By Danièle Cybulskie
At the heart of Christianity lies a thorny question which has been continually asked by both the faithful and those outside of the faith: no matter how terrible one’s sins, can anyone be forgiven as long as they have a repentant heart and accept Jesus? And the natural follow-up questions arise: what if they relapse? What if they are worse than before? Should they keep being forgiven?
For medieval parishioners, the answer was meant to be straightforward: yes, anyone can be forgiven for anything. Examples like St. Paul and St. Augustine abounded. But for ordinary people, this miraculous forgiveness must have seemed a difficult concept to wrestle with at times. The 12th-century writer Walter Map pushes the limits of this struggle between justice and forgiveness in the story of a knight who pledges himself to a demon, and the bishop who couldn’t forgive.
In this tale, Eudo is a down-on-his-luck, orphaned young man who has squandered his inheritance and found himself in exile, begging for food. One day, sitting outside of town, abject in his misery to the point of throwing his meagre scraps in despair, Eudo is approached by a strange-looking man, who promises to help him regain all he has lost and more, if only Eudo will pledge his service to the stranger. Suspecting this stranger is a demon (spoiler alert: he is), Eudo cites a whole bunch of biblical figures who probably should never have listened to demons.
The stranger (named Olga) explains that there are demons and there are demons. Some of them are very bad – serious rebels who backed Lucifer – and then there are others (like Olga) who just kind of got swept along in the whole rebel angels thing, sort of accidentally. Demons like himself, Olga says, are just playful and mischievous, out for a bit of fun. He tells the story of a monk who annoyed a demon named Morpheus for painting him in an ugly way on the monastery walls. Although Morpheus turned the monk to all kinds of sin and got him in big trouble, Morpheus also got him out of it, scot-free, for the promise not to paint him as ugly anymore. So, you see, says Olga, no harm, no foul. Besides, Olga continues, he will give Eudo three warning signs before he dies, so Eudo will have all the time in the world to repent.
This all seems like a very good deal to the starving and penniless Eudo, so he places his hands between Olga’s and swears to serve him. And the mayhem begins.
Eudo gains back everything he has lost, and fights continuously for more, gathering the worst kind of amoral soldiers to his cause and wreaking destruction. With Olga’s promise of three warnings, Eudo feels invincible, letting anathemas roll off him as easily as his victims’ tears. His bloodlust knows no bounds:
the day was wasted if the dead could be counted … and so the wicked servant delighted his irreverent master, who gorged him with blood, enriched him with corpses, cheered him with continual cruelty, appeased him with untamed frenzy, and filled his camp with accomplices to sate his hunger for crime.
One day, even Olga has concerns that Eudo is going too far, and he appears to him as “an angel of light”, instructing him not to stop sinning, but to start asking for forgiveness in between, just in case. Eudo sets out for Beauvais, goes to the bishop and confesses his myriad sins. He is forgiven, but he knows he still has two signs to go, and with his conscience cleansed of his earlier sins, he sets out to commit more and worse. He keeps returning to the bishop and being forgiven, only to set out again and immediately begin to sin. The bishop catches on, and pleads to God to step in. His pleas are heard, and Eudo’s horse stumbles, causing Eudo to break his leg. He believes this is the first sign that his death is approaching, and approaches the bishop, who relents and absolves him, believing this will be the time Eudo’s repentance sticks. It is not. Eudo’s sins are worse than before.
Time passes, Eudo is hated by all, and all have given up on him. But then the second sign arrives in the form of an arrow that pierces Eudo’s eye, blinding him on one side. He returns to the bishop, who grits his teeth and forgives him – surely this injury must be what turns the tide! – but Eudo is soon back to his old ways, sinful enough to make his demon lord blush.
Finally, Eudo loses his firstborn son and he knows that time is up. He is truly repentant this time in his utter, all-consuming grief for his boy. As he drew a crowd of vicious men to him earlier in his life, so Eudo draws a crowd of mourners and sympathizers to him now – many of them his former victims, who are stirred to compassion at the sight of his wasted, tearful form, and his pitiful grief. The crowd accompanies Eudo to Beauvais and to the bishop, interrupting a scheduled witch-burning, the fire already blazing.
With the backing of the sympathetic crowd, Eudo begs for forgiveness, a true penitent, promising to do whatever it takes to atone for his sins. But the bishop has had enough of Eudo:
He clenched his guts so as not to take pity on the man, and hardened his heart not to heal the sick, determined not to be duped another time; he became altogether as hard as an iron blade.
Instead of extending forgiveness as he is meant to, the bishop tells Eudo half-jokingly that he must throw himself onto the pyre. To the bishop’s surprise – and perhaps his consternation – Eudo immediately does, and is engulfed, dying before he can be rescued, without his last rites.
Walter Map finishes his story by explaining to his readers how unChristian it was for the bishop to withhold forgiveness: that in the end, it was the bishop who was the greater sinner. He says, “the wretch [Eudo] had prevailed upon God’s justice and found that his confession had been accepted by divine mercy,” so, presumably, Eudo’s immortal soul is sent to heaven and not hell, despite the bishop’s spite.
Although the story is a clear-cut one of a prodigal returning to the fold, and that all are meant to forgive even the worst sinners, Map really leans into the sinfulness of Eudo and allows his bishop to be tested past endurance to show just how difficult forgiveness can be, and how miraculous it is that God can extend it to even the very worst. This is meant to bring comfort to medieval sinners of all stripes, although Eudo’s getting off relatively lightly for a gambling a lifetime of crime and servitude to a demon and winning in the end must have rankled for at least some members of Map’s audience.
For this story, called “Eudo, The Boy Deceived by a Demon” and translated by Richard Sowerby, as well as more by Walter Map and others, check out Early Fiction in England from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: British Library Yates Thompson 15 fol. 96