Demons and everyday life: Giving birth to monsters (Reformations 5)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

One of the more difficult things for (most) modern people to get their minds around is the medieval popular belief in demons and spirits. These malevolent, benevolent, or neutral (sometimes just a nuisance) beings permeated the air (“swarming like flies”) and were in continual interaction with people in their daily lives, at least according to the ghost and demon stories that were written down.

Among the tales documented by a German Dominican in the thirteenth century is one about a noble knight and his wife. The story goes that “demons quite often appeared to [the knight]” and on one occasion while he was away on “business”, a demon decided to appear to his wife instead:

When his wife got into bed that night, it seemed to her that her husband came to her and had realtions with her in due manner. From this, so she believed, she became pregnant. The next day her husband returned, which caused his wife to be very much amazed, and she said to him ‘Where have you come from?’ He answered, ‘From our other castle’. She said, ‘Surely you were with me last night, and had relations with me contrary to your custom.’ He answered, ‘I did not.’ Terrified and upset almost to death, the woman learned that she had given birth to three monsters at once. One monster had teeth like a hog’s, the second had a startlingly long beard, the third had one eye in its face, so reported someone who saw them. But the mother, after the birrth of these children, died”
John Shinners, ed.,
Medieval Popular Religion 1000-1500: A Reader (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1997), 217.

“So reported someone who saw them”, a common claim for many of these tales. For historians of popular religion, it is less important what grain of truth, if any, is reflected in the story (e.g. deformities at birth) than what the telling and retelling of stories such as this means about the worldviews of those living in the middle ages: evil powers are at work in the world around us and we need to beware of what havoc they can cause even in our own family’s life. The horror movie comes to life.