Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Devil on the Road Home

"Landscape with the Temptation of Christ," Pieter Bruegel the Elder; mid-18th century
Yesterday's post described the tumultuous public life of Antônio José da Silva, "The Jew," and offered a brief overview of his artistic production. This post will be dedicated to one of his works in particular: Obras do diabinho da mão furada, which can be roughly translated as: Tales of the devil with the pierced hand. Other versions of this story have surfaced in alternate re-copyings of the original manuscript under the title Obras do fradinho da mão furada which replaces the word "devil" with the word "friar."

Published in the early part of the 18th century, a time in which the Inquisition retained a strong and widespread presence throughout the Iberian peninsula and its colonies, da Silva's portrayal of the devil disguised as a friar both in the story and in the story's title was potentially quite risky -- especially given his already-tenuous relationship with the Holy Office. However, the devil dressed in a friar's robes was not without its precedent in Europe by the time da Silva wrote his tale.

In the German tradition, for instance, plays and pamphlets about Bruder Rausch ("Friar Rush") enjoyed several centuries of success. First appearing in the high middle ages, the story of this demonic trickster in holy garb was reworked and retold throughout Germany from the 15th-19th centuries, including a contribution from Stuttgart native, Wilhelm Hertz, who published a novel-length tale based on the Friar Rush lore in 1882.

Although it is difficult to say if these German tales were retold in Portugal, the devil-disguised-as-friar motif was undoubtedly widespread in Europe since as early as the 15th century. Manuscript marginalia produced by monastic scribes of the medieval period made healthy use of the motif. In her book on humor in the middle ages, Valarie Allen has written about a recurring image of a wolf in Dutch marginalia: a wolf in friar's robes preaching to a flock of sheep.

Da Silva's devil-disguised-as-friar narrative, in spite of these possible influences, is truly unique thanks to the devil's supporting lead character. André Peralta is a broke and weary soldier, trying to make his home to Lisbon after almost a decade of continuous battle in Flanders. The story opens in the midst of a terrible nighttime storm; Perlata is on the road, still far from Lisbon, and desperately he seeks some kind of refuge from the tempest.
"Soldiers in landscape," Pieter Bruegel the Younger; 16th century
Before long, he comes upon what appeared to be an unoccupied house. After warming himself by a fire and consuming the last of his food provisions, he drifts off to sleep, only to be awakened at midnight. Standing before him is a hideous old man, dressed as a friar, with cloven feet.

After only a few minutes of conversation, Peralta figures out who his new companion is, and he is appropriately wary and guarded, trying at the same time not to anger the "friar" nor coalesce with his plans entirely. During their first conversation, the devil tells Peralta that he will accompany him on the rest of his journey home. Peralta quickly declines this offer, whereupon the devil makes the rain pour inside the house, as a warning.

The devil explains that because Peralta has chosen to take refuge the devil's own house, he must show the devil some respect. The devil adds, however, that he feels compelled by some "causa secreta" ("secret cause") to help the poor soldier through to the end of his journey. This is a fairly transparent threat: the "secret cause" that inspires the devil to "help" Peralta is most likely the same impulse the devil has to meddle in anyone's life -- he wants to stir up mischief, hopefully leading to Peralta's downfall, and the devil will not be denied.

Without any other recourse, Peralta agrees, but makes it clear that he has made several promises to God that he will not break, considering the fact that it was God who helped him survive the hideous, endless battles. The pact is sealed. 

From here, a series of fantastical encounters unfold along way home, each one affecting Peralta more and more. The first night, the devil hosts a meeting of witches where he praises them for having sucked the lifeblood from unbaptized children. The next night, Peralta has a Dantesque dream (which may be also understood as "reality") in which his devil companion leads him through Hell.  

Unlike Dante's vision of Hell, there is no hierarchical organization -- things are quite chaotic and there is a lot of running around. Instead of orderly levels that descend into ultimate evil, Peralta seems to be making his way through a series of rooms or caves that have no particular order, a vision of Hell that recalls Spaniard Francisco de Quevedo's early 17th-century Sueños.

Many of the condemned quarrel with their demonic tortures, requesting an audience with Satan himself, arguing that their punishment should be forgiven because their sins helped the cause of Hell. After a while, Peralta approaches the most graphically and painfully tortured residents of Hell, those who do not even try to grapple with their torturers. These poor souls, the devil informs him, are those who in life "judged others" and "interfered with religion" -- an overt allusion to the Inquisition. 

I would argue, too, that an implicit critique of the Inquisition lies in the general chaotic nature of Hell itself. The self-righteous arguing of the condemned with their torturers, the requests to "see the boss," as if they'd be able to reach a deal if only they could talk to someone in charge -- all of these actions seem very, very like the way people (especially powerful people) interacted with the secular bureaucracy of the time. 

"A peasant brawl," Lucas Vorsterman I, circa 1620
When Peralta wakes up from this dream, the two continue their journey. Along the way, the soldier witnesses the way in which the devil sows mischief and anger everywhere he goes. He repeatedly insights townspeople to "jurar," or "swear," with popular expressions of exasperation: "Devil may take it," or "Devil take you!" As people utter these curses, the devil collects what has been commended to him. These scenes are more funny than cautionary, full of scatological and sexual anecdotes, along with a favorite source of humor during the day, a woman's wrath. 

In another folio, the devil shows Peralta a vision in a river that depicts palaces of the 7 deadly sins, personified allegorically as women, inviting sinners into their dwellings. The soldier is almost trapped permanently in this vision by Greed, who does not want to let him go. Her silent bodyguard, Midas, approaches Peralta with fingers outstretched, attempting to turn him into gold so his master can keep him forever. 
"The Allegory of Greed," Pieter Bruegel the Younger, early 16th century
What makes this scene particularly interesting, aside from the fact that da Silva has mixed medieval judeo-christian allegory with Greek mythology, is that in the first folio the devil helped Peralta dig up a forgotten chest of gold. Peralta sowed the coins into his clothes, so that the devil could not take them back. In a way, then, Peralta's physical person is already covered in "bedeviled" gold. This gold eventually serves to help Peralta escape his companion, when Peralta offers it all to a traveling priest's monastery if Peralta is allowed to take the cloth there.

In the end, Peralta succeeds in tricking the devil. He sneaks off one morning while the devil is settling a score with some boatmen (the devil had it in for the boatmen because he heard local people swearing that lot was worse than the devil, replacing their popular curses with "Boatman make take you!"). Peralta enters the monastery, thereby commending his own soul to God and the devil's gold to the service of Good. This ending reveals Peralta to be a more picaresque character than he initially appeared. The devil continues to wander in his friar's robes, recalling another classic trope, the Wandering Jew, as he travels from town to town, never settling, alway meddling.

I find this story fascinating not only because of the political risks it takes but also its mastery of popular style, humor and wisdom. Da Silva deftly interweaves a complex Good and a complex Bad, refusing paradoxically to allow the archetypal characters to occupy 2-dimensional roles. His idiosyncratic portrayal Hell and even the allegorical figures demonstrates his intense creativity and the high literary merit of his writing. Although his life was short, his writing has become immortal and echoes da Silva's criticisms, jokes... and ultimately, his deepest fears.

What are your favorite tales about the devil or other tricksters? How are they outwitted?

Until next time -- keep rustling!


  1. There is a potential parallel in these types of stories to the kinds of stories told about Death -- where a man tries to outwit Death from taking him permanently. They have the same kind of ragged, painful journeys -- the Russians are big on these. Like this one: The Soldier and Death and almost anything with Koschei the Deathless -- who is usually depicted as an evil version of death that threatens handsome heroes and maidens. While de Silva uses this figure so adroitly to comment on the political problems of his times -- you can find a similar usage of Koschei the Deathless in Tea Obreht's novel "The Tiger's Wife" which looks at the horrors of war in Kosovo. (It's seems both Death and the Devil have a penchant for soldiers -- or human beings in the midst or aftermath of war. I suppose there is something so morally exhausted about humans at that time.)

    1. Thank you for the references-- I will indeed be following up on them! (I have been meaning to read The Tiger's Wife for a while now!)

      I think there is a curious tension between Death and the Devil. Man must prepare for his inevitable encounter with Death. Always Death will come, but the meeting could be pleasant if one has prepared. The need to cheat Death or trick him only arises when one has not sufficiently prepared...and fears that Death with deliver him to the Devil. On the other hand, the Devil walks about, fomenting discord with barely perceptible whispers, appearing often in disguise and speaking in riddles. Death wants only one thing: to transition man from life to the Great Beyond. Whereas Death is a solemn guide from one realm to another, the Devil seeks always to be our companions, to go along the road with us forever, without ever bringing us to rest.

    2. Yes -- you are absolutely right -- but the folktales often share the similarity of attempting to outwit the powers and principalities -- the story hinges not so much on the outcome (whether Death or the Devil ultimately succeeds) , but on the desperate (and very human) acts of deception and trickery to avoid at all costs an unhappy ending -- which a marginal happy ending because no one escapes those encounters unscathed in some ways. Because even in death one will face judgement before either God or the Devil -- so in one sense the ending of the tale is something of a fore-gone conclusion. The story's real focus rests in the energy and skill of the game and how well it is played.

    3. These conversations are so helpful!! I'll be incorporating our dialogue into my research, without a doubt. Thank you! xoxo

  2. Though as to my favorites about encounters with the Devil -- given my age these days, I would have to say it's all the versions of the Old Woman who was worse than the Devil and successfully torments him in hell until he returns to the world above.

    1. Returns the old woman to the world above. Left out the "her" in that sentence.

    2. Yes! There are many cordel chapbooks that tell the story of old women outsmarting the devil (and outperforming him when it comes to harassing people!). These rhymed tales often make use of a specific kind of old woman, perhaps the most feared kind: the mother-in-law. They are hilarious!