Caesarius of Heisterbach (ca. 1180 – ca. 1240) was a monk in the abbey of Heisterbach, where instructing novices was one of his responsibilities. He wrote a number of spiritual treatises, and the best known was his “Dialogue on Miracles,” which takes the form of a dialogue between a master and a novice. His works were popular because the stories conveyed important theological truths in an engaging format.
Many parts of his book deal with demons and the devil in various guises, and in a few of these he ascribes black skin to these fallen beings. In this excerpt, the monk tells the novice of an abbot named Herman, who was blessed with the gift of seeing demons. He proceeds to survey the panoply of forms demons could take. Many of them are terrifyingly insubstantial and monstrous—the self-propelled calf’s tail wouldn’t be out of place in a modern day horror movie! Others occupy the bodies of monks who are prone to impious acts. But note also the three demons that take clearly human form: a veiled woman dressed all in black, a brutish peasant, and an Ethiopian burned black by hellfire.
These represent three figures who all provoked some measure of anxiety among elites, women because of their seductive potential and weakness for extravagance, peasants because of their superstitions and passions, and blacks because of an association both with darkness and sin and with the Muslim enemies of Christianity.
Of Herman, the abbot of Marrienstatt, who saw demons under various forms.
Don Hermann, now abbot of Marienstatt, was a man whose spirituality and authority are well known to you. He was a man of ancient race and noble birth, and before his conversion had been canon of Bonn Cathedral; then he became a monk in Hemmenrode, and when, not long afterwards, our convent was sent out from that monastery, he was appointed the first abbot of the new community, After a few years we lost him, as he was restored to Hemmenrode, being elected as abbot there. At that time there was a lay brother, by name Henry, master of the grange, called Hart, a man good and upright, of mature age and virgin in body. Among other gifts that he had received from the Lord was this, that he used often to see demons, under different forms, passing to and fro in the choir at night offices.
Once in confession, he told this to Herman, who, being kindled by his example into a desire to see demons himself, prayed very earnestly to God that He would deign to grant him this favour; and immediately his prayer was heard. For when, on the next S. Martin’s Day, he was standing in the choir at matins, he saw a demon in the form of a thick-set peasant, come in near the lower part of the presbytery. This demon had a broad breast, pointed shoulders and a short neck; his hair was fashionably dressed in front, the rest hanging down like drooping ears of corn; and he went to a certain novice and stood in front of him. When Dom Herman, who was not yet abbot, had gazed upon him for a time, and, after turning his eyes away for a little, again wished to see him, he had already disappeared. At another time the demon, transforming himself into a calf’s tail, threw himself upon a bench against which the same novice was leaning, and then very smoothly and gradually dragged himself towards him; and immediately this tail touched his shoulders, the novice at once became faulty in his singing and when he touched the ground with his fingers in acknowledgement of his fault in accordance with the Rule, the demon as if suddenly driven by a whirlwind, withdrew from him an arm’s length, and so disappeared. For not even that spirit of pride, who with his tail draws the third part of the stars of heaven (Apoc. xii. 4), can resist a single sign of humility. That novice was Father Alexander, who is now prior in Hemmenrode. It is likely that at that time, he was allowing some light thoughts, so that the frivolous emotions they engendered were a temptation and a hindrance to his devotions.
Novice. – It pleased me to hear this.
Monk. – Further, on the vigil of S. Kunibert (he was then a simple monk) he saw from his place in the abbot’s choir, two demons enter near the presbytery, and go gradually towards the abbot’s stall between the choirs of the monks and novices. When they came opposite to the angle where the walls meet, there sprang forth a third demon, who joined the other two, and went out with them. They passed so close to him that he could have touched them with his hand. Looking at them more closely, he noticed that they did not touch the ground with their feet, being powers of the air. One of the first two had the face of a woman, and was wearing a black veil, and was covered with a black cloak. And as he told me, that monk, who had been harbouring the third demon, was a notorious grumbler and thrall of accidie, one who slept willingly in church, and chanted reluctantly, being ever more ready to drink than to sing; one to whom the shortest services seemed always too long.
At another time, when he was now prior, on the vigil, I think, of S. Columbanus, the abbot’s choir was beginning the first psalm for matins: Lord how are they increased that trouble me (Ps. iii.), the demons so thronged the choir that by their number and going to and fro, the brethren quickly broke down in the psalm, and when the other side of the choir tired to put them right, the demons flying across and mingling with them so disturbed them that they no longer knew what they were singing, and soon each side was shouting against the other. The lord abbot Eustace and prior Herman, seeing this, came down from their stalls and tried to remedy the confusion, but were unable to restore the singing or to change the discord into harmony. At length, that short and well known psalm was somehow finished, after a great deal of difficulty and confusion, and the devil, the origin of the trouble, departed with his satellites, and peace once more descended upon the singers. It was at this time that the prior saw the devil flying in the form of a dragon of the length of a spear, and passing close to a lighted lamp, so that his departure was plain to him as he watched. The other demons had shadowy bodies somewhat larger than those of infants and their faces were the colour of iron that has first been drawn from the furnace.
Novice. – Since there were so many demons collected together in one place to interrupt one congregation, I cannot doubt that in the whole world their numbers must be countless.
Monk. – The gospel bears witness that a legion entered into one man. Wherefore since they are so numerous and so evil, and alas! as has been said, so exceeding eager to put stumbling blocks int he way of our salvation, my advice is that when we stand up to sing, we should be very careful and very earnest, very fervent and very humble, lest the vice of complacent shouting should extinguish the virtue of holy fervour. For just as the evil spirits are disturbed by the devotion of our hearts, so do they rejoice in the self-satisfied uplifting of our voices.
One night when the precentor for the week began the antiphon of the 94th psalm, and the monk next to him took it up on a rather low note, Heroic, who was then sub-prior, together with the other elder men joined in on the same note. There was standing in the lower part of the choir a certain not very wise young monk, who, being annoyed that the psalm was begun so low a note, raised it by nearly five tones. The sub-prior resisted, but the other refused to give way, and showing much pertinacity, gained the upper hand. In the next verse some on the other side aided him, but the others stopped singing because of the scandal and the dreadful discord. At this moment prior Herman saw a demon, like a white-hot iron, leave the monk who had thus gained his end, and pass over to those on the opposite side who had taken his part. From which we may gather that humble chanting with real devotion is more pleasing to God than voices raised in arrogance to heaven.
Another night when he had summoned the brethren to vigil, and was standing in his place looking at the east window and wondering at the brightness of the light, there passed before his vision a demon like an Ethiopian, of huge size, and as black as if he had that moment been drawn out of the hell fire. This demon came through the upper choir, passed him and went out.
Again at another time when he had gone a little way from his stall to encourage the brethren, he saw a demon of horrible aspect pass with a rush between the stalls of abbot and prior; he gave a baleful glance at the prior’s choir and seeing that no way lay open for him because the prior himself was blocking it, betook himself hurriedly into the stalls of the novices and joined himself to a certain senior monk who was sitting there. This monk was not unlike in character to that other who had harboured the demon, being too fond of drink, lazy, and a great grumbler. See how such things ought to be a warning to monks afflicted with accidie.
Novice. – Both these stories, as well as those which I remember you told about accidie in the former book ought to be a terror to any who go to sleep in church or sing the psalms carelessly.
Monk – Often did he see demons in very minute forms flitting about the church, and often he saw them glittering in various places with a sinister light. Conscious that the sight of them was injurious to the eyes, and well aware of their malice, one day, after saying the mass of the Holy Spirit, the besought God that he might seem them no more. Then suddenly the universal enemy showed himself in the form of a very bright eye, about the size of a man’s fist, in which some living presence seemed to dwell, as though he said: “Look well at me now, for you will never see me again.” Yet he did see him afterwards, but neither so clearly nor so frequently as before.
He was appointed abbot at Marienstatt at the time when the noble lady, Alice, Countess of Froizbreth was being buried there as founders of the monastery, and while her body was still lying in the coffin, he saw a demon circling round the bier, and searching every corner with his eyes as it he had lost something belonging to him.
Less than a year ago, when, as our prior, he was going into the church at the canonical hour, after translating some secular business outside, he saw a demon marching before him as if he were his guide. The form of the body he had assumed was misty and unsubstantial, like a cloud. Then a few days later, one night after matins, he saw him stand before the prior under a similar appearance.
Novice – Why is it that you were so careful to conceal the name of this venerable abbot when you were writing your moral homilies on the Infancy of the Saviour, and described there nearly all these visions?
Monk. – Of his great love he revealed to me the secret of things of his life, but urged upon me at the time that I should not disclose his name; a restriction that he afterwards withdrew on my earnest persuasion, for well I knew that the value of his authority would give great weight to all I wrote. I now remind you of the virtues of that venerable man, whose sanctity was so well known, and whose authority so unquestioned that no one can fairly cast doubt on any of his statements; his visions will be warning both for present and future generations.
Source: Caesarius of Heisterbach, The Dialogue on Miracles, trans. by H. von E. Scott and C. C. Swinton Bland (London: Routledge, 1929), Book I, Part V, Chapter V.