Armando Maggi. In The Company of Demons: Unnatural Beings, Love, and Identity in the Italian Renaissance. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2006. 232pp. ISBN 0 226 50130 2.

Neil Forsyth
University of Lausanne

Forsyth, Neil. "Review of Armando Maggi, In The Company of Demons: Unnatural Beings, Love, and Identity in the Italian Renaissance." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.3 (January, 2007) 12.1-12 <URL:>.

  1. At the end of time you will turn into an incubus. For proof you have only to turn to a treatise by the seventeenth-century Franciscan monk Ludovico Maria Sinistrari, De Daemonialitate. In his view an incubus is a blend of human and spiritual being, heavier than angels but lighter than earthbound humans. He makes it clear that, although in the mean time this halfway status is only possible for an incubus, 'whose body has the lightness and luminosity of human redemption', our dead bodies will acquire in the last days the same consistency. In fact this transformation is already happening. There may be only a few snatches of evidence for this kind of blend between human and spirit, among which would be the brief text about giants being the product of woman and angels in Genesis 6:4, but demonologists like Sinistrari never let sparsity of evidence inhibit their research. Augustine, after all, had proposed that Psalm 85 makes clear that the blessed souls will have bodies like angels. A Renaissance scientist of the spiritual need only be more precise and fill out the picture. Nero, Alexander, Aeneas, even Luther, also came from human-demon intercourse, as Francesco Maria Guazzo's Compendium maleficarum (1608) showed. And now Sinistrari's research (not published till 1875, following its discovery in London) reveals that those Genesis giants did not disappear from the earth at the time of the flood, as most commentators assume. Rather the flood made the quality of the air change, so now those hybrid and aereal creatures have become invisible and small, like fairies; but they are still with us, and the sign of our eventual redemption.

  2. In his new book, Armando Maggi tries to understand the strange world of Renaissance demonology without making fun or dwelling on its absurdity. But he has a lot of competition. The field, especially its witchcraft branch, has been heavily studied over the past fifty years, and there have been many attempts to get inside this bizarre world-view to explain why this farrago of various apparent nonsenses was believed by so many for so long. Some explanations take a psychological turn: a woman's fears of childbirth are the source of the incubus fantasies, as in the Polanski film of Rosemary's Baby; or perhaps it is male fears of being usurped in the marriage bed and so not fathering their own children (Miranda: Sir, are not you my father? Prospero: Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and/ She said thou wast my daughter.) Others show how the kissing of Satan's arse, like Luther's vision of the devil in the privy, suggests the link with anality memorably argued by Norman O. Brown in Life Against Death (1959). And many emphasize the suppressed eroticism, as in R.E.L. Masters's book Eros and Evil (1962), which included a transcript of Sinistrari. Some treatises do indeed read like licensed pornography: explicit sexual activity is described at length, conventionally including some ritual orgy like the one so coolly filmed in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The Malleus Maleficarum itself (1486), the Dominican text that inspired so much of the witch-hunt craze, claims that 'Witches have often been seen in fields and woods, lying on their backs, naked up to the navel. And it appears from the disposition of their sexual organs, and from the agitation of the legs, that they have been copulating with Incubus demons which are invisible to the onlookers.' Many accounts describe the activities of the so-called sabbats - dancing in a ring, raising of petticoats, copulations in groups ('the brother does not spare the sister, nor the father the daughter, nor the son the mother', according to Henri Boguet's 1610 Discours des sorciers).

  3. Carlo Ginzburg took a very different line in his brilliant study of an extraordinary shamanistic cult in northern Italy, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1983). His follow-up and more ambitious book, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath (1991) was less convincing and fell prey to the same outmoded attitudes as Margaret Murray's Frazerian theory about the pre-Christian horned god in The Witch-cult in Western Europe (1921). Anthropologists have compared early modern practices with those of other more exotic societies of the kind that used to be called 'primitive', and in which medical knowledge is inadequate for explaining illness. Indeed animism -- belief in a world of invisible spirits -- was part of the human heritage, it seems, before even we left Africa, and Renaissance demonology may be simply its most sophisticated reflex: see J.R. and W.H. McNeill, The Human Web (2004). But not the last: the recent spates of belief in Satanic Ritual Abuse, whether in Kenya or in California, has been widely studied, and in the most recent book, Evil Incarnate (2006), David Frankfurter finds several clusters of images that make patterns common to all such outbreaks going back at least to the treatment of Christians in ancient Rome. The truly unpleasant aspects of demonology, especially its anti-Semitism, were reviewed by Norman Cohn in Europe's Inner Demons (1975, 2nd edn., 1993), a reconstruction of the development of the European witch stereotype. Others have adopted sociological approaches and argued for the daily resentments of small communities as the main motivations for accusations of witchcraft. Robin Briggs, the Oxford historian, took this line in his Witches and Neighbours (1996), about early modern Europe, as did James Sharpe in The Bewitching of Anne Gunter (1999), a study of a case of fake possession. Sharpe's Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750 (1996), had already extended the socio-economic analyses of Alan McFarlane for English history (different in important ways from Continental Europe: above all, local malevolence but no belief in a large-scale Satanic cult). And Christina Larner's essays in Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief (1984), following her earlier Enemies of God: the Witch-hunt in Scotland (1981), widened the field for social historians and laid out the causes for the specific timing of witch-hunts. The witch-hunts coincided, she argued, with important changes in the judicial systems, with the rapid spread of printing and with the period of the new-born and Godly nation state. And finally, early modern witchcraft has also been a favourite field of study for feminist efforts to rescue the (her)story of women from patriarchal historians. Diane Purkiss in The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (1996) both explores and questions this approach.

  4. Armando Maggi takes quite a different tack. He wants to revive a lost world of the imagination. His aim is not to psychoanalyze but to sympathize, and his strategy is to enter into the spirit (so to speak) of this strange world. In the Company of Demons treats all demonological texts as acts of language, using techniques common among literary critics. One treatise, for example, by a nephew of the famous Pico della Mirandella, is a tissue of classical allusions and quotations, intended to demonstrate that the gods of the ancient world have become demons (a common view among the Fathers of the Church). In Pico's view, Florentine humanists (like his uncle), in their hospitality to those ancient gods, are the real demonic enemies, and Pico stages the struggle with them as an imagined dialogue between two opposing intellectuals. But Maggi's linguistic analysis goes much further. In the course of their conversation, the two intellectual friends come upon a witch being dragged to her trial. The text reproduces her sorrowful confession about the terrifying rituals in which she meets her incubus Ludovicus, has sex with him and murders various children. It gradually becomes clear that to 'burn' a witch, in this treatise at least, means to unravel the mythic references hiding there. A witch is 'a patchwork of narrative particles'. And a 'devil has a syncretistic presence in that his visibility is in fact a cultural palimpsest (a cluster of disparate cultural references).'

  5. Thus, the demonologists themselves understood the activity of witches as primarily linguistic. Devils come to us as visible quotations from classical texts, 'as if Greek and Roman culture were a demonic book of Revelations'. Strozzi Cicogna's popular and original treatise to that effect was incorporated into the first section of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1624). And in general demons try to create linguistic chaos by undoing or altering prayers or invocations, even countering the exorcisms themselves by changing the wording. If creation by the Word is a metaphor for divine activity, then destruction by perversions of language is the way the devils work: incomprehensible words like 'firabis ficaliri Elypolis starras poly…buccabor vel barton … ' should be avoided in any exorcism (though Maggi cites one which mistakenly quotes just these words), because of their destructive potential. Close and careful speaking is the way to salvation.

  6. Maggi's earlier book from 2001, Satan's Rhetoric, investigated how the devil constructs his own idiom. This linguistic approach is widespread in our time: Stuart Clark, for example, began his gigantic book Thinking With Demons, a study with an enormous reach and including the classic French demonology of Jean Bodin (1580), by proposing that 'to make any kind of sense of the witchcraft beliefs of the past we need to begin with language'. Maggi followed up the implications of that idea and brought to light an enormous amount of material from his Italian sources.

  7. In the Company of Demons takes this linguistic approach a stage further, and argues that all spirits' bodies are made of similes. 'Through a metaphor a poet tries to convey a certain message', and demons, angels, spirits do the same, using bodies made of air to make a statement and communicate with us. Maggi reads these Renaissance treatises as efforts to interpret those linguistic signs that spirits utter. How can a metaphor couple with human flesh? Maggi is not afraid to ask that question, and though, not unexpectedly, he never manages to answer it, he explores a variety of possibilities opened by these bizarre texts.

  8. Of course much else that was physically mutilating as well as linguistically deformed was going on in these exorcisms, and Maggi is well aware of that. Indeed such is the interest of the topic that he is often drawn beyond his linguistic or rhetorical approach to discuss the deeds that witches are supposed to perform. And he links these deeds back to his basic linguistic hypothesis by imagining the exorcism as a theatrical performance. In an earlier book, which he makes use of here, Maggi had studied one of the most prominent Italian mystics, Maria Maddalena, from just this point of view: her constant efforts to make the Word incarnate in her own oral discourse, and the melancholy that results when this expression is denied or obfuscated. In this and other ways, though he has no particular linguistic theory of his own to present, Maggi has opened a whole field for investigation.

  9. And yet, as in that overlapping of mystic and witch, this book is a muddle. Spirits, angels, demons, devils are often run together and treated as parallel or similar entities; any distinction between good and bad magic, good and bad language, collapses. But the distinction as to where the spirits come from is often important, both in the treatises and in Maggi's argument. As an example, take the story Jerome tells about St Anthony's visiting Paul the hermit and meeting a satyr on the way. Two different ways of reading the story are presented, one by Giovan Franceso Pico in which the story serves as a way to refute his uncle's humanism by showing that all figures from classical mythology and legend are really demonic; the other in which Sinistrari, whose treatise De Demonialitate Maggi is the first to expound at any length, focuses on the dialogue between hermit and satyr. Realizing that the hermit is terrified by his appearance, the satyr, who is actually an incubus, offers the holy man some fruit, saying 'I am mortal'. This means, in Sinistrari's analysis, that 'I am like you, you have nothing to fear'. He has been sent to Anthony as an ambassador, having learned of the Incarnation, to ask him to pray for his people's salvation. He and his kind are trapped in an in-between world, exiled and fearful. Whereas Pico denounces this satyr as a kind of strix or witch, and defines humanity by contrast with this realm of demonic beings, Sinistrari makes him the sign of our joint salvation. An incubus is one step up the scale of being, and has the kind of body we will have if we attain salvation. Obviously the distinction between good and evil magic mattered to these spiritual scientists.

  10. In another story a young man complains that he is hounded by a demon he cannot shake off no matter what he does. The demon appears in a variety of forms, including a valet, a butler and a teacher, even a nobleman on horseback. To Maggi, the demon is clearly in love. The young man complains to a friar about these visitations, and the friar confirms the various sightings, though unaware that the apparition is a demon. We never hear whether the young man succeeds in liberating himself from this lovesick demon, but Girolamo Menghi, a Franciscan and the author of the treatise in which the story is told, is of two minds. On the one hand this is clearly a perverse relationship like those the ancients tell us about. We must be eternally vigilant to protect ourselves from this kind of demonic attack. On the other, we detect no evil in the spirit's behaviour and the story is ultimately about the love the demon has for the young man. What are we to make of this? What counts for Maggi is the evidence of friendly demonic interest in humanity.

  11. These two stories together define both the strength and the problem of this book. It is based on thorough and scholarly research into demonology, and what Renaissance philosophers thought of as the danger that the demons represent to human beings in these, the last days of humanity (as Menghi and many others believed). Yet Maggi is clearly more than sympathetic to these demonic discourses, and to the spirits who deliver them. They are, as he reiterates several times, 'concerned and compassionate' toward humanity. That, as even Machiavelli thought, is why they speak to us. Apparently evil, these demons are also the sign of our salvation, and it is hard to be consistent in the face of that kind of contradiction. For example Pompeo della Barba, who wrote a Neoplatonic treatise on love, also published (1558) a work on the magico-scientific secrets of nature. It discusses deceased lovers who cannot help returning to the places that witnessed their love, and taking on bodies to repeat the experience. However sympathetic we may be to them, we have to be firm, says della Barba, and he mentions the Cretan practice of piercing a corpse's heart with a stick to stop his returning with a visible but fictional body to quench his still burning desire. In this variant of a vampire remedy we must be willing to 'break the lover's heart' to avoid his becoming the daimon of his own fixation.

  12. Maggi tries to see all these extraordinarily diverse treatises as manifestations of the same early modern ideology. And he gives the impression at times that, though he insists they are 'nonexistent beings', he wants us to listen to these familiar spirits who are all somehow so eager for our salvation. He is not interested in history for its own sake, he says; that is mere archeology. He may be contemptuous of the cult of angels so common in America today, yet, in several unguarded moments, he wonders where today are the spirits who used to visit us to express their compassion and concern. He may be just ventriloquizing what the texts say, and yet, at the end of this scholarly and often fascinating book, he nonetheless writes that in these spirits lies our redemption. One has the uneasy feeling that Professor Maggi has spent too long in the company of demons.

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© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).