that the dead still
dwelt among the living. This might be decried by Protestant preachers as the work of the Devil,
but that did nothing to diminish the force of this belief.”490 Both Stevens and Gordon appropriately
describe elements of uncanniness that pervade much of Lavater’s work. Their analyses suggest
that Lavater intentionally frustrates the reader’s ability to firmly locate ghosts and angels in the

487 Stevens, “‘You shal reade marvelous straunge things’” (2016), p. 149.
488 Ibid., p. 162.
489 Ibid., p. 152.
490 Gordon, “Malevolent Ghosts and Ministering Angels,” (2000), p. 101.
lives of sixteenth-century Christian individuals and communities. On this view the selection of
stories rehearsed by Lavater in Book One appears to subvert the primary conclusion of the text as
a whole. Where Stevens perceives an inherent haunting of Lavater’s writing, Gordon
acknowledges the complexities involved with explaining away ghostly encounters to make room
for Protestant theology.
It is a truism that Protestant reformers struggled to extirpate the ghost from the early
modern Christian imaginary. Those uncanny elements of Das Gespensterbuch identified by
Stevens and Gordon are a testament to Lavater’s part in this history. Yet, as both Stevens and
Gordon identify, the Swiss minister is firm in his denunciation of purgatory and ghosts. This begs
consideration of why the author formatted his treatise in a way that initially foregrounds
ambivalence concerning ghosts and angelic beings.
The crux of Lavater’s method of argumentation lies in the text’s disputational form—a
dialectical structuring that culminates in a gradual disclosure of ghostly apparitions as demonic
creatures.491 Adopting the discursive form of scholastic methodology, Das Gespensterbuch issues
contrary evidence in the first two books and then provides a synthesis or resolution in the third
book. Scholastic disputatio typically exhibits the formula of asking: 1.) does the subject exist (an
sit)?, 2.) what is the subject (quid sit)?, and 3.) does the subject have specific characteristics (quia
sit) and to what end (propter quid)?492 Lavater follows this line of reasoning and presentation but

491 Both Stevens and Gordon point out the disputational structuring of Das Gespensterbuch, although
neither author provides sustained analysis of what effect this has on the reader. Timothy Chesters, on the
other hand, writes that the tension between Books One and Two “constitutes an arresting narrative reversal.”
Ghost Stories in Late Renaissance France (2011), p. 73. Here I expand on the point Chesters has made in
492 Bullinger similarly relied on this scholastic formulation, but far more explicitly, in his series of sermons
known as Decades. See Mark J. Larson, Calvin’s Doctrine of the State: A Reformed Doctrine and its
American Trajectory, the Revolutionary War, and the Founding of the Republic (Eugene, OR.: Wipf and
Stock, 2009), pp. 28-29.
without offering formal scholastic “quaestiones.” Rather, he posits in Book One what could be
called a widely accepted cultural “thesis”: he implicitly asks (and answers) whether wandering
spirits haunt the living (i.e., an sit?). Lavater then proffers his “antithesis” in Book Two,
demonstrating by means of biblical exegesis what these apparitions of the returned dead really are
(quid sit?). Finally, the third book marshals a pastoral response to the first two parts in which
Christians are counseled to recognize (quia sit?) and how to survive (propter quid?) the presence
of infesting demons. Lavater, in other words, structurally mirrors Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in
each question in order to make the point that the vast majority of apparitions are demonic in origin.
By framing Das Gespensterbuch in this way, Lavater stages the problem of haunting as a
process of measured revelations. He seeks in Book One to awaken his readership to the range of
activities purportedly enacted by wandering souls, writing under the pretense that ghosts exist in
order to delineate what they are said to do, where they habitually emerge, and in what form they
may appear. Once this awareness has been established, demons are then given theological
definition in Book Two and shown to be capable of exploiting all signs of ghostly haunting.
Coupled with Lavater’s deconstruction of the doctrine of purgatory, the reader is meant to
understand that ghosts can never haunt the living. The last book (examined below) then concludes
with Lavater’s own authoritative instructions on how to identify and deal with the event of demonic
haunting in the home.
Crucial to this dialectic are the historical narratives populating Book One. While these tales
can be read as a foil against which Lavater’s biblical exegesis will prevail in Book Two, with more
subtlety they portray haunting as a shared experience of unexpected excitement and terror. On this
perspective, Book One mobilizes ghostlore to broadly provoke premodern audiences. Convinced
of the pervasive reality of spirits and haunting, Lavater was conscious of and intently focused on
the fact that narratives about Gespenstern could move or arouse readers. As we have seen, it is in
the first book that Lavater describes the sounds of animals, the wind, and natural marvels confuse
and excite early modern folk. There are also diverse accounts of houses animated by creaks and
moans, unseen voices that rumble and cry, and various images that suddenly appear from nowhere.
At first glance, the marvelous and demonic exempla of the first book dovetail with what
Jan Machielsen describes as “the entertainment factor of demonology.” Examining the writings of
the Jesuit Martin Delrio and the French lawyer and poet Pierre le Loyer—both contemporaries of
Lavater—Machielsen contends that early modern readers would have enjoyed didactic narratives
featuring demons for their wondrous and often humorous narrative value.493 Timothy Chesters and
Margaret McGowan have likewise shown that demonological authors deliberately evoked
elements of readerly delight, amusement, and theatricality.494 Some of Lavater’s remarks in the
dedicatory epistle support this perspective.
Referencing the “learned and unlearned” (gleerten unnd ungleerten), for example, Lavater
intones the hope that his sundry stories will “not be tedious to the reader” (damit der Läser nit
verdrüssig) and that the book “will not seeme vnpleasaunt vnto you [Steigerus] and others in the
reading” (zeläsen nit unlustig oder langwylig syn).495 Such claims to pleasurable reading were a
staple of early modern literature. Yet while the Swiss minister initially gestures towards the

493 Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2015), p. 85.
494 Chesters, “Demonology on the Margins: Robert Du Triez’s ‘Les Ruses, finesses et impostures des espritz
malins” (1563) Renaissance Studies (June 2007): 395-410; Margaret McGowan, “The Sabbat
Sensationalized” in The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft (London: Sidney Anglo, 1977),
pp. 182-201.
495 Of Ghostes (1929), without pagination in “The Authours Epistle”; Das Gespensterbuch, without
pagination in “Vorred.”
Horatian ideal of pleasure obtained through reading, he also maintains that the real profit derived
from storytelling should be in service to Christian ministry. Memorably, in Book One, Lavater
personalizes his collated stories by exhorting: “whosoever readeth this booke, may call to their
remembraunce, that they haue seene these and suche like things them selues, or that they haue
heard them of their friends and acquaintaunce and of such as deserue sufficient credit.”496 The
statement in many ways exemplifies the pastoral program of Das Gespensterbuch. The audience
is told to call forth memories of their own haunting encounters, to interpolate personal knowledge
of what haunting feels like. Lavater hoped his readership would internalize his anecdotal material,
adopting the narratives as representative of their own experiences with the demonic. Even for those
fortunate few to have never encountered a spirit, Lavater assumes they will be able to recall similar
tales heard from reputable sources. The efficacy of storytelling and pastoralism in Das
Gespensterbuch operates along these lines. Lavater adeptly locates the problem of haunting in the
immediate context of Christian experience and memory. By urging the reader to “call to their
remembraunce” different spiritual encounters (real or imagined), he sought to engender didactic
connections between experiences with ghosts (in Book One), his own theological authority (in
Book Two), and finally pastoral counsel (in Book Three).
The Pastoral Approach to Hearing Things: Book Three
The third and final book details methods by which Christians were to make their stand
against demonic assaults in the home. As Lavater announced early in the dedicatory epistle, Book
Three explains “howe men ought to behaue themselues when they happen to meete with such

496 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 80; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 41r: “Ein yeder aber der dises lißt / wird sich deren
etlicher und anderer derglychen dingen vol wüssen zuo erinnern / die im selbs / sinen fründen / bekannten
und verwandten begägnet / oder Darvon er sunst etwan von anderen glaubwridigen lüten gehört hatt.”
things [Spirits]” (wie sich die menschen söllind halten so jnen etwas derglychen erschynt und
begägnet).497 The same guideline is announced as the heading for Chapter 5 in the final book:
“Hovv Christian men ought to behaue themselues vvhen they see spirites, and first that they ought
to haue a good courage, and to be stedfast in fayth.”498 In general, the laity are told never to accept
or attempt communication with spiritual creatures, lest the Devil beguile them. Because the
majority of spectral visitations were demonic in character, social exchange of any sort with a spirit
would end in duplicity or worse. In exceptional circumstances, blessed angels or some obscure
portent might be sent from God, but one could never be sure. Given humanity’s proclivity for sin,
and because the humans were easily manipulated by the Devil, an approach of non-engagement
was always safest. Should the Christian intuit a heavenly spirit, deliberate disregard would never
offend the divine messenger, for “they will lyke it well, that thou wilte heare nothing but the
woorde of God” (so gefalt im wol wenn du nichts anderst hören wilt dann Gottes wort).499 In most
cases anyway, demonic encounters would entail obsequious flattery, the posing of seemingly
innocuous questions, and a general attempt to establish contact by means of rumbling nonsense.
Against all such communication, Lavater proclaims (twice) that the best defense is simply to “not
giue eare vnto them” (nit losen).500
In many ways, the directive to “not giue eare vnto them” is the central message of Book
Three and retrospectively informs the entire treatise. It intimates that the reader and listener must

497 Of Ghostes (1929), without pagination in “The Authours Epistle”; Das Gespensterbuch,, without
pagination in the Vorred.
498 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 190; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 105r.
499 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 196; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 108v.
500 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 108v; Of Ghostes (1929), p. 197.
not only cultivate an ability to close one’s ears to the noisiness of demons but also learn to
appropriately and actively hear the Word of God. The point is worth emphasizing because sound,
more than any other sense, operates as a didactic representation of how fallen angels threatened
Christian wellbeing—whether by means of haunting events or posing obstacles to the goals of
Protestant preaching.501 Several examples from Book Three demonstrate this menace of demonic
cacophony. Chapter 3 focuses exclusively on the noises associated with demons and the broader
question of “VVhy God doth suffer straunge noyses, or extraordinarie rumblings” (Warumb Gott
der Herr seltzame fäl…sunst beschähen lasse). Likewise, Chapter 5 counsels that if patient
Christians allowed spirits to “rumplet” and “poldern” without much notice, demons would
eventually become tired (müed) and cease (so wirt er sich trollen) their racket. Chapter 7 thereafter
also warns of the contaminating effects of speech wherein some demons persistently attempted to
establish auditory contact. The faithful, however, are told never to listen (nit losen) to apparitions
because God (via scripture) had strictly forbidden communication with the alleged dead.
To be clear, Book Three does refer to visual torments attending ghostly apparitions. As we
have seen throughout Lavater’s treatise, sight of a ghost or natural marvel could have potentially
debilitating or even deadly effects on those unfortunate souls who perceived them. In the vivid
account of Pliny’s “spirit of Athens,” for example, the initial inhabitants of the haunted house

501 Stuart Clark has importantly commented on the optical dimensions of Das Gespensterbuch in Vanities
of the Eye (2007), pp. 87-109. My point is not to refute Clark’s convincing analysis but to draw attention
to a neglected and prevalent aspect of Das Gespensterbuch. I note the importance of the visual illusions in
Book Three below.
502 In this particular passage Lavater does not give a specific biblical reference, although throughout Book
Two he repeatedly cites Deuteronomy 18:11 (“To seek truth from the dead is a transgression and
abomination before God”) and Luke 16:31 (“The truth must be sought from Moses and the prophets, that
is, from sacred scripture, not from the dead.”). Unsurprisingly the Articles on the Conjuration of the
Wandering Dead also emphasized these biblical passages; see Evener, “Wittenberg’s Wandering Spirits”
(2015): 538.
“watched many heauie and pitifull nights…and soon after, as feare increased, ensued death.” And
even when spirits were not culpable for domestic disturbances, Lavater reminded readers that the
astonishing effects of the glowworm, gemstones, and the eyes of animals at night aroused
misplaced fear of nature and its marvels. In like manner, Book Three recapitulates the sudden
alarm arising from “an idle sight [ein whon] obiected vnto our eyes,” and how “in deed it is naturall
vnto vs, to be amazed with feare [schuderet] when we see such things.”503 Stressing the visible
dimension of haunting, Lavater commented that the appearance of spiritual creatures was often so
disorienting that many Christians attempted physical combat with demons:
There haue bin some who when they would haue stricken [gehauwen] a Spirit with their
sword, haue thought they haue stricken the fetherbed [ein lind küsse], the Diuel so mocked
them. Others supposing they had throwen a spirit out the window, by and by thought they
heard shingles falling and ratling amongst the trees.504
At the same time, the sounds associated with haunting spirits were given special attention for the
disruptive effects they had on Christian concentration and wellbeing. Invisible creatures
persistently rattled, hummed, knocked, cried, and moaned, often times mimicking the voices of
the dead and speaking in indiscernible languages and rumblings. The wonders of nature, too, vexed
the ear with strange echoes, just as the quotidian noises of horses, birds, and other rural animals
were confused with the activities of spiritual intelligences. Even in the longer passage quoted
above, we are invited to overhear the alarming sounds of a “stricken” featherbed and the soft
whispering of “shingles falling and ratling amongst the trees.” Such instances certainly registered
visual illusions as disturbing events; they also undoubtedly resonated as audible tricks meant to
lead Christians astray.

503 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 191; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 105r.
504 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 215; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 121v.
By making fallen angels a matter of sonorous affliction, Lavater reinforces the idea that the
early modern soundscape was permeable to noise as an invasive presence. Indeed, a close reading
of Das Gespensterbuch shows that haunting evinced a profound aural dimension.505 In contrast to
visible apparitions, which might be ignored by turning away or closing one’s eyes, sound becomes
an especially intrusive and coercive force. It tenaciously finds its way through windows and doors,
penetrating through hands held over the ears. In forwarding this argument, Lavater recalls
instances wherein individuals have attempted to visually locate a source of disturbance only to
find themselves further plagued by noxious sounds. Thus Book One affirms that “[m]any vse at
this day to serch and sifte, euery corner of the house before they go to bed, ÿ they may sleep more
soundly: & yet neuerthelesse, they heare some scrying out, and making some lamētable noise.”506
Book Three addresses the same issue, although Lavater corrects the foregoing account and states
that the intention to perceive the Devil must be resisted at all times. Referencing 1 Peter 5:8, he
explains that while “Sathan raungeth euery where, in houses, fieldes, water and fyre: and yet he is
not alwayes espied of men, neyther can he so be.” In every case of haunting, when demons
produced “trouble and disquiet [ rumplen] our houses, we must not think therfore ÿ they were
neuer in our house before.”507 Implicated here is the Protestant understanding of God’s

505 Two excellent studies of “sound” in different cultural contexts are: Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical
Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)
and Eric Leigh Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
506 Of Ghostes (1929), pp. 72-73; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 38r: “vil in kammern ershinen sind die
verschlossen gsyn / da mancher vorhin mit dem liecht under alle better und kästen zündt / und gsehen ob
yemant in der kammer sye / wie noch vil lüt wenn sy schlaffen gond / im bruch habend.”
507 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 193; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 106v: “wie S. Peter züget / allenthaben umbhin laufft
/ verstand in hüseren / in holtz und fäld / in wasser und fhür / aber er laßt sich nit allweg sähen / unnd mags
auch nit…Laßt uns aber Gott zun zyten den bösen geist erschynen / ode rim huß umhin rumplen / so ist es
nit die meinung daß er vorhin nit daselbst gsyn seye.”
providential order and omnipotence. As in the pastoral advice of Sebastian Fröschel and Heinrich
Bullinger, Lavater instructed the faithful to remain steadfast like the figure of Job.508 In the face of
demonic clamor, the Christian was offered an occasion to reflect on moral imperfection.
With a broad view of Das Gespensterbuch, haunting turned on seen and unseen spiritual
presences that obstinately made themselves felt in everyday life. And it was this uncanny back and
forth between familiar places and unfamiliar sights or noises which caused the Christian to
anticipate, fear, and behave in unexpected ways. In forewarning the reader against the sudden
irruption of fear, Lavater relies heavily on Johannine language and imagery for readerly guidance.
As Chapter 2 begins:
The clere light of Gods worde driveth away al such spirits, which vse to worke their feates
in the darke. The cleare light approaching, the shadowe and darknesse vanisheth. The
prince of darknesse shunneth light, and hath nothing to do where men worship God the
father, only through Iesu Christ, believing only on him, and committing them selues wholy
vnto his protection. If men esteem the word of God, and haue it in price, he will in no wise
suffer them to be so ouerseene and deceyued, as they are whiche do all things without
warrant of his word.509
Where the above passage begins with words of comfort—the clarity and constancy of scripture are
contrasted with the darkness and disorder of demonic being—it notably ends with the warning that
demons “do all things without warrant of his word.” According to Lavater, Christian communities
suffered emotional and physical torment through misunderstanding and misapprehension, lost in
the threatening and disorganizing powers of demonic noise, otherness, and falsehood. He also
notes, in Chapter 1, that this threat was compounded by those “whose eares itche” (oren krätzlind)

508 Lavater also wrote on the Book of Job specifically: Das Buch Job aussgelegt undd erkläret, in CXLI
Predigen (Zurich: C. Froschauer, 1582).
509 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 182; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 101r: “Der heiter glantz deß Göttlichen worts /
vertrybt dise geist / die ir sachen gern in der finsternuß ußrichtend. Der fürst der finsternuß schücht das
liecht / unnd da man Gott durch Christum allein anrüefft / in in vertruwet und glaubt / sich sinen allein
haltet / da mag er wenig schaffen. Wo Gottes wort groß byn menschen ist / so laßt Gott die wält nit also
betrogen warden / als da man sin wort nit allein laßt gälten.”
and “withdraw their eares from the truth” (werdend die oren von der waarheit abwenden) through
false preachers. In contrast to “godly and constant preachers” (der rechten prediger) (like Lavater)
ministering God’s message, demons and “false teachers” (falsche leerer) deafened the untrained
Christian ear, drawing wary folk away from the biblical word.510
As is well-known, Protestant reformers encouraged faithful Christians to seek truth in
scripture alone. By means of individual and collective readings of the bible or by hearing a trained
pastor speak, the Christian collective cultivated faith through access to the Word of God.
Magisterial reformers espoused this idea across the board. Martin Luther asserted that the “Gospel
is not really that which is in books and composed of letters, but rather an oral preaching and living
word, and a voice which resounds through the whole world and is shouted forth abroad.”511
Likewise, John Calvin claimed that “all of Scripture is to be received as if God were speaking.”512
Lavater too, emphasized that appointed pastors established contact between the biblical messages
and fallen humanity: “some men, whiche bothe by lyuely voice, and also by their writings, shoulde

510 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 98r. The reference to itching ears is biblical: “For the time is coming when
people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves
teachers to suit their own desires” (2 Timothy 4:3).
511 WA 12: 259.10: “Evangelion ist eygentlich nicht das, das in ynn büchern stehet und ynn buchstaben
verfasset wirtt, sondern mehr eyn mundliche predig and lebendig wortt, und eyn stym, die da ynn die gantz
wellt erschallet und offentlich wirt aussgeschryen.” Cf. WA 10.i.2: 204.20: “Auffs erst, ists eyne rufende
stym, nicht eyne schrifft: den das gesetz und allte testament ist eyne todte schrifft ynn bucher verfasset. Aber
das Evangelion soll eyn lebendige stymme seyn.” Both passages are quoted by William A. Graham, Beyond
the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1987), p. 149. The translation above is Graham’s.
512 Cited in Graham, Beyond the Written Word (1987), 143, but without a primary source reference. Susan
Karant-Nunn makes a similar point, noting that, for Calvin “The Holy Spirit…comes down in fire-like
tongues and is inseparable from the Word preached by his appointed servant” in The Reformation of
Feeling: Shaping the Religious Emotions in Early Modern Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2010), p. 103.
interprete his woorde, and enfourme others of his will.”513 It is in Book Three that the Protestant
minister emerges as the primary means for mitigating against demonic afflictions in the form of
invasive noise.
With this in mind, the problem of haunting constituted a dramatic contest of voices—
between the community of believers, armed with the Word of God, and wicked forces aligned with
infernal din. By framing demonic haunting in this way, Das Gespensterbuch accentuates the idea
that noise itself could potentially corrupt the transmission of Protestant pastoral counsel. We are
perhaps accustomed to an understanding of noise as non-discursive interference, like the confused
sounds of traffic in a metropolitan city or the superposition of static noise on an electronic device
(e.g., television or telephone). In his sixteenth-century context, Lavater also described atmospheric
sounds and how “the noyse of boystrous winde, or violent tempeste, the sparkling of fyre, the
roaring of waters sodenly increased” could be so perplexing that “a man supposeth hee seeth,
heareth, feeleth, or is felte of some spirite.”514 Yet far more disruptive for Lavater were spoken
languages which operated like noise, as when speech obstructs the communication of a particular
message. Think, for instance, of two parties simultaneously speaking over one another and how
the delivery of information is hindered by multiple voices. Lavater intentionally elaborates on this
understanding of noise by equating rival preachers with demonic disturbances. In particular, he

513 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 198; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 109v: “Zu dem/ hatt er auch den dienst sines heiligen
worts yngesetzt / das alwägen biß zum end der wält lüt wärind / so die ehilig gschrifft ußlegtind / unnd sin
heilsam wort mundtlich und gschrifftlich fürtrüegind / und uns sins heiligen göttlichen willens
514 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 19; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 7v: “als wenn es windete / er höre ein fhür flacken /
er höre ein tosen der wilden waldwasseren…daß einer meint er sähe unghür / habe es gehört / habe es
shows how competing religious ideologies and devilish mischief functioned to impede lay
Christians from hearing Protestant teachings.
Brief examples of this can be found at the start of Book One. For example, Lavater firmly
disallowed philosophical skepticism concerning the existence of spirits, describing the disruptive
“jests and laughing” (verlachet und für gedicht ghebt) of Epicureans and Sadducees, who denied
that spirits exist at all.515 Noël Taillepied also commented on the Sadducees of Act 23:8 and the
Epicureans of ancient Greece, adding Aristotelian peripatetics to the mix of dubious voices on
spirits. The Capuchin friar admitted that while many natural things were mistaken for spirits,
ghosts and angels absolutely existed. Hence Lavater and his critic united against voices of ancient
and modern skepticism, exemplified by figures like Machiavelli and Rabelais.516 Another
obnoxious discourse associated with demonic noise was the fanciful storytelling “heard of their
[simple men’s] grandmothers and mothers (von jren müteren und großmüteren gehört).517 With
uncharacteristic clarity for Book One, Lavater openly repudiated vernacular traditions
presupposing the existence of non-angelic spirits (e.g., fairies and elves). Citing Olaus Magnus
and Georgius Agricola, historical authors referenced in Chapter 3 of this dissertation, Lavater
appropriates popular folklore as evidence of demonic deception and widespread hearsay. While
Lavater only briefly glosses philosophical skepticism and vernacular beliefs, he is nevertheless
invested in exposing the inconsistencies of these traditions with Protestant theology and preaching.
In the context of Das Gespensterbuch’s message, their continued influence in Europe functions as
a type of conceptual noise disguising and disrupting godly ministry.

515 This point is raised twice: Of Ghostes (1929), pp. 9 and 177; Das Gespensterbuch, pp. 1r and 96v.
516 Traité De L’Apparition Des Esprits (1588), pp. 5, 8-9.
517 Das Gespensterbuch, p. 25r.
Far more substantial in its symbolic resonance with demonic clamor was Lavater’s diatribe
against Catholic preaching and the history of the papal office. The author reviled the ways in which
“Monkes and Priests, which desire to be aloft, indeuor now a days to purchase vnto themselues
authoritie by false miracles, vayne apparitions, and suche other lyke trumperie.”518 With dramatic
effect, the controversial abdication of Pope Celestine V in 1294 helped make this point. Drawing
from popular legend, Lavater recalled:
The Historiographers report that Bonifacius the 8. Deceyued his predecessor Celestinus,
by a voyce sent through a cane reede, as though it had come frõ Heauen, persuading him
to gyue ouer hys office of popeship, and to institute therin, one Bonifacius a woorthier man
than he, except he woulde be thrust out of the kingdom of heauen. The poore simple Pope
obeying this voyce, ordeyned Bonifacius Pope in his steade, in the yeare of our Lord. 1294.
who first brought in the yeare of Iubile. Of this Boniface, the common people wold say, He
came in lyke a Fox, he raigned lyke a Wolfe, and died lyke a Dog. If the very vicar of
Christ, who hathe all knowledge as it were fast lockt in the Coffer of his brest, could be
deceyued, lette no man maruel any more if simple credulous husbandmen and citezens
haue ben deceyued.519
Modern scholars of the medieval papacy have noted that Celestine’s abdication was both
unexpected and unprecedented. The resignation gave rise to an array of theological debates about
the implications of a pontiff’s resignation and the legitimacy of his successor Boniface VIII’s papal
election. For Lavater, however, the story reverberated as Catholic noise: “[i]f this man [Boniface]

518 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 45; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 22v: “etlich München und pfaffen / da einer ferer
anhin syn wil dann der ander / mit falschen erschynungen und anderem der glychen inen selbs ein ansehen
und willen zuo machen noch hütt by tag understüenden.”
519 Of Ghostes (1929), pp. 47-48; Das Gespensterbuch, pp. 24r-24v: “Vom Bonifacio dem achten bezügend
die historien daß er sinen vorfaren Celestinum also betrogen habe. Er habe durch ein rhor als ob ein stim
von himmel käme mit Celestino geredt er sölle das Bapsthum ufgebe und an sin statt Bonifacius ordnen
wölle er acht sälig warden. Diser einfalt Bapst sye ghorsam gsyn und habe im jar 1294. Den eergytigen
Bonifacium welher das erst Jubeljar hatt gehalten an sin statt gewelt und geordnet. Von jm was ein gmeine
sag er wäre hinyn geschlichen wie ein fuchs, hette gereiert wie ein wolff, wäre gestrorben wie ein anderer
hund. Hatt man den Statthalter Christi können betriegen der alles wussen in scrinio pectoris hatt solte man
einfaltige puren und burger nit auch können betriegen.”
coulde counterfeite the voice of God, coulde he not also faine the voice of dead men?”520 In
Lavater’s telling, the anecdote thus simultaneously rejected the existence of ghosts and
undermined the pontiff’s religious authority, while also aligning ecclesiastical Catholic speech
with the types of distracting sounds performed by demons.
Small wonder that the same general statements about Catholic clergy and pontiffs are
consistently levied against demonic spirits. Mirroring the claim that ecclesiastics “purchase vnto
themselues authoritie by false miracles, vayne apparitions, and suche other lyke trumperie,”
Lavater witnessed fallen angels “purchase credite and authoritie, unto those things whiche haue no
grounde of Scripture.”521 In this sense, the distractions performed by demons and Catholic
teachings were a testament to why the banner of sola scriptura was so important. Since demons
regularly impersonated representatives of the Christian religion, dead or alive—mimicking the
appearance, voice, and feelings associated with Christian authorities and personas—an awareness
of the conceptual affinities between demonic trickery and Catholic theology were crucial: both
threatened and potentially compromised lay interpretation of the bible. Most egregiously, demonic
spirits and Catholic preachers promised to reveal the secrets of salvation by means of biblical
authority, often speaking of a third, intermediate space (i.e., purgatory) from which wandering
souls would come to commune with the living. Given this feigned, extra-biblical knowledge,
Lavater warned that both regularly posited impossible knowledge and secrets of the afterlife. In
posturing themselves as would-be ghosts, unclean spirits requested that masses be sung for them,
or that the pilgrimages would deliver the faithful from suffering and sin. Catholic authorities, in

520 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 48; Das Gespesnterbuch, p. 24v: “inen für geben / Gott hette das geredt / der geist
hette hilff begärt / wenn glych nichts daran ist?”
521 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 163; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 88v: “Er…bringt hiemit die ding die keinen grund
in der gschrifft habend / in ein groß ansähen. Durch falsche wunder und zeichen richtet er [der tüfel] nüwe
turn, perpetuated diabolical ruses by adhering to seemingly miraculous intercessions between the
living and the dead.
This narrative is given further definition at the close of Das Gespensterbuch, where
Chapters 10 and 11 disqualify Roman Catholic rituals of protection against spirits. Chapter 10
discredits religious ceremonies, including prayer for the dead, holy water, candles, palms, smoke
from burning grass, and bells. Here, Lavater lambasts consecrations as inefficacious ritual
protections against demonic invasion.522 Chapter 11 then elaborates on popular notions of
exorcism and how “spirits are not to be driuen avvay by cursing and banning” (man sol nit mit
fluochen und schweeren wenn unghür erschynt.) The underlying message in each is that haunting
could not be located in or understood by Catholic practices and beliefs, and any attempt to do so
served as futile noise. Worse still, Lavater urges that maledictions attracted, rather than repelled,
the Devil: “Nothing can be more acceptable and pleasing to the Diuel, than when anyman vseth
cursing and banning. He feyneth that he is hereby driuen away, but in ÿ meane season he crepeth
inuisibly into their bosoms.”523 In effect, the vocalization of cursings and bannings was
commensurate with Devil-speech: it further confirmed for Lavater that Catholic theology and its
attendant rituals prevented accurate understanding of and response to demonic infestation.
In a compelling chapter on Protestant and Roman Catholic pastoral demonology, Timothy
Chesters concludes that Lavater’s writing ultimately left Christians with “an ever-present, and only

522 One of the fullest responses to this familiar Protestant critique was marshalled by the Jesuit Martin
Delrio, who enumerated an extensive inventory of efficacious ecclesiastical remedies against demons. See,
Disquisitionum Magicarum (1599), iii. 235-96.
523 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 214; Das Gespensterbuch, p. 121r: “Das ist des tüfels läbtag / wenn der mensch
fluochet und schweert / er thuot wol der glychen als ob er von im lasse / laßt sich aber mithin.”
imperfectly mastered, fear” of the Devil’s presence in the home. According to Chesters, the
pastoral message of Das Gespensterbuch is that “the haunted house is one that we must tackle
alone.” Having displaced Catholic rituals against demons with faith in God’s providential order,
the most Protestant ministers could do to help Christians cope with haunting was diagnose demonic
infestation as a divinely ordained occurrence. The laity were, then, left to fend for themselves and
prepare for an uncertain end to the Devil’s work. From this perspective, the early modern home
and landscape remained spaces rife for demons to haunt the living according to divine ordinance.
This conclusion, in part, captures Lavater’s desire to place sixteenth-century readers and
listeners themselves within premodern spirit-lore. As already noted, Das Gespensterbuch invites
the audience to emotionally and intellectually inhabit the multiple stories of ghosts-revealed-asdemons. To do so would have entailed many terrifying realizations: that spectral apparitions of,
say, a relative or loved one from purgatory were inhuman perversions of what could be seen or
heard; that ancient and medieval tales of haunting spirits mirrored accounts and experiences in
Lavater’s own context; that once demonic infestation was appropriately identified, there were no
ancient rites or trained priests to exorcize devils from the home. Sixteenth-century Roman Catholic
authors were keen to nuance and, in many cases, contradict these points.
The first to respond directly was the Spanish Jesuit, Jean Maldonat (Juan Maldonado). In
1571-72, Maldonat presented a series of Latin lectures at the Jesuit Collège de Clermont (in the
city of Paris) on orthodox demonology, attacking Lavater’s arguments against the existence of
ghosts and sacramental rites to ward off demonic afflictions.524 Then, in 1586, the French lawyer

524 On Maldonat’s demonology, see Jean Marie Prat, Maldonat et l’université de Paris au XVIe siècle (Paris:
Julien and Lanier, 1865), 262-5; Paul Schmitt, La Réforme catholique, le combat de Maldonat, 1534-83
(Paris: Beauchesne, 1985), 412-14; Jonathan Pearl, The Crime of Crimes: Demonology and Politics in
France, 1560-1620 (Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1999), pp. 59-75.
and scholar Pierre Le Loyer confronted the Swiss minister point-for-point in his erudite Quatre
livres des spectres. Like Maldonat, Le Loyer insisted that human souls could genuinely return to
the living and that Catholic ritual practices against demonic infestation were unquestionably
efficacious.525 Two years later Noël Taillepied, a Capuchin friar, penned his Traité de l’apparition
des esprits (1588), which draws extensively from Das Gespensterbuch.
526 Roughly 80% of
Taillepied’s tome repurposes anecdotal examples and commentary found in Lavater’s text, but
situates the material in such a way so as to reinstate Catholic theological teachings.527 Compelling
references and allusions to Lavater are also found in the influential demonologies of Jesuit authors,
including Martin Delrio and Petrus Thyraeus at the turn of the seventeenth century.528
Thyraeus, in particular, produced what is often considered the most influential Roman
Catholic treatise on “haunted locations” or “loca infesta”—the same broad theme broached by
Lavater some thirty years earlier. His long work, entitled Loca infesta (1598), sets out to confirm
haunted spaces exist, describe exorcistic practices against demonic haunting, and provide a
rigorous typology of spectral apparitions. Employing a variety of both ancient and medieval
exempla, as well as those in his own century, the Jesuit theologian affirms and refutes different
theses presented on the subject. Most importantly, his discussion of the purposes of ghostly and
demonic communication speaks broadly to issues raised in Das Gespensterbuch. For example,
Thyraeus notes early on how spiritual apparitions “insinuate their presence, shaking the wind

525 IIII. Livres des spectres (1586).
526 Traité De L’Apparition Des Esprits (1588).
527 This statistic is taken from Chesters, Ghost Stories in Late Renaissance France (2011), p. 97.
528 Thyraeus, Loca infesta: hoc est, De infestis, ob molestantes daemoniorum et defunctorum hominum
spiritus, locis, liber unus (Cologne: Cholinus, 1598); Delrio, Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex, 3 vols
(Venetiis: Apud Ioan. Antonium & Iacobum de Franciscis, 1599).
slightly; here they make noise, there they simulate footsteps; here they emit laughter, there they
make sighs and moans; here they shout and fill places with cries; there they speak quietly or sing,
etc.”529 As we have seen, Lavater draws the same general conclusion but contends that all such
forms of communication were intended to misdirect observers; they served to confuse and lure
Christians into investing time and energy in trifling thoughts and activities.
By contrast, Thyraeus observed certain distinctions with regard to the type of offending
spirit and its corresponding capacity for intelligible discourse. The Jesuit theologian maintained
that the sounds emitted by human souls from purgatory aimed primarily at effectiveness in speech,
especially when requesting prayers and suffrages in pursuit of salvation of the soul. Alternatively,
human ghosts could weep, groan, or moan (gemitus, fletus, eiulatus) as vehicles of expression in
order to emotionally move Christian audiences and reminding them of human qualities acquired
at the moment of death. These facets of ghostly haunting not only proved the existence of
purgatory, they also distinguished human specters from fallen angels. While Thyraeus admits that
demons could produce similar sounds and speech described above—thus mimicking the human
dead—the noises associated with demonic spirits were typically devoid of genuine sadness and
contrition. In general, the discursive capacity of demons lacked eloquence and emotional appeal;
their apparitions also appeared vengeful in character and aggressive (furialis) in attempting contact
with humanity.530 Against Lavater’s contention that all apparitions were demonic, Thyraeus

529 Loca infesta, 1.19.7: “Nunc Spiritus solum praesentiam suam, agitato quasi aere et ventulo levi,
insinuant: nunc strepitus excitant, nunc simulant incessum; nunc ccacchinos eduent et risus, nunc promunt
suspiria et gemitus, nunc vociferantur et clamoribus loca implement, nunc suavius loquuntur, nunc
cantillant, etc.”
530 Ibid., 2.28.4-10. Thyraeus does also note that wicked human ghosts are difficult to distinguish between
inhuman apparitions.
endeavored to demonstrate multiple origins for unsettling sights and sounds in the premodern
For Roman Catholic theologians, then, encounter with either a demonic or human spirit
was proof that purgatory existed, and that the afterlife included multiple paths to salvation. In fact,
Noël Taillepied remarked that “the devil presents himself, indeed, pretending to be a ghost,
because he knows that ghosts actually appear to men.”531 He would then go on to affirm the
efficacy of Catholic rites and how they were necessary to discern and ultimately repel evil spirits
in the home. Roughly a decade later, the Jesuit theologians Martin Delrio and Petrus Thyraeus also
documented the most impressive array of ecclesiastical remedies against demonic haunting.532 For
these authors, the benefits and successes of apotropaic rituals were a testament to the holiness of
the Catholic Church.
While Roman Catholic authorities boasted an arsenal of ceremonies against demonic
invasion, Protestant teachings on the matter were by no means bleak. As Keith Thomas has shown,
when hardship fell on humanity, “Protestant reformers believed that God might of his own volition
intervene in earthly affairs so as to help his people.”533 One primary way in which such intervention
might take place was through individual or communal prayer—something Lavater also

531 A treatise of ghosts; being the Psichologie, or Treatise upon apparitions and spirits, of disembodied
souls, phantom figures, strange prodigies, and of other miracles and marvels, which often presage the death
of some great person, or signify some swift change in public affairs, trans. by M. Summers (London:
Fortune Press, 1933), Bk 1, Ch. 11, p. 66.
532 Taillepied counters Lavater’s discussion of Catholic rituals in Book Three of Das Gespensterbuch point
for point: see A treatise of ghosts (1933), pp 166-74. Delrio and Thyraeus extend this discussion into
historical and contemporary instances in which faith, the sacraments, priestly aid, exorcism, invocation of
Christ or the saints, the sign of the cross, relics, church bells, and blessed angels, among others, have proven
efficacious against demonic infestations. See Delrio, Disquisitionum Magicarum, 3.296-320; Thyraeus,
Loca infesta, 3.54-55.
533 Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), 113.
acknowledges. In Das Gespensterbuch, prayer is mighty; it is what God wants the Christian to do.
Though it would not banish the Devil, prayer directed faithful Christians to the importance of the
soul, rather than afflictions of the body. According to Lavater’s logic, to pray is to do the right
thing, even though it might not feel as empowering as the rituals of Catholicism. Far more
important for Lavater was that the Christian “gyue God thankes for that greate and vnspeakable
benefite, whereby he dothe dayly delyuer them out of greate errours and feares.”534 God’s love of
humanity would always triumph over wicked spirits. As horrifying as the experience of haunting
was, the Swiss minister reminded his audience that they were never alone, that having bad things
happen in the home was not the worst experience one would ever have.

534 Of Ghostes (1929), p. 219.
Spiritual creatures were an intense locus of intellectual and emotional efforts to make sense
of how, why, and in what form unsettling phenomena occurred in and around the premodern home.
As this dissertation has shown, visible and invisible forces operating in the physical world of
premodern Europe informed the lives and behavior of virtually every person. In the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries specifically, theologians increasingly argued that demonic spirits were adept
disruptors of the domestic sphere: fallen angels transformed households into spaces replete with
disorder and insecurity; they appeared as apparitions of perished loved ones and associates; they
spoke and could give (often misleading) counsel; at times, their presence might be felt by hair
suddenly standing on the back of one’s neck. This is not to say that all ancient, medieval, and early
modern communities constantly (or even frequently) worried about the presence of demons, but
that reports and descriptions of spiritual encounters broadly permeated the Christian imaginary.
Across numerous theological treatises, sermons, poetic compositions, and widespread stories,
premodern authors contemplated the ways in which haunting spirits animated the world with
mischief and misfortune.
Abundant textual evidence demonstrates that representations of demonic affliction were
hardly static. Orthodox theologians, from Augustine to Aquinas, and throughout the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries, increasingly demonized the manifestation of benign domestic spirits. These
scholars debated whether demons existed as corporeal or strictly immaterial beings, whether they
were capable of repentance or forever inclined to evil, and whether they worked illusions or
produced physical transformations. At the same time, vernacular and folkloric narratives often
portrayed fairies, kobolds, and their differentiated kin as spiritual presences with whimsical
personalities and ambiguous moralities. These creatures often exhibited characteristics that did not
easily conform with orthodox theological teachings: some demonic spirits were said to be immune
to holy water, some never harmed humanity, and some were neither purely benevolent nor
malevolent. In the former (orthodox) tradition, the Devil and his fallen angels exemplified created
beings that sought to pervert established systems of Christian thought and practice; in the latter,
demons and angels existed among a constellation of possible haunting phenomena reported in
popular storytelling.
Representations of unclean spirits from the Christian Bible, as mediated through patristic
sources, formed much of the basis for later medieval and early modern interests in the demonic.
An array of narratives from antiquity involving pagan deities and the Devil led early Christian
authors to define demonic affliction in terms of moral tribulation and salvation: fallen angels
represented instrumental obstacles that enticed humanity with diverse temptations and illusions
but were always subject to divine ordinance. Alongside Augustinian demonology, Thomist
metaphysics heavily influenced late medieval and early modern perspectives of the Devil and the
notion that demons constituted a species of being informed by both theological precepts and
natural processes. This “theologically informed biology” invited unprecedented study of demonic
spirits as intermediate spirits that behaved according to principles of nature—akin to animals,
plants, and minerals.535 And yet, Christian communities in different places and times would also
produce their own perspectives of spiritual encounters. Where Augustine, Aquinas, and learned
authors wrote copiously about demons and demonic illusions, abundant evidence suggests that
men and women of all sorts could expect variegated interactions with hostile and benign spirits of
the home. Poetic and imaginative accounts, in particular, rehearse how morally neutral angels,

535 Fabián Alejandro Campagne, “Demonology at a Crossroads: The Visions of Ermine de Reims and the
Image of the Devil on the Eve of the Great European Witch-Hunt,” Church History 80:3 (2011): 484.
penitent demons, and non-angelic entities were at the very least conceivable within the premodern
Christian imaginary.
Confronted with a wealth of exemplary tales about spirits of different stripes, medieval and
early modern theologians appealed to both orthodox and folkloric assumptions about the role of
spirits, depending on their own pastoral and speculative theological needs. In the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries especially, narratives about demons expressed concerns over the home as a site
of social contest. Late medieval exempla that relate minor poltergeist disruptions exhibit how
demons fomented disorder within households by means of distracting noises. In this case, the
designation “poltergeist” had functional value, meaning it helped describe a particular type of
diminutive demon said to possess “less power from God.”536 Many other tales similarly relate how
demons might appear as benign spirits in service of the inhabitants of a home itself. Preachers and
theologians typically employed such narratives for didactic purposes, warning that spiritual noise
and companionship were typically the province of demonic wiles. Accordingly, Christians were
instructed to ignore the illusions produced by demons altogether, lest one neglect pious obligations
(e.g., prayer) and the comfort of familiarity in the home.
In the sixteenth century, one author emerges as a seminal authority on the subject of
haunting phenomena and demonic spirits. Ludwig Lavater’s writing has been widely researched
in modern scholarship, although his demonology has received scant attention, except in relation to
early modern ghosts and ghostlore. Das Gespensterbuch is undeniably interested in the figure of
the ghost but also oriented towards explaining the role of demons in Christian lives. The Reformed
minister’s demonology combines both Augustinian and Thomist teachings with his Protestant
polemic and alternate vision of religious praxis, arguing that the noisy distractions of fallen angels

536 Chapter Three of this dissertation explains how Johannes Nider, Geiler von Keysersberg, and several
others use this phrase to describe noisy spirits in the home. See pp. 1-5 of Chapter Three.
conceptually mirror Roman Catholic systems of thought and practice concerning human ghosts.
This conclusion is all the more compelling, given the way in which Lavater situates his audience
within his immense collection of historical anecdotes about spiritual encounters. That is, the author
intimates that stories told about demonic haunting and rival Catholic “noise” center on the
listener’s own life and experiences: they are not just anecdotes about other people; they
immediately involve the audience as a participant in haunting narratives.
That this study ends with Lavater and sixteenth-century Protestant perspectives of the
demonic invites further investigation into the role of lesser demons in other literature from the
same century (and later). My examination does not evaluate Roman Catholic accounts and
interpretations of poltergeist haunting. Lavater’s argument by no means ended debates about the
Devil, nor did Europeans—Roman Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise—cease to invest emotive and
intellectual energy in describing diminutive spirits (demons, ghosts, fairies, etc.). Much more work
could be done to investigate the ways in which late sixteenth-century authors conceptualized
household demons, the vernacular and Latin language used to describe them, and why lesser
afflictions mattered so much to learned theologians and preachers. Moreover, only little attention
has been given to the thorny problem of premodern “popular culture” and the extent to which
ideations of the Devil were colored by multiple cultural lenses. On the whole, my approach has
been to read the extant source material—overwhelmingly derived from learned authors attacking
what they perceived as erroneous beliefs about demons—against itself, highlighting those textual
spaces wherein theologians disagree with one another and posit conflicting notions of demonic
Furthermore, my approach has been to emphasize that Western European demonology was
not solely interested in the figure of the witch. Modern scholarship on the subject has tended to
focus on how the antics of wicked spirits and demonic magic persisted throughout the later Middle
Ages, resulting in trenchant fears over witchcraft and maleficium. Here, notorious texts like
Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus maleficarum and Jean Bodin’s Démonomanie, for example, have
become staples of Western historiography on angels, demons, and other spiritual creatures. It is
often assumed that, when focusing exclusively on the aforementioned texts, Christian demonology
and persecuting witches went hand in hand. On this reading, late medieval and early modern
authors who wrote about spirits sought primarily to expose and punish witches. While it is certainly
true that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed the virulent persecution of witchcraft and
an increased interest in the subject of demons, many theologians and lay demonologists also
discussed spiritual creatures without reference to witch-trials and demonic magic. I have
concentrated on those authors and narratives that call attention to minor disruptive spirits so as to
show that poltergeist fears were widely shared among European intelligentsia and lay Christian
As horrifying as this conclusion may sound, it is far from unique to Western European
history. Many cultures, spanning different historical times and places, have reported strange
encounters and inexplicable events involving indiscernible noises, hidden movements, and
confusing physical activities. In our own century, a recent study from the academic journal
Neurocase details the experiences of an anonymous woman (called “Ms. S”.) which bare
resemblance to the concerns addressed by late medieval and early modern theologians. The study
relates how the anonymous woman:
reports experiences of sounds, perceived as ‘taps’ that she estimates to be between 3 and 4
Hz with sound pressure equivalents between 40 and 60 db. Occasionally there may be a
single louder sound. The duration of clusters are often between 3 and 10 seconds. The
clusters are usually localized along her left side. The patient experiences luminous
‘discharges’ from her left hand. Small spatial displacements of objects as well as
disruptions in electronic equipment (partially failed light bulbs) near her were also
reported. The incidence rates of the phenomena increase when she is ‘upset’ with her
second husband. This husband and her friends have reported hearing the sounds. She
reports lights of various colors and glows around individual according to their perceived
mood and ‘personality’. Ms. S. reported she feels overwhelmed by a deep sadness after the
occurrence of the phenomena and cries, even if nothing ‘bad happens’. Since the beginning
of these phenomena she hears voices of multiple ‘imaginary’ friends who she has named;
the two major ones are identified as male. They presumably help her minimize the distress
of the experiences.537
The experiences described are notably expressed and quantified by means of modern scientific
reasoning; namely, the authors of this study measure the afflictions of Ms. S. according to sound
frequency, pressure, and duration. Via clinical observation and detailed measurements, they go on
to indicate that the woman’s distress is the result of a “chronic electrical anomaly” in her right
temporal lobes which began after she received a severe head injury several years ago. They also
thereafter counsel patients like Ms. S., “who experience terrifying nocturnal-sensed presences
subsequent to closed head injuries, to quickly activate an acoustic source and to listen to music
containing lyrics. This simple temporal lobe stimulation eliminates the experience of a sensed
presence.”538 In short, the learned diagnosis accounts for the patient’s afflictions in a manner
completely different from that of Ms. S., who admits that she has been visited by “multiple
‘imaginary’ friends.”
As we have seen, premodern demonologists also considered the possibility that natural
causes lie behind invisible occurrences and gerümpel. At the beginning of the sixteenth century,
Geiler von Keyserberg argued that humans might feel fear of a spiritual presence due to fraudulent
hauntings or from infirmities in one’s bodily disposition. Drawing from classical antiquity, late

537 William G. Roll et al., “Case Report: A Prototypical Experience of “Poltergeist” Activity, Conspicuous
Quantitative Electroencephalographic Patters, and sLORETA Profiles—Suggestions for Intervention,”
Neurocase: The Neural Basis of Cognition 18:6 (2012): 528-29.
538 Ibid., 534.
medieval medical theory maintained that an imbalance in the Galenic humors (e.g., melancholic
infection) commonly produced horrible or frightening images in the imagination. In the fourteenth
century, Nicole Oresme similarly clarified that “sick people think that they see and hear
demons…but all of these things arise from the defect of the interior sense organs and the corruption
of the interior, apprehending, imaginative, or estimative power brought about by an abscess of the
brain or some other cause.”539 Likewise, Johann Weyer later denigrated the excesses of the witchhunts and witchcraft trials, arguing that
rare and severe symptoms often arise in diseases that stem from natural causes but are
immediately attributed to witchcraft by men of no scientific experience and little faith. This
often happens in the case of various convulsions, melancholia, epilepsy, suffocation of the
uterus, decaying seed, and the many varied effects of poison. But the prudent and
circumspect physician, distinguishing among these conditions and accidents, will first
weigh the evidence carefully, using the fairest possible criteria in a diligent search for
natural causes.540
For authors like Geiler, Oresme, and Weyer, not every inexplicable happenstance was attributable
to demonic mischief. Many premodern theologians were careful to distinguish between natural
and supernatural sources of noise and unseen movement.
Significantly, both modern and premodern perspectives of the so-called “poltergeist
phenomena” exhibit a tension between unmediated claims to spiritual encounter and the
authoritative interpretation of an expert. On the one hand, premodern people frequently reported
frightening, wondrous, and ambiguous experiences with human ghosts, demons, and benign
household spirits, just as some modern people now do in cases of paranormal encounters and
haunted houses. On the other, medieval and early modern scholars expressed concerns about

539 Nicole Oresme and the Medieval Geometry of Qualities and Motions (1968), IIxxix, p. 347.
540 Johann Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance: Johann Weyer, De praestigiis
daemonum, trans. by J. Shea (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991), 446-
misunderstanding the nature and purpose of spirits inhabiting the world, just as the learned authors
in Neurocase warn that Ms. S.’s false “associations may actually exacerbate the psychological and
sometimes psychiatric distress.”541 Acknowledging these similarities is important because they
underscore a very human and historical concern for unsettling activities which exhibit no
demonstrable cause.
Of course, today tales of poltergeists and the demonic have inundated popular culture
through television series (e.g., Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Investigators, Haunted Highway),
movies (The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Insidious), video games (Silent Hill, Alone in the Dark, The Evil
Within), and other mediums that highlight a cultural fear of and intrigue for the genre of
supernatural horror. These popular examples evoke modern wonderment but in a way that largely
amounts to harmless entertainment. At the same time, several documented cases like that of Ms.
S. remain remarkable to both specialists and the public. In 1993, the television program “Unsolved
Mysteries” (NBC) featured a case of inexplicable events orbiting a young man granted temporary
release from prison in order to attend the funeral of his recently deceased grandfather. Upon
returning to his prison cell, the convict reported a series of unsettling events which policemen,
jailors, and ministers all witnessed.542 As a populace, we are fascinated by representations and
stories of mysterious and unknown spiritual causes. These cases, however, generally constitute a
fringe anxiety and, as the authors in Neurocase argue, “anomalous” occurrences in contemporary

541 Roll et al., “Case Report: A Prototypical Experience of “Poltergeist” (2012): 527.
542 Joyce Bynum, “POLTERGEISTS—A Phenomenon Worthy of Serious Study,” ETC: A Review of
General Studies 50:2 (Summer 1993): 221-226.
By contrast, the felt presence of spirits in medieval and early modern Europe was
ubiquitous. One does find premodern skepticism toward belief in invisible spirits. Martin Luther
recalled how an associate of his (Andreas Osiander) held opinions completely at odds with Geiler’s
haunting demons.543 More forcefully, the English demonologist Reginald Scot (d. 1599)
sardonically maintained that stories of “spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans,
faunes, sylens, kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors,
nymphes, changlings” had been passed down by “our mothers maids.”544 While belief in spirits
may not have been universal, this dissertation has revealed how widespread, variegated, and
enduring such conceptions were. Angels, demons, ghosts, and household spirits were by no means
marginal to the Christian household. They raised concerns about physical and metaphysical
movements among both learned intellectuals and rural peasants, such that the vast majority of
premodern people found solace in the guardianship of angels and terror in the real possibility of
encountering a demon. Unlike what many today perceive as a relatively predictable material world,
governed by fixed scientific principles and the technologies that offer access to them, premodern
Europeans inhabited a cosmos in which spiritual creatures exercised various degrees of influence
over nature, human behavior and sense perception, and the Christian imagination.

543 D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Tischreden, 6 vols (Weimer: Böhlaus Nachfolger,
1912-21), V, 5358b, p. 87.
544 The Discoverie of Witchraft, ed. M. Summers (London: J. Rodker, 1930), bk VII, ch. XV

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