The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
THE people is enfranchised and emboldened. The poor serf, free for once, is king for a few hours space. But his time is short; already the night is passing, the stars verging to their setting. Very soon the cruel dawn will send him back to slavery, set him once more, under the malignant eye of his taskmaster, under the shadow of his lord's castle and that of the Church, to the monotonous labour, the everlasting weary round regulated by the two bells, whereof the one says Ever and the other says Never. Each peasant among them, with glum, submissive looks and an air of jog-trot habit, will be seen sallying forth to his day's work.
At least let them enjoy their momentary respite! Let each one of earth's disinherited sons be fully happy for once, and find his utmost dreams fulfilled! . . . What heart so miserable, so dead and withered, as not to have some day-dreams, some wild aspirations,to say sometimes, "Ah! if only such or such a thing could happen"?
The only detailed descriptions we possess are comparatively modern, as I have already mentioned, dating from a period of peace and prosperity, viz. the last years of the reign of Henri IV. when France was once more flourishing. These were years of luxury and plenty, altogether different from the black days when the Witches Sabbath was first organised.
If we were to trust implicitly to M. Lancre and his fellows, we should picture this Third Act to our mind's eye as a sort of Rubens kermesse, a wild, confused orgy, a vast masked ball, giving licence to every sort of illicit intercourse, and particularly to incest between closely connected relatives. According to these authors, whose only wish is to inspire horror and make their readers shudder, the chief end of the whole festival, its main lesson and express doctrine, was incest; they would have us believe that at these huge gatherings (sometimes as many as twelve thousand souls were present) the most monstrous acts were openly committed before the assembled spectators.
This is hard to believe. The very same writers tell us other facts which seem diametrically opposed to such cynicism. They say the folk only came there in couples, that they only sat at the feast two by two, that supposing an individual arrived unaccompanied, a young demon was actually told off on purpose to shepherd the lonely visitor and do the honours of the festival. They inform us that jealous lovers were not afraid to attend and bring with them their fair companions, curious to see the strange sight.
Again we have seen how the great majority attended by families, their children accompanying them. These they sent away only for the First Act, not for the banquet or the religious (or rather anti-religious) ceremonial, and not even for the Third Act here in question. This proves the existence of a certain degree of decency. Besides, the performance was twofold. The family groups remained on the brilliantly lighted heath. It was only beyond the fantastic curtain of pitchy smoke clouds that a darkling outer region began, to which those who wished could slip away.
Judges and inquisitors, bitterly hostile as these were are forced to admit that a noble spirit of gentleness and peace prevailed generally. Of the three things that shocked decorum so much at the feasts of the nobles nothing was found here. No brawling, no duels, no tables stained with blood. No vile treachery
in the name of gallantry to outrage the brother in arms. Lastly, the foul promiscuity of the Templars, for all that has been said to the contrary, was unknown, indeed unneeded; at the Sabbath woman was everything.
With regard to incest, we must distinguish. Then every connexion with relations, even such as are held the most legitimate in our days, was reckoned a crime. Modern law, which is charity personified, understands the human heart and the good of families. It permits the widower to marry his wife's sister,in other words, to give his children the best and kindest of new mothers. It permits the uncle to afford his niece necessary protection by making her his wife. Above all, it permits marriage with a female cousin, a trusty and familiar bride, often the object of affection since childhood, companion of youthful sport, and an acceptable daughter-in-law to the mother, who has long ago taken her to her heart. In the Middle Ages all this was incest!
The peasant, whose affections never go beyond his own family circle, was driven to sheer desperation. In the sixth degree even, it would have been held monstrous to wed his cousin. Impossible to marry in his own village, where the ties of relationship imposed so many barriers; he was bound to look elsewhere, further away. But in those days intercommunication was of the slightest, mutual knowledge non-existent, and neighbours cordially detested. Different villages, on fête days, would fight each other without a notion why they did so,as is the case to this hour in countries ever so little removed from each other. A man would hardly dare to go look for a wife at the very spot where the battle had occurred, and the peril of wounds and death confronted.
Another difficulty. The feudal lord of a young serf would not allow him, if he wished, to marry in the fief of a neighbouring baron. He would have become the serf of the wife's over-lord, and so been lost to his own.
Thus while the priest barred the cousin, the feudal forbade the stranger; and so many men never married at all.
The result was precisely what they most wished to guard against. At the Witches Sabbath the natural affections had their way in double force. There the young man encountered once more the girl he knew and loved already, who when he was a lad of ten had been called his little wife. Be sure he liked her best, and treated the canonical objections with supreme indifference.
A thorough study of mediæval family life throws entire discredit on all those rhetorical declamations we hear about a wide general promiscuity affecting crowds of human beings. The exact opposite is perceived to be the case,that each separate little group, constituted on the narrowest basis and in the most concentrated form, is to the last degree averse to admit any foreign element whatever.
The serf, anything but jealoustowards his own kinsfolk, but miserably poor and wretched in his circumstances, is excessively apprehensive of worsening his lot yet further by multiplying a long family he cannot possibly feed. The priest and the baron both would have him augment the number of their serfs, would like to see his wife everlastingly with child; and the strangest sermons were preached on this subject, 1occasionally savage recriminations and murderous threats indulged in. All this only made the husband more obstinate in his precautions. As for the wife, who poor creature could never hope to rear children under such conditions, and found only cause for tears in their arrival, she dreaded nothing so much as pregnancy. She only ventured to attend the nocturnal festival on the express assurance repeated again and again that "no woman ever returned therefrom heavier than she came." 2
They came no doubt, but drawn to the ceremony by the banquet, the dance, the gay lights, and the love of amusement; in no way by the incitements of the flesh. Some indeed found only pain and suffering there; while others abhorred the icy purification that followed instantly on the act of love to nullify its effects. No matter; they were ready to undergo anything rather than increase their poverty, bring another unfortunate into the world, give the over-lord another serf.
Strong was the common determination, trusty the mutual agreement that limited love to the family and excluded the stranger from all participation. No reliance was felt but in kinsfolk united in the same serfdom, who, sharing the same burdens, were duly careful not to increase these.
Hence no general movement of population, no mixing and mingling confusedly of divers elements; but, on the contrary, only a series of narrow and mutually exclusive family groups. This very fact was bound to render the Witches Sabbath powerless as an instrument of revolt, ineffectual as a means of stirring and combining the masses. The family, careful above all things to avoid a prolific offspring, secured its object by strict limitation in matters of love to very near relations, in other words, to those pledged to the same interest. A sad, depressing, unhallowed state of things, darkening and degrading the sweetest moments of life. Alas, alas! even in love and marriage all was mere squalid wretchedness and revolt against untoward circumstance.
Society was very cruel. Authority kept on saying, "Marry"; but it made marriage next door to impossible, as well by excess of abject poverty as by the senseless rigour of canonical prohibitions.
The result was the exact opposite of the purity the Church was for ever preaching. Under a Christian disguise, the old patriarchal system of Asia was the only existing reality.
The eldest son only could marry. The younger brothers and
the sisters all worked under him and for him. 3 In the isolated mountain farmsteads of the south, far removed from all intercourse with neighbours or other women, the brothers lived with their sisters, who were their servants and belonged to them body and soul,a state of morals corresponding to that described in the Book of Genesis, and analogous to the marriage customs of the Parsees and the usages subsisting to this day among some of the pastoral tribes of the Himalayas.
What was even more shocking was the lot of the mother of the family. She found herself unable to marry off her son; she could not unite him with a kinswoman and so make sure of a daughter-in-law who would have some consideration and respect for her. Her son would marry, if marry he could, a girl from a distant village, often a hostile one; then her arrival was a veritable and terrible invasion, whether to the children of the first bed or to the poor mother, who often found herself turned out of doors by the stranger. It will scarce be credited, but there is no doubt about the fact. At best she was ill treated,driven ignominiously from the fireside and the domestic board.
A Swiss law expressly forbids depriving the mother of her place at the chimney corner.
She dreaded above all things the event of her son's marrying. Yet her lot was not much more tolerable supposing he did not. She was just as much an inferiorservant of the young master of the house, who succeeded to all his father's rights, even to that of beating her. I have myself seen instances at the present day in the south of France of this horror,a son of twenty-five chastising his own mother when she got drunk.
How much more in these ruder times! . . . It was more likely to be the son that would return from village merrymakings in a condition of semi-intoxication, scarcely knowing what he was after. Same bedchamber, same bedfor two was an absolutely unknown luxury. The mother was far from feeling secure. He
had seen his friends married, and the sight had roused his evil passions. Hence floods of tears, extreme prostration, the most deplorable self-abandonment. The unhappy woman, thus threatened with violence by her only god, her son, wounded in her fondest affections, reduced to such a hideous, unnatural plight, was in despair. She would try to sleep, to feign unconsciousness. Then there happened, without either quite realising the enormity, what so often happens to this day in the poor quarters of great cities, where some poor creature, constrained by terror or perhaps by blows, submits to the last indignity. Submissive henceforth, and spite all her scruples, far too readily resigned, the mother became the victim of a piteous servitude. A shameful and an agonising, anxious life, for year by year the discrepancy of age would increase, and more and more tend to separate them. A woman of thirty-six could still hold the affections of a boy of twenty; but at fifty, alas! and at a more advanced age still, what then? From the Great Sabbath, when distant villages met together, he might any day bring home a strange woman to be the young mistress of the housean unfamiliar, hard outsider, without heart or pity, who would rob her of her son, her fireside, her bed, all the household gods she had got together by her own labour.
By what Lancre and others tell us, Satan held it a great merit on the son's part to remain faithful to his mother, made this particular crime into a virtue. If this is true, we may easily guess the reason how one woman naturally stood up for another, how the Sorceress was a ready partisan on the mother's side, to help her hearth against the son's wife, who, stick in hand, would have turned her out to beg her bread.
Lancre goes further and declares, "never was thoroughpaced Witch yet but was the child of incest, born of mother and son." The same rule held good in Persia for the birth of the genuine Mage, who must be the offspring, so men said, of this odious mystery of iniquity. In this way the lore of the Wise Men, the magic of the East, was confined to the narrowest limits,
within a family that was renewed perpetually from its own blood.
By an impious misreading of Nature, they believed themselves to be copying in this hateful ritual the innocent mystery of the rustic year, the ever-renewed cycle of vegetation growth, whereby the corn, reaped and again sown in the furrow, comes up once again as corn.
Less monstrous forms of union (of brother and sister), common among the Jews and Greeks, were unloving and very seldom fruitful. Very wisely they were abandoned before long, and would never have been resorted to again, but for the spirit of revolt which, exasperated by ridiculous prohibitions, drove men recklessly into every extreme most violently contrasted with use and wont.
In this way unnatural laws, acting on the evil passions, the hate, of mankind, produced unnatural crimes.
A hard, an accursed time! and the inevitable mother of despair!
So far so good,or rather so bad; but lo! the dawn of a brighter day is all but come. In a moment, the hour strikes that puts all evil spirits to flight. The Sorceress feels the gloomy flowers of sin withering on her brow. Farewell her royal state! her very life, it may be! . . . What would happen if the dayspring found her still exposed to its beams?
What will she make of Satan? a flame of fire? a heap of ashes? He asks nothing better. He knows very well, the wily schemer, that to live, to be born again, the only way is to die.
Shall he die, the mighty evoker of the dead, he who gave weeping friends the only joy they knew in this world, the dream, the image of their vanished dear ones? Nay! he is very sure to live.
Shall he die, the mighty spirit who finding Creation accursed and Nature lying rejected in the mire, that Nature which the Church had tossed disdainfully from her lap like an unlovely,
unloved foster-child, took her up again and laid her softly in his bosom? Nay! the thing cannot be.
Shall he die, the sole and only healer of the Middle Ages, that age of sore disease, who saved the people by his poisons and told them to "Live on, foolish folk, love on"?
As he is assured of life, the sturdy rogue, he dies quietly and comfortably enough. He "slips off this mortal coil" like a conjuring trick, dexterously burns his fine black goat-skin, and vanishes in a flash of fire and the brilliant light of the coming dawn.
But she, she who made Satan, who made everything, good and ill alike, who fostered and favoured so many causes,love, self-devotion, crime! . . . What is her fate? Behold her all alone on the deserted heath!
She is far, very far, from being, as represented, the horror of all mankind. Many will bless her name. 4 More than one has found her fair, more than one would sell his share of Paradise if he dared but approach her. . . . But round about her is a great gulf,the admiration she excites passes all bounds, and the terror is excessive of this all-puissant Medea, of her wondrous deep-set eyes and the voluptuous snaky ringlets of coal-black hair that flood her shoulders.
Alone for ever; for ever loveless and alone! Who and what is left her? Naught but the dread Spirit who stole away from her side but now.
"Well, then, good Satan, let us away. . . . I am in haste to be in those regions down below. Hell is better than earth. Farewell this world and all its shows!"
She who first invented, first played the awful drama, could hardly survive her companion long. Satan, submissive to her behest, had near by and ready saddled a gigantic black horse, whose eyes and nostrils shot fire. She sprang to his back with one bound,and away. . . .
The eyes of the bystanders followed her vanishing form. . The good folks asked in terror, "Oh, what, what will become of her?" As she went she laughed, a horrid peal of fiendish mirth, and disappeared from sight like an arrow from a bow. Men fain would know, but know they never shall, what was the unhappy creature's final doom. 5
112:1 It is only a very short while ago that my witty and accomplished friend, M. Génin, brought together a mass of most curious information on the point in question.
112:2 Boguet, Lancre, all the authorities are at one on this point. A flat contradiction on Satan's part, but a state of things entirely agreeable to the serf, the peasant, the poor man. The Devil makes the harvest sprout, but renders woman barren; wheat in abundance, but never a child.
114:3 A very common condition of things in France, I have often been told by the learned and accurate M. Monteil.
117:4 Lancre speaks of Sorceresses who won both love and adoration.
118:5 This is almost exactly the end of an English Witch whose history is told by Wyer.