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The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, [1939], at

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BUT the terrible age is the age of gold. By this I mean the cruel epoch when gold first got the mastery. The date is 1300, in the reign of Philippe le Bel of France, a king at once of gold and iron, it would appear, a great monarch that never opened his mouth, that seemed to have a dumb spirit, but at the same time a mighty arm,—strong enough to burn down the "Temple," long enough to stretch to Rome and with iron gauntlet to give the first buffet to the astonished Pope.

Henceforth gold is High Pope, and god of all, and not without good reason. The movement began in Europe with the Crusades; wealth is not deemed wealth unless it has wings and is capable of moving freely hither and thither, admits of rapid exchange. The King, to strike his far-off blows, needs gold and gold only. The army of gold, the army of the King's treasury, spreads far and wide over the whole face of the land. The great Baron, who has brought home dreams of splendour from the East, is ever longing, for its marvels,—damascened weapons, oriental carpets and spices, horses of pure Arab blood. For all this he must have gold. When the serf brings in his wheat, his Lord spurns him with his foot, crying, "That is not all I want; I would have gold."

From that day the world is changed. Hitherto, in the midst of many evils, there was at any rate peace and security so far as the levies were concerned. As years were good or bad, the quit-rent followed the course of nature and the quality and quantity of the harvest. If the Lord of the Soil said, "’Tis a fine tribute you offer," the answer was, "My Lord, God has given no more."

But gold! alas! where to find gold? . . . We have no army to

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raid it from the rich cities of Flanders. Where are we to dig the earth to win its treasure? Ah! if only we had the Spirit of hidden treasures 1 to be our guide!

While all are in despair, the peasant wife with the elfin ally is already seated on her sacks of wheat in the neighbouring little market town. She is all alone, the rest of her village cronies are still busy making up their minds.

She sells at what price she will. Even when the others do arrive, the cream of the custom goes to her; some mysterious, magic attraction draws all to her, and no one even thinks of beating down her terms. Before the appointed day, her husband carries his quit-rent in good solid coin to the feudal elm. "Astonishing! astonishing!" all the neighbours cry. . . . "For sure the Devil must be in the Dame!"

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They laugh, but she is far from sharing their mirth. She is sad and sore afraid. Pray as she will, strange tingling, creeping sensations disturb her rest, and set her trembling in her bed. She sees grotesque and horrible shapes about her. The Familiar Spirit, once so tiny and so gentle, is grown a wilful tyrant. Terrified at his boldness, she is restless and angry and fain to rise. She submits, but with sighs and groans; she feels her loss of independence, and exclaims, "Alack! I am no longer my own woman now!"


"Well! well!" cries the Baron, in high satisfaction, "here's verily a peasant with some sense at last; he positively pays in advance. I tell you, I like you, man! Can you cast accounts?" "Yes! a little." "Well, then, ’tis you shall settle accounts with all my folk. Every Saturday you shall take your seat under this elm to receive their moneys. On Sunday morning, before Mass, you must bring up the proceeds to the castle."

A mighty change this, truly! The goodwife's heart beats high when, Saturday come, she sees her poor husband, mere labourer and serf that was, sitting like a little lord himself under the shadow of the feudal tree. A trifle dazzled and confused at first, he gets used to the position finally and assumes an air of gravity. Nor is it safe to poke fun at him; the Baron means him to be respected. When he comes up to the castle, and rivals are for laughing at him and playing him some nasty trick or other in their jealousy, "You see yonder embrasure," says the Baron; "the rope you may not see, but it is all ready. The first to lay a hand on him, shall dangle out of the one at the end of the other, and so I tell you, shut and stump."


The saying is repeated, and there settles round them a sort of atmosphere of terror, everyone louts low, very low indeed to them; but they are avoided and shunned when they walk the roads. The neighbours strike into bye-paths with a furtive air and a pretence of not seeing them. The change makes them proud

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just at first, but soon saddens them, as they realise their isolation in the midst of village society. She with her delicate perception sees plainly enough the hate and scorn the Castle bears her, the hate and fear of her companions of the countryside. She feels herself between two dangers, in a terrible loneliness. No protection but the Baron, or rather the money they provide him with; but to get this money, to stimulate the peasant's reluctance, to overcome the vis inertiæ he offers, to drag something even from those who have nothing, what persistent pressure, what threats, what harshness, are required! The goodman was never meant for such a trade; his wife encourages him, urges him, saying, "Be stiff with them, cruel if needs must. Strike hard. Else you will be behindhand with your payments. And then we are indeed undone!"

Such the anxieties of the day, trifling in comparison with the torments of the night. She has all but lost the power of sleeping. She gets up, and paces up and down, prowling about the house. All is quiet; and yet how changed the house is! It has lost all its old pleasant sense of security and gentle innocence! What is the cat ruminating over as she lies before the fire, feigning to be asleep and blinking her half-shut yellow eyes at me? The goat with her long beard and her wily, sinister looks, knows a deal more than she says. And the cow, half seen in the moonlit stall, why does she gaze at me askance in that mysterious way? . . . How uncanny it all is!

She shudders, and lies down again by her husband's side. "Lucky man, how sound he sleeps! . . . But I have done with sleep; I shall never sleep again!" . . . Nevertheless she drops off at last. But then, how she suffers! Her importunate friend is at her ear, eager, tyrannical. He persecutes her without mercy; if she drives him off a moment by the sign of the cross or a prayer, he is back again directly in some other shape. "Behind me, Satan! Beware! I am a Christian soul. . . . No! not that; you must not do that."

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Then in revenge he assumes a hundred hideous forms. He glides a shining serpent over her bosom, dances a loathly toad on her belly, or with a bat's pointed beak steals horrid kisses from her shuddering mouth. . . . He is trying every art to drive her to extremities, to force her, vanquished and exhausted, to assent at last to his vile propositions. But she is not beaten yet; she will not say, Yes! She prefers to suffer her nightly tortures, the never-ending martyrdom of the awful struggle.


"How far can a Spirit be incarnate too? . . . Are his foul attempts corporeal realities or no? Would she be doing carnal sin if she yielded to her persecutor? Would it be actual and veritable adultery?" . . . Subtle questions these he asks at times to unnerve and undermine her resistance. "If I am nothing but a breath, a vapour, a puff of wind (as many Doctors of the Church teach), why so fearful, little trembling soul? and what has your husband to say in the matter?"

One of the worst torments of pious souls throughout the Middle Ages is that many doubts we should deem frivolous and purely academical were then burning questions, agitating and terrifying men's minds, taking the form of visions, sometimes of fierce arguments with the Devil, or agonising debates with a tortured conscience. The Demon, for all his furious manifestations in the case of demoniacs, nevertheless remains a Spirit down to the very end of the Roman Empire, and up to the time of St. Martin, in the fifth century. On the invasion of the barbarians, he grows barbarian too, and more and more carnal and corporeal,—so much so that he takes to stone-throwing, and amuses himself with pelting to pieces the bell of St. Benedict's cloister. The Church, to frighten off the savage encroachers on ecclesiastical property, makes the Devil more and more frankly incarnate, teaching men to believe he will torment sinners, not merely as soul acting upon soul, but materially in their flesh, that they will suffer actual bodily tortures,—not the flames of an ideal hell, but

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every exquisite pang of physical pain that blazing brands, the gridiron, and the red-hot spit can inflict.

This conception of diabolic torturers, tormenting the souls of the dead with material agonies, was a perfect gold-mine for the mediæval Church. The survivors, torn with grief and pity, asked eagerly, "Cannot we, from this world to that, redeem these unhappy souls? Cannot we expiate their offences by dint of fines and imposition, as is done in earthly matters?" The bridge between the two worlds was Cluny,—the Cluniacs from their first foundation (about 900) having at once grown into one of the richest of the monastic orders.

So long as God punished in person, making His hand heavy on sinners, or at any rate striking by sword of an angel (according to the noble antique phrase), it was not so horrible. The hand of the Lord was severe,—a Judge's hand, but still a Father's too. The angel when he struck was still pure and clean as his own sword. But it is by no means so when the ministers of execution are foul demons. They are very far from imitating the angel that burned Sodom, but only after quitting the city. They remain, and their hell is a horrid Sodom, where Damned Souls, more deeply stained with sin than the sinners given into their power, find an odious pleasure in the torments they inflict. This doctrine men saw inculcated in the artless sculptures carved around church doors, from which they learned the dreadful lesson how fiends experience a wanton delight in causing pain. Under pretext of punishment, the devils work out on their victims the most revolting caprices. A profoundly immoral conception, and a truly damnable, this,—of justice, falsely so-called, favouring the coarser part, making its perversity yet more perverse by handing it over a plaything to torment, corrupting the very demons themselves!


A cruel, cruel time! Think how black and lowering was the sky; how it weighed on the heads of mankind! Think of the poor little children, their minds filled with these dreadful notions,

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trembling with terror in the very cradle! Think of the pure, innocent girl, shuddering lest Damnation lurk in the pleasure she involuntarily finds in the workings of the Spirit; of the wife, as she lies in the marriage-bed, tortured by the same assaults, resisting yet ever and anon feeling the stir within her! . . . A horrid experience, known to those who have the tapeworm. To be conscious of a twofold life, to feel the horrid thing moving within one, now violently, now with a silky, undulatory creeping that is even worse, and recalls the sensations of seasickness,—till a man dashes away in frenzy, horror-struck at himself and his own body, longing only to escape, to die. . . .

Even at such times as the Demon was not actively tormenting her, the woman subjected to his assaults might be seen gloomily roaming around, a prey to melancholy thoughts. For there is no hope left of cure. His entry is irresistible; he penetrates everywhere like a foul miasma. Is he not the Prince of the Air, the Prince of Storms,—of internal no less than of external storm? We find this coarsely, but vigorously, portrayed under the arch of the great doors of Strasburg Cathedral. At the head of the company of Foolish Virgins, their leader, the woman of sin who is enticing them down to the abyss, is full, swollen out, with the Demon, who hideously distends her body and escapes from beneath her skirts in a black cloud of dense, stifling smoke.

This distension is one cruel mark of Diabolical Possession,—at once a punishment and a boast. She carries her belly thrust forward, the proud wanton of Strasburg, and her head well thrown back, triumphing in her hideous grossness, rejoicing in her monstrous deformity.

She is not like this yet, the woman we are describing. But she is already puffed out with the Devil, and with evil pride in her new fortunes. Sleek and fair, she walks the street, her head high, her face expressing pitiless disdain and scorn of the very earth she treads on. Her neighbours are afraid, and both hate and admire her.

Our village dame says plainly by mien and look: "’Tis I

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should be the Lady of the Castle! . . . What is she at, I would know, in the high tower yonder, wanton, idle jade, among all those men, and her husband so far away?" A rivalry springs up; and the village, which hates her, is proud of her none the less. "The Lady of the Castle is Baroness; but ours is Queen . . . more than Queen, something none dare name. . . ." Terrible and fantastic her beauty, a cruel beauty, compact at once of pride and pain. The Foul Fiend in person glares out of her eyes.


She is his in a sense, but only in a sense as yet. She is herself still, and steadfastly refuses to surrender her personality. For the moment she is neither the Devil's nor God's. True the demon may enter into her, permeate her whole being in subtle vapours; but so far he has really won nothing, for her will is still unsubdued. She is possessed, bedevilled; but Satan is still very far from having got her in his power. At times he will practise on her atrocious, but quite unavailing, torments. He will kindle a flame of fire in bosom and belly and bowels; she writhes and struggles in agony, but nevertheless defies him.

"No! vile torturer, I will not yield up my identity, I will not!"

"Beware! I will lash you with a whip of scorpions; I will tear your flesh so savagely, you will thenceforth go in tears, piercing the shuddering air with your screams."

The succeeding night he does not come. Next morning (it is Sunday morning) her husband went up to the castle, and returned a picture of desperation. The Baron had told him: "A stream that trickles drop by drop will never turn the mill. . . . You bring me a farthing at a time,—what use is that? . . . I must be starting in a fortnight. The King is marching on Flanders, and I have not so much as a war-horse ready, for my old charger goes lame since the tourney. See to it; I must have a hundred silver pounds." "But—but where to find them, my Lord?" "Sack the whole village as you will. I will give you men enough. . . . Tell your oafs they are ruined men unless the

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money comes—and yourself shall be the first to die. . . . I am sick of you. You have a woman's heart; you are a craven and a sluggard. You shall pay dear for your cowardice and slackness. Look you! only a straw turns the scale that I don't keep you here, that you never see your home again. . . . ’Tis Sunday; they would have a good laugh down yonder to see you dancing in the air over my battlements."

The unhappy wight repeats this to his wife. In sheer despair he prepares for death, and recommends his poor soul to God. She is as terrified as he, and can neither rest nor sleep. But what can she do? She is deeply sorry now she sent the Spirit away. If only he would come back again! . . . Next morning at her husband's rising, she falls back exhausted on the bed. In an instant she feels a ponderous weight on her breast; she pants and almost chokes. The incubus slips lower, presses the woman's belly, while simultaneously she feels her arms gripped by a pair of hands that are like steel. "You wished for me. . . . Well! here I am. Ha! cruel recreant, at last, at last your soul is mine?" "Nay! but, great sir, is it mine to give? My poor husband! You used to love him. . . . You said so. . . . You promised. . . ." "Your husband! come, have you forgotten? . . . are you so sure you have always kept your will steadfast for him? . . . For your soul, I ask you for it out of mere complacence, for indeed ’tis mine already. . . ."

"Not so, great sir," she answers back, her pride rekindling spite of her sore strait. "Not so! my soul is mine, my husband's, consecrated by my marriage vow. . . ."

"Little fool, little fool! you are incorrigible! Even now, under the goad, you persist in struggling! . . . I have seen it, your soul, I know it by heart, every hour of the day and night,—and better than you do yourself. Day by day I have watched your first essays at resistance, your times of grief and of despair! I have noted your hours of discouragement, when you murmured to yourself, 'Who can resist the irresistible?' I have been present

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at your periods of yielding too. You have suffered something, and cried a little, but never very loud. . . . If I have claimed your soul of you, ’tis because it is a lost soul already. . . .

"Now your husband is on the verge of ruin. . . . How save him? I will take compassion on you. . . . You are mine; but I would have more,—I would have you give yourself to me, avowedly and of your own free will. If not, his ruin will be consummated."

She answered soft and low, through her sleep: "Alackaday! my body and my miserable flesh, take them, take them, to save my husband. . . . But my heart, never. None has ever had it yet, and I cannot give it."

So said, she lay waiting her fate, resigned. . . . Then he threw her two words, saying: "Remember, in them is your only safety." Then she shuddered from head to foot, rigid with horror to feel herself empaled by a fiery bolt, inundated by an ice-cold flood. . . . A piercing scream,—and she found herself lying in her astonished husband's arms, drenching him with her tears.


She tore herself violently away, and sprang from the bed, trembling at the thought of forgetting the two indispensable words. Her husband was terrified; for she did not so much as see him, but kept throwing the savage looks of a Medea at the chamber walls around her. Never was her beauty more resplendent. In the dark pupil and the yellow-tinctured white of her fierce eyes flashed a gleam no man would dare encounter, the sulphurous lava glow of a volcano.

She marched straight to the town. The first of the two words was green. She saw hanging at the door of a shop a green robe,—green, colour of the Prince of this World. It was old and worn, but once on her shoulders shone forth new and dazzling. She marched, without a word of inquiry, straight to the house of a Jew, and knocked loudly. The door is opened cautiously, and the poor Jew discovered sitting on the ground, half smothered in the

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ashes. "Good sir, I must have a hundred silver pounds!" "Why! lady, how should I lend such a sum? The Prince Bishop of this city, to force me tell where my gold lies hid, has had my teeth drawn one by one. 2 . . . Look, see my bleeding gums." "I know, I know; but it is just the means to destroy your Prince Bishop I come to you for. When the Pope is buffeted, the Bishop will scarce stand firm. Who says so? It is the word of Toledo." 3

The Jew hung his head. She stooped over him and breathed softly in his ear. . . . She was in deadly earnest, and the Devil to back her to boot. A strange wave of heat filled the room; even the old man felt as if a fountain of fire had shot up before his eyes. "Lady," he cried, gazing at her from under his brows, "Lady, poor, ruined as I am, I had a few pence in reserve to buy meat for my unhappy children." "You will never repent it, Jew. . . . I will swear you the great oath, the oath that kills. . . . What you lend me you shall have back in one week, in good time, at earliest morn. . . . I swear it by your great oath, and mine, a mightier watchword still, Toledo."

A year passed. She was grown stout and rosy, resplendent like fine gold. Men marvelled at her fascination, and admired and obeyed her with one consent. By a miracle of Satan, the Jew was become open-handed, ready to lend money at the smallest sign. She it was, and she alone, kept up the castle as well by her credit in the city as by the terror her harsh exactions inspired in the village. The triumphant green robe was everywhere, coming and going, every day seeming newer and more splendid. Her own person

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assumed an almost superhuman beauty, instinct with victory and haughty insolence. One prodigy there was that startled beholders, and each said wonderingly, "A grown woman,—and she grows taller, more stately, day by day!"

Meantime a new development; the Seigneur is returned. The Lady of the Castle, who for long durst not come down for fear of confronting the lady of the plain, has mounted her milk-white palfrey. She comes to meet her husband, with all her folk about her, draws rein and gravely greets him.

First and foremost she exclaims, "Ah! how wearily have I waited you! how could you leave your faithful bride to languish so long in lonesome widowhood? . . . And yet, and yet, I cannot give you place by my side this night, an you grant me not one boon." "Ask it, ask it, fairest lady!" returned the knight, laughing gaily. "But ask quickly. . . . Verily I am in haste to have you in my arms, lady mine. . . . I wot you are grown more beautiful than ever!"

Then she spoke low in his ear, and none knows what it was she said. But before climbing to the castle, the good Baron set foot to earth before the village church, and went in. Under the porch, standing at the head of the village grandees, he sees a lady he fails to recognise, though he louts low before her. Proud as Lucifer, she wore towering above the heads of the men the lofty two-peaked coif of the period,—the Devil's bonnet as it was often called on account of the double horns that formed its ornament. The great lady blushed hotly, and passed on eclipsed and looking small and homely by comparison. Then furious she hissed under her breath. "Yes! there she stands,—your vassal, your serf all the while! ’Tis the last straw; all rank and order is overset, and asses bray insult at horses!"

Coming out, the bold-faced page, the favourite, draws a poniard from his girdle, and dextrously, with a single slash of the keen blade, slits the fine green robe from waist to feet. 4 She came

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near fainting at the cruel outrage, while the crowd stood staring and amazed. But they soon understood, when they saw the Baron's retainers one and all dash forward to hunt the prey. . . . Swift and pitiless fell the whistling lashes. . . . She flies, but feebly; she is already a trifle unwieldy. Barely ten paces, and she stumbles. Her best friend and gossip has thrown a stone in her path to trip her feet. . . . At this a shout of brutal laughter; but she lies cowering, screaming shrilly. . . . But the pages are remorseless, and whip her to her feet again with their lashes. The noble, gallant pack join in, and pick out the tenderest spots for biting. At long last, a haggard figure in the dreadful procession that welters round her, she reaches her own house-door,—to find it shut! With hand and foot she knocks and kicks, shrieking, "Good husband, quick! oh, quick! open, open!" But yet she hung there, spread-eagled, like the wretched barn-door owl you see nailed to a farmer's door, while the blows continued to rain down on her unceasingly. Not a sound within the house. Was the husband within? or was it that, scared for his riches, he dared not face the crowd, dared not risk the pillage of his goods?

Under all these outrages and blows and sounding buffets she fell swooning at last. Then she sat crouching on the chill stones of the threshold, naked, half-dead, her long hair barely covering her bleeding flesh. Then one of the castle party cries enough; "We have no wish to kill her."

So they leave her, and she runs to hiding. But in spirit she sees

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the gay doings in the Castle Hall. The Baron, giddy-headed as he is, could not help exclaiming, "Nay! I am half sorry for it all." But the chaplain says smoothly, "If the woman is possessed, as they say she is, my Lord, your duty to your good vassals, your duty to all the countryside, is to deliver her up to Holy Church. It is awful to see, since these scandals of the Templars and of the Pope, the progress the Devil is a-making. Against him one thing only avails, the stake. . . ." A Dominican interrupts, "Excellent well, your Reverence, you have spoke excellent well. Deviltry—deviltry is heresy of the first degree. Like the heretic, the devil-possessed must be burned alive. Still sundry of our good Fathers do not trust now even to the stake itself entirely. Wisely and well they would fain before all have the erring soul slowly and surely purged, tried, tamed by fastings, lest it be burned in its unrepentant pride and go triumphing to the stake. If you, my Lady, in your piety and sweet charity, if yourself would take the task of working in this our sister's stubborn heart, setting her for some years or so in pace in a brave dungeon of which you only should hold the key, you might indeed by firm discipline and proper torments, save her poor soul, shame the Foul Fiend, and at last yield her up, chastened and humbled, into the hands of Mother Church."


42:1 Demons afflict the world throughout the whole period of the Middle Ages. But Satan does not assume his definitive character before the thirteenth century. "Pacts with the Evil One," M. A. Maury observes, "are very rarely found before this epoch." I can quite believe it; for how conclude a covenant with a being that really and truly does not as yet exist? Neither of the two contracting parties, in fact, was ripe for the agreement. For the human will to come to this appalling extremity of selling itself for all eternity, it must needs have first grown desperate. The merely unhappy man is still far from despair; it is the being who is utterly and hopelessly wretched, who has complete consciousness of his own wretchedness, and consequently full and complete agony of suffering, without any expectation of relief, it is he and he only who knows what despair is. Desperation in this sense may be predicated of the poor man of the fourteenth century, who is asked to perform the impossible,—to pay quit-rent and taxes in money. In the present chapter and the succeeding one, I have noted the incidence, sentiment and progress of despair, capable of leading up to the horrible covenant of the Pact with Satan, and what is even worse than the pact pure and simple, the appalling condition and profession of Sorcery or Witchcraft. The word is used freely enough, but the thing is still exceptional, being nothing more nor less than a marriage with the powers of Evil and a sort of consecration to the Devil. To make my descriptions more easily comprehensible, I have connected the details of this subtle and difficult piece of analysis by a thin thread of fictitious narrative. However, after all the framework is of small importance; the essential point is to realise that such enormities did not arise (as writers have tried to make us believe) from mere heedlessness and thoughtlessness, from the weakness of fallen human nature, from the chance temptations of concupiscence. Their existence implied the fatal overmastering pressure of an age of iron, the irresistible constraint of grim necessities,—required that Hell itself should appear a shelter, an asylum, a relief, as contrasted with the Hell of this world.

51:2 This was a method in high favour for compelling the Jews to disgorge. John Lackland, King of England, had frequent recourse to it.

51:3 Toledo would seem to have been the Holy City of the Sorcerers and Sorceresses, a countless host in Spain. Their relations with the Moors, highly civilised as was this people, and with the Jews, a wise folk and in those days masters of all Spain (as agents of the Royal Exchequer), had given the Sorcerers a high culture, and they formed at Toledo a sort of university of their own. By the sixteenth century they had been Christianised, changed and modified, reduced to mere white magic. See the Déposition du sorcier Achard, sieur de Beaumont, médecin en Poitou (Evidence of the Wizard Achard, Sieur de Beaumont, a leech in Poitou), in Lancre, Incrédulité, p. 781.

52:4 Such is the monstrous and cruel outrage we find quite commonly employed in those rough times. In the Gallic and Anglo-Saxon laws it is laid down as the p. 54 penalty for immodesty (Grimm, 679, 711; Sternhook, 19, 325; Ducange, iii. 52; Michelet, Origines, 386, 389). Later on, the same affront is shamefully and unjustly inflicted on honest women, tradesmen's wives beginning to show overmuch spirit, whom the nobles wish to humiliate. The snare is familiar into which the tyrant Hagenbach enticed the honourable dames of the superior bourgeoisie of Alsace, probably in mockery of their rich and royal costume, all of silk and cloth of gold. Again, I have mentioned in my Origines (p. 250), the extraordinary right which the Sire de Pacé, in Anjou, claimed over the fair (honest) women of the neighbouring lands. These were bound to bring him to his castle four deniers and a rose wreath, and to dance with his officers. A perilous enterprise for them, one in which they had much reason to fear meeting with some such dire insult as that of Hagenbach. To force them to come, the threat is added that the recalcitrant will be stripped and branded with the Baron's arms on their naked flesh.

Next: 6. The Pact With Satan