The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
DO not conclude too hastily from what I have said in the preceding chapter that my purpose is to whitewash, to clear of all blame whatever, the gloomy bride of the Evil One. She often effected good, but was equally capable of grievous mischief. Great and irresponsible power is always liable to abuse; and in this case she queened it in a very true sense for three long centuries during the interregnum between two worlds, the old dying world and the new one whose dawn was still faint on the horizon. The Church, destined later on to recover something of its vigour (at any rate as a fighting force) in the struggles of the sixteenth century, is still wallowing in the mire in the fourteenth. Read the convincing picture of its condition given us by Clémangis. The nobility, swaggering in novel and sumptuous forms of defensive armour, meets only the more dismal disaster at Crécy and Poitiers and Agincourt. The French nobles prisoners in England! What an opportunity for the scoffers! Bourgeoisie, even peasantry, are dissolved in mocking laughter, and shrug contemptuous shoulders. This general and compulsory absenteeism of the seigneurs afforded no small encouragement, in my opinion, to the Witches Sabbaths. These had always existed, but under the new conditions they grew into huge popular festivals.
Think of the power wielded by Satan's Chosen Bride! She can heal, prophesy, predict, conjure up the spirits of the dead, can spell-bind you, turn you into a hare or a wolf, make you find a treasure, and most fatal gift of all, cast a love charm over you there is no escaping! Awful attribute, more terrible than all the
rest put together! How should a headstrong spirit, more often than not a wounded spirit, sometimes one altogether soured by disappointment, fail to use such a weapon for the satisfaction of hatred and revenge, and sometimes for the indulgence of perverse and foul proclivities?
The secrets of the Confessional were no secrets to her,secrets of sins committed and of sins to come. Every man is her slave by her knowledge of some shameful incident of his past, and his still viler aspirations for the future. She is the confidante of deformities of body and of mind, and of the lascivious ardours of a poisoned and heated blood, of morbid, overmastering longings that fiercely torment the flesh with a thousand needle-pricks of concupiscence.
All come to her and make her their shameful avowals with a reckless and brutal candour. They seek the boon of life, of death, of healing medicines and poisonous drugs. To her comes the poor weeping girl who has been betrayed, to ask means for procuring abortion. To her the stepmother (an incident of the commonest in the Middle Ages) to complain how her first husband's brat eats and eats and will not die. To her the woe-begone matron, worn out year after year with children that are only born to die. Appealing to her compassion, she is told the way to paralyse pleasure at the supreme instant and make it barren. On the other hand, there comes a stripling, ready at any cost to buy the sovran brew that will trouble a high-born lady's heart, and making her forget distinctions of rank and place, turn her gentle looks towards her little page.
The marriage of the period has only two types or forms, both of them extravagant and outré.
The proud "heiress of broad lands," who brings a dowry, a throne, or a rich fief, an Eleanor of Guyenne, will maintain under her very husband's nose, her court of lovers, and will do very much what she pleases. Leaving on one side romance and poetry,
let us look the facts in the face. The reality is terrible enough, culminating in the wild orgies of the daughters of Philippe le Bel, and the excesses of the cruel Isabella, who had her husband, Edward II., impaled by her lovers hands. The effrontery of the feudal dame comes out in a devilish fashion in the two-horned headdress of state occasions, and other shameless modes of dress.
But in this century when the classes begin to intermix to some degree, the woman of inferior origin who wedded a baron had good reason to fear harsh treatment. This is shown in the story, perfectly true and authentic, of Griselda, the lowly, gentle, patient Griselda. The tale, quite serious and historical in my own belief, of "Blue Beard" gives the popular form of the same legend. The wife he kills so often and so often replaces can only have been a vassal. There would have been a different tale to tell with the daughter or sister of a baron, in a position to avenge her wrongs. If I am not mistaken in this highly probable conjecture, we must conclude this story to be of the fourteenth century rather than to belong to an earlier period, when a great lord would never have stooped to take a wife beneath him in consequence.
One very remarkable thing in the touching story of Griselda is that under all her trials she appears not to have the consolation either of religion or of another lover. She is manifestly faithful, chaste, and unsullied. It never occurs to her to find comfort in fixing her love elsewhere.
Of these two types of mediæval womenthe Great Heiress on the one hand, Griselda on the otherit is exclusively the former that has her cavalieri servente, that presides at Courts of Love, that favours the humblest of lovers, and (like Eleanor) pronounces the famous dictum, regarded as undisputable in those days: "No love possible betwixt married folk."
Hence a secret hope,secret, yet ardent and masterful, that springs in many a young heart. End as it may, even in his giving his soul to the Evil One, the young lover will rush head down into the bold emprise. Be the keep guarded ever so well, there will
always be a loophole for Satan to creep in. The game is perilous indeed; is there the shadow of a chance? Why, no! says Prudence. Ah! but if Satan says "Yes"?
Nor should we forget how great the distance feudal pride set between noble and noble. Words are deceptive; knights were very far from being all alike.
The Knight Banneret, who led a whole army of vassals to join the King in the field, looking down his long table, saw with unmitigated contempt the poor lackland knights who sat at its lower end. This epithet of "lackland" was a mortal insult in mediæval times, as in the instance of John Sans Terre, John Lackland, of England. How much more so the common varlets, squires, pages, etc., who fattened on the leavings from the high table! Seated at the lower end of the Great Hall, close to the door, they scraped the platters the great folks, sitting by the warm hearth, sent down to them,often empty. It never even entered the head of the lordly Seigneur that these humble inferiors could have the hardihood to lift their eyes to the fair lady mistress, the proud heiress, sitting there on the daïs by her mother's side, "under a chaplet of white roses." While surprisingly ready to condone the advances of some stranger lover, who was the fair chatelaine's avowed champion and wore her colours, he would have punished cruelly one of his own dependants who should have had the audacity to aim so high. This is the explanation of the savage jealousy shown by the Sire de Fayel, angered beyond all bounds, not because his wife had a lover, but because the said lover was one of his own domestics, the seneschal (common caretaker) of his castle of Coucy.
The deeper, the more impassable the gulf fixed between the Lady of the Fief, the great heiress, and squire or page, who had only a shirt to call his own, for his very coat he received from his lord and master,the stronger, it would seem, was the temptation for Love to overleap the abyss.
The gallant's imagination was fired by the seeming impossibility of success. At length, one day he found himself free to leave
the fortress; he hurried to the Witch's dwelling to ask her advice and aid. Would a philter avail,a charm to fascinate the senses? If not, must he make an express pact with the Devil? The awful thought of selling himself to Satan had no terrors for him. "It shall have our best consideration, young sir. Meantime return; you will find there is some change come about already."
The change is in himself. A vague, mysterious hope stirs within him; everything shows it in his own despite, the deep glances of his lowered eyes that flash with an uneasy flame. Someoneeasy to guess whois quick to note the symptoms before others; her gentle heart is touched, she throws him a passing word of pity. . . . Oh, joy ineffable! Oh, kind-hearted Satan! charming, adorable Witch-wife! . . .
He cannot eat or sleep till he has been to see her again. He kisses her hand with deepest respect, almost grovels at her feet. Let her ask him what she will, order him what she please, he will obey. Would she have his gold chain, the ring he wears on his fingerhis dying mother's gift,he will give them without an instant's hesitation. But she is naturally spiteful, full of malicious hate for the Baron, and finds it only too delightful to stab him in the dark.
An undefined feeling of impending trouble haunts the castle. A voiceless tempest, without lightning or thunder, broods over it, like an electric cloud on the surface of a swamp. Not a sound to break the silence; but the Lady Châtelaine is overwrought, she is sure some supernatural power has been at work. Why this youth more than another, perhaps handsomer and better bred, and already renowned for noble exploits? There is something surely underneath all this. Has he thrown a spell over her, used a love-charm? . . . The question only stirs her heart to wilder emotion.
The Sorceress's spite finds good stuff to feed on. She was always queen of the village; now the castle comes and puts itself
in her power,and that just where its pride runs the direst risk of humiliation. For us, the interest of such an intrigue is the gallant effort of a generous heart to attain its ideal, its protest against social barriers and Fate's injustice. For the Sorceress it is the pleasure, deep and keen, of degrading her proud neighbour, perhaps avenging slights of her own, the pleasure of paying back to the Seigneur in the same coin the wrongs he has inflicted on her sister vassals, to indemnify herself, by a lad's audacity, for the outrageous right the Lord of the Soil possesses,the jus primæ noctis. There can be no doubt whatever, in these intrigues where the Sorceress played her part, that she was many a time actuated by an underlying grudge, natural enough to the peasant, who is invariably a leveller at heart.
It was always something gained, and something considerable, to have humiliated the great lady to the love of a domestic. Jean de Saintré and Cherubino must not mislead us. The youthful dependant in a mediæval castle performed the basest offices of the household. The chamber servant or valet, properly so called, did not yet exist, while on the other hand few serving-women, or none at all, were to be found in fortified places. Every office is performed by these young hands, which are in nowise degraded thereby; service, particularly corporal service, rendered their liege lord and lady only honours and exalts. Nevertheless it could not but place a young nobleman at times in situations decidedly melancholy, prosaic, and we may go as far as to say ridiculous. Little recked the Lord of the Castle. His good lady must verily and indeed have been bewitched by the Devil not to see what her eyes rested on day after day,her favourite engaged in filthy and menial offices.
It is characteristic of the Middle Ages, this bringing face to face of the sublime and the ridiculous. Where poetry is reticent we may glimpse the truth from other quarters. Mingled with these ethereal passions much coarseness of circumstance is very plainly to be seen.
Everything we learn about the charms and love-potions employed by Witches and Sorceresses shows how fantastic these were,often wilfully fantastic, shamelessly compounded of substances one would suppose least likely to awake the sentiment of love. These women went to extraordinary lengths, without the infatuated being they were making a plaything of ever having his eyes opened to the truth.
Philters were of many and very different sorts. Some were intended to excite and trouble the senses, like the aphrodisiacs so freely abused to the present day by Eastern peoples. Others were dangerous, and often treacherous, drugs administered to cloud the wits and deprive the victim of all power of self-control. Some, again, were tests or proofs of passion, defiances to try how far the greediness of desire was capable of carrying the senses, making lovers accept as the most supreme of favours, as a sort of mystic communion, the least agreeable of matters coming from the loved one's person.
The rude structure of mediæval castles, made up as these were of great halls and little else, made a public function of domestic life. It was only reluctantly, as it were, and at a much later date that privacy was consulted by the contrivance of bower and oratory in some tower of the vast pile. It was easy to watch the chatelaine's daily habits; then, on some day chosen for the purpose, after careful observation, the bold pretender, acting on the Witch's suggestion, could strike his blow with every hope of success, drugging the posset and slipping the love-potion in the cup.
Still, it was at best a rare and perilous undertaking. A far easier course was to filch some trifle the fair lady would never miss or give a thought to,to gather with scrupulous care the almost invisible parings of a nail, to collect reverently the combings of her hair, a strand or two from her lovely head. These were carried to the Sorceress, who would often demand (as do somnambulists of the present day) such and such an article of the most intimate nature, imbued, as it were, with the wearer's
personality, but which she would never have given of her own free will; for instance, a fragment torn from a garment long worn and soiled which she had moistened with the sweat of her body. All this, remember, smothered with adoring kisses and wistfully regretted. But it must be ruthlessly burned and reduced to ashes to serve the required purpose. One day or another, looking at the garment again, the keen-sighted fair one would notice the tiny rent, would guess its meaning with a tender sigh, but say never a word to betray her knowledge. . . . The charm had taken effect!
One thing is certain, that if the lady hesitated, felt some lingering respect for her marriage vow, this life lived within such narrow bounds, where each saw the other so continually, and dividing distances were so short, though so all-important, must soon have grown into a veritable torture. Even where she had yielded, still, in presence of so many observers, her husband and others not less jealous, happiness was doubtless rarely secured. Hence many a piece of frenzied folly, the result of unsatisfied desire. The less actual intercourse was possible, the more profound the longing for a symbolic union. This a morbid fancy sought to find in all sorts of extravagances, equally unnatural and unreasonable. Thus, to create a means of secret intercommunication between two lovers, the Witch would prick out on the arm of each the shapes of the letters of the alphabet. When one wished to transmit a thought to the other, all he had to do was to revive, restore, by sucking the blood to them, the letters forming the word desired. Simultaneously the corresponding letters, so it was believed, on the other's arm were suffused with blood.
Sometimes in these outbursts of mad folly lovers would drink each other's blood, to effect a mystic communion which, it was supposed, made their two souls one. Coucy's heart, devoured by his widow, and which she "found so good, she never ate more in her life," is the most tragic instance of these monstrous sacraments of cannibal affection. But when the absent lover did not
die, but it was love died within him, then the lady would away to consult a Witch and beseech her for means to bring him back and bind him to her.
The magic incantations of Theocritus and Virgil continued to be used even in the Middle Ages, but were rarely efficacious. The attempt was tried to bring back the recreant lover by another charm, also apparently imitated from an Antique model. Recourse was had to the magic cake, the confarreatio, which from furthest Asia to furthest Europe was ever the sacrament of love. But the aim here was to bind more than the soul,to bind the flesh, to create an identity of substance, so that, dead to all other women, he should live and breathe for one and one alone. The ordeal was no trifle. "Take it or leave it," was the Witch-wife's answer to all remonstrances; and her proud client grew instantly submissive, and suffered her to strip her to the skin, this being an indispensable condition in all these ceremonies.
What a triumph for the Sorceress! And above all, if the lady was one who had treated her despitefully in former days, what a fine piece of revenge and retaliation! The woman has her lying stark naked under her hands. Nor is this all. On her loins she lays a board, and on it a miniature oven, in which she bakes the magic cake. . . . "Sweet friend, I can bear no more. Quick, quick, I cannot stay like this!" "Nay, madam, twas bound to be so; you must needs burn. The cake is a-baking; twill be heated of your very body, the hot flame of your passion!"
The rite is ended, and we have the magic cake of antiquity, of Hindoo and Roman marriage, seasoned and hotly spiced with the lewd spirit of Satan. She does not say, like Virgil's sorceress: "Come back, Daphnis, come back to me! Oh, bring him back to me, my songs!" But she sends him the cake, all impregnated with her pain, and heated with her love. . . . Scarce has he bitten it when a strange tumult, a giddiness, confuses his senses. . . . His heart beats wildly, his blood boils, his face is suffused with blushes, his whole body burns. Love's madness seizes him once more, and inextinguishable desire.