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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: Photo courtesy University of Chicago Press

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Investigations ::

Demon lover

It was a 16th-century saint who first introduced Armando Maggi, PhD’95, associate professor of Italian literature and culture, to Renaissance demons. Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a Florentine mystic and visionary, channeled voices from heaven while her fellow Carmelite nuns took notes, recording every utterance, every outburst, every monologue and momentous silence. De’ Pazzi’s encounters with Jesus and the Holy Father filled entire volumes, but when demons spoke to her, she refused to listen.

photo:  Jacqueline Goldsby
Some Renaissance theologians believed in demons who felt compassion for—and occasionally fell in love with—humans.

Maggi, on the other hand, couldn’t resist. After writing two books on de’ Pazzi—a linguistic analysis and a translation of her selected revelations—he turned his attention to the fallen angels and damned spirits she repudiated. What he found was no small measure of humanity.

“In fact, human beings and fallen angels have a lot in common,” says Maggi, whose second book on Renaissance demonology, In the Company of Demons: Unnatural Beings, Love, and Identity in the Italian Renaissance (University of Chicago Press), is due out in April 2006. “Both humans and devils are banned from heaven, both exiled. For some reason, humans have a second chance, but since demons have no conversation with God anymore, they turn to us. And what they talk about is this, over and over: their fall, their exile, denial, damnation. This is what they know. They try to convince us that damnation is the only way to go, because that is what they experience.”

Examining the writings of Renaissance theologians and philosophers, Maggi has unearthed complex and often paradoxical beliefs about demonic intervention in human affairs. Early modern theorists, he says, described satanic beings overwhelmed with compassion for mortal suffering, devils in love with men and women, even a banished race of half-human, half-demonic creatures—the unhappy offspring of unholy unions. As much as demons afflicted humans, it was clear to Renaissance scholars that they also needed them.

“It is not a one-way relationship,” Maggi says. “And even though they do not have bodies, demons can even fall in love. The demonologist Girolamo Menghi relates a strange story about a young man in northern Italy who is followed by a demonic spirit. The demon is infatuated with this person, and in order to keep close to him, it takes the physical form of a man, sometimes a schoolteacher, sometimes a butler or a knight on horseback. Usually you associate a demonic presence with damnation and seduction, but this spirit doesn’t do anything like that. It steals fish to please the young man. So we must conclude that there is some category of demonic spirits that have compassion at their core.”

Compassion—and humility—also guide Maggi’s scholarship. Rather than hunting for historical and social explanations for Renaissance beliefs or psychoanalyzing believers, he engages 500-year-old demonological theories on their own terms. It’s an approach few scholars take, he says, and one that might render his work “preposterous or naive” in the eyes of more traditional researchers. He’s willing to take that chance. “When we apply our own ‘enlightened’ views, we cover their culture and minimize their theology,” he says. “We don’t really understand it. We project our contemporary knowledge on knowledge that is not like ours. You have to learn their idiom. You have to allow a suspension of disbelief.”

Scholarly reviews of Satan’s Rhetoric, Maggi’s 2001 book on language and semiotics in Renaissance demonology, endorsed his approach. In Medium Aevum, published by Oxford’s Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, critic Matthew Woodcock praised Maggi’s “highly original study”; Theological Studies called Satan’s Rhetoric “a rollicking ride for those who may feel more comfortable standing on the terra firma of social history” than wading into the open waters of rhetorical analysis. Renaissance Forum reviewer Peter Corbin, meanwhile, echoed Maggi’s discomfort with social-historical readings of centuries-old texts. Recent demonology studies, Corbin lamented, often reveal “rather more about modern critical presuppositions than early modern beliefs.”

Freed of modern presuppositions, Maggi reads closely and carefully, teasing apart Renaissance texts, both well-known and obscure. He sees shades of classical culture in the gentlest demons. For instance, quoting the ancient historian Livy, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that strange natural occurrences might be demonic attempts to warn humans of looming disaster. “Machiavelli speaks specifically about the 1494 invasion of Italy by the French,” Maggi says. “Beforehand, people heard soldiers marching in the sky. So this is a different kind of spirit, a spirit that cannot help but feel sympathy for us”—a spirit that has a pagan past, Maggi suggests.

“When Christianity tried to reduce all classical gods to this idea of Satan,” he says, “there was a problem, because some gods didn’t do anything bad. The Lares were souls of dead ancestors and family members, gods that looked after the household. What evil do they do? What evil does the spirit following the young man do?”

Similarly puzzling, Maggi says, is St. Anthony’s desert encounter with a man who has demonic features. “Anthony panics,” Maggi says. But the creature explains that he comes from a whole civilization of half demons, self-exiled out of fear for their safety in human society. “This being asks Anthony, ‘Please pray for us, because we want to be saved,’” Maggi says. “This is extraordinary. It is not a demon threatening a human; he’s asking him to pray on his behalf. Through history, scholars tried to make sense of this.” Theologians debated whether a demon and a human could produce a child, what physical characteristics such a hybrid might inherit, and the likelihood that St. Anthony’s outcast colony actually existed. Wooliest of all, though, was the issue of salvation. “Can they be saved?” Maggi asks. “We don’t know. It is only a question.”

Even unanswered, he says, that question offers insight into religious thought at a time when divergent beliefs simultaneously held sway. While de’ Pazzi closed her ears to the devils she claimed chased her, bit her, and pushed her down staircases, other theologians saw something familiar and sympathetic in demons. The St. Anthony story is “about compassion, about exile, about being somebody not likely to be saved but who wants to be,” Maggi says. “Not only should we not be afraid of these hybrid beings, but we should realize that they need us, and if we are Christians, we should open ourselves to them.”