Remember That the Devil Is Quite A Gentleman


The Cathars of thirteenth-century Languedoc, ensconced on their hilltop cathedral at Montségur where they made their last stand, cut an unmistakably romantic figure. Like the Zealots at Masada, the Albigensians of Provence held on to the last man, after decades of military engagement with both the French crown and the Church. Eventually the Crusaders would break through the fortifications on a sunny Lenten day in 1244, after the Cathars had nearly held on for a year, the last of their kind. The survivors, all of them “Perfects,” as their faith called them, were immolated at the base of their castle, in a place that has come to be called the prat dels cremats.

One should note that among these Perfects were numerous women, attracted to a feminine gospel where Mary Magdalene was more important than St. Peter and human souls were sexless. For the crusaders who murdered the Cathars of Languedoc, the belief that there was no distinction in the gender of a soul was among a set of heresies that were devilish enough to warrant the slaughter of those believers without regard to their gender.

Only fifty years before that, St. Dominic had held his famous disputation with these heretics, consigning both orthodox and Cathar holy texts to the flames as a test of their divine validity. When the orthodox books supposedly levitated, unscathed, out of the inferno, Dominic claimed a spectacular victory over his adversaries. And yet, in the smoke and fog of Inquisition, might it not be hard to tell which books were which? Something so profoundly true that it borders on cliché (which are really only the truths that have withstood the longest) is Heine’s observation that “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” There is, of course, a direct line from Dominic’s burning of books to the eventual burning of bodies, and half a century isn’t even that long of an interim. What then were the teachings of these pacifistic, vegetarian, celibate Cathars that the Church found so disturbing, that they felt the urgency to so effectively erase the entire denomination (for who among us has ever met an Albigensian)?

The Cathars pushed to its logical conclusion that old truth, held by many groups before, that maintains that Lucifer is the prince of our world.They understood that if Satan is our potentate, than he is our creator too, and that his acts are enumerated upon in the Holy Books of the very Church that now persecuted the Cathars. The Rex Mundi is not God, but Satan. That much was orthodox enough. But the Cathars said that the two were really the same thing, that the Dark One was the demiurge of our creation and that a greater, purer, truer God dwelled beyond the realms of our profane cosmos. Of course claiming that God is really Satan was, to that same Church, an unmistakably diabolical assertion. And so the Cathars, who loved their true God and feared their true Satan, were killed by Catholics, who loved their true God and feared their true Satan as well. All of it was a minor question of correctly identifying the connection between names and identity.

One of the tragedies of the demonic is its ambiguity. It’s never clear who the Devil really is, and one man’s Devil can be another’s God. The accusation that one is an agent of the Satan can itself be a powerful tool for Satan. The innocent are often eliminated because they are accused of being diabolical, but the very act that eliminates them is also authentically diabolical. One of the other tragedies is that indiscriminate accusations of being demonic in some sense nullify the very power of accusing someone of being demonic – especially when the accuser himself is the one who is diabolical.

That the Albigensians saw their persecutors as demonic, and that their persecutors saw the Albigensians as such should not be read as an endorsement of unthinking false equivalence, or victim-blaming. In the sieges across southern France that marked the dreary calendar of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century there is only one side which was Satanic, and it was not those burnt at the foot of Montségur. Indeed the orthodox, aka the mainstream, aka the normative, aka the majority, achieved self-definition through exclusion, and as such the Cathar were among several “devilish types,” marginalized groups that those in power could project and punish anxieties about their own fallenness onto. Cathars were of a devilish type known as heretics, but they were not the only group upon which the orthodox saw nightmares, and so enacted those nightmares upon the oppressed. The prince of this world is very adept at seeing devils everywhere but in his own mirror.

If heretics were one such group, then certainly Jews are perennial members of that confraternity of the excluded. In 1543 the learned but bawdy, pious but exuberant, devoted yet sometimes obscene former monk named Martin Luther put all of his scholastic skills into penning 65,000 words of unmitigated dreck. Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies may reflect the author’s religious anxieties and frustrations over the unequal enthusiasm for Reformation in Europe, but it’s also hateful, scurrilous, and dangerous propaganda, which makes ample use of accusing the dejected, marginalized, and powerless of somehow being devils. Luther looked at the relatives of Christ, and loudly declared them to be cousins of the Devil. The theologian claimed that synagogues needed to be razed; rabbis harassed, exiled, and murdered, Torahs and the Talmud burned, and all their possessions confiscated. Progenitor of the Reformation that he was, Luther wrote that as concerns the Jews, “we are at fault in not slaying them.”

Writing of the synagogue, the center of Jewish life since the destruction of the Temple, Luther says that it is a “defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut.” Note that as regards the status of women, the reformer is in agreement with his old nemesis the Catholic Church, who, at Montségur three hundred years before, enthusiastically put to the blaze and blade women Perfects of the Cathar church. Luther’s horror and anxiety at religious difference and the Other in his midst is manifested by transposing what he finds shocking about the female body onto the Jewish one. As if a matter of self-evident, axiomatic truth, Luther simply states that the Jews are “surely possessed by all devils.” His call to expel all the Jews from Germany, and to murder those left behind, was not attempted by authorities during his lifetime, but note that Luther’s 455th birthday was commemorated with the atrocity we’ve come to call Kristallnacht. Dehumanization and demonization are a tandem pair. The Jews suffered, and still suffer, by being conflated with the devilish.

As is often the case with those who are marginalized through conflation with the demonic, anti-Jewish rhetoric of the medieval, early modern, and modern world often focuses on perceived physical difference. Examine the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch’s work Christ Carrying the Cross, which was finished in 1516, a year before Luther would nail his complaint to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, and now hangs in the museum at Ghent. At the center of the tableaux is a pale, goyish man of sorrows, who is surrounded by a legion of Jewish faces depicted as swarthy and leering, all wide hell-mouth sneers and thick lips, bestial features and hooked noses. Medieval art often depicted Jews as indistinguishable from their gentile neighbors, with markers of difference defined by clothing, such as the distinctive and legally obligatory conical Judenhut, rather than by physiognomy. Only fourteen years before Christ Carrying the Cross, the Italian painter Lucca Signorelli produced his massive fresco Sermons and Deeds of the Antichrist. Here we have a depiction of that who is most fully human, as well as fully devil, in the infernal hypostatic union of the Antichrist. Signorelli depicts a red, reptilian Satan with horns curved above his smooth, hairless head, whispering into the ear of his son, who looks out at his audience with cool, cunning eyes. As if to acknowledge the central tension of centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, Signorelli’s Antichrist looks unnervingly like Christ, save for a few features meant to represent as characteristically Jewish: the curl of payot hanging from the side of his head, his beard rabbinical.

This is true, of course, for any group which the dominant culture defines itself in opposition to. In terms of anti-Semitic libel, many of these markers of supposed physical differentiation are well-known, and, disturbingly, endure into modern depictions. But there are more obscure slurs from Luther, Bosch, and Signorelli’s era which rightly strike a modern audience as strange. For Bosch and Signorelli the Jewish body could be twisted, obscene, demonic, but it was marked by another quality as well, one which was viewed as complementary and equivalent to those previously listed properties, and that was that the Jewish body was often explicitly feminized. After all, it was in the De secretis mulierum, a 1493 French gynecological text falsely attributed to Albertus Magnus, that the anonymous author claimed that Jewish men menstruate. The anti-Semitism and misogyny of the author was such that he frequently conflates the word “menstrum” for the Latin word “monstrum.” And so, the imagined monstrous body of the Devil was not just Jewish, but also that of a woman.

This category of the perennial demonic Other may be the most enduring. For if there is a commonality in the fear and oppression of heretics and Jews, then the devil has just as often been depicted as a woman. The inborn misogyny of the western mind is such that, like the Devil himself, its machinations and influences can seem invisible to those not personally affected by it. If the eras I have recounted were ones of crusade and pogrom, then they were inevitably also periods of profound misogynist violence, all the more so because gender violence through those centuries into today is so often rationalized, reduced, or relegated to a subset of some other injustice. From the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth century, at least 60,000 men and women would be executed as witches, as consorts and collaborators with the Devil.

Some revisionist historians have estimated that a more accurate number is close to a half a million; still others place the full accounting of deaths at over a million. Certainly many men found themselves upon the gallows, the scaffold, and the pyre, but the uncomfortable fact remains that the bulk of the deaths were of women, and that the witch-hunts of the early modern period enacted a profound violence towards women who were identified as devils. Arthur Miller may have made John Proctor the hero of The Crucible, but he was only one of six men to be martyred in Massachusetts; the other fourteen were all women. Salem was an uncharacteristically late example of a witch-trial; the divisions are even starker if the phenomena is viewed in its entirety. Of the murdered in Europe and America, many demographers estimate that fully 85% were women.

Radical scholars have written of the witch-trials as a holocaust of women, a veritable gendered genocide, and even if most historians don’t concur with that particular interpretation of the events, the essentially misogynist nature of the phenomenon remains undeniable. That women suffered the brunt of the persecutions, and that this violence was justified by affectively calling collective womanhood the Devil is apparent in reading the historical record. The German Dominicans Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s 1487 Malleus Maleficarum was the classic witch-hunting guide, utilized centuries later by both Catholics like Nicholas Rémy and Protestants such as Matthew Hopkins. In it, Kramer writes that women have a “temperament towards flux,” and like the mythical menstruating male Jews, it is this mercurial tendency towards change which makes women suspect.

Witch-trials were a shockingly contemporary phenomenon; like so many aspects of barbarity associated with the medieval past they were more a product of a modernizing present. There are arguments about what exactly the events signified (such as interpreting them as the final depaganization of Europe), and of who the worse perpetrators were, Catholics or Protestants (this in part depends on the sectarian allegiance of the scholar answering the question). But that witches were understood as a particular feminine category is not doubted; as Kramar and Sprenger write, “woman, therefore, is evil as a result of nature because she doubts more quickly in the faith.”

Rémy, the French magistrate charged with witch persecutions, wrote that it was not “unreasonable that this scum of humanity, should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex.” Even if the Devil is a man, then his consort is Lilith, and it is the succubae who threatens to emasculate, castrate, and denigrate the fragile masculinity of those who define their identity through the domination of women. Wounded patriarchal pride has a particular fear of the perceived sexual vivacity of women, Rémy concurred, writing that “The Devil uses them so, because he knows that women love carnal pleasures, and he means to bind them to his allegiance by such agreeable provocations.” Consider a print in the Italian priest Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum of 1608. Entitled “The Obscene Kiss,” the picture depicts the supposed satanic sacrament of Osculum infame, that is, the group performance of analingus upon the sphincter of the Devil. Here, Guazzo (or rather, his illustrator) presents several respectable women, distinguished by the stiff and starched collars and the long velvet dress ruffles of seventeenth-century fashion, all patiently waiting in line to kiss the asshole of a caprine and winged demon. Note that it was a medieval text, Errores Haereticorum, which provided a dubious etymology for the name of our old friends the Cathars, claiming that it was derived “from the term cat, whose posterior they kiss, in whose form Satan appears to them.” Close to two hundred years later, and in 1798, the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya finished his painting The Witches’ Sabbath, which improves in technical acumen the themes of Guazzo while sacrificing none of the misogyny. For here is a democratic assembly of women; and only women, young, old, rich, poor, offering up the sacrifice of an infant to a massive Baphomet sitting upon his hind legs, green garlands wrapped about his horns.

Of course the hatred of women has never only been of an occult or superstitious nature. Patriarchy has often been fine with using “devil” as a mere metaphorical adornment in expressing the fear of women. Nowhere is this more clear than in the rage which surrounds the possibility of a woman sovereign; it is not only fear of women’s sexuality and reproductive capabilities that motivates misogyny across politics and religion, it is also the specter of female leadership. Even with the biblical precedents of Judith, Ruth, Esther, Deborah, and Mary, women’s collective agency was strongly resisted. As an example of arch-misogyny, regard the somber and dour founder of Presbyterianism, the Scottish divine John Knox. While exiled in theocratic Geneva, and with a head full of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and double predestination, Knox penned a nasty little pamphlet entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Perhaps a misogynistic artifact of a misogynistic age, but the fact remains that Knox’s words were so incendiary that he kept his authorship anonymous, so that not even John Calvin (not exactly a proponent of women’s rights) would know who wrote that to “promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature.”

No doubt Knox hoped that the word “trumpet” in the title would connote Gabriel’s horn, and the breaking of Revelation’s seals. Yet even in the sixteenth-century the word “trumpet,” appropriately enough considering the language of Knox’s pamphlet, had another meaning. Knox’s fellow Scotsman Gavin Douglass, in his 1513 translation of The Aeneid, wrote of the “fals man, by dissait and wordis fair/With wanhope trumpit the lele luwair.” Thus, Knox’s audience could read the “first blast of the trumpet” as also signifying a first blast of flatulent nonsense, one of those moments when synchronicity alerts us to the true meaning of things, hidden in her literal words.

Knox, he of a cold heart and a cold gospel, was a victim of the Marian persecutions when he lived in England, and that horrific experience, representatively described in works like John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, perhaps inculcated him into a particularly virulent chauvinism. With Mary on her throne in Westminster, and his fellow countryman that other Mary, Queen of Scots, in Edinburgh, Knox polemicized against the dread Virago he associated with Catholic women monarchs, writing that they were “repugneth to nature” and that “al women” were “foolishe, madde and phrenetike” when compared to men. In Knox’s estimation the Devil was the princess of the world, and the Catholic Church with its veneration of Mary and the Saints was only so much effeminacy. For Knox, the sitting of a Queen on a King’s throne was a vile abomination and affront to God himself.

Forever looking westward to his British home, he awaited news that the Babylonian captivity was over and that he could return upon the installation of a Protestant monarch. His wish was fulfilled a year after his diatribe was written, and that harlot Queen Mary died. But, let it not be said that the Lord does not have a sense of humor, for Knox’s prayed-for, crowned, Protestant savior would be named Elizabeth. And his return to Edinburgh would be stalled, as he had not been issued the proper documents to travel unhampered through the Kingdom of England. It turns out that the new monarch had read his The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Not surprisingly, she did not agree with Knox’s argument.

One need not have too much guilt at feeling a bit of Schadenfreude concerning Reverend Knox’s predicament, but the Devil of marginalization, of prejudice, of bigotry, of hatred, of oppression sadly does not give up so easily. Of course the perseveration on binary oppositions, and the identification of a convenient Other as demonized scapegoat is intrinsic to the oppressive system we’ve always lived under; we are always prisoners in that dungeon. Heretics, Jews, women, and other Others were the perennial outsiders of the past, but let us not commit to the chronocentrism that embraces the fallacy of positivist progress. In some cases, the aesthetics haven’t even changed that much. Today screeds are composed on smart phones and computers instead of on vellum and parchment, and the details of who exactly are the dejected and spurned may have altered, but that there are the dejected and spurned is a constant. There is a direct genealogy between the marginalization of groups then and now; between the accusations of Luther and Bosch, and the black legends which impugns the immigrant; between the libels of Kramer and Sprenger and the diminishment of sexual violence and the legislation against women’s reproductive freedom. We are not so far from the electric potency and that corrupt trick which sees the Devil everywhere but in our own reflections. Projecting that accusation of devilry onto your enemy, so as to acquire a bit of that profane power offered to Christ in the desert, remains a venerable tradition among those that seek that supremacy that is the domain of the prince of this world. For, what else could embolden someone to stand in public, say, in Missouri (that most wholesome and middle-American of places), and with an accusatory and unironic point of the short finger declare, yet once again, that a woman is “the Devil?”

With apologies to Baudelaire, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled isn’t convincing the world that he doesn’t exist; it was convincing the world that those whom he persecutes are actually the demonic ones. Of course it is in the Devil’s best interest that we can’t identify him, and what better way to achieve that than to confuse whom the Devil actually is, and all the more evil an accomplishment if he diverts that attention to the very people whom he wrongs? Simply because the wrong people are often labeled as devils does not mean that no man is ever a devil. The Other is often charged with being Satanic; the ultimate irony is that the dispossessed are always the children of God. It is the one who impugns them with being demonic that must himself be the actual Devil. But by embracing such relativism, in questioning the validity of the entire enterprise, the demonic calls into question the very words we can use to identify him, and thus, perhaps, eliminates the utility of a potent vocabulary. If one looks for the Devil in our modern world, then it is best to find he who most exuberantly claims that title for others.

Ed Simon is the associate editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, where he specialized in seventeenth-century religion and literature. Regularly published at a number of different sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.