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An Excerpt from the Book

An Excerpt from A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, in 3 Volumes


Two witnesses were usually assumed to be necessary for the condemnation of a man of good repute, though some authorities demanded more. Yet when a case threatened to fail for lack of testimony, the discretion of the inquisitor was the ultimate arbitrator; and it was agreed that if two witnesses to the same fact could not be had, single witnesses to two separate facts of the same general character would suffice. When there was only one witness in all, the accused was still put on his purgation. With the same determination to remove all obstacles in the way of conviction, if a witness revoked his testimony it was held that if his evidence had been favorable to the accused, the revocation annulled it; if adverse, the revocation was null.

The same disposition to construe everything in favor of the faith governed the admissibility of witnesses of evil character. The Roman law rejected the evidence of accomplices, and the Church had adopted the rule. In the False Decretals it had ordered that no one should be admitted as an accuser who was a heretic or suspected of heresy, was excommunicate, a homicide, a thief, a sorcerer, a diviner, a ravisher, an adulterer, a bearer of false witness, or a consulter of diviners and soothsayers. Yet when it came to prosecuting heresy all these prohibitions were thrown to the winds. As early as the time of Gratian, infamous and heretical witnesses were receivable against heretics. The edicts of Frederic II rendered heretics incapable of giving testimony, but this disability was removed when they testified against heretics.

That there was some hesitation on this point we see in the Legatine Inquisition held in Toulouse in 1229, where it is recorded that Guillem Solier, a converted heretic, was restored in fame in order to enable him to bear witness against his former associates, and even as late as 1260 Alexander IV was obliged to reassure the French inquisitors that they could safely use the evidence of heretics; but the principle became a settled one, adopted in the canon law, and constantly enforced in practice. Without it, in fact, the Inquisition would have been deprived of its most fruitful means of tracking heretics. It was the same with excommunicates, perjurers, infamous persons, usurers, harlots, and all those who, in the ordinary criminal jurisprudence of the age, were regarded as incapable of bearing witness, yet whose evidence was receivable against heretics. All legal exceptions were declared inoperative except that of mortal enmity.

In the ordinary criminal law of Italy no evidence was received from a witness under twenty, but in cases of heresy such testimony was taken, and, though not legal, it sufficed to justify torture. In France the distinction seems to have been less rigidly defined, and the matter probably was left, like so much else, to the discretion of the inquisitors. As the Council of Albi specifies seven years as the period at which all children were ordered to be made to attend church and learn the Creed, Paternoster, and Salutation to the Virgin, it may be safely assumed that below that age they would hardly be admitted to give testimony. In the records of the Inquisition the age of the witness is rarely stated, but I have met with one case, in 1244, after the capture of the pestilent nest of heretics at Montségur, where the Inquisition gathered so goodly a harvest, when the age of a witness, Arnaud Olivier, happens to be mentioned as ten years. He admitted having been a Catharan “believer” since he had reached the age of discretion, and thus was responsible for himself and others. His evidence is gravely recorded against his father, his sister, and nearly seventy others; and in it he is made to give the names of sixty-six persons who were present about a year before at the sermon of a Catharan bishop. The wonderful exercise of so young a memory does not seem to have excited any doubts as to the validity of his testimony, which must have been held conclusive against the unfortunates enumerated, as he stated that they all “venerated” their prelate.

Wives and children and servants were not admitted to give evidence in favor of the accused, but their testimony if adverse to him was welcomed, and was considered peculiarly strong. It was the same with the heretic, who, as we have seen, was freely admitted as an adverse witness, but who was rejected if appearing for the defence. In short, the only exception which could be taken to an accusing witness was malignity. If he was a mortal enemy of the prisoner it was presumed that his testimony was rather the prompting of hate than zeal for the faith, and it was required to be thrown out. In the case of the dead, the evidence of a priest that he had shriven the defunct and administered the viaticum went for nothing; but if he testified that the departed had confessed to being a heretic, had recanted, and had received absolution, then his bones were not exhumed and burned, but the heirs had to endure such penance of fine or confiscation as would have been inflicted on him if alive.

Of course no witness could refuse to give evidence. No privilege or vow or oath released him from the duty. If he was unwilling and paltered or prevaricated and equivocated, there was the gentle persuasion of the torture-chamber, which, as we have seen, was even more freely used on witnesses than on principals. It was the ready instrument by which any doubts as to the testimony could be cleared up; and it is fair to attribute to the sanction of this terrible abuse by the Inquisition the currency which it so long enjoyed in European criminal law. Even the secrecy of the confessional was not respected in the frenzied effort to obtain all possible information against heretics. All priests were enjoined to make strict inquiries of their penitents as to their knowledge of heretics and fautors of heresy. The seal of sacramental confession could not be openly and habitually violated, but the result was reached by indirection. When the confessor succeeded in learning anything he was told to write it down and then endeavor to induce his penitent to reveal it to the proper authorities. Failing in this, he was, without mentioning names, to consult Godfearing experts as to what he ought to do—with what effect can readily be conjectured, since the very fact of consulting as to his duty shows that the obligation of secrecy was not to be deemed absolute.


The Inquisition, it is true, was at first warmly greeted by the Church, but the Church had grown so discredited during the events of the past half-century that its influence was less than in any other spot in Christendom. Even in Aragon the Council of Tarragona, in 1238, felt itself compelled to decree excommunication against those who composed or applauded lampoons against the clergy. The abuse of the interdict had grown to such proportions that Innocent IV., in 1243, and again in 1245, was obliged to forbid its employment throughout southern France, in all places suspected of heresy, because it afforded to heretics so manifold an occasion of asserting that it was used for private interests, and not for the salvation of souls. During the troubles which followed after the crusade of Louis VIII. the bishops had taken advantage of the confusion to seize many lands to which they had no claim, and this involved them in endless quarrels with the royal fisc in the territories which fell to the king, while in those which remained to Raymond, the pious St. Louis was forced to interfere to obtain for him a restoration of what they obstinately refused to surrender. The Church itself was so deeply tainted with heresy that the faithful were scandalized at seeing the practical immunity enjoyed by heretical clerks, owing to the difficulty of assembling a sufficient number of bishops to officiate at their degradation, and Gregory IX. felt it necessary, in 1233, to decree that in such cases a single bishop, with some of his abbots, should have power to deprive them of holy orders and deliver them to the secular arm to be burned—a provision which he subsequently embodied in the canon law. Innocent IV., moreover, in 1245, felt called upon to order his legate in Languedoc to see that no one suspected of heresy was elected or consecrated as bishop. On the other hand, priests who were zealous in aiding the Inquisition sometimes found that the enmities thus excited rendered it impossible for them to reside in their parishes, as occurred in the case of Guillem Pierre, a priest of Narbonne, in 1246, who on this account was allowed to employ a vicar and to hold a plurality of benefices. About the same time Innocent IV. felt obliged to express his surprise that the prelates disobeyed his repeated commands to assist the Inquisition; he has trustworthy information that they neglect to do so, and he threatens them roundly with his displeasure unless they manifest greater zeal. Bernard Gui, indeed, speaks of the bishops who favored Count Raymond as among the craftiest and most dangerous enemies of the inquisitors. The natural antagonism between the Mendicants and the secular clergy was, moreover, increased by the pretension of the inquisitors to supervise the priesthood and see that they performed their neglected duty in all that pertained to the extension of the faith. That under such circumstances the Dominicans employed in the pious work should suffer constant molestation scarce needs the explanation given by the pope that it was through the influence of the Arch Enemy.

Another serious impediment to the operations of the Inquisition lay in the absence of places of detention for those accused and of prisons for those condemned. We have already seen how the bishops shirked their duty in providing jails for the multitudes of prisoners until St. Louis was obliged to step in and construct them, and during this prolonged interval the sentences of the inquisitors show, in the number of contumacious absentees after a preliminary hearing, how impossible it often was to retain hold of heretics who had been arrested.

To undertake, in such an environment, the apparently hopeless task of suppressing heresy required men of exceptional character, and they were not wanting. Repulsive as their acts must seem to us, we cannot refuse to them the tribute due to their fearless fanaticism. No labor was too arduous for their unflagging zeal, no danger too great for their unshrinking courage. Regarding themselves as elected to perform God’s work, they set about it with a sublime self-confidence which lifted them above the weakness of humanity. As the mouthpiece of God, the mendicant friar, who lived on charity, spoke to prince and people with all the awful authority of the Church, and exacted obedience or punished contumacy unhesitatingly and absolutely. Such men as Pierre Celia, Guillem Arnaud, Arnaud Catala, Ferrer the Catalan, Pons de Saint-Gilles, Pons de l’Esparre, and Bernard de Caux, bearded prince and prelate, were as ready to endure as merciless to inflict, were veritable Maccabees in the internecine strife with heresy, and yet were kind and pitiful to the miserable and overflowing with tears in their prayers and discourses. They were the culminating development of the influences which produced the Church Militant of the Middle Ages, and in their hands the Inquisition was the most effective instrument whereby it maintained its supremacy. A secondary result was the complete subjugation of the South to the King of Paris, and its unification with the rest of France.

If the faithful had imagined that the Treaty of 1229 had ended the contest with heresy they were quickly undeceived. The bloodmoney for the capture of heretics, promised by Count Raymond, was indeed paid when earned, for the Inquisition undertook to see that this was done, but the earning of it was dangerous. Nobles and burghers alike protected and defended the proscribed class, and those who hunted them were slain without mercy when occasion offered. The heretics continued as numerous as ever, and we have already seen the fruitless efforts put forth by the Cardinal Legate Romano and the Council of Toulouse. Even the university which Raymond bound himself to establish in Toulouse for the propagation of the faith, though it subsequently performed its work, was at first a failure. Learned theologians were brought from Paris to fill its chairs, but their scholastic subtleties were laughed at by the mocking Southrons as absurd novelties, and the heretics were bold enough to contend with them in debate. After a few years Raymond neglected to continue the stipends, and for a time the university was suspended.


That such was the origin of the new witchcraft is rendered still more probable by the fact that its distinguishing feature was the worship of Satan in the Sabbat, or assemblage, held mostly at night, to which men and women were transported through the air, either spontaneously or astride of a stick or stool, or mounted on a demon in the shape of a goat, a dog, or some other animal, and where hellish rites were celebrated and indiscriminate license prevailed. Divested of the devil-worship now first introduced, such assemblages have formed part of the belief of all races. In Hindu superstition the witches, through the use of mystic spells, flew naked through the night to the places of meeting, where they danced, or to a cemetery, where they gorged themselves with human flesh or revived the dead to satiate their lust. The Hebrew witch flew to the Sabbat with her hair loosened, as when it was bound she was unable to exercise her full power. Among the Norsemen we have seen the trolla-thing, or assemblage of witches, for their unholy purposes. In the Middle Ages the first allusion which we meet concerning it occurs in a fragment, not later than the ninth century, in which it is treated as a diabolical illusion — “Some wicked women, reverting to Satan, and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess that they ride at night with Diana on certain beasts, with an innumerable multitude of women, passing over immense distances, obeying her commands as their mistress, and evoked by her on certain nights. It were well if they alone perished in their infidelity and did not draw so many along with them. For innumerable multitudes, deceived by this false opinion, believe all this to be true, and thus relapse into pagan errors. Therefore, priests everywhere should preach that they know this to be false, and that such phantasms are sent by the Evil Spirit, who deludes them in dreams. Who is there who is not led out of himself in dreams, seeing much in sleeping that he never saw waking? And who is such a fool that he believes that to happen in the body which is only done in the spirit? It is to be taught to all that he who believes such things has lost his faith, and he who has not the true faith is not of God, but the devil.” In some way this utterance came to be attributed to a Council of Anquira, which could never be identified; it was adopted by the canonists and embodied in the successive collections of Regino, Burchard, Ivo, and Gratian—the latter giving it the stamp of unquestioned authority—and it became known among the doctors as the Cap. Episcopi. The selection of Diana as the presiding genius of these illusory assemblages carries the belief back to classical times, when Diana, as the moon, was naturally a night-flyer, and was one of the manifestations of the triform Hecate, the favorite patroness of sorcerers. Under the Barbarians, however, her functions were changed. In the sixth century we hear of “the demon whom the peasants call Diana,” who vexed a girl and inflicted on her visible stripes, until expelled by St. Cæsarius of Arles. Diana was the dœmonium meridianum, and the name is used by John XXII. as synonymous with succubus. In some inexplicable way Bishop Burchard, in the eleventh century, when copying the text, came to add to Diana Herodias, who remained in the subsequent recensions, but Burchard in another passage substitutes as the leader Holda, the Teutonic deity of various aspect, sometimes beneficent to housewives and sometimes a member of Wuotan’s Furious Host. In a tract attributed to St. Augustin, but probably ascribable to Hugues de S.Victor, in the twelfth century, the companion of Diana is Minerva, and in some conciliar canons of a later date there appears another being known as Benzozia, or Bizazia; but John of Salisbury, who alludes to the belief as an illustration of the illusions of dreams, speaks only of Herodias as presiding over the feasts for which these midnight assemblages were held. We also meet with Holda, in her beneficent capacity as the mistress of the revels, under the name of the Domina Abundia or Dame Habonde. She was the chief of the dominœ nocturnœ, who frequented houses at night and were thought to bring abundance of temporal goods. In the year 1211 Gervais of Tilbury shows the growth of this belief in his account of the lamiœ or mascœ, who flew by night and entered houses, performing mischievous pranks rather than malignant crimes, and he prudently avoids deciding whether this is an illusion or not. He also had personal knowledge of women who flew by night in crowds with these lamiœ, when any one who incautiously pronounced the name of Christ was precipitated to the earth. Half a century later Jean de Meung tells us that those who ride with Dame Habonde claim that they number a third of the population, and when the Inquisition undertook the suppression of sorcery, in its formula of interrogatories, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, there was a question as to the night-riding of the good women.

Thus the Church, in its efforts to suppress these relics of pagandom, preferred to regard the nocturnal assemblages as a fiction, and denounced as heretical the belief in the reality of the delusion. This, as part of the canon law, remained unalterable, but alongside of it grew up, with the development of heresy, tales of secret conventicles, somewhat similar in character, in which the sectaries worshipped the demon in the form of a cat or other beast, and celebrated their impious and impure rites. Stories such as this are told of the Cathari punished at Orleans in 1017, and of their successors in later times; and the Universal Doctor, Alain de Lille, even derives the name of Cathari from their kissing Lucifer under the tail in the shape of a cat. How the investigators of heresy came to look for such assemblages as a matter of course, and led the accused to embellish them until they assumed nearly the development of the subsequent Witches’ Sabbat, is seen in the confessions of Conrad of Marburg’s Luciferans, and in some of those of the Templars.

Yet the belief in the night-riders with Diana and Herodias continued, until the latter part of the fifteenth century, to be denounced as a heresy, and any one who persisted in retaining it after learning the truth was declared to be an infidel and worse than a pagan.† It was too thoroughly implanted, however, in ancestral popular superstition to be eradicated. In the middle of the thirteenth century the orthodox Dominican, Thomas of Cantimpré, speaks of the demons who, like Diana, transport men from one region to another and delude them into worshipping mortals as gods. Others, he says, carry away women, replacing them with insensible images, who are sometimes buried as though dead. Thus, when the peasant wise-women came to be examined as to their dealings with Satan, they could hardly help, under intolerable torture, from satisfying their examiners with accounts of their nocturnal flights. Between judge and victim it was easy to build up a coherent story, combining the ancient popular belief with the heretical conventicles, and the time soon came when the confession of a witch was regarded as incomplete without an account of her attendance at the Sabbat, which was the final test of her abandonment to Satan. These stories became so universal and so complete in all their details that they could not be rejected without discrediting the whole structure of witchcraft. The theory of illusion was manifestly untenable, and demonologists and inquisitors were sadly at a loss to reconcile the incontrovertible facts with the denunciations by the Church of such beliefs as heresy. A warm controversy arose. Some held to the old doctrine that the devil cannot transport a human body or make it pass through a disproportionate opening, but they endeavored to explain the admitted facts by enlarging on his powers of creating illusions. The witch consecrated herself to him with words and with anointing, when he would take her figure or phantasm and lead it where she wished, while her body remained insensible and covered with a diabolical shadow, rendering it invisible; when the object had been accomplished, he brought back the phantasm, reunited it to the body, and removed the shadow. The question turned upon the ability of the devil to carry off human beings, and this was hotly debated. A case adduced by Albertus Magnus, in a disputation on the subject before the Bishop of Paris, and recorded by Thomas of Cantimpré, in which the daughter of the Count of Schwalenberg was regularly carried away every night for several hours, gave immense satisfaction to the adherents of the new doctrine, and eventually an ample store of more modern instances was accumulated to confirm Satan in his enlarged privileges.

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