Angels in Medieval Literature

By Kathryn Walton

The angels of medieval literature were far from the pretty ornaments that they appear as today during the Christmas season. Angels played many roles in medieval literature: they were defenders of justice, bringers of dire warnings, givers of dark tasks, and bringers of good news. 

As soon as the holiday season rolls around in many countries that celebrate Christmas, angels start appearing on shelves and in homes. Angels adorn the tops of Christmas trees. Angels appear as decorated cookies. Angels grace the shelves and windows of some houses. Angels even appear as Christmas craft options. I attended a holiday celebration at my daughter’s preschool (which is not a Christian preschool) last week and one of the activities was decorating angels.


This plethora of angels is unusual today. It’s a one-time thing limited to a specific season and holiday. Angels are not a fixture of contemporary culture. In the Middle Ages, however, they were. Angels also looked quite different from the benign smiling versions sold as Christmas decorations today.

The Many Roles of Angels in the Middle Ages

Angels appeared everywhere in the medieval world. They played a role in the religious culture of the time and featured in the lives of many. They were present across the history of medieval England, for example. Richard Sowerby outlines in his book on Angels in Early Medieval England, that angels were a fixture in medieval England basically from the time that Christianity arrived on the island. As he says in his introduction, “Early medieval England in fact produced such a volume of material relating to these immaterial spirits that it would be possible, if one were so inclined, to string it together as a narrative, starting with the Northumbrian slave-boys whose faces were allegedly so angelic that a pope determined to convert their countrymen, and ending with the Norman fleet which landed in Sussex just as the churches of England were preparing to offer their annual prayers to the archangel Michael.”


Angels were central, of course, in medieval theology, but they were also central in medieval philosophy. Across the Middle Ages, medieval philosophers considered the nature of angels. As Isabel Iribarren and Martin Lenz outline in their book on angels and medieval philosophy, the study of angels provided an excellent means of considering the nature of God as well as all kinds of other ideas. Angels could be used as “models” through which “a whole range of questions were defined, from cosmological order, movement and place, to individuation, cognition, volition, and modes of language.”

What I find most fascinating, however, is the many different roles that angels took on in the world of medieval popular literature. They were by no means only seen as elevated religious figures contained to theological and philosophical discourse. They actually appeared quite frequently in popular literature in a variety of roles. They were almost never described but are instead recognizable because of where they come from and what they do.

Here are a few of the many ways in which angels appear in the literature of the Middle Ages.

An angel depicted in the 11th century – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 6 (4), fol. 107v.

Angels as Bringers of Good News

One of the primary roles that angels fulfill in medieval literature is to bring good news to the faithful in religious narratives. They are frequently sent by God to the heroes and heroines of romances, or to the saints and popes of diverse religious texts to impart good news on whomever needs to hear it.


In one fourteenth-century version of The Nativity and Early Life Of Mary, for example, it is an angel who comes to Joachim to tell him that Anne will become pregnant with Mary. The angel comes to Joachim when he is at the point of most despair because he and his wife, Anne, have been married for twenty years and have been unable to conceive a child. As he despairs,

An angel came from heaven and bid him to be glad and blissful. The angel told him that his lord would send him that which he wanted soon, and that Anne would have a daughter by him that would be the joy and bliss of all the world as the prophets had written. (You can read the original version here).

An angel and Joachim – Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Westfalen oder Köln, um 1360. ULB Darmstadt, Hs 2505, fol. 6v

The angel appears as a bright spot in Joachim’s life to bring what is to him, the best news.


Angels as Bringers of Warnings

Angels also often appear in medieval literature to give bad news and warnings to characters. The romance Amis and Amiloun, for example, features an angel appearing to one of the heroes to warn him about the consequences of taking on a fight for his brother. The angel, in this case, appears as a disembodied voice that comes down from heaven. It gives Amiloun the following warning:

“Sir Amiloun, God who suffered passion, has sent you a warning through me. If you undertake this battle, you will have a powerful adventure within the next three years. Before the end of three years, you will become the most foul leper who ever lived in this world.” (You can read the original version here)

The angel here warns Amiloun that undertaking this battle will result in severe consequences for him. The warning, perhaps, signals God’s distaste for the battle, or perhaps, acts as a further test of Amiloun’s loyalty to his friend. He fights the battle to save his friend’s life.

Amiloun does not heed the angel’s warning. He fights the battle and is shortly thereafter struck with a devastating case of leprosy.


Angels as Givers of Dark Tasks

Angels will also on occasion appear to give a romance hero, saint, or otherwise, some kind of task to do. Often these tasks are somewhat grim. One of the grimmest also appears in Amis and Amilioun. In that text an angel appears to the other hero Amis in a dream after Amiloun has gotten leprosy and seen his life destroyed. The angel,

Comes from bright heaven and stands before his [Amis’s] bed. He says to him that if he would rise on Christ’s morn, at the time when Jesus Christ was born, and slay his two children, and anoint his brother [Amiloun] with their blood, he should be brought out of all his woe.

Amis is currently distraught because his sworn-brother Amiloun contracted leprosy after fighting his battle for him. So, this angel tells him that he must murder his own children, collect their blood, and anoint his brother with it to cure him.

An angel visits Sir Amis and tells him that if he kills his children, their blood will cure Amiloun. Wikimedia Commons

Needless to say, this is a very dark task. What is probably even more dark is that Amis actually does it. He kills his kids as the angel instructs and his brother is cured. Of course, because it’s a romance, the children are miraculously reanimated, but the darkness of the task remains.

Angels as Helpers

Angels also frequently act as defenders of the faithful in medieval popular literature. They will often come down from heaven to defend some saint or other religious figure who is subject to unjust persecution. In one fourteenth-century version of the Legend of Saint Katherine, for example, angels appear frequently to help the saint through her trials at the hands of the cruel emperor Maxens. Angels bring her food and water and anoint her tortured body.

At one point an angel even intervenes to destroy one of the torture implements that the cruel emperor intends to use on her. After making use of all kinds of different methods of torture, Maxens wheels out a torture wheel so frightening that it makes “many a man quake” to see it. The impressive Saint Katherine does not, however. She simply kneels down and prays for help.

After this an angel comes out of heaven and destroys the torture wheel before she can be subjected to its horrors. (You can read a version of this text here)

A sword-bearing angel – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 24, fol. 31r.

Angels as Defenders of Justice

The final role that I will mention here is that of defender of justice. In one medieval version of the story of Susan and the Elders from the Book of Daniel, an angel is mentioned at the end of the text brandishing a sword to enact justice on those who unjustly persecute Susan. In the story Susan has been falsely accused by two men of adultery. She is defended in the text by Daniel, who calls on an angel to bring justice down on her false accusers.

During his defence of Susan Daniel tells the despicable men that “an angel with a naked sword is close to you. He has brandished his sword, burning so brightly, to smash your belly at a blow into more than three pieces. I do not lie” (You can read the original version here).

The angel in this case is perhaps more symbolic than real, but nevertheless appears in the text as a threatening defender of justice. Daniel suggests that it is the angel that will bring divine justice down on those who have done Susan wrong.

As you can see, angels take on varied roles in the medieval literary world. The examples listed above are just a very few of countless others that I could bring in. Angels were popular characters. They were obviously so in religious texts as they are a part of Christian mythology, but they also frequented non-religious texts as well.

Their ability to wield supernatural power from an authorized source (i.e. God), made them a convenient character. They could step in to bring down warnings or provide justice wherever needed.

So, if you celebrate Christmas and want to make your decorations a bit more medieval, why not include an angel with a burning sword? It’ll everything more epic.

Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.

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Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 50, fol. 14v.