Blackness and the Demon in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

This is very much a work in progress and all input is gratefully received. I have deliberately steered away from making any analogy with modern society simply because I don’t have the expertise to do it in an informed way. If any reader has greater knowledge or capacity than me, they’re very welcome to use my work as they see fit.

In 1612, as a part of the infamous trial of the Pendle and Samlesbury witches, a young girl named Grace Sowerbutts gave evidence of her seduction to witchcraft:

“This Examinate did go with the said Jennet Bierly her grandmother, and Ellen Bierley, her aunt, to the house of Walshman, in the night time, to murder a child in a strange manner… after they had eaten [the child] the said three women and this Examinate danced every one of them with the black things: and after, the black things abused the said women. She describes four black things to go upright, but not like men in the face.”

This was far from the first time that blackness – not only the colour as we see here, but black bodies described as being racially African – had been associated with devilishness in Christianity.

In the 15th century text, The Waldenesians, their Sabbat, their evil deeds and how to prosecute them, and anonymous writer described the meetings of heretical Christians:

“On a busy night, as happened last year on the eve of St. Martin in the winter, at one and the same place, and at one and the same time, there were… several presiding demons at several meetings – for example the meeting of Guillaume Tonnoir in the shape of a black man in the wood of Neufvirelle…”

Certainly, Medieval and Early Modern Christianity featured a preoccupation with uniting black or ‘Ethiopian’ bodies with the concept of both deviant sexuality and moral seduction, and it is very much worth noting that for the medieval and some Early Modern writer, to describe a being as ‘Ethiopian’ was synonymous with blackness of all kinds from all nations.

Outside of mainstream Christianity, manuscripts of spirit conjuration sometimes also ascribed demons as having black skin: while in Harley 6483 – a collection of papers belonging to a Dr. Rudd – Cimeries, the demon given responsibility over “all spirits in the parts of Africa” is not described as being either black or ‘Ethiopian,” illustrations in Wellcome MS 2000 clearly show the four demonic kings of the compass points as being black skinned.

In Jean Vincent’s What Workers of Magic can do (1475) again, a demon in the shape of a black man was described as appearing to a witch:

“…an elderly female fortune teller called Chandelle from Chaille… conceived a hatred for the local prior. She constructed a doll or image and had it baptized under the name of the prior… dusted its shins with the powders a demon had given her and buried it under the threshold of prior’s door. Immediately, the prior was seized by a serious illness, took to his bed and suffered such a great humoral flux… that the discharge kept on flowing down in rivulets from his open ulcers…. One day this Chandelle was looking after her animals out at pasture when a demon appeared in the likeness of a black man wearing, she thought, short clothes…”

Similarly, when Catherine la Rondelatte was interrogated in Lorraine in 1608, she described the devil as a black man:

“…I had been so long a childless widow… [when] in the middle of the woods I was astonished and very frightened by the sight of a great black man who appeared to me. At first he said to me ‘Poor woman, you are very thoughtful’ and although I quickly recommended myself to St. Nicolas he then suddenly threw me down, had intercourse with me, and at the same time pinched me roughly on the forehead. After this he said ‘You are mine. Have no regret; I will make you a lady and give you great wealth’

“I knew in the same hour it was the evil spirit, but could not retract because he had instantly made me renounce God, chrism, and baptism, promising to serve him…”

Black Demons in Early Christianity

Image from Wellcome MS 2000
Image of the Demonic Kings Urieus and Paymon from Wellcome MS 2000, the Clavis Inferni

Christian sentiments against black or ‘Ethiopian’ peoples can be traced at least as far back as the Vitae Patrum – biographical documents presenting the lives of early monastic settlements in Egypt. With the exception of Abba Moses, the characterisation of blackness in the Vitae Patrum is as black or ‘Ethiopian’ demons. It is also worth noting that ‘Ethiopian’ demons are the only ones where race/colour is noted.

Further, while the passage “I am black and beautiful” may exist in the Song of Solomon, the Vitae show several incidents where Abba Moses is mistreated for his race: when the Desert Fathers were gathered together, the denigrate Abba Moses for being “this Ethiopian.” This is spun into a ‘test’ by later versions of the Vitae. In fact, that and three more ‘tests’ (each a humiliation based on race of a sort that still sadly happens today) are presented as proofs of Abba Moses’ ‘humility.’ I feel it is interesting that Abba Moses’ supposedly ideal response is simple inaction: “I was afraid, but I said nothing”, “I was upset, but I said nothing”, and “I heard, but I said nothing.”

Black demons also appear in the biographies of the desert fathers. St. Anthony the Great, after taking to the desert, is tormented with thoughts of lust. After surviving those, he is spoken to by the Devil in the form of a black boy, who says:

“I am the friend of fornication; I trap and seduce the young, and I am called the spirit of fornication.”

Similarly, the Verba Seniorum tells a story of a desert monk whose son, also brought up as a desert contemplative, goes into the desert to battle with ‘the desire of lust’ (almost as if sexual feelings were a healthy and normal part of the human condition…) only to be confronted with the work of the Devil:

“…and it stood before him in the form of an Ethiopian woman, foul smelling and disgusting in appearance, so much that he could not bear her smell. She then said to him, ‘In the hearts of men I smell sweet, but because of your obedience and your labor, God does not permit me to lead you astray, but I have let you know my smell.’”

In the Vitae of Abba Apollo, a young monk is harshly scolded by an elderly man. Hearing this, the Abba brings him to the young monk’s cell to apologise, where the young man sees:

“an Ethiopian standing close to the cell and shooting arrows at the old man; and as if pierced by them, the old man weaved to and fro like a man drunk with wine. And when he could bear it no longer, he left his cell and took the same road to the world that the young man had taken.”

There are many other stories of this kind in the Vitae of the Desert Fathers. In them black demons, and apparitions appearing as black children, are associated with lust, worldliness and distraction from the word of God.

Colour, Race and Morality

Fetishisation and demonization of blackness can be traced further back than Christianity. While Homer’s Menelaus describes Ethiopia, here mythologised, as utopia of ultra-fecundity, this relatively rosy depiction still placed East Africa as the absolute limit of all creation: a liminal place that bordered the void.

Contemporary theories of Physiognomy began the groundwork for later abuse: Pseudo-Aristotle wrote that the Ethiopian’s black skin marked them as cowards, as did their ‘wooly hair’, and Greek authors of the Roman period identified the Ethiopian’s black skin with moral evil and bad character – using it in a similar way to the Curse of Ham, in the justification of slavery. Similarly, in Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs he dwelt rather heavily on the idea that Ethiopian’s black skin confirmed them as living symbols for sinful souls.

It’s outside of my scope (or capabilities) to attempt to explain these motifs or prejudices. David Brakke, in his 2001 article for the Journal of the History of Sexuality raised the point that within portrayals of demons, and the various existing commentaries on demons, the motif of black or ‘Ethiopian’ demon was statistically rare.

Yet it forms a distinct and traceable thread.

Certainly, black faces wouldn’t have been alien to medieval and Early Modern Europe. In Tudor London contemporary registers show that the London of 1601 had a black population of somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 – a similar proportion to the modern day. Black citizens can be found from Plymouth to Scotland, with many coming via Portugal and Spain.

Medieval Europe felt the presence of travellers from Nubia and Ethiopia, with settlers drawn from every walk of life.

Whether the image of the ‘Ethiopian’ demon came from this – a subliminal or non-subliminal tension with the other – or from a percolated mythology that had come from classical Greece through the Desert Fathers is out of my capacity to comment on. However, the image of the black skinned demon would certainly have been a familiar one to pre-industrial Europeans.


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