Rezension über:

Richard Raiswell / David R. Winter (eds.): The Medieval Devil. A Reader (= Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures; XXIV), Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2022, XVIII + 397 S., 12 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-1-4426-3416-9, USD 42,95
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Rezension von:
Albrecht Classen
The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Ralf Lützelschwab
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Albrecht Classen: Rezension von: Richard Raiswell / David R. Winter (eds.): The Medieval Devil. A Reader, Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 10 [15.10.2023], URL:

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Richard Raiswell / David R. Winter (eds.): The Medieval Devil

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Throughout human existence, both in the past and the present, it has always been very difficult to comprehend many things that happen without our doing and that make us more often than not to victims of Fortune, or vicissitude. We always experience both wonderful and horrible things, and mostly do not know exactly why or how that is so. From early on, dark, nefarious forces have been identified that threaten all life, and with the rise of Christianity, the field was ripe for the projection of the devil, Satan, Lucifer, and many demons, all the inhabitants of hell and the very opposite to heaven, already discussed in Genesis.

The devil has commonly been identified as a fallen angel, as a seducer (Eve and the snake), and since the early Middle Ages, well until the twentieth century, the figure of the devil challenging the person first known as Theophilus, much later as Dr. Faustus or Faust, offering knowledge, lust, money, and power in return for the victim's soul, has operated highly effectively, sometimes achieving his goal, sometimes failing because of God's intervention. See the anonymous Faustbuch, see Goethe, see Thomas Mann!

But who was the devil, or what was that figure? In most cases, the devil represented evil incarnate, as the very antagonist to God, the greatest danger for people who could lose their soul's salvation because of the devil's working, teasing, tempting, and seducing weak human beings more bent on worldly pleasures than true spirituality. Not surprisingly, we see the devil depicted in countless paintings, sculptures, frescoes, and the like in medieval and early modern churches. However, it remains a very difficult task to identify the devil more specifically considering the vast body of images and also texts dealing with him. Richard Raiswell and David R. Winter have collected relevant documents for a long time to make them available as teaching material.

The present Reader is hence the result of their extensive endeavors, consisting of English translations only, each text briefly introduced, followed by a reference to the source in tiny font size barely legible. Most texts were borrowed from very old editions, obviously to avoid any copyright issues. But when we come across a text by Gerbert of Aurillac in an edition from 1609-1610, revised in 1749-1752 (142), or a text by John Mandeville, here drawn from a London edition from 1496 (159), one wonders whether the editors indeed consulted those sources and modernized the narrative completely, as they claim. The excerpt from Dante's Divina Commedia is borrowed from Henry Longfellow's 1867 translation (no. 77), a rather odd decision here. Bartolus of Saxoferrato is represented with an excerpt from the 1611 edition (282). Other texts were originally published in the last twenty years or so, which ultimately creates an odd hodgepodge, though the student reader, the target audience, won't notice the differences because Raiswell and Winter have intervened in all texts so as to make them sound modern. There are no attempts at all to provide access to the critical editions or to present at least in brief excerpts some of the original texts.

The anthology is somewhat chronologically divided, beginning with text excerpts from the Old Testament ("Sources"), late antiquity ("Development of a Narrative"), and then the early and high Middle Ages. The chapter headings faintly indicate the historical progress, with chapter 4 addressing the early monastic devil, chapter five the devil in feudal society, chapter nine (!) the devil in the high Middle Ages, and chapter eleven the devil in the early modern age. The other chapters are not clearly specified, and often the text selections barely address the devil; instead, we learn of demons, Gog and Magog, the valley of devils (Mandeville), or of vile spirits that enter a human body and possess them, which then requires exorcism.

Each excerpt is followed by one or a few questions for class discussion. Those are kept in italics, again, difficult to read. At the end, we also come across the famous Malleus Maleficarum, but the editors continue to include Jacob Sprenger as one of the authors, when it was really only Heinrich Kramer (378). The volume concludes with a select bibliography of modern works on the devil (very useful), a list of the sources and the figures, and an index of topics (referring only to the text numbers, which makes it often difficult to track them down). The most important aid, however, would have been an index of authors and titles of texts, which is absent.

On the positive side, this is a very useful collection of relevant texts engaging with the devil from the time of the Old Testament (skipping mostly antiquity), the early, the high, and the late Middle Ages. Students will be exposed to a wide range of comments all in English translation, all very readable. On the negative side, the two editors are often not really experts in most cases and only present very general information about a text and/or author, which can be better gleaned from an online source. There are some b/w illustrations, but the quality is not really good. The table of contents proves to be very difficult to work with because the headings are too vague, and there are no effective search tools, apart from the index of topics.

Even from a pedagogical perspective, there are numerous difficulties working with this book. The chapter on the devil and feudal society is introduced with some remarks on feudalism particularly in the high Middle Ages, but the text samples begin with Gregory Nanzianzus (ca. 329-389), then turn to Gerbert of Aurillac (ca. 945-1003), Saint Paul's letter to the Thessalonians (first century), Pope Gregory I (ca. 540-604), the Anglo-Saxon Junius manuscript (tenth century), Peter Ceffons' "Lucifer's Letter to the Clergy" (1352), and an excerpt by Mandeville (ca. 1330-1350). None of that has anything to do specifically with feudal society; there is no sense of chronological order, and in many cases the devil does not even figure prominently. Students will have a hard time figuring out what they are studying, how the various texts really fit together (continuously a range from the Bible to the late Middle Ages, with no clear sense of system or internal order), and what they are to decipher about the role of the devil in various periods.

From the list of sources, I can tell that Caesarius of Heisterbach, for instance, appears somewhere, but there are no page or chapter references. There are virtually no literary documents; historical and theological sources dominate; and art history is completely left out. Future users of this book will need heavy support from online resources or critical studies. As an anthology, this publication can be welcomed, but I would not recommend it as a textbook for a medieval seminar. It has the look and feeling of a textbook from the 1960s, if that, and it has a purely monolingual audience (English) in mind. Despite the numerous endorsements on the back cover, there are more problems with this book than advantages because 'the devil is in the detail.' The publisher has badly failed in the overall text design (the flashy image of hell and a devil stomping on lost souls painted by Hans Memling, 1485, for the book cover proves to be very impressive) and should have accompanied the book with magnifying glasses.

Albrecht Classen