[St. Pachomius Library]

The Power of Music in Medieval Literature:
Battling Evil:
Saint Guthlac and the Hordes of Hell

© 2000, 2004 by Brenda Johnstone Flynn. All rights reserved.

          Chrysostom introduces the possibility of music having a negative impact on the listener. One way it could do so was by the transmission of heretical theologies. Another was through lascivious songs used by the demons to corrupt the Christian mind. While the heretical chants were probably more pressing to St. John in the fourth century, the question of diabolic music has had more cultural endurance. Indeed, it is present in some remnant of society today who believe that music such as rock and roll is the music of the devil. During the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church did not need to worry about heretical songs, but the corrupting influence of diabolical and lascivious music was a lasting problems, which could be fought by equal and opposite measures: the singing of Christian songs and psalms.
          In a valor-oriented Middle Ages, those who took on Christian orders (with the exception of the knightly orders such as the Knights Templar) were generally expected to relinquish physical violence. They moved from being "those who fight" to being "those who pray." There are of course exceptions to this: Archbishop Turpin gives quite an accounting of himself on the battlefield of Rencesvals in The Song of Roland. This did not mean that monks and priests who gave up weapons were condemned to lives without the possibility of valor. On the contrary, the monk, priest and the saint were instead presented with a much greater foe than even the most imposing knight. They were responsible for battling Satan and his demons. Among their arsenal of weapons was the singing of the psalms.
          An excellent saint's life containing information about a saint who used the psalms multiple times against demonic enemies is that of Saint Guthlac. Saint Guthlac's tale was commissioned by King Ælfwald of East Anglia in the first half of the 8th century and written by a monk named Felix (Felix 166-7). Guthlac's story begins, conventionally, by explaining Guthlac's parentage and the miraculous stories regarding his birth and childhood. Guthlac did not immediately become a churchman upon reaching his majority, however. He begins his adult life as "one who fights":

Then when his youthful strength had grown greater and a noble passion for power and greatness flamed up in his young heart, he called to mind the mighty deeds of the heroes of old and, like one roused from slumber he put aside his former disposition, gathered about his troops of followers, and took to a life of war.

(Felix 176)

Guthlac's first conversion is from a sweet-tempered, gentle child to a young war-band leader. Felix passes no negative judgement on Guthlac's warrior years, and is careful to qualify his nine years of battle by saying that Guthlac returned one third of what he plundered, and was more polite than the average warrior-brigand. Indeed, he goes out of his way to make the saint's early life acceptable within the framework of the hagiography. It is not until Guthlac has accomplished his mission as a warrior that he even considers changing his lifestyle: "Their [his enemies'] strength was so sapped at length, after suffering so much pillage and plunder and slaughter at his hands, that they were exhausted and kept the peace perforce" (Felix 177). Guthlac fulfilled his mission as a warrior before undertaking a mission as a man of God.
          Having renounced physical violence, the saint did not completely disarm. He "donned the monks robes and began the battle of penance to atone for his sins" (Felix 178). He exchanged his battle against the enemies of his people for the battle against the enemy of all medieval people: sin. Where he fought against the "hosts of foes who were harassing his land" (Felix 177) with physical weapons, after his second conversion to a more active Christianity, he assumed a second set of weapons. According to his biographer, Saint Guthlac was especially adept at singing: "he showed a preference for learning the chanting of the psalms, after he had been taught his letters" (Felix 179). Guthlac's new armaments are literacy and chanting, and wholly replace the sword and spear.
          Without any further information, it would be difficult to claim that Guthlac's chanting of the psalms was a spiritual weapon, or at least any more of a weapon than a protection against the influence of any lascivious songs he might have learned in his nine years as a warrior. Felix builds upon that first martial presentation of Guthlac:

He was now about twenty-six years of age as he entered in earnest with the help of heaven upon the life of a soldier of the true God amid the dreary mists of this lonely wasteland. Then girding himself with the arms of the spirit against the cunning strategy of the most terrible of foes, he grasped the "shield of faith, the breastplate of hope" [Eph. 6:11 - 17], the helmet of chastity, the bow of patience, the arrows of psalmody, and took his stand stoutheartedly in the shieldwall. So strong was his trust that he hurled himself into the very midst of the raging ranks of hell with utter contempt for his foe.

(Felix 184)

If nothing else, this proves the degree to which the 8th century Anglo-Saxon cleric was a warrior, although against a spiritual enemy! Much of the language Guthlac's biographer uses is typical, and clearly derived from the Ephesians passage. The inclusion of the "arrows of psalmody" among the weapons of the Christian warrior is not supported by the Ephesians passage. Paul says nothing about the psalms and does not arm the Christian soldier with any arrows. Perhaps their inclusion is because of Guthlac's "preference" for learning the chanting of the psalms, or perhaps it is included because of the miracles which are attributed to Guthlac. The other weapons he bears when he hurls himself towards the foe are all spiritual in nature: faith, hope, chastity and patience. These abstract concepts contrast strangely with the concrete psalmody. They are virtues, where the psalms are part of the scriptures. This strange inclusion of the psalmody amid a list of traditional spiritual weapons cannot help but highlight the importance that the psalms played as a spiritual weapon against the forces of the devil.
          The first instance of Saint Guthlac using the "arrows of psalmody" comes shortly after he enters the hermit's life. He is filled with despair "about the life he had undertaken" (Felix 186) and is very depressed. Not only is he unhappy with the position he has found himself in, alone on a swampy island, but he despairs upon remembering the enormity of his sin. This is the hermit's first true trial as a warrior of God. His response is not to pray, or to fast, or to apply to the saints. Instead, he sings:

But on the night of the third day, while the most valiant soldier of Christ was still stoutheartedly giving battle to these deadly thoughts, he suddenly began to chant, as though seized with the spirit of prophecy, 'In affliction I called upon the Lord,' etc. [Ps. 17:7] And behold, in the morning watches his faithful helper, the blessed Bartholomew, presented himself to Guthlac's gaze. . . then on the instant the dark clouds of baleful thoughts dispersed, and his heavy heart grew light and he sang out triumphantly, 'With the Lord at my side to aid me, I shall yet see my enemies baffled.' [Ps. 117:7]

(Felix 186-7)

Had Guthlac been cured of his depression simply by singing the psalm, we could attribute his healing to the effect of the music upon him, as was true with David's singing for Saul. In this case, however, the singing itself does not bring immediate belief. Instead, the singing summons Guthlac's patron saint, who brings him back to joy. Singing the psalms acts as a quasi-magical force which summons heavenly help. It is significant that it is not prayer or recital of scripture that grants Guthlac his first victory over the devil's temptation to despair; the chanting of a psalm brings him help. After Guthlac's victory over despair, his immediate reaction is to once again sing a psalm. Both of these psalms sung have texts relevant to the trials Guthlac is suffering. That there is a psalm appropriate both for the depths of despair and for rejoicing at a heavenly intercession shows the power and versatility of the psalms.
          In this first instance, the psalms were used to combat an invisible, spiritual diabolic attack. The next attack upon the saint comes in a bodily and visible form. Two devils suddenly appear and try to convince Guthlac to fast in an inappropriate manner. Guthlac politely sits and listens to their argument. When they finish, without saying a word to refute them or prove them wrong through his knowledge of scripture, Guthlac once again sings: "After he had listened to all this the blessed Guthlac rose up and sang out the words of the psalm, 'Then shall my enemies be turned back,' and so forth [Ps. 55:10]. As soon as Guthlac did this his crafty old foe vanished from his presence like smoke into the empty air" (Felix 188). Any emotional effect of music, as might be attributed to the first encounter, is missing here. The singing of the psalms has an immediate and profound effect upon the demons hearing it. They cannot bear to hear the singing of the psalms and immediate vanish into thin air. It might be easy to attribute the demons' strong reaction to the psalms as a reaction to the word of God. The only problem with this hypothesis is that throughout their tempting of Guthlac the demons repeat things that have at least a basis in Scripture. For example, they say: "For as much as you are broken down in the life, so much will you be made whole and strong in the next, and as much as you are afflicted in the present world, so much will you rejoice in the one to come" (Felix 188). This sounds very much like Jesus' sermons regarding the first becoming last and the last becoming first. Indeed, at no point does Guthlac or his biographer bother to explain what the flaw is in the devils' arguments. By singing the psalms, Guthlac forces the demons to reveal themselves, and is thus saved from presumably bad advice. Had the advice come from a good or heavenly source, singing the psalm would not have caused that source to disappear into a puff of smoke. So far the singing of the psalms summons aid, shows delight, and distinguishes good from evil.
          Immediately after Guthlac defeats the devil's second plot, a much less subtle and spiritual attempt is made upon the saint. While Guthlac is keeping his "accustomed prayerful vigil" he is attacked by "hideous hordes of foul spirits" (Felix 189). There is no need for Guthlac to sing a psalm to prove whether or not they are demons. They are evocatively ugly, terrifying and malformed:

They were horrible to see, in terrifying shapes with monstrous head, long necks, and pinched, ghastly faces, filthy beards, hairy ears, threatening brows, savage eyes, stinking mouths, horses teeth. Flames vomited from their throats and they had twisted jaws, thick lips, and dreadful voices. Their hair was charred, and they had gross mouths, pigeon breasts, scabby thighs, knobby knees, crooked shins, bulging ankles, and splay feet. And from all their gaping mouths cam a raucous clamor. So exceedingly horrible to hear was this strident caterwauling, that it seemed to swell and reverberate till the whole cavernous space between heaven and earth was a roaring bedlam of bellowing.

(Felix 189)

Strangely, this happens while Guthlac is praying! This demonic infestation does not occur while the blessed saint was asleep and has his defenses down. Instead it happens while he is engaged in a prayerful vigil. This unhindered incursion indicates that the prayer, which failed to keep the demons out, will not be effective in eradicating them. Indeed, Felix says that as the demons enter Guthlac's cell that "they met nothing that could block their entrance" (Felix 189). While this can be taken literally, in that the door, windows and walls are insufficient to stop the invasion, it implies that Guthlac's prayers are also incapable of denying the demonic hordes entrance.
          Another thing of note is that the demon hordes are making a lot of noise. The noise, of course, adds to the terrifying scene painted by Guthlac's biographer. Remember, however, that in both of his previous trials Guthlac has defeated the devil by singing the psalms. Perhaps this hideous noise made by this terrifying apparition of devils is a sort of anti-psalm, counteracting the beautiful sound of the sung psalms with a hideous noise of discord. It might also be seen as an attempt on the part of the devils to prevent another defeat by the arrows of psalmody. If they make such noise that any song he sings could not be heard, perhaps they can prevent him from singing his psalms and thus defeating him.
          They are successful in keeping Guthlac from singing immediately. They drag the saint from his cell and torture him in various ways. Finally, after having spent "a large part of the gloomy night in such tortures" (Felix 190), the demons demand that the saint abandon his swampy hermitage. Guthlac immediately responds with what we now have come to expect: "Finally in answer he began stoutheartedly to sing, as though in prophecy, the words of the psalm, 'The Lord is at my right hand, that I be not moved' [Ps. 15:8]" (Felix 190). This time, in contrast to his previous temptation, the demons do not vanish at the sound of the psalm. Instead they angrily take him to the mouth of Hell, and prepare to torture and torment him there. Since Guthlac's psalm-singing has already proven insufficient to free him from the grasp of the hellish horde, and he is standing in the devil's own land, how can he possibly get free? Indeed, some fear for the saint might be justified. Guthlac's most powerful weapon is the singing of the psalms. He cannot free himself from Hell.
          In the end, Guthlac is released from the threat of hellish tortures by the intercessions of Saint Bartholomew, instead of by any action on his own part. This might seem to call into question the power of the psalms to defeat large numbers of demons. The psalms seem displaced as the mode for Guthlac's victories over the demons. However, upon the return journey to his cell (he is being carried by some demons admonished to do so by St. Bartholomew) the psalms reappear: "When the arrived at the region of mid-air the sound of voices was heard singing a psalm, most suitably chosen, 'The saints shall go from virtue to virtue,' and so forth [Ps. 83:8]" (Felix 192). The heavens, which before had resounded with the hideous clamor of the demons, are now filled with the sound of invisible voices singing a well-chosen psalm. This scene serves not only as an opposition to the demonic disharmony of the beginning of the episode, but also seems to put the psalms back in their correct place. While psalms do not actually serve as the mode for redemption in this episode, they still play an important role, both as the method of Guthlac's defiance of evil and after they fill the heavens on his return journey.
          If the power of the psalms was questioned in the previous episode, they are fully reestablished in Guthlac's next adventure. These vignettes of demonic intervention happen in proximity to one another, and at the beginning of Guthlac's life as a hermit. Once more the demons make an attempt to rid themselves of this meddlesome monk. The chapter is titled: "How he put whole phantom troops of devils to flight by singing the first verse of the 67th psalm" (Felix 193). In this chapter the devils revert to trying to trick Guthlac with disguises. This time, they appear as a group, but as a group of Britons who are "inveterate enemies of the Saxon race" (Felix 193). It is explained that Guthlac understands the Briton language because he once lived in exile with them. This time, Guthlac entered a sleep-like trance while praying. Whether he was awake or asleep is unclear. He begins to hear the demons during that doze, but the biographer claims that he started out of the sleep and found that his dream was true. The demon hordes, in a moment which is at the same time frightening and funny, set fire to Guthlac's buildings, and taking hold of the saint: "began to toss him in the air on the sharp points of their spears" (Felix 193). This time the relationship between unveiling the deception of the demons and Guthlac's use of the psalms is made clear: "God's hero recognized the thousand-fold forms of his old foe of the thousand-fold tricks and sang out, as if prophetically, the first verse of the 67th Psalm, 'Let God arise,' and so forth. The instant they heard this the whole demon host vanished like smoke from before his face, swifter than speech" (Felix 193). The power that failed to defeat the demons when they showed themselves truly and took Guthlac to Hell succeeds wonderfully in revealing, and thus making powerless, the demons. This time, Guthlac manages to banish an entire horde of demons, not just one or two, by himself and without the help of St. Bartholomew. He does so with the most powerful and potent weapon in his arsenal, the singing of psalms.
          One element recurs throughout these scenes. Every time Guthlac sings a psalm, it is an appropriate one. Also, he sings out "as if prophetically" on all occasions, even when he sings the apparently ineffective psalm before being taken to Hell. However, on each occasion, the psalm is appropriate for what happens later. For example, when Guthlac is in the throes of a devil-inspired despair, he calls out "in affliction" to the Lord for help, and help comes in the form of St. Bartholomew. In the second example, with the two tempting devils, Guthlac sings about enemies being turned back, and they are turned back by the very singing of the psalm. When the psalm is apparently unable to prevent him from being removed by the demons to Hell, Guthlac has sung the psalm "The Lord is at my right hand, that I may not be moved" (Felix 190). Indeed, Guthlac's singing is rather prophetic. He is not moved from his lands or his hermitage (as is apparently the demons' desire), although he is moved physically from his location. Instead, he treats his assailants with contempt. These tales show the power of the psalms to defeat the forces of Satan, the applicability of the psalms. They also show the importance of Chrysostom's assertions regarding the need to understand the words of the psalms in order for them to be effective. Every time Guthlac sings, he sings a specific psalm, intentionally, and he chooses a relevant one. If Guthlac did not understand what he was singing, it is doubtful it would have had any effect at all. It is likely that Felix states that Guthlac sings "prophetically" in order to prove that he understood what he was singing.
          The psalm defeating the Briton-devils is the last one in Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac. While there are a few more attempts by the devil on Saint Guthlac, they are neither as concerted or as dangerous as these, and the saint handles them easily, without help or difficulty. Much of the rest of his story concerns the miracles he works, and is no longer concerned with proving his piety, learning, or trust in God. These first few tales, those in which Guthlac relies so heavily upon the psalms as a weapon, are the initial testing of the saint at the time at which he is most vulnerable. They establish the worthiness of the saint and provide a context for the miracles Guthlac performs later. Not a single one of these demonic episodes has a witness or victim other than the besieged saint himself. During this testing period the arrows of psalmody take on a much larger role than does the helmet of chastity or the bow of patience. The rest of Guthlac's spiritual armor is never put to the test. Even the breastplate of hope is not used to combat the saint's initial despair. That task, too, is left to the ever-useful arrows of psalmody.
          For an early warrior of God, renouncing worldly violence did not mean renouncing warrior status. Instead of fighting Britons or a neighboring king, the convert fights the forces of Hell, which are determined to evict the hermit from his hermitage. The valor of a lone man against a whole horde of hideously disfigured demons is in many ways more impressive than that of a mere mortal who can only defeat one or two people at a time. While the former warrior relinquishes his sword, he takes up the new armament of a Christian soldier, a key component of which is the singing of psalms. Music and singing also appear to have an unusually profound effect upon demons. In the story of David's entry into Saul's court, the evil spirits were banished by the mere playing of music, not necessarily music of a particularly moral nature (although the question might be raised whether David was playing, perhaps, one of the psalms attributed to him). The psalms serve not only as a moral vanguard and as a mental defense against the attempts of heresy and the devil to subvert the Christian mind, but also as a potent weapon to be used directly against the forces of Satan.