Monks, demons and wonders

Between visionary literature, pastoral dialogue and hagiographic life, an unpublished document from XIIIe century takes us into a monastery infested with demons interfering in the ordinary life of the monks…

Long forgotten and little known to historians, the Liber revelationum from an anonymous monk from the beginning of the XIIIe century appears in a translation by Gisèle Besson and Jean-Claude Schmitt. The latter precedes this rich document with a historical study exploring the monastic micro-universe of Schöntal, in southern Germany. At the crossroads of visionary literature, pastoral dialogue and vita hagiographic, the Liber paints the portrait of Richalm – a Cistercian monk, prior and ultimately abbot – struggling with countless demons, but also benefiting from visions of the saints, the Virgin and Christ. Rather than questioning Abbot Richalm’s mental health, the medievalist strives to describe the historical world that makes such visions possible.

According to Richalm, the monastery of Schöntal is more teeming with demons than the retreat of Saint Anthony. Their dizzying quantity never fails to amaze his interlocutor, Brother N. who transcribes his words. They fill the air, numerous like the “atoms in the sun” (p. 304), so much so that their victims are surrounded by them as a man immersed in the sea is enveloped by the waters (p. 290). If there are so many of them, aren’t they individually very weak (p. 341), asks Richalm’s friend (perhaps echoing a passage from the Life of Anthony) ? No, replies the abbot: their number does not compensate for their powerlessness, but allows them to exercise a fine and complex influence on the brothers. They divide themselves into armies to attack each of the monk’s limbs (p. 362), and cover his body like ashes penetrating to his heart, in order to subvert his discipline (p. 339).

Gestures, demons and angels

It is the physical manipulation of bodies that occupies the foreground. The improperly put on hood, the spitting, the dangling arms, the coughing or moaning, the immoderate laughter, the hands under the belt or the untidy sleeves, no detail is too small for evil spirits (p. 310). The acute attention that the Abbot of Schöntal pays to the appearance, demeanor and gestures of the bodies refers to another work by Jean-Claude Schmitt who wrote in The reason for gestures in the medieval West : “at the turn of the XIe and XIIe century, (…) the growing preoccupation with gestures characterizes clerical culture as a whole.” Richalm also sees angels, most often their hands which carry out the gestures by guiding the hands of the monks or by preceding them as if to trace a path for them.

But demons are clearly more numerous in the book than angels (53 angels compared to 341 occurrences of demons listed by the commentator on p. 172!). When Richalm describes the trap that the demons have just set for them in the orchard where they were discussing, his friend is surprised: “How do you know? » (p. 291). It is because the perspicacious abbot intercepts the confabulations of the demons who, despite their spiritual and incorporated nature, express themselves with material voices. Thus, the visionary hears the demon complaining when he tries to push a monk to lean during mass, even though the monk is standing up straight. Although they are material, these voices are nonetheless secret. Concealed in the thunder, in the rooster crowing, in the sound of the water flowing in the fountain, and even in the very words of the monks, they invade the soundscape until they take over almost the entirety of it, so much so that Richalm hesitates: wouldn’t all sound ultimately be produced by spirits (p. 320 and 325 ff.)? These are things he can only confide to his friend. “If I spoke openly many of the things that are revealed to me, I would be stoned” (p. 325). Convinced of the veracity of his visions, Richalm fears the accusation of madness and feels obliged to keep most of his experience secret. When he relates the appearance of a good spirit surrounded by red laburnums and roses, he clearly separates the part which he intends to share with the community and the other which he will only tell to his confidant (p. 344 ).

If the Liber remains relatively evasive about Richalm’s monastic career and tells us almost nothing about that of the scribe, he suggests the sympathy connecting the two brothers. Beyond the friendship between the master and his disciple, we can easily imagine the relief of the abbot being able to lower his guards during an intimate conversation. “Very often he complained to me, sobbing hot tears,” writes N., “and I displayed to him, for his consolation, all the admirable, unheard of and unknown things with which the Lord filled him” (p. 427 ). In the final part of the book, the unique nature of which Jean-Claude Schmitt underlines (p. 51), N. carries out a meticulous correction of a truncated copy of his work. Taking up the copyist’s errors one by one, he defends his grammatical point of view, clarifies the exceptional status of Richalm’s revelations, but also seeks to preserve in the text the passages which would be written by the abbot himself. In Richalm’s speech on the flowers that appeared to him (p. 420 ff.), is the “if you wish”, which the copyist erased, innocuous (p. 432)? The writer admits that the omission does not change the meaning, this little word however seems to preserve for him a dear memory of his friend.

Sociology of the monastery

A beautiful chapter of Jean-Claude Schmitt’s commentary is devoted to the tensions in the community which we can guess at the back of the book, noting that “anger is, before pride, the vice most often cited in the Liber revelationum » (p. 112). If gluttony and lechery are not lacking either, the predominance of anger could indicate a concern on the part of the abbot for the cohesion of the brotherhood, and his fear of seeing his authority challenged, or even of an attack. physically against his person, as shown by the vision of the demon who threatens to push the brothers to urinate in his ear (p. 114). It is certainly permissible to wonder to what extent the evil joy of demons having disrupted the behavior of a brother reflects that of other monks whose self-esteem can be flattered by the wrongs of others; the historian, however, rightly avoids any hasty psychologization. Richalm himself says that malevolent spirits watch for opportunities to do harm (p. 287), so that supernatural influence always presupposes an ordinary psychology of men vulnerable to the wounds inflicted on them by life within a hierarchical community .

Fortunately, the visionary’s revelations are not limited to the evil side of the invisible world. The apparitions of souls suffering purgatory penalties form a separate chapter. Jean-Claude Schmitt has already looked in a previous work on the role of these ghosts – the souls of the dead suffering in purgatory and appearing to the living in order to solicit their help – in the constitution of the collective memory of a monastic community medieval. He finds in the Liber a singular illustration of his theses: death restores the brothers’ identity (p. 103). Indeed, the text never gives the names of the living (even the name of Richalm is absent in the first eight chapters, written before his death), while the writer does not hesitate to call the dead by their name: Hosten , Bertrade, Guillame etc. Jean-Claude Schmitt explains that the names of the deceased resurface, in order to be inscribed in the liturgy of the dead. For a time, the deceased then remain present and active in the community, before being swallowed up “in the anonymity of past generations”.

The demon of analogy

The only dead whose glorification is perpetual are obviously the saints. Richalm notably benefits from the appearances of Paulinus of Nole, Bernard of Clairvaux and Gregory the Great, the latter two also being his bedside authors. However, two female saints also appear, Agnes and Émérentienne. The apparitions of the martyred sisters illustrate in an astonishing way the metonymic structure which often characterizes the abbot’s visions. Thus, the young Richalm, who wonders if Émérentienne was a martyr, sees a tunic “covered in blood” appear in the odor of sanctity: he understands that the virgin was stoned (p. 414). While he tires during mornings, the appearance of “a little piece of virginal face, from the eyebrows to the hair” comforts him (p. 415). A multiplication of a small portrait of the Virgin Mary signifies the superabundance of her grace (p. 352) and the appearance of an abundance of letters Q written in red refers to the questions that God addresses to Job (38, 1) ( p.402).

Madonna and Child with Goldfinch, Maestro di San Miniato.

As for the “little bird (…) the color of a nightingale” which often appears in Richalm (p. 400), Schmitt relates it to the baby bird that little Jesus often holds in his hand in the paintings of the Virgin and Child of the time (p. 175). The bird would even refer, suggests the medievalist, to its sex (“little bird”) “still infertile, but whose function will be to give spiritual birth to the Ecclesia”.

Most of Jean-Claude Schmitt’s presentation is historical and sociological, but at the end of his commentary he offers a short anthropological analysis of the world of Abbot Richalm. Press on Beyond nature and culture by Philippe Descola, he distinguishes four fundamental ontological models, each of which is characterized by a certain distribution of the difference and resemblance of beings at the level of their interiority and exteriority (p. 266 ff.). For example, the ontology of our contemporary societies is, according to Descola, of a naturalist type, presuming a difference from the point of view of interiority and a resemblance from the point of view of exteriority. Jean-Claude Schmitt suggests that the ontology of medieval Western society is analogical, presuming a difference in both the exteriorities and interiorities of human and non-human beings. This cultural framework would thus deploy the sphere of God’s creatures as a network of differences and correspondences opening the way to magical theories of sympathy, but locking beings at each level in the position allocated by their hierarchical status and by providence. The invisible world then intervenes as a mediator ensuring “the relationship between the Christian person, Creation and the divine Creator” (p. 269 ff.), because spirits are souls, but take on the appearance of flowers and beasts. Thus the revelations of Richalm involve the entire “Creation” in the drama of the monastery of Schöntal.

Exceptional document on Cistercian spirituality at the beginning of the XIIIe century, the Liber combines a singular demonology with a hagiographic story and a meditation on the role of the scribe. Beyond its historical contribution, the book recalls the ambiguity of the enchanted gaze, always ready to take evils for malevolence, but also capable of forging an intelligible order (even if it is imaginary) where the influence of circumstances reduces the human to melancholy.