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  • A History of the Devil from the Middle Ages to the Present
  • Richard Kieckhefer
Robert Muchembled. A History of the Devil from the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Jean Birrell . Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003. Pp. x + 349.

The first and most important point to recognize about this book is that it is only on one level a history of the Devil; on a deeper level it is a history of the shifting and fluctuating status the Devil has occupied in Western culture. The basic question is not so much the qualitative as the quantitative one: not so much how the Devil has appeared in different eras, but why the Devil’s [End Page 103] fortunes have ebbed and flowed. The book traces the evolution of concern about the Devil in the later Middle Ages, the deepening and darkening of the Devil’s image in the Reformation, the turn toward the Devil within the human psyche in modern times, the reduction of the Devil to a frivolous or comic character in recent European culture, and his persistence in American culture. It is, fundamentally, a study in cultural proportions.

If one is not aware that this is the purpose behind the book, then the book’s own proportions may be difficult to understand. Why does a book on the history of the Devil have almost nothing to say about the enormously important tradition of explicitly demonic magic (or necromancy)? Why is the role of demons in art and drama almost wholly neglected? Why is there an entire chapter on the “tragical tales” or histoires tragiques of the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries? These may be linked with the Teufelsbücher, and may feature the Devil as tempter, but once the Teufelsbücher themselves have been mentioned, the Devil remains mostly off stage. Why, again, is there extended discussion of the dark visions of German, Scandinavian, and American films, only some of which deal expressis verbis with the Devil, while many deal instead with vampires and other horrors? Why, in a book on the Devil, do the films of Alfred Hitchcock receive more attention than any version of the Faust story? It would be easy to conclude that the book is idiosyncratic and inconsistent in its subject matter.

To understand the apparently odd perspective of the book, it may be helpful to begin with its terminus a quo: the twelfth century. There is no sustained analysis of Augustine, and the Bible is almost totally ignored. Athanasius’s life of Saint Anthony, basic for the development of demonology, is likewise neglected. Muchembled tells us explicitly that it was only in the twelfth and following centuries that Satan made his “entry onto the Western scene” (p. 6). This seems on the face of it to be a preposterous claim. But what does Muchembled mean by it? His argument is, in part, that prior to the twelfth century notions of the Devil had been restricted to a narrowly monastic culture; it was in the high and later Middle Ages that they came to dominate a broader Christian culture in the West. One might respond that monastic culture was never narrow—that missionary monks shaped the forms of religion in courts and villages wherever they went. Alternatively, one might argue that a fully developed Christian culture presupposed literacy, and that it was not only the concept of the Devil but religious notions of all sorts which, in their fully articulated form, could be widely disseminated only with the spread of literacy in the later Middle Ages. Would these arguments address Muchembled’s central argument? Perhaps not. Because, even without [End Page 104] leaning heavily on the distinction between one Devil and countless demons, it is clear that Muchembled means to deal with the former, with the Devil, the monarchical and vastly superhuman embodiment of evil, even if as the book proceeds he finds that embodiment expressed in nontraditional modes. The New Testament is full of reference to demons; the Devil is present, but as a cosmic force he is less in evidence than the demons. Augustine, too, dealt more with demons than with the Devil in the sense Muchembled has in mind...


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pp. 103-106
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