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Medieval and Early Modern Reception in 'Good Omens'

Elisabeth Rolston | Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury

Good Omens, a satirical take on the End Times within the Christian tradition, is rich in historical references and unique in its imitation of medieval and early modern eschatology. Both the 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and Amazon Prime’s recent TV adaptation, which released its second series in July 2023, reveal an extensive engagement with the past, responsiveness to historiography, and the effective satirisation of premodern prophetic and historical writing.

Antiquarianism and Aziraphale’s bookshop

The angel Aziraphale functions in both the novel and show as an enduring link between past and present. Aziraphale owns a rare bookshop in London’s Soho, intended primarily for storage of his prized collection rather than trade. In the novel, Aziraphale’s bookshop is already operating by the 1630s; in the show, he opens it around the turn of the nineteenth century. The change means that Aziraphale is more closely linked to nineteenth-century antiquarianism and, in particular, to the emergence of a booming trade in antiquaries from the turn of the century. This is reinforced by costuming choices that show Aziraphale’s aesthetic remaining largely consistent from the nineteenth century onward. He notes in a scene in Episode 2 that he had kept his coat ‘in tip-top condition for over a hundred and eighty years’.

Aziraphale sat at desk on telephone
Aziraphale in his bookshop. © Chris Raphael/Amazon Studios

Unlike other notable periods of renewed interest in the past such as ‘Renaissances’ of classical learning, nineteenth-century antiquarianism was remarkably broad in scope, encompassing the material past of anything from prehistory to the early modern. Within this, however, collectors often specialised. Aziraphale is no exception: he has a particular interest in collecting works of prophecy and misprinted Bibles. The former has clear relevance to the plot, with Aziraphale noted to own, among others, ‘the original scroll in the shaky hand-writing of St John the Divine of Patmos, whose ‘Revelation’ had been an all-time best seller’. The Bibles, however, serve to integrate Aziraphale into the history of seventeenth-century printing: he owns several misprinted King James Bibles, including a Wicked Bible, a notorious 1631 misprint that saw the Seventh Commandment rendered Thou shalt commit adultery. Errata such as the Wicked Bible, a real – and very rare – printing, are set alongside in-universe jokes such as the Buggre Alle This Bible, which features a note from a frustrated typesetter and an additional three verses in the Book of Genesis added by Aziraphale about himself. The same unfortunate printer of the Buggre Alle This Bible was responsible for a ‘Lost Quarto’ of Shakespeare and the unprecedented commercial failure of The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, giving seventeenth-century England a key role in the chronology of Good Omens.

The story of Agnes Nutter allows Good Omens to engage extensively with the early modern past. Agnes is burned as a witch in her Lancashire village by a mob led by Witchfinder-Major Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer. Knowing her fate in advance, Agnes conceals gunpowder and roofing nails under her skirts which explode when the flames reach her. The resulting destruction of Agnes’s village is, we are told in the novel, why witch hunting never took off in England the way it did elsewhere in Europe.

The satirisation of witch hunting is a consistent motif in Good Omens, and reflects developments in the historiography of witchcraft during the later twentieth century. Feminist historians in the 1970s-1990s took a particular interest in witches, exploring the role played by misogyny and patriarchal violence in the witch trials of early modern Europe. Within this new paradigm, witch hunts were acts of systemic misogynistic violence that targeted healers and wise women. The novel notes that the mob in Agnes’s village were ‘reduced to utter fury by her habit of going around being intelligent and curing people’. This is expanded in Episode 2 of the first series and features the mob exchanging stories of Agnes’s healthy habits, such as jogging, and her ability to cure disease. While played for laughs, the scene is underpinned by an understanding of current historiography at the time of the novel’s publication in 1990 that attributed early modern witch hunts to misogyny, seeking to recast witches as wise women who were persecuted for falling outside the authority of institutional patriarchal powers. The influence of feminist historiography is further seen in a comment about Anathema Device, a present-day witch and descendant of Agnes: ‘Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men’, which is included verbatim in the show. While current scholarship seeks to further nuance the role of gender in the prosecution of witchcraft, popular depictions of witches have broadly followed the line established by feminist historians in the late twentieth century.

Man tying a woman to a stake
Agnes Nutter at the stake. © Chris Raphael/Amazon Studios

Good Omens’ engagement with historiography is also demonstrated by the demon Crowley’s dislike of the fourteenth century, described as ‘the most bloody boring hundred years on God’s, excuse his French, Earth’. For most medievalists, this characterisation of the period is far from accurate: it was a century of immense social, political, and religious change across Europe. In 2019, Gaiman responded to a question from a medievalist fan on Tumblr who asked him why Crowley hated the fourteenth century, stating that both he and Pratchett had ‘read and loved’ Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. First published in 1978, A Distant Mirror categorises the period as ‘a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age’. Tuchman’s thesis that the horrors of the twentieth century can be paralleled with the fourteenth has been criticised by historians. It is also – consciously or unconsciously – rejected in Good Omens: Crowley revels in the baubles of modernity and, in the 1990 novel, enjoys the twentieth century precisely because of the distance between it and the fourteenth. Pratchett and Gaiman’s impression of the fourteenth century as a uniquely grim period that Crowley ‘would have loved being out of’ is informed by the authors’ engagement with scholarship, though it fits into a broader popular understanding of the Middle Ages as dark, depressing or primitive that historians today seek to challenge.

Good Omens and the Christian Tradition

Good Omens further mirrors medieval and early modern texts concerned with the articulation of Christian history and prophecy. As a satire of Christian eschatology, Good Omens takes as its subject matter the full span of human existence from the Garden of Eden to Armageddon and draws on centuries of existing written tradition. The plot of both the novel and the first season of the show follows The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, a fictional work of prophecy printed in 1655. There is an element of the myth of Cassandra in Agnes’s story: the book, while being ‘the sole prophetic work in all of human history to consist entirely of completely correct predictions concerning the following three hundred and forty odd years’, fails to sell, and by the present day, only one copy of the work remains in the hands of Agnes’s descendants. Good Omens places Agnes firmly within the context of seventeenth-century religious fervour. The publishers of the Nice and Accurate Prophecies see the book as a ‘licence to printe monney’, responding to the immense popularity of such texts: ‘Everywhere you looked, books of prophecy were selling like crazy’.

While prophecy has been a central element of Christian thought since its inception, there was a wave of prophetic or visionary activity by women in England in the mid-seventeenth century that reflected the religious and political turmoil of the period. Agnes is clearly identified in the text as part of a similar wave of prophetic women, with her publishers stating that ‘we must straightway printe a booke of prophecie by some hagge!’. Agnes’s prophecies mimic the form and content of seventeenth-century prophetic texts, down to spelling and the characteristic tall S of early modern printing rendered as f. Within the narrative of Good Omens, the prophecies provide the characters with advance warning of the events of the Apocalypse and ultimately allow them to thwart the end of the world.

A major difference between the novel and TV adaptation is the development of the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale, which expands the series’ engagement with the historical past. The novel opens with a scene between the two in the Garden of Eden, though references to their interactions between this and the events of the present are limited to a description of the ‘Arrangement’ that sees them occasionally helping each other with their respective assignments on Earth. By focusing more on Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship over time, the show takes on many features of the medieval universal chronicle. These chronicles, intended to document all human history from Creation to the present, synthesised Biblical, mythical, and secular recorded history into a cohesive narrative form. The inclusion of the scene in Eden following the banishment of Adam and Eve, in which Crowley and Aziraphale discuss right and wrong, already establishes the scope of Good Omens as similar to that of the universal chronicle.


This is developed further by the inclusion of Biblical, mythical, and historical material in the scenes added to the show. In Episode 3 of the first series, an extended flashback montage shows the development of Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship after Eden, including Biblical material such as the building of Noah’s Ark and the Crucifixion of Jesus. Mythical history is incorporated with a scene in sixth-century Wessex, in which Aziraphale is a knight in the service of the legendary King Arthur; the show then moves into recorded history with the pair meeting at a rehearsal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Globe in 1601 and during the London Blitz in 1941. Good Omens 2 expands from this montage into ‘minisodes’ which include a retelling of the Old Testament story of Job, an encounter with a ‘Resurrectionist’ in Edinburgh in 1832, and an extension of the 1941 Blitz story. In the opening of the first episode of Good Omens 2, the scope is further expanded with a scene from ‘Before the beginning’, in which the unnamed angel who becomes Crowley is seen creating nebulae with the help of Aziraphale. Crowley and Aziraphale, as the Earthly agents of Hell and Heaven respectively, function as witnesses of – and occasionally participants in – the entirety of human history.

Crowley and Aziraphale facing one another
Aziraphale and Crowley at the house of Job. © Mark Mainz/Prime Video

For Christianity, a religion with an expected end point, history and prophecy are two sides of the same coin. Medieval historiography was not only shaped by understandings of the past, but consciously fitted into a narrative of salvation history that looked ahead to the End Times. It often made use of frameworks or schema such as the Six Ages or the Four Monarchies which divided human history into stages according to God’s plan – the Four Monarchies, for example, was based on an interpretation of a prophecy in the Book of Daniel. Premodern approaches to Biblical history are clearly satirised from the beginning of Good Omens, with the assertion that a seventeenth-century calculation of the age of Earth was inaccurate by a quarter of an hour. The dating of Creation within the Christian tradition was first attempted by Julius Africanus in the third century AD and became commonplace in medieval historiography. The show’s expansion of historical material not only serves a narrative purpose in showing the development of Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship, but also ensures Good Omens functions as a satire of the entirety of Christian history as it was understood in the medieval and early modern period.


Further reading:

  • Deliyannis, Deborah Mauskopf, ed., Historiography in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

  • Gabriele, Matthew and David M. Perry, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (New York: HarperCollins, 2021).

  • Mack, Phyllis, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

  • Purkiss, Diane, The Witch in History: Early modern and twentieth-century representations (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

  • Rowlands, Alison, ed., Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Elisabeth Rolston completed her PhD in History at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in 2023. Her research focuses on representations of power and the writing of history in the later Middle Ages, with a particular interest in universal chronicles.

Twitter: @elisabethrolstn


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