Devils that glare at passers-by from church facades or leer maliciously at unfortunate sinners in medieval artworks and manuscript illuminations constitute the familiar faces of medieval demons.
From the miracle tales of medieval monastic culture to high medieval scholastic explorations of the nature of the supernatural world and its inhabitants, demons are overwhelmingly characterized as irascible and malevolent beings, fuelled solely by envy, wrath, and hatred. Yet there remains a line of thought−albeit tenuous−running through these genres that remembers demons otherwise: as beings possessed of both a facility and a desire for that finest of emotions, love.
This article explores the capacity for love attributed by thirteenth-century writers to demons in the time before their fall from Heaven, while they were still angels, following their fall as a cohort united in a single aim of persecution and misery, and in their troubled relations with humans.
Thinkers in the twelfth-century had explored the boundlessness of love that existed between God and the human soul in the dawning of mystic theology, the nature of desire in the flowering of both hetero- and homosexual erotic Latin verse, and the power of friendship (amicitia) between men (and even, in Heloise’s case, between men and women), particularly within monastic contexts. Yet when it comes to conceptualizing demonic love in the thirteenth-century, these ideas take a darker turn, and thinkers find the obverse to the unbounded, ineffable, invigorating love of the twelfth-century.
Instead, they lay bare a world in which amicitia can exceed its limits and efface the love that should exist between God and his creation, and where love might exist only in stunted, contingent, and defective form, misdirected in its object of affection.
At the same time, they offer a tantalizing alternative glimpse of what might constitute the demonic, evoking demons who once loved wholly and powerfully, who still retain the faintest spark of a love now forever remote from them, and who are capable of being−though wrongly and possessively−in love with humans.
What had prompted the angels, God’s highest and most beautiful creation, to turn against him was a question that absorbed Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages. Pride was the traditional answer: a passage from Isaiah showed that the pre-eminent angel Satan (also known as Lucifer) had, at some point following the moment of his creation, dared to covet equality with the Lord, and had been flung headlong from Heaven for his presumption.
But this solution raised its own difficulties: if the angels had been created good — which had to be the case, since God could not create evil — how had such overweening pride been engendered in the first angel? Because of the inherent goodness of God’s creation, the source of Satan’s pride had to be traced to something that was, in its essence, wholly and necessarily good. For some high medieval thinkers, the answer could only be found in the concept of love.
The matter is carefully defined by Vincent of Beauvais in Book I, C. XXXI, of his ‘Speculum naturale’ where he deals with the created nature of angels and the complex relationship between love and free will in guiding their actions. Angels, he says, have a natural love (‘naturalem dilectionem’) by which they are able to love both themselves and God. However, this natural love is twofold, consisting of voluntary and involuntary components. Involuntary love is not subject to free will and, as no action of choice is implicated in it, it is morally neutral.
Voluntary love, however, is subject to free will, and is divisible into two: friendship (amicitia), by which we love something for itself, and desire (concupiscentia), by which we love something insofar as it is good, useful, or pleasurable to us. In their original state, Vincent contends, the angels loved God naturally. But there was an angel which did not have true charity because it did not love God for God’s sake, but rather for its own sake, delighting in itself above all things and wrenching proper love from its true source to its own good. This angel thus loved God by the love of desire for what was useful to it, but loved itself by the love of friendship, seeking its own good above all else.
This picture is complicated by the thirteenth-century Franciscan scholar Peter John (or, ‘of John’) Olivi in Quaestio XLIII of his Quaestiones in secundum librum Sententiarum (Questions on the Second Book of the Sentences).
Olivi agrees that the turn towards sin in the first angel must be located initially in the affect of love. Because love is the root of all emotions, so the first defect of sin must spring from a love of self that has tended towards evil, rather than from any other appetite or desire that proceeds secondarily from such been vitiated self-love (such as pride, presumption, or ambition).
From this ill-tending love, which is not focused on God, but remains fixed on the self and subject to no other’s will, arises presumption (which Olivi describes as a ‘sensus et affectio’) which ranges without limit or measure.
This vitiated and immoderate love seeks out the power it judges, in its blind presumption, to be suitable to itself−and so ambition is naturally born out of (self)-love. From this genealogy of the passion of ambition, however, Olivi’s analysis takes a fascinating turn, as he widens his scope to view the first angel’s sin as one not deriving solely from himself, but also implicating the entire angelic community.
Olivi suggests that the first angel was drawn to self-love because “he saw himself reflected within each heart as if he were the singular and universal head of all, and seeing his power in each of them, he saw himself multiplied and magnified, just like a man who sees himself reflected in many mirrors at the same time.”
In effect, then, the first angel’s turn towards a disordered love began both in the angelic community’s love of him, which was a form of good to him (and hence an aspect of the love-form of desire), and in the love-form of friendship, by which he loved himself as much in himself as in others.
But while it might be possible to make a case for one angel−especially the preeminent angel−falling through an inordinate love of self that led to overweening pride and ambition, could this same motive be applied to all the angels that fell?
Surely the angels of the lower orders could not have been operating under the same desire for equality with God that apparently overtook Satan?
As Jean de Paris observes in this context, a pauper does not immediately seek to be a king, but more modestly desires some status simply a little higher than his own. Just so, the angels of the lower orders could not have been seeking equality with God, as Satan was, when they rebelled.