A great deal of ink was spilled in the medieval and early modern period on the nature of demonic copulation. Could demons engage in sodomy and other “perverted” sexual practices with human beings? No, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) opined, because demons retained a residue of their original angelic nature, which prevented them from engaging in sexual acts against nature. Why was sex with demons so pleasurable for women? Because, the philosopher Francesco Pico Della Mirandola (1470-1533) suggested, their “virile members were uncommonly large … and stimulate something very deep inside the witches” (104). The jurist Pierre de Lancre (1553-1631), who had interrogated a number of accused women during the witch hunts he conducted in Bordeaux, disagreed: Satanic sex was not pleasurable, he wrote, because the Devil’s organ was covered in scales that tightened and pinched the skin during intercourse.
What do these seemingly bizarre inquiries into the nature of Satanic sexuality tell us about Christian thought in the pre-modern period? Far from being the delusional products of over-sexed minds, these accounts remind us that for the greater part of Christian history, the Devil was seen as a tangible, active agent in the natural world. Handling a textual canon spanning nearly two and half millennia, Philip C. Almond’s new book The Devil: A New Biography reconstructs the evolution of this idea of an embodied, interventionist Devil, from its inception in Jewish Biblical and extra-biblical sources in the sixth century BCE, to its decline at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Almond shows that the story of Satan, emerging in its definitive form in the second-century BCE, provided a solution to a paradox that was at the heart of the Christian tradition: how to explain the persistence of evil within a world that was governed by a just and benevolent God?
In the Satanic story inherited from the early Church Fathers, Satan and his demons were fallen angels who retained their free will despite their rebellion against God. They were thus tacitly sanctioned by God to intervene in human affairs. Yet questions about the nature and extent of demonic power remained, eventually giving rise to the theological subfield of demonology in the Middle Ages. For Saint Augustine (354-430), demons had subtle corporeal bodies made of thin air that gave them extraordinary mobility and allowed them to enter the bodies of human beings. Peter Lombard (1100-1160) believed that demons possessed bodies made of thick gloomy air, derived from the dark layer of the atmosphere beneath heaven within which they resided. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, denied the corporeality of demons, but wrote that they were capable of condensing air into visible shapes and bodies. In Aquinas’s influential account, demons were spiritual beings with preternatural powers: only God possessed the power to create miracles, but demons had the power to create visible and marvelous effects through their sophisticated knowledge of the occult laws of nature.
Far from being a matter of sterile academic debate, demonology provided the intellectual foundations for the great witch hunts of the early modern period. The possibility of demons that could assume the shape of visible bodies, engage in copulation with witches to seal Satanic pacts, leave physical marks on the bodies of sorcerers and witches, and take control over human bodies through possession crucially depended upon the reality of their corporeal interactions with human beings. Determining the boundaries of demonic agency within the physical world thus became essential to adjudicating the trials of men and women accused of invoking the power of demons. It is not coincidental that the most influential of Catholic demonologies of the period, the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum [The Hammer of Witches], was penned by a Dominican inquisitor, Heinrich Kramer, in the course of a career spent persecuting witches in the Holy Roman Empire.
If the period between 1450-1700 marked the “golden age” of the demoniac, Almond notes, it also produced the first currents of open skepticism about the reality of Satanic intervention. Paradoxically, the juridical criteria developed to try accused witches and sorcerers were eventually turned against the edifice of demonological thought itself. Physicians, increasingly called upon to investigate such cases during the 16th and 17th centuries, played an important role in developing secular, naturalistic explanations for apparent cases of demonic possession. While few medical men in the 16th and 17th centuries denied the possibility of demonic possession outright, a firm distinction was drawn between symptoms produced by illness and by satanic intervention. Physicians thus developed a secular etiology of demonic possession that unwittingly opened the door for the “medicalisation of demonic possession” (150).
Yet the most decisive challenge to the idea of a corporeal devil, Almond argues, came from new forms of Christianity that appeared in the early modern period. His account thus provides more weight to the now-familiar claim that the origins of secularization are to be found principally within Christianity itself, rather than in currents of skepticism, materialism, and atheism. Protestant theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries increasingly denounced exorcisms and cases of demonic possession as Popish superstitions in their promotion of rational forms of Christianity that emphasized individual faith over divine revelation. The Protestant interiorization of spirituality, arising out of the doctrine of sola scriptura, eventually relocated the devil from the natural world to the minds of men. Yet if Protestantism provided the escape from a world besieged by demons, one wonders why Puritans in New England and Calvinist Scots continued to persecute witches so vigorously into the late seventeenth century. Almond would likely argue that these forms of Christianity were already being marginalized by the liberalizing impulse of natural theology, which relegated the idea of a corporeal devil to the “distant corners of the educated European mind” (196). There would be no place for the demonic in the disenchanted world of Enlightened natural theologians, deists, and liberal Protestants who grounded their faith in the rational contemplation of a predictable, orderly universe.
By attributing the “death of the devil” to changing theological and spiritual sensibilities, Almond casts further doubt on the once-canonical narrative of the Enlightenment as a period of secularization spurred on by declining faith and atheism. Nevertheless, much like the standard secularization narratives that he jettisons, Almond insists too strongly on the monolithic, metaphysical unity of Enlightenment religion and thought. As a result, Almond is at pains to explain the purportedly anomalous persistence of belief in the demonic from the likes of the Newtonian mathematician and natural theologian William Whiston (1667-1752). Almond rather unconvincingly attempts to explain away Whiston’s belief in the immanence of the Antichrist’s reign on earth, by claiming that he was “something of a scholarly anachronism” (168). Yet one wonders, given the plurality of metaphysical positions in Enlightenment philosophy and theology, and the popularity of supposedly irrational forms of thought like hermeticism and mysticism, to what extent such beliefs were indeed anachronistic anomalies. We get no indication from Almond’s book, for his account abruptly ends with a discussion of the Dutch Calvinist Balthasar Bekker’s (1634-1698) The World Bewitched, a controversial text that, he claims, definitively expelled the demonic, and spiritual entities more generally, from the domain of the secular natural world. Given how embedded Satan and his demons were within the Christian tradition, one would expect this expulsion to have been fraught with far more difficulties and contestations than Almond allows.
The road to the disenchanted world of modern liberal Protestantism and Catholicism seems unusually smooth in Almond’s account. It is perhaps slightly churlish to criticize this book for failing to engage with the complex field of Enlightenment theology and natural philosophy, given the breathtaking chronological sweep of the rest of the book, yet one cannot help but feel that Almond has “killed off” the Devil in all too unceremonious of a fashion. The Vatican’s recent pronouncements on the threat posed to Catholics by the Devil and the occult and its formal recognition of the International Association of Exorcists, not to mention the persistence of belief in an interventionist devil by millions of Catholics and Protestants around the world, should force us to consider such pronouncements with a degree of skepticism.