The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
I HAVE omitted from the above picture the deep shadows of that cruel period, as these would have darkened it unduly. I refer especially to the uncertainty in which the rustic household habitually lived as to its lot, the suspense, the chronic terror of the savage violence that might burst at any moment on their unoffending heads from the castle above.
The feudal régime involved precisely the two things of all others that go farthest to make a hell on earth; on the one hand, the extreme of immobility,the man was nailed to the soil, and emigration utterly impossible; on the other, a high degree of uncertainty as to the continuance of existing conditions.
Optimistic historians who talk so glibly of fixed quit-rents, and charters, and purchases of emancipation, forget the paucity of guarantees forthcoming for it all. So much is bound to be paid to the Feudal Lord, but he can take all the rest too, if he likes. This is called in so many words the right of prehension. Work away, goodman! And while you are abroad in the fields, the dreaded troop from the heights may swoop down on your house and carry off what it pleases "for the service of the Seigneur."
No wonder, if you look at him the fellow is gloomy over his furrow, and hangs his head! . . . Yes! and he is always like that, with anxious brow and heavy heart, like a man constantly expecting bad news.
Is he pondering revenge? Not he; but two thoughts fill his mind, two anxieties trouble him alternately. The first, "In what condition will you find your house when you go back to-night?" The other, "Ah! if only the clod I turn would let me see a treasure
underneath! if the kind Devil would give me wherewith to buy our freedom!"
It is said that at this appeal (like the Etruscan "genius" that emerged one day from under the ploughshare in the shape of a child) a dwarf, a gnome, would often lift its tiny figure from the soil and standing up in the furrow ask him, "What will you of me then?" But the poor man would be dumbfoundered, and wanted nothing now. He turned pale and crossed himself, and then the whole vision was gone.
Was he sorry afterwards? Did he never say to himself, "Fool, fool, do you mean then to be for ever unhappy?" I can well believe it, but I am no less convinced an unsurmountable barrier of terror prevented him from going further. I do not think for an instant, as the monks would have us believe, who have given accounts of Sorcery and Witchcraft, that the pact with Satan was a mere caprice, a sudden impulse of a lover or a miser. We need only consult common sense and human nature to be certain of the contrary, that people never resorted to such extremes except as a last resource, in utter despair, under the awful pressure of unending wrong and wretchedness.
"But," they tell us, "these excessive miseries must have been largely diminished as we near the days of St. Louis, who forbade private wars between great lords." My own opinion is exactly the opposite. During the eighty or a hundred years which intervened between this prohibition and the English Wars (12401340), the seigneurs, no longer having their customary amusement of burning and pillaging the lands of the neighbouring lord, were ferocious in the treatment of their vassals. St. Louis's peace was their war.
The ecclesiastical seigneurs, the monkish seigneurs, and the like, make the reader of the Journal dÉtudes Rigault (published recently) fairly shudder. The book gives a revolting picture of wild, barbarian licence. The monkish seigneurs showed especial violence towards the nunneries. The austere Rigault, Confessor
of the sainted King and Archbishop of Rouen, makes a personal investigation into the condition of Normandy. Every night he rides up to the door of a fresh monastery. Everywhere he finds the monks leading the bold, bad life of feudal nobles, going armed, drinking, duelling, hunting recklessly over waste and cornland alike, the nuns living with them in indiscriminate concubinage, and everlastingly with child by them.
Such was the Church! What must the lay nobles have been? What was the inside like of those gloomy towers that, viewed from the plain below, inspired mere panic terror? Two tales, true history doubtless both of them, Blue Beard and Griselda, tell us something. What was he for his vassals, his serfs, this torturer, who treated his own family with such refinement of cruelty? We can judge from the only one of them brought to trial, and that not till the fifteenth century, Gilles de Ritz, the kidnapper of children. Sir Walter Scott's Front de Buf, the barons of melodrama and romance, are poor creatures compared to these terrible realities. The Templar in Ivanhoe is an equally feeble and an entirely artificial portrait. The author has not dared to face the foul actualities of celibacy among the Knights of the Temple, and of life inside the fortified castle, where very few women were allowed, as being mere useless mouths. The Romances of Chivalry give exactly the opposite of the truth. Indeed, it has often been observed how literature in many cases expresses the entire contrary of contemporary life and character; as, for instance, the insipid pastoral plays of the Florian type that held the stage during the Terror of the Revolutionary Period.
The domestic arrangements of these mediæval castles, where they can still be traced, tell us more than all the books put together. Men-at-arms, pages, serving-men, packed together at night under low-browed vaults, by day stationed on the battlements, on narrow terraces, suffering the most atrocious boredom, found breath and life only in their sallies on to the plain belowno longer now warlike expeditions against neighbouring lands,
but hunting parties, man-hunting parties, exactions, outrages, without number on the households of the surrounding serfs. The Lord knew perfectly well himself that a mass of men like this without women could only be kept in hand on condition of occasional licence.
The appalling notion of a hell where God uses the wickedest souls, the most sinful of all there, to torture the less sinful, delivered up to them as playthings, this noble dogma of the Middle Ages was literally realised. Men felt instinctively God was far from them. Each razzia was another proof of the domination of Satan, a convincing proof it was to him they must henceforth address their prayers.
To add insult to injury, there was much coarse laughter and ribald wit indulged in. "But surely the serf women were too unattractive," it may be objected. The answer is, it was no question of beauty; the pleasure consisted in outraging, beating, and making women cry. As late as the seventeenth century, the great Court ladies would almost die of laughing to hear the Duke of Lorraine describe how his fellows raided peaceable villages, killing and torturing every woman, old women included.
Outrage was especially rife, as may be supposed, among the well-to-do households, of a relatively superior rank, which were to be found among the serfs, families of serfs supplying mayors to the community from generation to generation, such as are found as far back as the twelfth century taking the first place in the villages. The nobility hated, mocked, and would fain have ruined these. Their new sense of moral dignity was an unpardonable offence; it was unforgivable that their wives and daughters should be chaste and virtuous women. What right had they to be respectable? Their honour was not theirs to keep. Serfs of the body, that was the cruel phrase everlastingly thrown in their teeth.
It will be hard to believe in days to come that, among Christian people, the Law did a worse thing than any it did to the
slaves of Antiquity,that it expressly sanctioned as a right the most deadly outrage that can wring a human being's heart.
The ecclesiastic seigneur, no less than the lay, possesses this foul prerogative. In a parish in the neighbourhood of Bourges, the curé, being a seigneur, laid express claim to the firstfruits of every bride, though in practice he was quite willing to sell his wife's virginity to the husband for money down. 1
The theory has been too readily accepted that this outrage was only formal, never actually done. But the price named in certain countries for release from it was far beyond the means of almost any peasant. In Scotland, for instance, the Feudal Superior claimed "several cows,"an enormous, an impossible price. Thus the poor young peasant's wife was at her Lord's discretion. Moreover, the Fors du Béarn state in so many words that the right was literally exacted. "The peasant's eldest son is always reckoned the Seigneur's child, for he may be of his engendering." 2
All feudal customs, even where this is not mentioned, invariably impose an obligation on the newly made bride to go up to the castle to present the marriage meat-offering. An odious practice to force the poor trembling creature thus to run the gauntlet of anything it might enter the heads of the wild pack of insolent, wifeless retainers that harboured there to do to her.
One can still see the shameful scene,the young husband bringing his bride to the castle. One can imagine the guffaws of the knights and squires, the ribald tricks of the pages, that welcomed the unhappy pair. "At any rate the presence of the Lady of the Castle will keep them in check," you say. Not a bit of it. The fair châtelaine the romances would have us think so delicate, 3 but who was quite capable of taking command of the garrison
in her Lord's absence; who was used to judging, punishing, ordering torture or death; who had a hold over the Baron himself by means of the fiefs she brought himshe was no tenderhearted protectress, least of all for a serf, who perhaps was a pretty woman too. Flaunting publicly, as was the habit of the time, her favoured knight and her page, she was not sorry to justify the liberties she allowed herself by similar misdemeanours on her husband's part.
She will be no obstacle to the game in hand, the amusement they are getting out of the poor trembling fellow eager to redeem his wife. They begin by bargaining with him, laughing at the agonies of the "hard-fisted peasant," and end by sucking his very marrow and blood. Why this dead set at the pair? Because he is fittingly dressed, an honest man of respectable position, a notable person in his village. Because she is pious, chaste, and modest, because she loves him, because she is afraid and in tears. Her pretty eyes ask for pity,in vain.
The unfortunate man offers all he possesses, even the dowry itself. . . . No use! it is not enough. Angered at the injustice of such harsh treatment, he urges, "But my neighbour, he paid nothing." . . . Ho! ho! argufying now, the insolent scoundrel! Then the whole pack crowds round him, shouting; sticks and brooms belabour him with a hail of blows. Finally he is hustled and kicked out of doors, and they scream after him: "Jealous brute, with your ugly, lenten looks, who's stealing your wife? You shall have her back to-night, and to cap the favour, with child! . . . Say thank you; why! you're nobles now. Your firstborn will be a Baron!" All crowd to the windows to see this ludicrous figure, death in his heart, wedding-clothes on his back. . . . Peals of laughter pursue him, and the roystering mob, down to the meanest scullion, gives chase to the "poor cuckold!" 4
The man would have died on the spot of rage and chagrin, but for one hope,of the Devil's help. He goes home alone, and finds his house, how empty, how deserted! No! not empty; there is someone there. Satan sits at the hearth-side.
Presently she returns too, pale, disordered, in pitiful estate! . . . She throws herself on her knees, and craves his pardon. At this the man's heart is like to burst. . . . He puts his two arms round her neck, and weeps and sobs and cries aloud till the very walls tremble. . . .
Still her coming brings God back to the house. Whatever she may have endured, she is pure, innocent, and holy yet. Satan will get nothing to-day. The Pact is not ripe for signing yet.
Our silly national Fabliaux and ridiculous Contes without exception assume that under this mutual injury and all subsequent ones she will have to affront, the wife is on the side of her outragers and against her husband; they would have us believe that the poor girl, bullied and shamefully used, made a mother in spite of herself, is delighted and overjoyed at it all. Can anything be more improbable? No doubt rank, politeness, elegance were likely enough to seduce her; but no one took the trouble to use these means. They would have much fine fun indeed of anyone who for a serf's wife should have played the high-bred lover. All the rout, chaplain, cellarer, down to the very serving-men, thought they were honouring her by outrage. The humblest page fancied himself a great Lord, if only he seasoned his love-making with insults and blows.
One day, when the poor woman had been maltreated in her husband's absence, she was heard to exclaim, as she recoiled her
long hair, "Oh, miserable Saints of wood, of what avail to make vows to them? Are they deaf? or are they grown old? . . . Why have I not a Spirit to protect me, strong and powerful,if an evil Spirit, I cannot help it? I see them many a one carved in stone at the church door. What are they doing there? Why do they not fly to their proper home, the castle yonder, to carry off these miscreants and roast them in hell? . . . Oh for strength and power! Who can give me these? I would gladly give my whole self in exchange. . . . Alas! what could I give? What have Ito give? I have nothing left. Woe on me, body and soul,on my soul that is but ashes! Whywhy cannot I have, instead of my elfin friend, who is good for nothing, a great, strong, powerful Spirit?"
"Oh, sweet little mistress mine, tis by your fault I am so small, and I cannot grow bigger. . . . And besides, if I were big, you would never have liked me, never have allowed me near you, and your husband even less. You would have had me driven off by your priests and their holy water. . . . I will be big and strong if you wish. . . . Mistress mine, Spirits are neither big nor little, strong nor weak. At desire, the tiniest can become a giant."
"Nothing simpler. To turn your Spirit into a giant, you have but to give him a gift."
"A gift! What gift?"
"A sweet woman's soul."
"Oh, horror! Who are you, say? And what is this you ask?" "Nay, such gifts are made every day. . . . Would you price yourself higher than the lady yonder of the castle? She has pledged her soul to her husband, to her lover; nevertheless she gives it again all to her page, a child, a little silly lad. I am far more than your page; I am more than any serving-boy. In how many things have I been your little maid and tirewoman? Nay, do not blush, do not be angry. . . . Let me tell you only, I am all about you, and already perhaps within you. For how else should I know your thoughts, even the very thought you hide
from your own self? . . . Who am I? I am your little soul, that talks unconcernedly to your great, your proper soul. . . . We are inseparable. Do you rightly know how long I have been with you? For more than a thousand years. For I was your mother's, and her mother's, your grandmother's and great-grandmother's. . . . I am the genius of the hearth and home."
"Tempter! tempter! . . . but what will you do?"
"I will make your husband rich, and you powerful, so that folk shall fear you."
"What say you? Are you then the demon of hidden treasures?"
"Why call me demon, if I am but doing a just work, a task of kindness and gentle piety? . . . God cannot be everywhere, He cannot be always at work. He likes to rest sometimes, and leaves us, the Spirits, to see to little matters, to correct the inadvertences of His Providence, the miscarriages of His justice. . . . Your husband is an instance, poor, hardworking, deserving mortal, who toils and moils himself to death, and gains the barest living. God has not had time yet to think of him. . . . Albeit a trifle jealous, still I love him, my good host,and pity him. He can no more, he must give in. He will die like your children, killed already by dire poverty. Last winter he was ill. What will become of him next winter?"
Then she put her face between her two hands, and wept for long hours. At last, when she had no more tears left, though her sobs still shook her breast, he said, "I ask nothing. . . . Only, I beseech you, let us save him between us."
She had made no promise, but she belonged to him from that hour forth.
36:1 Laurière, ii. 100, under word Marquette; Michelet, Origines du Droit, 264.
36:2 This work was not published till (1842) subsequently to the Origines (1837).
36:3 This delicacy and refinement is well instanced in the treatment the ladies of the Court were for inflicting with their own hands on Jean de Menny, their poet, the author of the Roman de la Rose (about 1500). They would certainly p. 37have carried out their intention, had it not been for the witty poet's clever subterfuge.
37:4 Nothing can be merrier than the old French Contes; but they have a certain monotony. The jokes are limited to three: the injured husband's p. 38 despair, the squalls of the victim of the lash, the grimaces of the fellow on the gallows. The first is funny; the second sets you laughing till you cry; but there! the third caps all, and you hold your sides in inextinguishable merriment! Mark now, the three are only one after all. It is always the man who is down, the weakling that can be outraged without risk of retaliation, the person who is incapable of self-defence.