The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
THE Sorceresses took small pains to hide their proceedings. They rather boasted of their powers; and it is out of their own mouths Sprenger gathered a large proportion of the strange stories which adorn his Manual. The said Manual is a highly pedantic work, following with grotesque servility the formal divisions and subdivisions in use among the Thomist logicians,yet at the same time the single-minded, earnest and serious production of a man quite genuinely frightened, a man who in the awful duel between God and the Devil, in which the former generally allows the Evil One to get the best of it, sees no other possible remedy but to pursue the latter firebrand in hand, burning with all practicable speed those mortal frames wherein he chooses to take up his abode.
Sprenger's sole merit is to have compiled a work more complete than any of his predecessors, the compendium of a vast and elaborate system, the crown of a whole literature. The old Penitentiaries, or manuals for the use of confessors in their inquisition into various sins, were succeeded by the Directories for the inquisition of heresy, the greatest of all sins. But for the chiefest heresy of all, which is Witchcraft or Sorcery, special Directoria or manuals were compiled, the so-called Hammers (Mallei) for the detection and punishment of Witches and Sorceresses. These manuals, continually enriched by the zeal of the Dominicans, reached their highest perfection in the Malleus of Sprenger, a work which governed the author himself in the conduct of his great mission to Germany, and for a century remained the guide and beacon-star of the tribunals of the Inquisition.
What was it led Sprenger to study these questions? He relates how being at Rome, in the refectory where the monks lodged pilgrims, he saw two such from Bohemia,a young priest namely and his father. The old man was sighing and supplicating for a successful issue to his journey. Sprenger, moved to pity, asks him the cause of his distress. The reason he says is this: his son is possessed by the Devil, and at great trouble and expense he has brought him to Rome, to the tombs of the saints and martyrs. "And this son, where is he?" demands the monk. "There, beside you." "I was startled at the answer, and shrank back. I examined the young priest and was surprised to see him eating his dinner with a quiet, unassuming air and answering very gently any remarks addressed to him. He informed me that having spoken somewhat roughly to an old woman, this latter had cast a spell upon him. The spell was under a tree; but under what tree the Witch absolutely refused to say." Sprenger, still in a spirit of pity and good will, proceeded to lead the patient from church to church and from relic to relic. At each shrine visited, exorcism, frenzy, loud cries and wild convulsions, gibberish in every language under heaven and many uncouth gambols,all this before the eyes of the public, which followed the pair, wondering, admiring, and shuddering. Devils, common enough in Germany, were less familiar in Italy, and in a few days' time Rome was talking of nothing else. This affair, which caused no small sensation, no doubt drew the general attention upon the Dominican Father concerned in it. He studied the subject, compiled all the various Mallei and other manuscript manuals, and became the great authority on questions of Demonology. His great work, the Malleus Maleficarum, would seem to have been composed during the twenty years intervening between this adventure and the important mission entrusted to Sprenger by Pope Innocent VIII. in 1484.
It was highly important to select an adroit personage for this mission to Germany, a man of intelligence and tact, who should
prevail over the repugnance felt by Teutonic honesty towards the dark, subterranean system he was endeavouring to introduce. Rome had met with a rude check in the Low Countries, which put the Inquisition on its mettle in those regions, and resulted in its being altogether excluded from France. Toulouse, as a former stronghold of the Albigensians, was the only exception, being subjected to all the rigours of the Holy Office. About the year 1460 a Penitentiary of Rome, who had become Dean of Arras, determined to strike terror among the Chambres de Rhétorique (Chambers of Rhetoric), or Literary Unions, which were beginning to discuss matters of religion. He burned one of these Rhetoricians as a Sorcerer, and with him sundry rich citizens, and even knights. The nobility was furious at this attack on its privileges, while the voice of public opinion spoke out loudly and plainly. The Inquisition was scouted, abominated, held accursed, particularly in France. The Parlement of Paris shut the door rudely in its face; and Rome, by her bad management, threw away this opportunity of introducing into the north of Europe the reign of terror inseparable from the methods of the Inquisition.
The moment seemed better chosen in 1484. The Holy Office, which in Spain had assumed such terrible proportions, and overshadowed royalty itself, seemed by this time to have become a conquering institution, well capable of walking alone and bound to penetrate everywhere and subjugate everything to itself. True, it encountered an obstacle in Germany in the jealous opposition of the ecclesiastical princes, who, possessing tribunals of their own, had never shown themselves very ready to revive the Roman Inquisition. But the present situation of these princes, the very grave anxiety which the popular movements of the time occasioned them, made them less recalcitrant. All the Rhine country and Suabia, even the eastern parts towards Salzburg, seemed undermined with sedition. Every instant insurrections of the peasantry were breaking out. Everywhere beneath the surface there seemed to lurk a vast subterranean
volcano, an unseen lake of fire, which, now here, now there, betrayed its existence by outbursts of fire and flame. The foreign Inquisition, far more dreaded than the native variety, came very opportunely on the spot to terrorise the country and break down rebellious spirits, burning as Sorcerers to-day the very men who would likely enough to-morrow have been insurgents. It formed an excellent popular weapon to overawe the people, an admirable device for drawing off dangerous humours. This time the storm was to be diverted upon the Sorcerers, just as in 1349 and on so many other occasions its fury had been directed against the Jews.
Only a man was indispensable. The inquisitor who was to bell the cat, who before the jealous courts of Mayence and Cologne, before the scoffing populace of Frankfort or Strassburg, was to set up his tribunal, was bound to be a person of intelligence and good sense. His personal tact and dexterity had to counterbalance, to make men forget in some measure, the odious nature of his office. Moreover, Rome has always piqued herself in choosing her men well. Indifferent to abstract questions, anything but indifferent to concrete individualities, she has always believed, and she was justified in believing, that success in practical affairs depended on the particular and special character of the agents accredited to each country. Was Sprenger the right man in the right place? To begin with, he was a German, and a Dominican, assured beforehand, therefore, of the support of that formidable order and all its monastic houses and schools. A worthy son of the schools was indispensable, a good Schoolman, a master of the Summa Theologiæ, soundly trained in his Aquinas, never at a loss for a text to clinch the argument. Sprenger was all this,and more than this, to wit a pedantic fool.
"It is often stated, both in speech and writing, that dia-bolus is derived from dia, two, and bolus, a bolus or pill, because swallowing body and soul at one gulp, the Devil makes of the
two only one pill, one single mouthful. But (he continues with all the gravity of Sganarelle), according to the Greek etymology, diabolus signifies clausus ergastulo (imprisoned in a dungeon), or else defluens (whence Devil?), that is to say falling, because he fell from heaven."
at is the derivation of maléfce (sorcery)? "It comes from maleficiendo (ill-doing), which signifies malè de fide sentiendo (ill-thinking on matters of faith)." A remarkable piece of etymology, but one of far-reaching consequences. If sorcery is the same thing as heresy, why! every sorcerer is a heretic, and every freethinker a sorcerer; and the Church is justified in burning as sorcerers any and every body who should dare to hold unorthodox opinions. This is precisely what they had done at Arras, and they were for establishing little by little the same good custom everywhere.
Here lies Sprenger's real merit, which is beyond dispute. He is a fool, but an intrepid fool; boldly and unflinchingly he lays down the least acceptable doctrines. Another man would have tried to elude, attenuate, soften objections, but this is not his way. Beginning on the first page, he sets down openly and displays one by one the natural, self-evident reasons there are for disbelieving the satanic miracles. This done, he adds coldly, "Merely so many heretic mistakes." And never pausing to refute the reasons given, he copies out the texts on the other side, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Bible, legends, canonists, and commentators. First he shows you what common sense has to say, then pulverises it by weight of authority.
His duty accomplished, he sits down calm, serene, triumphant, and seems to say, "Well! what have you to say now? Would you be so daring now as to use your reason? . . . Can you doubt, for instance, that the Devil amuses himself by interfering between man and wife, when never a day passes but the Church and the canonists allow this as a ground for separation?"
There is no reply to this, and nobody will so much as whisper
an objection. Sprenger in the first line of this Manual for the use of Judges, formally declaring the smallest doubt as an act of heresy, the judge's hands are tied. He feels there must be no trifling; that supposing he were so unfortunate as to experience some temptation in the way of compunction or tenderheartedness, it would be his bounden duty to begin by condemning himself to a death at the stake.
The method is everywhere identical. Good common sense first of all, followed by a direct frontal attack, a downright, unhesitating negation of common sense. It would seem natural enough, for instance, to say that, love being in the soul already, it is hardly necessary to assume the mysterious intervention of the Evil One to be required. Is not this fairly self-evident? Not so, says Sprenger,distinguo. "The man who splits the wood is not the cause of its burning,but only an indirect cause. The wood-splitter is love (on this point see Dionysius the Areopagite, Origen, John of Damascus, etc., etc.). Love therefore is only the indirect cause of love."
This it is to be a scholar. It is no second-rate school that could produce such a pupil. Cologne only, Louvain and Paris owned machinery fully adapted to mould the human brain. The School of Paris was strong indeed; for culinary Latin, what could rival Gargantua's Janotus? But even mightier was Cologne, famed queen of darkness that supplied Ulrich von Hütten with the type of the Obscuri Viri of his world-famous satire, the reactionaries and ignoramuses that have always been so fortunate and so fertile a tribe.
This solid, stolid Schoolman, so full of words and so void of sense, sworn foe of Nature no less than of human reason, takes his seat with superb confidence in his books and his learned gown, in the dust and dirt and litter of his gloomy court. On the desk before him he has on one side the Summa Theologiæ, on the other the Directorium. This is his library, and he laughs at anything outside its limits. He is not the sort of man to be imposed
upon, or to waste his time upon Astrology or Alchemy,follies not so foolish after all, destined in time to lead to genuine observation of Nature's laws. Why, Sprenger is actually a sceptic, and has doubts about the old recipes. Albertus Magnus declares positively that sage in a fountain is sufficient to bring about a great storm; he shakes his head. Sage? don't tell me; I beg you have me excused. It needs only a little experience to see in this a trick of Him who would fain deceive and cajole us all, the wily Lord of the Air; but he will get the worst of it, he has to deal with a Doctor of the Church more cunning than the Prince of Cunning himself.
Would I could have seen in the flesh this typical specimen of the judge and the prisoners brought before his tribunal! Were God to take creatures from two different planets and set them face to face, they could not be more sharply contrasted, more unknown one to the other, more completely lacking in a common language. The old Witch-wife, a ragged skeleton of a woman, with haggard eyes alight with malice, a creature thrice tempered in the fires of hell, the grim, lonely shepherd of the Black Forest or the solitudes of the High Alps,such are the wild beings presented to the cold, dull eye of the pedant, to be judged by the light of his school-bred intellect.
Nor will they, be it said, keep him long sweating in his bed of justice. They will tell all they know without torture. The question will be applied later on, never fear, but only as a complement and ornament, as it were, to the depositions. They readily expound and relate in due order whatever they have done. The Devil is the bosom friend of the shepherd, and the Witch's bedfellow. She says as much, with a conscious smile and a glance of triumph, evidently enjoying the horror of the audience.
The old creature is a mad woman surely, and the shepherd as mad as she. A couple of besotted fools, you say? Not so, neither; far from it. On the contrary, they are keen and subtle-witted, both of them, beings who can hear the grass grow and
see through stone walls. Another thing they can perceive plainer still is the monumental pair of asses ears that nod over the learned Doctor's cap. His dominant emotion towards them is fear; for, brave as he pretends to be, he is trembling all the while. He himself allows that the priest very often, unless he takes good heed, when he exorcises the Demon, only determines the evil spirit to change its abode and pass into the body of God's minister himself, finding it a more flattering morsel to inhabit the person of one consecrated to Heaven. Who knows but these simple-minded devils of shepherds and sorceresses might be taken with the ambition to enter into an Inquisitor? He is far from feeling so bold as his confident mien would indicate, when in his biggest voice he asks the Witch-wife, "If your master is so all-powerful, why do I not feel his assaults?" "As a fact," the poor man confesses in his book, "I felt him only too plainly. When I was at Ratisbon, how often he would come and rap at my window-panes! How often he would stick pins in my cap! Then there were a hundred evil visions, dogs, apes, and so forth, without end."
But the Devil's greatest delight, for he is nothing if not a logician, is to pose the learned Doctor out of the mouth of the false-hearted hag with embarrassing arguments and tricky questions, from which his only escape is by imitating the cuttle-fish, that avoids his pursuers by troubling the water and making all his neighbourhood as black as ink. For instance, "The Devil is active only so far as God suffers him to be so; then why punish his instruments?" Or else, "We are not free agents; God allows the Devil, as with the Patriarch Job, to tempt and drive us into sin, to force us by blows even. Is it just to punish one who is thus constrained?" Sprenger gets out of the difficulty by saying, "You are free beings,"here follows a long array of texts. "You are bond-servants only by reason of your pact with the Evil One." To which the reply again would be only too easy, "If God
allows the Evil One to tempt us to make a pact, it is He makes the said pact possible," and so on, and so on.
"I show over-much good nature," he declares, "in listening to these gentry at all! Tis a fool's part to argue with the Devil." The populace agrees with him to a man. All applaud the proceedings; all are eager, excited, impatient for sentence and execution. Hangings are common enough; but this Sorcerer and Sorceress, it will be a tasty treat to see how the pair will sparkle and splutter like brands in the burning.
The judge has the people on his side. There is no sort of difficulty; under the rules of the Directorium, three witnesses were sufficient. How fail to get three witnesses, especially to bear false witness? In every tattling town, in every ill-natured village, witnesses are as common as blackberries. Besides, the Directorium is an old-fashioned book, a century behind date. In this fifteenth century, an age of such enlightenment, everything is improved. If no witnesses are forthcoming, the public voice is enough, the general cry of popular indignation! 1
This sincere cry of suffering and of fear, the lamentable plaint of the unhappy victims of bewitchment, moves Sprenger strongly. Do not for a moment suppose him a mere unfeeling pedant, a man of dry, unsympathetic hardness. He has a heart, and that is the very reason why he is so ready to kill. He is very pitiful and full of lovingkindness. He pities intensely the weeping wife, a pregnant mother but now, whose babe the Witch stifled in her womb with a look of her evil eye. He pities the poor farmer on whose crops she has brought down the blighting
hail. He pities the husband who, no Sorcerer himself, is convinced his wife is a Sorceress, and drags her, a rope round her neck, before Sprenger, who promptly has her burned.
With a cruel man there might be means of escape; but this good, charitable Sprenger leaves no room for hope. His humanity is so overpowering, you must just be burned, there is no help for it,or at any rate an extraordinary degree of address, a presence of mind of the readiest, is needed. One day a complaint is lodged with him by three good ladies of Strassburg, who on the same day and at the same moment felt themselves struck by an invisible assailant. How did it happen? The only person they can accuse is an ill-looking fellow, who has cast a spell over them, it would seem. Summoned before the inquisitor, the man protests, swearing by all the saints he does not even know the ladies in question, has never so much as set eyes on them before. The judge refuses to believe him; neither tears nor oaths are of the slightest avail. His great compassion for the ladies made him inexorable, and the man's denial only roused his anger. He was already rising to order the fellow to the torture-chamber, where he would have confessed no doubt, as the most innocent constantly did, when he got leave to speak and said, "I do indeed recollect how yesterday at the hour named, I struck . . . who was it I struck? . . . no Christian women, but three cats that ran at me savagely biting my legs." Then the judge, like a man of sagacity as he was, saw it all. The poor man was innocent; without a doubt the ladies on such and such days were changed into cats, while the artful Fiend amused himself by setting them at good Christians legs to work the ruin of these latter and get them taken for Sorcerers.
A less perspicacious judge would never have guessed that. But you could not always count on having a man of such penetration on the bench. So it was highly necessary there should lie always ready on the desk of the tribunal a good guide-book or manual for fools, to make manifest to simpler and less experienced inquisitors the wiles of the Enemy of Mankind and the
means of frustrating them, in fact the same system of deep and artful strategy which the great Sprenger had employed to such good purpose in his Rhenish campaigns. To this end, the Malleus was printed in a pocket edition, generally of a size then uncommon, viz. small 18mo. It would not have been seemly for the judge to have been seen fumbling over the leaves of a great folio lying on his desk, while all the court gaped at him; but he could quite well and without any fuss consult out of the corner of his eye and thumb furtively under cover his pocket manual of folly.
The Malleus, like all the books of this kind, contains a strange admission, namely that the Devil is gaining ground, in other words that God is losing it; that the human race, saved by Jesus Christ, is becoming the conquest and prey of Satan. The latter, only too manifestly, is making progress, as legend after legend proves. What an advance he has made since the times of the Gospel, when he was too happy to take up his abode in the swine, down to the period of Dante, when a Theologian and a Lawyer, he argues with the saints, and pleads his case, and as final conclusion of a victorious syllogism, says, as he carries off the soul in dispute, with a triumphant laugh, "Ah! ha! you did not know I was a Logician."
During the earlier years of the Middle Ages he still waits for the death agony before taking the soul and carrying it off. St. Hildegard (circa 1100) believes "that he cannot enter into the body of a living man, if he did, the members would fall to pieces; it is the shadow and vapour of the Devil only that enter in." This last glimmer of common sense disappears in the twelfth century. In the thirteenth we find a prior so terribly afraid of being taken off alive that he has himself guarded day and night by two hundred men-at-arms.
Then begins a period of ever-increasing terrors, when mankind relies continually less and less on Divine protection. No longer is the Demon a stealthy, furtive Spirit, a thief of the night gliding about in the darkness, but an undaunted foe, the
bold ape of God, who under God's own sun, in the open light of day, mimics the works of His hands. What authority is there for the statement,legends, tradition? Not these only, but the gravest Doctors of the Church. The Devil transforms all creatures, Albertus Magnus declares. St. Thomas Aquinas goes further still. "All the changes capable of occurring naturally and by way of genus, these the Devil can imitate." A startling admission truly, which in so grave a mouth amounts to nothing less than the setting up of another Creator in face of the accredited Artificer of the Universe! "But," he goes on, "whatever can come to pass without germination, a changing of man to beast, the raising to life of a dead man, acts like these the Devil cannot perform." This is indeed to reduce God's domain to small proportions; strictly speaking, He has nothing left Him but miracles, events of rare and altogether special occurrence. But that daily miracle, life, is no more his exclusively; the Devil, his imitator, shares the realm of Nature along with Him.
So far as Man is concerned, whose weak vision draws no distinction between Nature as created by God and Nature as created by the Devil, this is a bi-partition of the Universe. Henceforth a dreadful uncertainty must brood over everything. The innocency of Nature is lost. The limpid spring, the white flower, the little bird, are they really of God's making, or merely mocking imitations, so many snares to catch mankind? . . . Retro Satanas! All nature comes under suspicion. Both creations, the good no less than the doubtful, are darkened and degraded. The shadow of the Evil One obscures the light of day, and hangs looming over every department of human life. To judge by appearances and men's apprehensions, he not merely shares the world with God, but has usurped it in its entirety.
Such is the state of things in Sprenger's day. His book is full of the most melancholy admissions with regard to the impotency of God. He allows it, is his phrase, to be so. To allow so complete an illusion, to let it be believed that the Devil is everything, God nothing, is really more than merely to allow; it is to proclaim
the damnation of a world of unhappy souls utterly defenceless against so grave an error. No prayers, no acts of penitence, no pilgrimages are of any avail; no! not even (he admits the fact) the Sacrament of the Altar. What an admission of weakness, what a loss of prestige! Nuns, after full and free confession, the host actually in their mouths, are forced to own that at that very moment they feel the fiendish lover, shameless and unabashed, troubling their senses and refusing to quit his hold over them. And, cross-questioned, they added with tears and sobs that the Foul Fiend has their bodies, because he possesses their souls already.
The Manichæans of old, the Albigensian heretics of a later time, were accused of believing in the power of Evil which contended against the Good, making the Devil the equal of God. But now he is more than the equal; if God, incarnate in the consecrated host, can avail nothing, why! then the Devil must be the stronger and more effectual of the two.
I no longer wonder at the extraordinary aspect presented by the world at that date. Spain with gloomy ferocity, Germany with the terrified and pedantic rage the Malleus bears witness to, pursue the insolent and victorious usurper in the persons of the wretched creatures whom he chooses to take up his abode in; the stake and the rope are ruthlessly employed against the fleshly tabernacles that have given him shelter. Finding him over-strong for them in the soul, persecutors are fain to drive him out of the bodies of men. But where is the use? Burn one Sorceress, he makes good his hold on another; nay! sometimes (if we are to believe Sprenger) he seizes the very priest who is exorcising him, and wins a special triumph in the actual person of his judge.
The Dominicans, driven almost to despair, recommended intercessions to the Virgin, unceasing repetitions of the Ave Maria. Still Sprenger admits even this remedy to be ephemeral. A suppliant may be whipped off between two Aves. Hence the
invention of the Rosary, the chaplet of the Aves, by the help of which the devotee can mumble on mechanically for an indefinite time, while the mind is occupied elsewhere. Whole nations adopt this first attempt in the art whereby Loyola will essay to lead the world, and of which his Exercitia are the ingenious if rudimentary beginnings.
All this might seem to contradict what we said in the preceding chapter as to the decay of Sorcery. The Devil is now popular, and active everywhere; he appears to have won the day. But does he really profit by his victory? Does he gain in actual, substantial influence? Yes! from the new point of view of that scientific revolt that is to give us the bright, light-bringing renaissance. No! from the point of view of the old darksome spirit of Sorcery. The diabolic legends, in the sixteenth century, both more numerous and more widely diffused than ever, show a marked tendency towards the grotesque. Men tremble, but they laugh at one and the same time. 2
137:1 Faustin Hélie, in his learned and instructive Traité de linstruction criminelle (vol. i. 398), has explained with perfect lucidity the way in which Innocent III., about 1200, abolished the safeguards of accusation, till then held indispensable,in particular the liability to a charge of slander on the part of the accuser. These safeguards were superseded by various subterranean modes of procedure, Denunciation, Inquisition, etc. See Soldan for instances of the appalling ease with which these latter methods were applied. Verily blood was poured out like water.
142:2 See my Mémoires de Luther, for the Kilcrops and the like.