Black devils and demons (before 1240)

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 the first excerpt below, Caesarius tells the story of black demons who appeared to shame a over-dressed woman. The second excerpt provides a more detailed story. A pious monk tells two visions at his church, first the joyous appearance of the Virgin Mary and the second the appearance of the devil “in the form of a black man.”

In these passages Caesarius draws on a long tradition that associated fallen souls with a darkness that could mark their external features, a tradition that was enhanced during the era of the Crusades. This development was challenged in the same period by the rise of more positive iconographic representations of blackness.

Jeff Bowersox


Chapter VII.

Of demons who were seen in Mainz upon an overdressed woman.

The following story was told me by a worthy citizen, who assured me that it actually happened in his own time at Mainz, if my memory serves me. A priest was going round his church and sprinkling the people with holy water, and when he came to the door of the church, he met there, striding haughtily in, a matron dressed out with all kinds of adornments, as gay as a peacock; and on her skirts, which she was dragging far behind her, he saw a number of demons sitting. They were as small as dormice, and as black as Ethiopians, grinning and clapping their hands and leaping hither and tither like fish inclosed in a net; for in truth feminine extravagance is a net of the devil. Now when he saw this chariot of demons he bade the woman wait outside, called the congregation to come to the door and adjured the devils not move. She stood there in terror, while he prayed that the people might have grace to see the vision, and because he was a good and upright man his prayer was granted. When the woman realised that the extravagance of her dress had thus made her an object of mockery to demons, she went home and changed her dress; and thus that vision became an occasion of humility both to her and all the other women.

Novice. – If the demons, who incite us miserable men to sin, are so numerous, I think too that the number of those who drag the compliant to punishment will also be great.

Monk. – I will instruct you concerning this rather by examples than by teaching.

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 VII.

Not so long ago a monk of order by the name of Adam came to us. He told us of truly wonderful signs of Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven, and I would like to tell you two here, saving the others for later. This monk’s cloister is named Luka and lies in Saxony, and the man in charge of the church was a pious, good, spiritual man. One night as he went into his chapel before matins he saw there Our Lady seated in glorious adornment on the altar. Her appearance made him overjoyed, and he hoped that his service was welcome to her. On another occasion he went into the church after it had closed for the night. As he came to the place where the guests are wont to stand, there he saw the devil in the form of a black man standing on the tomb. And though he approached him with the sign of the cross the devil did not retreat nor even take any notice. As the monk bravely advanced nearer, the devil suddenly vanished as if he had never been there. In order to keep the devil away, he lay down on the same tomb and remained there until he had recited the seven penitential psalms.

Source: Caesarius von Heisterbach, Dialogus Miraculoroum, trans. by Jeff Bowersox from Johann Hartlieb’s translation (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1929), Book II, Part I, Chapter XVIII.

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