Demons and the battle for souls at Cluny
By Michael E. Hoenicke Moore
Studies in Religion, Vol.32:4 (2003)
Abstract: The liturgical program at Cluny was directed toward a struggle against demons. Demons attacked souls in this world by bringing plague and violence, and in the next world, by punishing sinful souls. This article discusses how concern about such demons drew upon an ancient tradition regarding the pervasive influence of demons. The monks at Cluny sought to end this demonic tyranny. The battle for souls at Cluny reached a highpoint with the introduction of the Feast of All Souls’ Day between 1024 and 1033 by the powerful Abbot Odilo.
Introduction: In the last few days of his life, Abbot Odilo of Cluny was attacked repeatedly by demons. Their growling voices could be heard by the monks attending the old man as he commanded the demons to depart by the power of the cross and battled them with prayer. Odilo was one of the most powerful men in Europe and head of the most magnificent institution of his day, the veritable centre of medieval Europe. His biographer Jotsald tells that Odilo died in the course of this struggle, while saying his Vesper prayers.
During that same night in 1049, a monk of the abbey lying in the infirmary was visited by the ghost of Odilo, who came to describe his final moments and assure his monk about the outcome of his struggle with the demons. Christ had appeared, the ghost explained, “and at the hour of my death…pointed to a corner of the room with his finger. I saw a savage and very terrible figure, which frightened me with its horror and vast hideousness. But the Lord being with me, it could not harm me.”
This macabre story expresses very well the closeness of the demonic as it was felt at Cluny. In the dark phrase of Tertullian, “the task of demons is the overthrow of man: from the beginning, therefore, spiritual malice was foreseen as the ruin of man”. Odilo’s struggle at the moment of death, as portrayed by Jotsald, is a traditional account of the continuous struggle between the forces of good and demonic opponents of the godhead, a cosmic struggle encountered in the lives of individuals and especially at the moment of death.
Cluny had been founded in a unique space free of political domination to do the work of God and reform the world. Almost from the outset, the abbots of Cluny dreamed of renewing Christendom and bringing about peace, through their style of monasticism. The demons meanwhile pursued the ancient demonic goal of ushering in a cosmic misrule.