Where the Devil got his horns: a history of creepy, medieval woodcuts

Beastly: Cryptid with human head from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658)
Beastly: Cryptid with human head from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658) Credit: The British Library
Medieval woodcuts fixed some strange ideas in the popular imagination, says Reece Shearsmith

Ever since I was a small boy I have been interested in the supernatural. Magic and alchemy, witches and monsters have always intrigued me.

I began collecting books on horror and folklore and (as I was something of an artist and model maker myself), I would even curate my own mini exhibitions of bizarre oddities. Shrunken heads, Fiji mermaids and the bones from a witch’s hand all made up my first display. PT Barnum would have been proud.

Many of my earliest encounters with these things were through representations of such peculiar matters via old woodcuts. My books on sorcery would always include a woodcut of Dr Faustus making his pact, and inevitably, come the section on witchcraft, English witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, surrounded by imps and talking familiars, would make an appearance.

Wild times: Philocothonista, or the Drunkard, Opened, Dissected and Anatomized (1635) Credit: The British Library

These remarkable images, many of them collected in Graven Images, a new book on the art of the woodcut, are printed in my mind forever. The Devil and his demonic legion torturing the damned of hell; witches in full flight on broomsticks, or boiling babies over crooked cauldrons – nothing seemed too extreme or bizarre for the Medieval mind to depict in woodcut form.

In context, these woodcut illustrations are in fact a forerunner of illustrated news, often used as a means of reporting events through widely available pamphlets: exotic sea creatures, strange machinery, the trial and torture of witches.

The imagery is bold, striking and unforgettable. It is easy to see how the distribution of these images helped fuel the madness of the witch-obsessed 16th century. Suddenly the public could see the Devil himself and witness his rituals and his blasphemous minions’ jaunts to the Sabbat.

A turkey-like monster from Vlyssis Aldrouandi... Ornithologiae... libri XII (XX) (1646) Credit: The British Library

There is something inherently unsettling about much of the art in woodcuts. Not only are they a form of time travel, but they represent something very strange and rather curious to consider; they give us direct access to an imagination much more ancient than our own.

Collectively, they offer comment on the fervour, the horror, the obsessions of the Dark Ages and beyond. They perceive the world through eyes very different to our own, but allow us a glimpse into much that remains intriguing and unknowable to us today.

We may look at some of these woodcuts and smile at their naivety, but quite quickly realise, in some instances, that not much has changed. Hell is still hot. We wouldn’t draw the Devil without his horns.

Graven Images by Jon Crabb, with a foreword by Reece Shearsmith, is published by The British Library