The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
"BE YE like unto new-born babes" (quasi modo geniti infantes); be little children for innocence of heart, and peacefulness and forgetfulness of all causes of offence, calm and serene, under the hand of Jesus.
Such is the sweet counsel the Church gives this stormy world on the morrow of the great catastrophe. In other words: "Volcanoes, scoriæ, ashes, lava, grow green and lush with grass. Fields burned up with fire, come, carpet yourselves with flowers."
One circumstance, it is true, then was promised the peace that revivifies,all the schools were ended, the path of logic abandoned and deserted. A method of infinite simplicity rendered all discussion futile, and set before the feet of all the easy downward road they must needs follow henceforth. If the Credo was of doubtful interpretation, still life was all traced out plainly enough in the track of legend. The first word, and the last, was the same,Imitation.
"Imitate, and all will be well; only repeat and copy." Yes! but is this really and truly the way of genuine infancy, the infancy that vivifies the heart of man, makes him find new sources of refreshment and fertility? To begin with, I can see in this world that moulds childhood and infancy only attributes of senility, over-refinement, servility, impotence. What is this literature compared with the sublime monuments of Greeks and Jews? even compared with the Roman genius? We find precisely the same literary decline that befell in India, from Brahminism to Buddhism; a garrulous verbiage succeeding to lofty inspiration.
[paragraph continues] One book plagiarises another, till presently they cannot even copy correctly. They rob one from the other, and the marbles of Ravenna are torn down to adorn Aix-la-Chapelle. The whole fabric of society is of a piece; the bishop who is lord of a city, the barbarian prince of a half-savage tribe, model themselves on the Roman magistrature. Our monks we think so original, are only repeating in their monastery the villa of an earlier day, as Chateaubriand well observes. They have no notion of fashioning a new society, any more than of refertilising the old. Mere imitators of the Eastern monks, they would fain have had their dependants poor monkish taskmen, a sterile population of celibate lay brothers. It was in their despite family life renewed itself, and so renewed the world.
When we observe how quickly these old monks are ageing, how in a single century the level drops from the wise monk St. Benedict to the pedant Benedict of Ariane, we clearly realise that these gentry were purely and entirely innocent of the grand popular creation that grew up about the ruins; I refer to the Lives of the Saints. The monks wrote them, but it was the people made them. This young vegetation may throw its luxuriance of leaf and blossom over the crumbling walls of the old Roman building converted into a monastery, but it does not grow out of it, we may be very sure. It has roots deep in the soil; the people sowed it there, the family worked the ground, all took a hand in its productionmen, women, and children. The precarious, restless life of those times of violence made these poor countryfolk imaginative, ready to put faith in their own dreams that consoled them in their misery,wild dreams, teeming with wonders and full of absurdities, equally ludicrous and delightful.
These families, living isolated in the woods or on the mountains (as men live still in the Tyrol and the High Alps), coming down to the plains but one day in the week, were filled with the hallucinations their loneliness encouraged. A child had seen this, a woman had dreamed that. A brand-new Saint arose in the district; his story ran through the countryside, like a ballad, in
rough-and-ready rhyme. It was sung and danced at evening under the oak by the fountain. The priest who came on Sunday to say Mass in the forest chapel found the legendary song in every mouth already. Then he said to himself: "Well! after all, the tale is a beautiful one and an edifying; . . . it does honour to the Church. Vox populi, vox Dei! . . . But however did they come across it?" Then would they show him authentic witnesses, of unimpeachable veracity,the tree, the rock, that saw the apparition, the miracle. What more could be said after that?
Reported at the Abbey, the legend will soon find a monk, good for nothing better, whose only craft is the pen, both curious and credulous, ready to believe anything and everything miraculous. He writes it all out, embroiders the simple tale with his vapid rhetoric, spoils it somewhat. But at any rate here it is duly recorded and recognised, read in refectory, and before long in church. Recopied, loaded, overloaded with embellishments, often grotesque embellishments, it will descend from age to age, till at last it takes honourable rank and place in the Golden Legend.
Even to-day, when we read these beautiful tales, when we listen to the simple, artless, solemn melodies into which these rustic populations put all their young enthusiasm, we cannot but recognise a very real inspiration, and bewail the irony of fate when we think what was to be their eventual lot.
These people had taken literally the Church's touching appeal: "Be ye as little children." But they applied it to the very thing least dreamed in the original conception. The more Christianity had feared and abhorred Nature, the more these folk loved her and held her good and harmless,even sanctified her, giving her a part to play in the legend.
The animals which the Bible so harshly calls hairy beasts, and which the monk mistrusts, fearing to find demons incarnated in them, come into these charming tales in the most touching way, as, for instance, the hind that warms and comforts Geneviève de Brabant.
Even apart from the life of legends, in everyday existence, these humble fireside friends, these gallant helpers in the day's work, gain a higher place in men's esteem. They have their proper rights, 1 and their proper estate. If in God's infinite goodness there is room for the lowliest, if He ever seems to have a preference for such out of pity, why should not my ass be allowed in church? He has his defects, no doubt,which makes him only the more like me. He is a sturdy fellow to work, but thickskulled; he is intractable and obstinate, in one word, he is my very counterpart.
Hence those grand festivals, the most beautiful of the Middle Ages, of the Innocents, of Fools, of the Ass. It is the very people of that day which in the ass presents its own likeness in person before the altar, ugly, ludicrous, and down-trodden! Truly a touching sight! Led by Balaam, he enters solemnly between the Sibyl and Virgil, 2 enters to bear witness. If of old he kicked against Balaam, this was because he saw flashing before him the sword of the old Law. But here the Law is abrogated and done with, and the world of Grace seems to open wide its doors to receive the lowliest, the simple ones of the earth. The people believes it all in the innocency of its heart. Hence the sublime canticle, in which it addressed the ass, as it might have addressed itself:
What insolence and wrong-headedness! Is this what they required of you, disobedient, unruly children, when they told you to be as little children? They offered you milk; you drink strong wine instead. They would lead you gently, bridle in hand, by the narrow way. Gentle, timid creatures, you seemed afraid to put one foot before another. Then behold! of a sudden the bridle is broken . . . one leap, and you swap over the course.
Ah! how unwise it was to let you invent your saints, and raise your altar, then bedeck and load and bury it in flowers, till its original form is all but indistinguishable. What can be discerned is the old heresy, long ago condemned by the Church, the innocence of Nature. An old heresy do I say? Nay! rather a new heresy that will live many a long day yet,the emancipation of mankind.
Now listen and obey:
It is expressly forbidden to invent, to create. No more originality; no more legends; no more new saints. There are enough already. Forbidden to innovate in the forms of worship with new melodies; inspiration is prohibited. Any martyrs that should come to light are to keep quiet in their graves, and wait with becoming humility till the Church recognises them. Forbidden for clergy or monks to confer on peasants the tonsure that enfranchises them. Such the narrow, timid spirit of the Carlovingian Church, 4 which deliberately contradicts herself, gives herself the lie, now says to little children, "Be ye old men!"
What a change is here! But can it be meant seriously? Did they not tell us to be young? Nay! the priest is no longer identical with the people. A mighty divorce is beginning, an infinite gulf of separation. Henceforth the priest, a great lord now or a prince, will sing the Office in a golden cope, using the sovereign tongue of the great empire that is no more. We, poor cattle of the field, having lost the language of mankind, the only one God will deign to hear, what can we do now but low and bleat, in company with the innocent companion that never scorns us, that in wintertime warms us in the stall and covers us with his fleece? We will live with the dumb beasts, and be dumb ourselves.
In very truth, we have then the less need to go to Church. But she will not let us off; she orders us back, to listen to words we cannot understand.
From that day forth a monstrous fog, a heavy, grey, leaden fog, enwraps the world. Say, for how long? for a thousand long, dreary, terrible years! For ten whole centuries, a languor no previous age has known oppressed the Middle Ages, even to some extent later times, in a condition midway between sleep and waking, under the empire of a dismal, an intolerable phenomenon,that convulsion of supreme boredom we call a yawn.
The indefatigable church bell rings out the accustomed hours,and folks yawn; a nasal chant drones on in antiquated Latin,and folks yawn. Everything is foreseen; no room is left for hope in all the world. Day after day events will recur in identically the same way. The inevitable oppression of to-morrow makes men yawn before to-day is done, and the never-ending perspective of days, and years, of weary sameness still to come, weighs on the spirits beforehand and sickens of life. From brain to stomach, from stomach to mouth, the automatic, the fatally irresistible, convulsion travels, distending the jaws in an endless and cureless gape. A veritable disease, which pious Bretons openly avow, imputing it, it is true, to the Devil's machinations. He lies crouching in the woods, say the Breton peasants; to the herdsman as he passes with his beasts, he sings Vespers and all
the other Offices, and sets him yawning, yawning till he is like to die. 5
To be old is to be feeble. When the Saracens, when the North-men, threaten us, what will be our fate, if the people is still old and decrepit? Charlemagne weeps unavailing tears, and the Church with him, confessing that the holy relics, against these barbarian demons, can no longer protect the altars. 6 Were it not well to appeal to the arm of the intractable child they were going to bind, the arm of the young giant they were fain to paralyse? A self-contradictory movement marks the ninth century throughout,at one time the people is held back, at another pushed forward, at one time feared, at another appealed to for help. With the people's aid, by the people's hands, barriers are thrown up, shelters contrived, to stop the barbarian invaders, to protect the priests, and the saints, escaped from their churches.
Despite the Bald Emperor's prohibition, a castle-keep rises on the mountain height. There the fugitive arrives, "Take me in, in God's name,at any rate my wife and children. I will camp with my bestial in your outer bailey." The castle restores his courage and he feels himself a man at last. It shelters him; he defends it, and so protects his protector.
In earlier days the poor, under stress of famine, surrendered themselves to the rich and powerful as serfs. Now it is very different; he gives himself as vassal, that is to say, brave and valiant champion. 7
He gives himself, yet remains his own man, keeping the right to renounce his allegiance. "I am for higher things; the world is
wide. I too, as well as another, may raise my castle on the steep. . . . I have defended the outside; I shall know how to guard my head in the inside."
Here we have the grand, noble origin of the Feudal world. The man of the keep received his vassals, but said to them, "You shall leave me when you will, and I will even help you to do it, if needful; so far, indeed, that if you are mired, I will get down off my horse myself to succour you." This is the ancient formula word for word. 8
But one morning what is this I see? Do my eyes deceive me? The Lord of the Valley sallies forth to raid the lands round about, sets up landmarks none may overpass, and even invisible lines of demarcation. "What is it? What does it mean?" . . . It means that the Lordship is enclosed: "The Feudal Lord, under lock and key, holds all immured, between sky and earth."
Alas! alas! By virtue of what right is the vassus (the valiant man, that is) henceforth to be a prisoner? Nay! vassus, they will maintain, may equally be equivalent to slave.
In the same way servus, meaning servant (often a high-born servant, a Count or Prince of the Empire), will signify for the weak and lowly, a serf, a villein whose life is valued at a denier.
This is the hateful net they are taken in. But yonder on his plot of ground is one who maintains his land is free, an allod (allodium, aleu), a "fief of the sun." He sits on his boundary-stone, crushes his hat down firm on his head, and watches the Feudal Lord, the Emperor himself, pass by. 9
"Go your ways, ride on, Emperor, you sit tight in your saddle, and I on my boundary-stone yet tighter. You pass, but I remain. . . . For I am Freedom."
But . . . I have not the heart to tell the man's eventual fate. The air thickens round him, and his breath fails more and more. He seems bewitched. He cannot move, he is as if paralysed. His
beasts too grow thinner and thinner, as though a spell were on them. His servants die of hunger. His land is fallen barren. He is hag-ridden o nights.
Still he holds on; he says, "A poor man's house is his castle."
But they will not leave him alone. He is cited, and must answer, to the Imperial Court. He repairs thither, a survival from a vanished world, a spectre of the past, a thing unrecognisable. "What is it?" the younger men ask each other. "He is neither Seigneur nor serf! Why, then, what is he? He is nothing."
"'Who am I?' ask you? I am he who built the first castle-keep, and defended it in your behoof; he who, leaving its walls, strode bravely to the bridge to meet the heathen Northmen. . . . More than that, I dammed the river, I reclaimed the alluvial waste, I created the very soil, like God who made 'the dry land appear.' . . . This soil, who shall drive me off it?"
"Nay, my friend," answered his neighbour, "you shall not be driven off it. You shall cultivate it still, this soil . . . only on other conditions from what you think. . . . Remember, good friend, how in the heedlessness of youth (it is fifty years agone now) you wedded Jacqueline, a little maid of my father's serfs. . . . Remember the maxim: 'Who treads my hen, is my cock.' You belong to my hen-roost. Come, off belt and away sword! . . . Henceforth you are my serf."
There is no invention here; it is all bare truth. The atrocious story recurs over and over again in the Middle Ages. And what a bitter weapon of tyranny it was! I have abridged and omitted much, for every time one returns to these incidents, the same sharp point of pity and indignation pierces the heart.
One there was who, under so dire an outrage, fell into such a passion of fury he could find never a word to say. Twas like Roland betrayed at Roncesvaux. All the blood of his body rose to his throat and choked him. . . . His eyes flashed fire, his poor dumb mouth, dumb but so fiercely eloquent, turned all the assemblage pale. . . . They shrank back in terror. . . . He was
dead. His veins had burst. . . . His arteries shot the red blood into the very faces of his murderers. 10
This instability of condition and tenure, this horrid, shelving declivity, down which a man slips from free man to vassal,from vassal to servant,from servant to serf, is the great terror of the Middle Ages, the basis of its despair. There is no way of escape; one step, and the man is lost. He is an alien, a waif and stray, a head of wild game; serfdom or death, these are the only alternatives. The heavy soil clogs the feet, and entangles and engulfs the passer-by in its miry depths. The poisoned air kills him, lays its dead hand on him, turns him into a dead man, a nonentity, a brute beast, a life priced at ten farthings,a life anyone may take and expiate the murder for ten farthings down. Such were the two main, external features of Mediæval wretchedness, the two great hardships that drove men to give themselves to Satan. Now to look at the internal aspect, to examine the foundations of life and character, and sound the depths of human existence, at the same unhappy period.
14:1 See J. Grimm, Rechts Alterthümer, and Michelet, Origines du Droit.
14:2 From the ritual of Rouen. See Ducange, under Festum; Carpentier, under Kalendæ, and Martène, iii. 110. The Sibyl was crowned, followed by Jews and Gentiles, by Moses and the Prophets, Nebuchadnezzar, etc. From the earliest times, and from century to century, the seventh to the sixteenth, the Church endeavours vainly to proscribe the great popular festivals of the Ass, of the Innocents, of Children, and of Fools. She meets with no success, previously to the rise of the modern spirit.
15:4 See the Capitularies passim.
17:5 A very famous Breton (Renan), last man of the Middle Ages, but who was nevertheless a friend of my own, on the occasion of the quite ineffectual journey he made for the conversion of Rome, received brilliant offers when in the Eternal City. "What would you have?" the Pope asked him. "One thing and one thing only: a dispensation from the Breviary . . . I am sick to death of it."
17:6 Such was Hincmar's well-known admission.
17:7 A distinction too little appreciated, too little noticed, by writers who have enlarged upon personal surrender, "recommendation" to a superior, etc.
18:8 Grimm, Rechts Alterthümer; Michelet, Origines du Droit.
18:9 Grimm, on the word aleu (allodium).
20:10 This is what happened to the Comte dAvesnes, when his free land was declared a mere fief, and himself a mere vassal, the man of the Comte de Hainault. Read also the terrible history of the Grand Chancellor of Flanders, the First Magistrate of Bruges, who for all this was nevertheless claimed, and successfully claimed, as a serf (Gualterius, Scriptores Rerum Francicarum, xiii. 334).