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Agobard of Lyons (9th Century): On the Deception of Certain Signs

To the most reverend and beloved lord and brother, Bishop Bartholomew, Agobard, Hildigisus and Florus pray eternal salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.


We have learned that Your Wisdom is anxious, as to how it should be understood that in a certain place some attacks have begun to occur, so that some people have fallen down like epileptics or like those ordinarily called ‘demoniacs’. A certain venerable brother notified us of this happening, especially in a particular church where the body of a certain saint by the name of Firminus is venerated. And now through you we learn it is still occurring even up to this moment, in a different manner, so that stigmata of burning are seen and felt on the bodies of men, as if sulfur had happened to burn these spots. However, we have not been told that any of those afflicted have died, nor has anyone already suffering from an ailment been cured. The people who see these things (they are of either sex and various ages) make certain donations at this place (or, as you say, places – for this is already seen occurring in other places) – certain donations, whatever each one can give, either in gold or silver or livestock, or in whatever payment, not persuaded by exhortation or reasoning, but terrified by irrational fear.

This seems extremely foolish to us, since no signs of good sense, no hope of propitiation is shown in this matter; for this reason one can rather easily turn one’s mind to how one should cautiously keep watch. And certainly, just as it is quite true that these attacks could not occur except with God’s permission, so it is quite certain that they were through the agency of no other force than an angel attacking. For who is so foolish as to be unaware that omnipotent God lashes men, both visibly and invisibly, to knowledge and conversion, not only by means of other men and of demons, but also by means of animals, and by means of some of the tiniest and basest creatures? Not only by fiery serpents, but also by frogs and mosquitoes and flies and locusts. Not only by living creatures, but also by inanimate things, such as hail, lightning, rain and droughts. Surely Your Wisdom knows whence we speak, by the authority of Holy Scripture. But even if we had said lions, hornets, caterpillars, palmer-worms, mildew, oaths (that is, curses – with this term many things may be understood), it would be by the same authority. And even if we were to add bears, wolves, stags and wild boars, although these could not be shown easily from the Scripture, still, examples would not be lacking.


Although these burnings over which we are troubled, may not be very far removed from swelling blisters or, as another version says, from the fevers inflicted on the Egyptians, and from those attacks, which the book of Samuel (1 Samuel 5:6, etc. ) expressly shows were inflicted against the Philistines in their swollen calves and anklebones – in all these cases, which are certainly innumerable, who can be unaware how those who suffer or who hear about it, and those who see it, ought to act, since there is one God over all these, who whips and who heals, who strikes and who cures, who leads to the depths and leads back (cf. Job 5:18) ? Concerning Him the blessed Job bears witness, saying, "Have pity on me, at least you my friends, because the hand of the Lord has touched me" (Job 19:21), while indeed the same Scripture says (Job 2:7): "Satan smote him with a grievous boil." But although the attacker has attacked, nevertheless the One holding the attacker in His power is said to be ‘touching’, not only on the body, but also in the removal of things, as this same book says "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away" (Job 1:21), because the Lord had said to the devil himself (Job 1:12), "Behold, all that he hath is in thy hand." But because the attacker could never have possessed this power unless he received it from the One through Whose power he himself exists – on this account the power should be attributed to the very One Who bestows and retains, Who allows and forbids. The Scriptures are filled with examples such as this one, which is read concerning Saul, that an evil spirit of the Lord had seized him (cf. 1 Samuel 19:9). In these words Holy Scripture shows wonderfully both that the power should be attributed to the Lord and that the malevolent intent should be attributed to the devil, because the devil certainly does not receive the malevolence, but exercises it on his own. The thing he receives is what he does not possess, that is, the power.


But we have no need to write for you concerning these matters, because you possess many works eminently written by eminent teachers. Nevertheless, there are two kinds of phenomena that seem to us as if they ought to be pointed out to you, kinds that we think ought to be investigated equally by us and by you. And one of them we do not know whether to call ‘possessing’ (correptio) or an ‘infirmity’ (infirmitas), or rather a ‘miraculous force’ (virtus). We think that in this matter we know only this, that it is brought about by no agency of the power of the Adversary -- as in the case of the blessed priest Zachariah (Luke 1:6), "walking blamelessly in all the commands and ordinances of the Lord," who, because he was skeptical concerning God’s promise from the blessed archangel Gabriel, was punished by being struck dumb. Daniel, a man blessed in his prayers, said to Him (Daniel 10:16), "O my Lord, at he sight of Thee my joints are loosed," whence he said that he was weakened afterwards for many days. And the blessed Jacob, when he wrestled with an angel, was made lame.


And we do not say this as if the devil might not carry out ‘possessings’ against the saints with this borrowed power, seeing as how the Apostle clearly says that a goad to the flesh (an angel of Satan) was sent to him, but rather because such afflictions can be distinguished from other attacks; indeed from those by which Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron, as well as King Ozias, were stricken with leprosy (cf. Numbers 12:10); she for the sin of disparaging and he for the pride of presumption. Truly, even if it is doubtful in these cases whether they were accomplished by the will of God alone, or through the agency of good or of evil angels, still we do not know that it is possible to doubt concerning Nadab and Abihu, about whom it is written that fire sent out from the Lord killed them. Similar to this case seems to be the one concerning Oza, who, when he presumed to hold the Ark of the Lord, is recorded to have been struck by the Lord and split apart (cf. Paralipomenon 13:10-11).


But because the judgements of God, always just, are often hidden, they seem to us as yet quite hidden in the death of the Bethsamites. In this case, except for seventy men who tried perhaps to sacrifice or to drag the Ark of the Lord with their hands, fifty thousand people are said to have been struck by the Lord –- people who one must assume had done neither of those things. But these people, although they were killed through the agency of a slaughtering angel, are properly said to have been struck by God, following the principle explained above.


Similarly, someone might have doubts as to the two captains sent to Elijah with their groups of fifty men – doubts as to whether they were killed through the agency of an angel, because the Scripture says fire descended from the sky and devoured them. But one should consider in the same way what was said concerning the sheep belonging to the blessed Job (Job 1:16): "The fire of God fell from heaven and, striking the sheep and servants, hath consumed them," where no one doubts that this was done by the agency of Satan.


And there is a second kind, in which the devil seems to have power over some people, not so much to attack them, as to trick them. We have heard and understood that many of these people were struck by demons with sticks and stones and not injured at all, while others were both tricked and injured. In these cases there is no apparent cause for this happening except either a lack of faith or a love of vanity. We cannot readily offer an example of this sort of thing from Scripture, but still, there is scarcely a person who has not heard of or seen such cases, when many people, stunned either by groundless terror or groundless awe, became stripped of their senses and the power of their soul. As the blessed Leo said, "For the Devil knows whom he may destroy through sorrow, whom he may deceive through joy, whom he may oppress through fear, whom he may seduce through marvels," whence the Apostle warns (1 Peter 5:9): "Resist him, steadfast in the faith," -- the devil, who is always desirous of causing harm both when he shows himself as he is and when he disguises himself as an angel of light, and even if he exhibits certain signs of wholesomeness. Assuredly he must be resisted by the truly faithful, whichever way he appears, lest they do dread empty terrors or delight in empty marvels.


With regard to these two types, we have proposed the following: the one, where the agency of the devil plays no part, as we said concerning Zachariah and Daniel and Jacob; the other, where a weakness of faith and a lack of reason or feebleness of sense is responsible. One may add here those great and terrifying occurrences, which God has willed to happen in order to instruct the faithful, occurrences in which we are taught that even the rebellious devil serves the God of light and is an agent of divine activity, because through him the lashes and troubles are applied not only to evil people but also to good.

For the Psalmist, speaking of the plagues with which Egypt was attacked, clearly states that attacks are inflicted by evil angels on the impious and the faithless, saying (Psalm 78:49): "He sent upon them the wrath of his indignation; indignation and wrath and trouble, which he sent by evil angels." It is also written in the Book of Ecclesiasticus (39:33), "There are spirits that are created for vengeance and, in their fury they lay on grievous torments." Whence also in the Book of Tobias (6:14), one reads concerning Sara, daughter of Ragul, that she was given to seven husbands, and that a demon by the name of Asmodeus killed each of them as soon as they had gone into her bridal chamber. Concerning the impious king Achaz, Scripture testifies in the Book of Chronicles (2 Paralipomenon 28:22-23): "King Achaz himself, by himself, sacrificed victims to the gods of Damascus that struck him, and he said, ‘The gods of the kings of Syria help them; I will appease them with victims, and they will help me,’ whereas, to the contrary, they were the ruin of him and of all Israel." Who the pagan gods are, the Psalmist shows when he says (Psalm 95:5), "All the gods of the Gentiles are devils." The Apostle, also, in his letter to the Corinthians, says, "The things that the pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God" (1 Corinthians 10:20).


The story of blessed Job clearly shows that even pious and faithful people are sometimes delivered over for malignant spirits to attack, when both Satan’s request and God’s permission are openly described, and at the end, after the loss of his possessions, after the death of his sons, when Satan demanded that the very bone and flesh of Job be stricken by the hand of God, and God permitted this, saying (Job 2:6); "He is in thy hand, but yet save his life," and it is said concerning him (Job 2:7): "So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with a very grievous ulcer from the sole of the foot to the top of his head."

The Lord also shows in the Gospel that infirmity and illness, which many times afflict both the pious and impious, are inflicted by evil angels. When He responded to the synagogue leader who had rebuked Him about the woman possessed by an evil spirit whom He had cured, He added this (Luke 13:16): "Is it not proper to release from her bonds this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had shackled for eighteen years, on the Sabbath day?" Hence, too, the blessed Peter, when he was speaking of the miracles of the Lord in the Acts of the Apostles says of Him (Acts 10:38): "He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the Devil, because God was with Him." The Apostle Paul also said that he had delivered Phyletus and Hermogeness over to Satan, so that they might learn not to blaspheme. And he spoke thus to the Corinthians, concerning someone who had taken his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 3:5): "Indeed, although I am absent in body, I am still present in spirit, and being present, have judged the one who has done this; when you are assembled and I with you in spirit, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one, by the power of the Lord Jesus, to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Hence he says concerning himself, as we have noted (2 Corinthians 12:7): "And lest the magnitude of the revelation exalt me, I was given a thorn in my flesh, an angel of Satan, who tormented me."


We also read in the Book of Wisdom that terrors of tribulation are caused by demons; when the Scripture tells about the plagues of Egypt, which the Psalmist shows were sent by evil angels, it says among other things (Wisdom 17:4), "For neither did the den that held them keep them from fear: for the noise coming down troubled them, and sad visions appearing to them, affrighted." Whence also the prophet promises the protection of God to the just man, saying (Psalm 90:5-6): "His truth shall compass thee with a shield; thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night, of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark, of invasion, or of the noonday devil." In the Gospel the Lord shows that these powers opposing God long for and desire the power of striking and harming, where He says to His disciples on that night, "Satan demanded that he might sift you like wheat," and when the Psalmist says (Psalm 103:20-21): "In it," (that is during the night), "shall all the beasts of the woods go about, the young lions roaring after their prey and seeking their meat from God," and many other places in Holy Scripture.


And thus, as we have said above, since the Devil does not receive power always or over all people, although he does always possess the desire to do harm against all people in every way, he therefore gapes longingly at those over whom (as has been said) he thinks he is able to prevail because they have feeble faith and an empty measure of reason. And this is the reason why he seems to attack boys and girls and dim-witted people, and to mark them with signs of burning; because anyone who is faithful and supplied with reason, when he sees or hears the Devil, raises his heart to the fear of God alone, who does not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able to bear. And just so must we behave when we are scourged by the teeth of wild beasts in some place or the other, or when we see others scourged.


In that these people you have notified us about rush together to the same churches in which they were attacked, and give whatever they are able, we fully believe that they do this because they have been deceived by their fears and have lost their better sense. For they would do better if they distributed their gifts to the poor and wayfarers, and if they hurried to the priests of the church with oil for anointing, with the fasting and prayers which, according to the evangelic and apostolic command, should accompany one’s alms. For if these were signs of healing, which by God’s grace seemed to be granted due to the merits of the saints, then a throng would have followed to this place; and if some offering were given there according to church custom, and following the ordinance of the church fathers, it would at any rate be productive due to the mere exercise of compassion. But now, because they are slaves to the greed and avarice of certain people, the Lord is not thereby honored, nor is relief given to the poor. For if they handled this matter according to the will of God (seeing that God wants his will to be made known to men throughout the entire Holy Scriptures), then at least they would know how with regard to this matter God deigned to show the path sublimely and amazingly, through His prophet Micheas, who said (Micheas 6:6-7): "Shall I offer holocausts unto the Lord, and calves of a year old? May the Lord rbe appeased with thousands of rams, or with many thousands of fat he-goats? Shall I give my first-born for my wickedness, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" And because he would give a negative answer to all these questions, he then brings in those things in which the Lord is pleased, when he says (Micheas 6:8): "I will shew thee, oh man, what is good and what the Lord requireth of thee: verily to do judgement, and to love mercy, and to walk solicitous with thy God." Thus it is reprehensible to distribute what belongs to the poor not to the poor. Thus it is fruitless, if these things that ought to be paid out to the Church by people showing due reverence, are granted to those panting in the heat of covetousness, either to be greedily kept or to be wastefully consumed.


Translated by W. J. Lewis (aided by the helpful comments and suggestions of S. Barney) from the Latin text in p. 237-243 of: Agobardi Lugdunensis Opera Omnia, edidit L. Van Acker. Turnholt: Brepols, 1981 (Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio Mediaevalis, 52)

Biblical quotations are translated following the Douai translation of the Vulgate with adjustments as necessary.

© W. J. Lewis, 2001. The text may be used for non-commercial educational purposes, including use course packets. Further publication in other forms (including by university presses) requires permission. Do not reproduce this text on other websites.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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Paul Halsall, February 21, 2001


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