“The Demon Pope”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Demon Pope”, Richard Garnett, 1888.

I had never heard of Garnett before reading this story.

I wouldn’t call it weird fiction, but then I’m not sure how I would define weird fiction.

It is, as the Encyclopedia of Fantasy entry says, a work of “English Literary Satanism”.

It starts out seeming to be yet another deal-with-the-devil story of which there are certainly hundreds, probably thousands. And it is a deal-with-the-devil story or, rather, negotiations with the devil.

The story opens in ca 961AD with theology student Gerbert and the devil discussing the sale of Gerbert’s soul. The devil wants to buy it. Gerbert doesn’t want to sell.

The story’s unexpected twists start right away with the rebuffed devil offering an unusual deal. He will give Gerbert 40 more years of life. At the end of that time, he will ask Gerbert “for a boon; not your soul, mind, or anything not perfectly in your power to grant”. If Gerbert denies the request, whatever it is, he goes to Hell.

Gerbert agrees and a fortunate career begins. He goes from an abbacy to abbot to bishop to archbishop to cardinal. On April 2, 999, he becomes Pope Silvester II. There really was a Silvester II, (or, as The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopedia has it, “Sylvester”), and he was interested in much the same things Gerbert is: Greek philosophy, algebra, astronomy, Arabic numerals, and alchemy. Like the pope in this story, he was also said to practice sorcery.

Mention is made of millennial anxieties, but the world gets through them and “early in the first year of the dreaded twelvemonth, and early in the first year of the eleventh century”, the devil comes a’callin’. (Silvester’s Wikipedia entry claims a death for the historical Silveste in 1003.

Lucifer keeps to the contract. He doesn’t ask for anything Silvester can’t give him. Lucifer just wants to be a cardinal.

Witty dialogue ensues.

Silvester knows Lucifer just wants to be pope sometime.

Why shouldn’t he, the devil replies, given his wealth, “proficiency in intrigue, and the present condition of the Sacred College”?

Silvester says the devil just wants to “subvert the foundations of the Faith”.

On the contrary, the devil says, he wants to stamp out learning and heresy. Books are to be burned and only priests in their breviary would be doing any reading.

Silvester says he might as well go to Hell right now because he’s not going to be a part of burning Plato and Aristotle.

Satan calls Silvester’s bluff: good men can’t enter hell and Silvester knows that.

Satan begins to tear up.

“I put it to you – is this fair, is this honest?” He’s helped Gerbert to the pinnacle of the Church and this is how he’s to be repaid?

“It is my constant experience that the good people are much more slippery than the sinners, and drive much harder bargains.”

Silvester tells the devil he’s always considered him a gentleman – despite threatening him with “a penalty which you well knew could not be enforced”.

In that spirit, he makes another deal.

Using magic, Silvester will cast glamor about the devil. Satan will appear exactly as Silvester, and he can sort of try the papacy on for size to see how well he likes it for twelve hours.

Silvester shows the Devil his apartment and where the robes are and leaves.

Shortly afterwards, seven cardinals batter down the door, weapons in hand each yelling some grievance they have against the pope. He’s a sorcerer. He’s a Saracen. He knows Greek. He knows Arabic. He knows Hebrew. He practices algebra.

The devil is hauled before a general council of cardinals who decide to look for witch marks or, as Garnett says, a “visible token of his infernal compact”.

And they find one: a cloven foot.

Arguments follow about what this means. Is he a repentant devil?

They need some time to think so the Devil Pope gets thrown in a dungeon.

Cardinal Anno visits the incarcerated Lucifer.  He wants to know if he’s addressing “’Your Holiness,’ or ‘Your Infernal Majesty’”.

Anno doesn’t have any problem with a Devil Pope. He’s served him “loyally and zealously these many years”.

Anno says he mistook the Devil for a magician who bosses the Devil around. He does warn the Devil that custom says he can’t be pope longer than Peter. But Anno volunteers to take his place when Lucifer retires.

Cardinal Benno then shows up, and Anno hides under a table after warning the Devil about Benno

Benno makes the Devil the same offer as Anno. So do the next five cardinals who show up to visit the Devil in prison. Their proposals vary a bit: they want rings of invisibility to visit mistresses or to be allowed to poison other cardinals. A cardinal from England wants the Archbishoprics of Canterbury and York. And they all up under the same table.

At this point, the twelve hours of disguise have ended. Lucifer’s true form is revealed to the cardinals.

Lucifer vanishes through the ceiling and leaves the cardinals locked in the dungeon and visits Silvester again.

Lucifer is rather gladdened by the whole experience. He’s more confident in the loyalty of his friends and admirers in the Church. There’s really no reason to devote a lot of attention to ecclesiastical affairs. The cardinals have that taken care of.

However, he would like them released.

“I hoped you would carry them all off,” said Gerbert, with an expression of disappointment.

“Thank you,” said the Devil. “It is more to my interest to leave them where they are.”

The story ends with the Cardinals released. They never are quite sure, after that, whether they’re dealing with the Sylvester or the Devil. In fact, under the impression that their superior is the Devil, they frequently make “rash, temerarious, and scandalous” propositions – usually while casting an eye at Gerbert’s feet. He gets so tired of this, he initiates the ceremony of kissing the Pope’s feet. The Cardinals are stupefied when they don’t see any hooves.

So Garnett, Chief Keeper at the British Museum, brings a lot of erudition to bear on a witty tale linking institution of the Catholic Church with Hell and repression of thought and learning as Satanic. It’s not that Satan offers a better way here than Christianity that’s the point. It’s that Christianity wants to move closer to Satan.

And, the concluding joke about the Pope’s feet gives this story a “just-so” flavor of folklore and myth. There is also a quip, among the bickering and scheming Cardinals, that Italians are to be so distrusted that one makes

a vow that none of his nation should ever be Pope, a maxim which, with one exception, has been observed to this day.

An enjoyable farce, if not a weird story.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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