Thursday 2 January 2014

Are DaVinci's Demons Really Demons?

Popular belief vs. reality or science,  a study of beliefs in the Middle Ages

A guest post by Andy Mcmillin 

“ ‘Let the churches ask themselves why there is no revolt against the dogmas of mathematics though there is one against the dogmas of religion. It is not that mathematical dogmas are more comprehensible. The law of inverse squares is as incomprehensible to the common man as the Athanasian Creed. It is not that science is free form legends, witchcraft, miracles, biographic boosting of quacks as heroes and saints, and of barren scoundrels as explorers and discoverers. On the contrary, the iconography and hagiology of Scientism are as copious as they are mostly squalid.’ ” Medieval Minds pg. 39

Being a medievalist, we seem to be attracted or notice the oddities or subtle details in TV shows and various movies.  In fact, I am drawn to the historical points or even inaccuracies in modern story telling, probably more often than not.  While watching “DaVinci’s Demons”, this fascinating show struck a very interesting bit with my perception and knowledge of what we know about faith versus reality or science in the Middle Ages.  The series is based around the earlier years of Leonardo DaVinci and his struggles to find a benefactor for his works. The show also has its setting in the middle of the vast conflicting and complex world of the Italian Renaissance.  In watching the show, I can see perfectly where Shakespeare got his inspiration for “The Merchant of Venice” and “Romeo and Juliette.”  Feuding and backstabbing, gain a new meaning in this show, yet the idea of science versus religious doctrine and the belief of the average medieval mind is hard to ignore.

 In episode 3, “The Prisoner,” we gain a glimpse of how medieval or in this case renaissance society perceived mental illness or any illness that plays havoc with one’s psyche versus popular belief (the not so educated medieval man) which was, if you had something going on in your head; you were possessed by demons and or a witch.  In this episode, it is not just normal peasants who are the ones doomed, but individuals close to God, nuns at a near by convent.

Word gets out that some thing is amiss and Leonardo and his crew are asked to investigate and find out what is causing the illness to befall the nuns. The Pope’s exorcism team later joins them, for they heard the nuns were possessed and needed salvation.  Unfortunately, they do more harm than good.  While the exorcisms are deemed helpful, and holy, a few people die as a result.  The priest who does the exorcism claims on one case that he saw at ones very last breathe to be free from the ill that had befallen her, and she was in fact saved.  To them, the ill are damned, possessed, and there is no other reason for their maladies, it is all a result from sin hence exorcism is the only way they can be cured. Leonardo at a few times himself suggests that it is something else making the women sick, but the head priest simply denies his ideas.  This is a good example of how a modern approach to history can show how conflicted society was between the notions of science and teachings of the church during this time.


Now it is time for me to be the historian. What does this tell us about medieval society? A few things actually. It shows how easily, even a somewhat educated population can be convinced of a popular notion by a powerful entity. This is the devil’s work so they were told and there cannot be a scientific explanation; it was God’s will.  The goal of the church at this time was to keep the pennies coming in on Sundays, install fear, and get motivation for people to avoid sin.  In short come to church, pray, give offerings, and be protected from demons or other temptations. Back at the convent, Leonardo and his scientific knowledge eventually proves the cause of the demonic possessions is red ergot poisoning, which is has a fungus called Claviceps purpurea which also caused ergotism, on the statue.  It is that fungus which is causing the nuns to become ill and causing their altered mental state.  It is also noted that this problem with red ergot poisoning was also responsible for other outbreaks of similar circumstances in the Middle Ages. Notable outbreaks such as one in the 12th century recorded by Geoffroy du Breuil of Vigeois in France. Previous outbreaks gave the disease the name “St. Anthony’s Fire” named after the monks of St. Anthony who had been known to successfully treat the condition.  When one is ill with this ailment, symptoms arise such as convulsive symptoms, seizures, mania, psychosis and headaches.  In addition there are gangrenous symptoms from the poisoning that affect the poorly vascularized structures of ones body such as their toes, and fingers, loss of feeling and peeling of the skin.  It is noted that this poisoning was responsible for the explanation of witchcraft, which would have been why the church’s exorcist was called in.  (source:

 Now, why did this happen what lead people to think this way? It gets down to power and control. The church at the time was vast.  It encompassed most of Europe and was if not richer than the kings and queens, but the most powerful entity in existence and in Christendom.  How did they get this way; through deception, and influence, popular favor, as well as making sure the masses i.e. peasants or common folks believed everything they were told so they would get their backing and funds (via offerings from the peasants and nobles).  To put it simply, everyone wanted to be saved by God at the time of final judgment.  The sheep followed their shepherd quiet close during this time because no one wanted to face the fiery furnaces of hell. The easiest way to do this was make people believe, what they said by all means possible, even if that meant installing fear in the uneducated, and making examples of those who where so called “damned.”  Exorcism, execution of witches; all were used to show society and teach that sin was bad, and those who walked on the line of thought or ideas outside of the norm whether they were ill or not, needed to be cleansed.  If the church exorcised or cleansed a witches soul via penance, which resulted mostly in death, they gained salvation and a place in heaven.


In addition, there was a general fear that by denying someone’s means to salvation, was just about the quickest way to get any person to follow the word of God. The common peasant isn’t going to think of a cause for an illness or an event like Leonardo did; but they will believe the misfortune that falls upon them as a result.  Because most of the population was not educated to what we would think of today, convincing a popular belief was quite simple and easy to manage.  This is the same concept if one looks at mental illness, which the poisoning did cause and also shows this relationship.

 How the medieval mind and the church perceived mental illness is a tricky subject but it has its similarities as it involved the church, popular belief, and limited medical intervention and knowledge. Unfortunately the monks of St. Anthony were not able to cure this.  Because of the misunderstanding and lack of knowledge for these conditions, it created stigmas in society that took quite some time to get rid of and as a society even now; we still struggle with this stigma today.  Some the best accounts and glimpses of how mental illness was perceived during this period is through accounts from some of the patients themselves, King Henry VI of England and France and his great-grandfather, Charles VI of France


It was well known Henry VI of England, had bouts of insanity and psychosis. His turbulent lifestyle and political unrest of his country didn’t help his condition. The stress of his position contributed to break downs especially in the summer of 1453.  This breakdown would start, that would later leave him in total withdrawl, total mental and physical psychosis. Reports stated that he was completely oblivious to the world around him, thus unfit to rule.  This was when Richard of York was named Lord and Protector of England.  Family and familiar faces were unknown to him and even with the birth of his son Edward, brought no change in his demeanor or condition.  Yet even in this state, he was cared for in the best of care partly because he was a man of office or high station.   The regular person or peasant would not have had this luxury and the conditions were not even close as far as treatment. There is record that physicians at the time tried medications, syrups, potions, and bloodletting and even shaved his head believing that it would “purge him and rid the brain of its black bile and so restore the balance of the humors.” “The humors” it was thought if unbalanced caused such conditions.  The theory that they had to be balanced was highly practiced and believed during the middle ages.  The humors were four basic principals of medieval medicine: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. All were essential for one to be in harmony and in good health.  Some of the medical treatments on King Henry VI exhibit this notion and seek to find a balance of these humors which were thought to be unbalanced and causing his illness, such as blood letting.  But the king’s madness was not as simple as poisoning from a fungus found in bad grain or wheat nor was it able to be balanced out by bloodletting; it had more than likely a genetic component.

As historians we research, we dig and sometimes we find something that links the puzzle together.  In the case of King Henry IV, we just follow the family tree and surprise! Family history of a similar illness and across the straight to France our trail leads.  Medieval France is a country with a good share and history of “mad” kings.  First we have Clovis II in the 5th century, his great grandson Childreic III, known as “the idiot” and then later Charles IX, (1550-1574) was mentally unstable, known to be a sadist with mad rages.  He had two sisters as well, who were noted to be “ill mannered and spoiled beyond redemption.” Perhaps the most famous mad king was Charles VI (1368-1422) who was Henry VI’s great-grandfather.   Careful researching and back tracking has led many to find the source of his illness, from a line of family from his mother. This suggests that it was a hereditary disease in the family and had been for sometime, passing itself on down generation after generation.
From what we know today, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder could have also been passed down, and it has a very varied and large genetic component as far as heredity is concerned.  It is also suggested that the disease porphyria was another diagnosis. Porphyria has been noted to be diagnosed in his relatives. It is a rare hereditary disease that has symptoms such as inflammation of the bowels, painful weakness of the limbs and sometimes loss of feeling. Some bouts of the disease can even bring on visual and auditory disturbances, causing delirium and later lead to senility or dementia.  The close relations in families as well did not help the pool of genetic variation, thus the maladies of mental illness became more apparent as a result and continued to occur and be passed down.
It is also suggested that Charles might have had encephalitis, which could have led to many of the bizarre symptoms described.  It is this theory that many have tried to make sense of his April 1392 illness.  Typhus has also been suggested. The suggested evidence that it could have been encephalitis was the occurrences of fever, hair and nails falling out, behaving incoherently, bizarre behaviors such as killing four of his own men as a result of a dropped lance, all hold suggestion. Accounts read by a modern historian with a medical background such as myself, suggest that the following the mania, he had a psychotic break of fit, or maybe even a seizure. Then he suffered from heavy psychosis or coma for two days.  To any medieval man, educated or not, watching the events unfold it would be completely feasible that one would think the king was in fact possessed.

He had another incident in 1393 where surgeons actually drilled his head (trepanning) with holes to release pressure or the cloudiness of thought he was said to have suffered, in his brain. This was followed again by a relapse in 1395. Then finally, a historic account of the most common belief; it was eventually believed by churchmen and university doctors that Charles was a victim of sorcery. They attempted to exorcise him in 1398, during which he was noted to have cried out:

“If there is anyone of you who is an accomplice in this evil I suffer, I beg him to torture me no longer but let me die.”

 Unfortunately, as Charles got older, the fits came more often and lasted longer, suggesting the ailment he had grew worse with age and time.  At one point in time he thought he was made of glass and would break into pieces.  He even had people insert metal rods into his clothes so he would  not break.


What we know of today, is that many of these so called demonic possessions which the church would have tried to exorcised say in the case of Charles VI, were in fact biologically, or genetically caused.  Interestingly noted during the Middle Ages, most the European societies gave the mentally ill their freedom, which we see with Henry VI and Charles VI, unless they are a danger. This became the case with Charles VI after he killed four of his men. To the common medieval man, people with these disorders, were often pegged as witches and or possessed by demons.  As time went on, the medieval and renaissance societies started to isolate mentally ill people out of fear of unknowing how to treat them and fear from harm from the individual.  At times, a mentally ill patient would be locked up in a dungeon in chains, as inhumane as it sounds, it happened. (source:

Modern story telling, as seen with film and other venues, do help us teach history at level that is both easy accessible to the viewer and to the general public.  The example given in the beginning of this discussion with DaVinci’s Demon’s accomplished this.  It gave us a glimpse of a very important topic in medieval society, which is the notion of popular belief versus reality or scientific cause. In this case, demonic possessions versus a scientific cause of a condition, causing temporary insanity and how this was translated to the general public.  In addition to this one cannot help but notice the closeness of the church and secular society were intertwined in the Middle Ages.  It is because of this these ideas were developed and continued on in society.  As discussed, some of the sources of these interpretations have roots much earlier in society, especially within the ruling class.  Finally, if we look how these conditions were treated back then and compare the practices to today, it shows how a society we have evolved to not just believe what is said, but to look and delve for the answers that we cannot necessary see but to look for the scientific cause not just the will of God in the sakes of our salvation.


1. Graham, Thomas F. Medieval Minds, Mental Health in the Middle Ages. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, UK c. 1967


By Andrea C. McMillin - B.A. Medieval Studies from University of California at Davis

A California native, Andy obtained her Bachelors of Arts degree in Medieval Studies from UC Davis in 1998. She has done graduate work in History in the past and is currently taking film and medical classes locally in Salt Lake City, Utah. She hopes to finish her degree at the University of Edinburgh via their online History MA program in 2015. When not writing/researching or working, she enjoys cooking, creating artwork, photography, and actively competes with her horses.

Her blog can be found here:


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