In the second season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, the characters pilfer a box of objects from the British Museum. According to the show, the objects represent the writings of a 11th century British Carthusian monk who was possessed by a demon. He began writing on whatever he could get his hands on, ultimately scratching words onto an assortment of random objects in a bizarre pidgin language derived from Latin, Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit, and several other languages. This hodgepodge language is referred to repeatedly as Verbis Diablo, “the Devil’s Language”. The resulting text turns out to be a sort of autobiography of a fallen angel. It’s a cool idea, but there are a few problems with it.
- There were no 11th century British Carthusians. The Carthusian Order was founded in 1084 by the German Bruno of Cologne in the Chartreuse Mountains of France. The order didn’t arrive in England until 1181, when Henry II founded a Carthusian house at Witham as penance for ordering the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. (Fun fact: In the 18th century, the Carthusians gave their name to green Chartreuse liquor, which they distilled.)
- The collection of objects were apparently housed at this Carthusian monastery and then somehow manage to pass to the British Museum with the collection intact. The fact that this bizarre collection somehow stayed together is somewhere between improbable and miraculous. In 1541, Henry VIII ordered the final dissolution of all English monasteries. The result was the movable property of the monasteries was broken up and scattered. The most important example of this was the monastic libraries, which were for the most part sold off book by book. Modern historians have spent a great deal of energy trying to recreate the catalogs of these lost libraries, and a small number of books have been traced to specific monasteries. In a situation like this, it is hard to imagine that a random collection of worthless objects with gibberish written on them would somehow have stayed together for more than four centuries.
- What makes this even more improbable is that the objects the monk wrote on include a dead bird, a goose-feather quill, and a butterfly the size of a dinner plate. How the hell did any of those things survive nearly a millennium without simply rotting away?
- Verbis diablo is gibberish Latin. Verbis means ‘words’, but diablo doesn’t mean anything in Latin. In Spanish it means ‘Devil’. Proper Latin would be Verbis diaboli, “The Devil’s words”. While verbis can mean ‘language’, it’s not really the most likely way Latin would express the phrase “the Devil’s Language”. A Latin-speaker would probably use lingua (literally, ‘tongue, language’) instead. Perhaps the phrase is supposed to be a pidgin of Latin and Spanish, but that seems unlikely too, since the term seems to be a scholarly one rather than some sort of colloquialism.
- One of the phrases in the autobiography is lupus dei, “the wolf of God”. Josh Hartnett’s Ethan, whose father made him learn Latin as a child, repeatedly mistranslates this phrase as ‘the hound of God’ (the Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle makes this mistake at least once as well). It’s hard to see how anyone who knows Latin as well as Ethan seems to could confuse canis for lupus. Both words are common Latin, about as common as ‘dog’ and ‘wolf’ are in English, and the two words are about as dissimilar in Latin as they are in English. While someone looking at a wolf might mistake it for a dog, the mistake is a fairly implausible one linguistically, especially given that Ethan suffers from lycanthropy and therefore the word for ‘wolf’ probably has some special meaning for him.
Want to Know More?
I got nothing.
I suppose if you want to know more about the history of Satan, you could take a look at Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan. There’s also Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages.