If there was anything that medieval monks were terrified of, it was demons. As monks were dedicated to God that meant they were good and holy. (Well, in theory at least. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series for examples of monks not behaving themselves!) Demons do not like it when people are good. Following this logic, it’s only natural that demons would look at a monk and decide to tempt him away from God. Or if the demon didn’t feel like tempting anyone, they would cause some mischief instead. There are a lot of medieval primary sources recording just that. This series will share stories of medieval monks and their run-ins with demons. Today’s source is A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent.
A few notes before I begin. I don’t think it really matters whether or not these stories actually happened. I am recounting these cases as interesting stories that were important to the medieval people documenting them. I’ll be analyzing some of them, but as a whole, I’m not really concerned if Brother So-And-So actually saw the demon or if it was just a figment of his imagination. Oftentimes, these stories were cautionary tales and/or moral lessons about how medieval people thought proper Christians should behave. (And sometimes they are just funny.) Second, I will include stories of nuns later on. (Who knows, I may also recount medieval stories about other Christian clergy and their encounters with demons as well.) At the moment, my sources focus on monks, so that’s why I’m calling this series “Monks vs. Demons!” For brevity’s sake, I will stick with this title.
Our first tale can be found in Book One, Chapter Twenty. The setting is Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey after it was attacked by Danes. Guibert does not specify exactly how long it’s been since the attack, but he does tell us that the abbey has been restored. The prior of Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey is a monk named Sugar. Guibert mentions that this monk is “a man of good life.” Unfortunately for Prior Sugar, he’s not doing so well. In fact, he’s very sick and is actively dying. To make his situation even more unpleasant, the Devil himself has decided to pay Sugar a little visit on his deathbed.
While he’s in bed, the Devil appears beside Sugar with a book. He tells Sugar to take the book and read it because Jupiter sent it to him. Note that the Devil said Jupiter, not God. By doing so, the Devil is implying that pagan gods are real, which is a big no-no in Christianity. Needless to say, Sugar is horrified. But the Devil isn’t done tormenting Sugar just yet! He asks Sugar if he loves his abbey. Of course, Sugar says yes. Then the Devil oh so casually mentions that soon the monks of Saint-Germer de Fly are going to stray from following The Rule as strictly as they should and oh yeah, soon the abbey is going to fall into absolute pandemonium. (Though depending on the translation, the Devil says that the brethren will be broken up instead.) Sugar is devastated and manages to tell the Devil off, despite the fact he is dying. Guibert doesn’t say exactly what Sugar said, but it was enough that the Devil left.
Now, I’m not sure if Prior Sugar was at the abbey when the Danes attacked, but clearly, this event is fresh in his mind. As soon as he told others what he had just witnessed, Sugar promptly had a mental breakdown. It must have been extremely bad because Sugar had to be chained up. I find this is extremely upsetting for multiple reasons. One, it’s sad to think that a dying man was so scared of the future for his brethren that he completely broke down. And two, his monks knew of no other way to help him mental health-wise. To quote the SNL skit Rick’s Model Ts, “that’s just where medicine is at.” Luckily for Sugar, before he died he regained his senses and was able to say confession. Confession was mandatory in the medieval period if one wanted to get into Heaven.
Guibert ends this tale by reminding his reader that “the Devil is ‘a liar and the father of lies'” and he probably said what he did because he was jealous. He mentions that (so far) the Devil’s prophecy has not come true. Saint-Germer de Fly Abbey did well even after Sugar died and is still doing well.
Our second tale is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Four. Similar to the first story, this one is also about a dying monk. The unnamed monk was a devoutly religious man while alive. Well, he was until he wasn’t. Guibert does not specify exactly what sins the monk had committed, but they weren’t good. Apparently, they were vices that no one could stop him from doing. (Which only narrows the list down slightly and opens the imagination up to so many more interpretations.) Immediately after the monk began to give in to his vices, he fell deathly ill. While on his deathbed, he was constantly looked around the room. His friends asked him what he was looking at. The monk replied he saw “a house full of barbarous men!”
His friends interpreted this to mean he saw demons. They were not fazed by this. They told him to make the sign of the cross and pray to the Virgin Mary for help. In reply, the monk said something quite blasphemous: he had neither faith nor confidence in her, but he would if the “barons” weren’t bothering him so much. Guibert is amazed by this. According to him, baron comes from the Greek word meaning ‘heavy’ and wow, these demons sure are heavy because prayer won’t make them go away. (In reality, the word “baron” comes from the romantic languages’ word for man/warrior, so Guibert’s etymology is completely wrong.)
Eventually, the friends asked the monk which of his ailments were the most painful. The monk complained, “he felt as if an enormous, red-hot iron rod were burning his throat and his insides.” Certainly not a pleasant sensation at all! To make things weirder, the windows of the house they were in started to violently rattle as if a bunch of people were slamming the doors. No one was slamming any door. And just in case you think it might have just been the wind, Guibert assures his reader that there was no wind that night. There wasn’t even a breeze. If the house was poorly built, it’s possible they might have been able to feel any wind coming in from the slats between the walls. This freaked out the two monks who were watching the dying monk. They were convinced that it was a bad omen of sorts. And they were sort of right. The sick monk ended up dying that night.
Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
“Baron (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/word/baron.
de Nogent, Guibert. “Medieval Sourcebook: Guibert De Nogent (D.1124): Autobiography.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 2021, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/guibert-vita.asp.