German Society at the Close of The Middle Ages. Belfort Bax

Appendix B

TEN closely printed folio pages of Sebastian Franck’s Chronica (published in 1531) are taken up with a seemingly exhaustive narrative of the incident referred to in the text; albeit Franke himself tells us that it only represents a small portion — the “kernel,” as he expresses it — of what he had prepared, and indeed actually written, on the subject, the bulk of which, however, the exigencies of space compelled him to suppress.

“In the year 1509,” says Franck, “the two Orders of the ‘Preachers’ (Dominicans) and ‘Barefooted Friars’ (Franciscans) did wax hot against one another concerning the conception of Mary. The ‘Barefooted’ did hold that she was pure from all original sin and spotless; the ‘Preachers,’ that she was conceived in original sin even as other children of men. Now there was, much debate thereon, and at Heidelberg was there a disputation .... In the end came it to pass that the ‘Preachers’ (Dominicans) did devise to further their matter and opinion with false signs and wonders.”

A certain Dominican preacher, Wigandus by name, who had written a book against the Immaculate Conception, advised resort to trickery. The suggestion was adopted in a full Chapter of the Order held at Wimpfcn in 1506. Nürnberg and Frankfort were thought of as suitable places, but on consideration were rejected on the ground that the townsfolk of these two commercial centres were too sharp-witted. Eventually, Bern was decided upon. Accordingly, four Dominicans, the Prior, the sub-Prior, the chief preacher and another monk, connected with a foundation possessed by the Order at that place, were instructed to set about the business. They got hold of a young journeyman tailor, who applied to be received into the Order, and whom they admitted with apparent reluctance on payment of fifty-three gulden, besides the gift of some damascene and silk. As soon as they had him well in hand, they began to test his credulity by playing practical jokes on him at night — by throwing things into his cell, making mysterious noises and the like, pretending that it was the work of a spirit. At last the Prior came one night enveloped in a white linen sheet, and with horrible noises and gestures seized the trembling novice as he lay in his bed. The latter, of course, screamed and invoked the Mother of God. Upon this, the ghost adjured him, alleging that he and his colleagues could render him inestimable aid if they would but scourge themselves for eight days in succession, and read eight masses in the chapel of St. John. With this the spectre left him.

The youth next day told everything in an agony of fear. The chief preacher of the Order, Dr. Steffan, improved the occasion by an harangue against the Franciscans, declaring that no distressed spirit ever held parley with such unmitigated scoundrels as they were, or sought the aid of such notorious evil-livers. Finally, he succeeded in stirring up a strong feeling in the town against the rival Order.

The four conspiring monks having tested the silly youth, and finding him staunch in his belief, exhorted him to be of good courage the following night, the Prior having purified his cell with holy water and guarded it with relics. But the spirit came again; and on being interrogated, in accordance with instructions given to the novice, the ghost declared itself the soul of a former Prior of the monastery, who had been deposed for loose living, had left the cloister in lay attire, had become involved in a “bad business,” and had been stabbed to death in a brawl unshrived. The spirit went on to extol the Dominican Order at the expense of the Franciscans, who would shortly, it predicted, be the ruin of the town of Bern.

Visions of a similar character occurred on the following nights. The preacher, Dr. Steffan, entrusted the novice with a letter containing leading questions favourable to the Order which he was to endeavour to get delivered to the Mother of God, and return with the answers affixed. The letter was subsequently found deposited miraculously in the pyx, and sprinkled with blood said to be of Christ, and sealed with the wine. The letter was the following day laid with great pomp on the high altar. The next night one of the four monks appeared to the novice, dressed as the Virgin, with exuberant praises of the Order, and with instructions to implore the Holy Man, Pope Julius I1., to institute a festival in honour of the “spotted conception” of the Virgin, promising at the same time to convey to him a cross with three spots of the blood of her Son upon it, as a testimony of the truth of her having been born in original sin. She gave him a cloth soaked in blood from the wound in the side, and other relics. She further pierced the guileless youth’s hand with a pin, and made him call out, comforting him with the assurance that the wound would reopen afresh twice a year — on Good Friday and Corpus Christi Day. Thereupon the monk-Virgin disappeared.

All things had gone successfully up to this time, and the four monks now decided to officially announce the novice as an inspired person. To this end they succeeded “by magical practices,” says Franck — in preparing a water which deprived the new Brother of his senses, and another water which, while in this state, they rubbed into his hands and feet, producing wounds. With a third water they caused him to wake up — delighted to see the new miracles worked upon him. They then gave him a special room to himself, where the “faithful laity” might see him but no one was allowed to speak to him, for fear of his compromising the Order.

Meanwhile these things began to be noised abroad and were eagerly discussed, everybody wishing to get a sight of the new god. At length the long-suffering novice, on another visitation, recognised the voice of the Prior in the sham Virgin, and drawing a knife, stabbed him in the right hip, after which the Prior, seizing a dish from the wall, flung it at the novice and decamped. No blandishments or warnings from the sub-Prior or other monks would induce the now disillusioned novice to allow himself to be made a fool of any longer. Finding this side of the business at an end, they next entreated him with promises not to ruin himself and them, but to throw in his lot with them and consent to hoodwink the people. He, at length, agreed with some reluctance. Then they instructed him in the rôle he was to play. He was to represent an image of the Virgin in the Lady Chapel, whilst Dr. Steffan was to be concealed behind a curtain, and, speaking through a tube, to personify her “Divine Son”. The “Son” asked the “Mother” why she wept. The “Mother” answered that she wept because her commands had not been carried out fully as yet. In the meantime some old women, who had been admitted into the chapel, rushed away spreading the report everywhere that the image of the Virgin had wept and spoken. A large concourse assembled in the chapel, amongst them being the four monks, who affected great astonishment. Presently the Bürgermeister with three other high civic functionaries arrived, and demanded of the prior and monks what was the meaning of the great commotion. The Prior replied that the Virgin had wept for the approaching ruin of the whole town of Bern, because it was receiving a pension from the French king, and because it tolerated in its midst the Franciscans with their wicked heresy of the Immaculate Conception, whereby they imputed to her an honour that did not belong to her and which she repudiated. The elders of the city thought it a remarkable occurrence, and looked grave.

The monks now thought to give the novice, the alleged intermediary of so many divine messages, a poisoned sacrament in the presence of the people, so that he might die suddenly, and that they might thus gain two points — be rid of a dangerous witness, and supply their Order with a saint, whom Christ had taken to Himself during; the reception of the Holy Elements. But our novice declined the wafer with the red spots, which was offered him, and which was alleged to be sprinkled with the blood of Christ; and insisted on partaking of a less miraculous-looking one. Nevertheless, the monks did not give up their project, for the novice overheard the next night a secret conclave of the four as to the best way of getting rid of him, whether they should starve him, drown him, strangle him, run him through the body, or choke him. He now began to feel seriously anxious, snore especially as he found his rations diminishing daily. Accordingly, one day he crept out of his cell and followed one of the four monks into the refectory, where he saw them eating capons and drinking wines with girls, who, to his intense disgust, he observed wore dresses made of the very damascene and silk he had contributed to the monastery on his initiation. His presence was detected, and Dr. Steffan tried to pass the girls off as sisters of his own. The monks thought, notwithstanding, that it was high time “to leave their damnable faces and begin”. So they gave the novice cabbage stewed in a solution of crushed spiders, but this did him no harm. They then tried it on a cat, which died. The Prior next brought him a poisoned soup, which he did not eat but threw away. Five young wolves kept in the monastery thereupon ate it and died. Then they tried the sacrament trick again, forcing it into his mouth, but he threw it up on to a footstool, which the worthy Sebastian assures us immediately began to sweat blood. This alarmed the conspirators, and they changed their tactics, chaining the youth up, fettling him in various parts of the body with hot irons, until he swore a solemn oath not to divulge anything. At last, says Sebastian, the matter “became too heavy for the Brother,” and he resolved to escape at once. He succeeded in doing so by cunning and stealth, and rushing into the town he informed everybody he met of all that had happened. The authorities, however, were unwilling to lay violent hands on a spiritual Order.

The monks, on their side, lost no time in sending their preacher and the sub-Prior to Rome, in order to get the Pope’s attestation of their story. They were supported by the whole influence of the Dominican Order throughout Central Europe. The Rath of Bern then also sent to Rome to demand an impartial judge for the matter, and Pope Julius II. nominated a commission consisting of three priests and a Dominican Provincial. The latter, being seen by one of the bishops admonishing Dr. Steffan how to act, was removed from the court, and died at Constance from vexation. The four monks were then placed on the rack, and revealed everything. The boor novice was also given a few turns on the rack, in order to make sure that he had told all he knew. He rehearsed everything including the story of the girls.

It came out in the course of the trial that Jews’ blood, nineteen hairs from the black eyebrow of a Jew child, and other ingredients, which our modest Sebastian informs us “it were not seemly to tell of,” went to constitute the magical decoction that the monks had used in order to make the novice subservient to them. It was found also that the sub-Prior had stolen five hundred golden from the monastic chest, and that the other monks had taken the precious stones from the image of the Virgin and disposed of them, also that the Prior had boasted that he could work his will with any woman on whom he laid his hand.

The bishops wanted to transfer the matter to Rome, but the lay authorities would not hear of this, and insisted on the court being reinforced by eight honourable councillors of the city. In the end the ecclesiastics consented to reconstitute the court in this form. The result was a sentence of degradation and burning alive on all four monks. The execution was carried out in the presence of a large concourse of people in the great market-place of the city of Bern, on the 31st of May, 1509.

As intimated in the body of this work, the foregoing affair caused a profound impression over a wide area, affecting as it did the honour and integrity of so powerful an Order as that of the “Preachers” or Dominicans, and it made the city and canton of Bern an easy prey to the reforming’ tendencies which came in vogue a few years later.

The following is another illustration of the ready credulity of a mediaeval populace and the excessive excitability of the public mind in the earlier years of the sixteenth century. To quote, this time literally, from another portion of Sebastian Franck’s Chronica:

“Anno 1516, Dr. Balthasar Hubmeyer [at this time Hubmeyer was still a Catholic] did preach with vehemence against the Jews at Regensburg, showing how great an evil doth arise to the whole German nation, not alone from their faith, but also from their usury, and how unspeakable a tribute their usury doth bear away withal. Then was there a Council held that they should pray the Emperor to the end that Jews might be driven forth. Therefore did they the people break their synagogue in pieces, also many of their houses, and did build in the place thereof a Temple in honour of Mary, to which they gave the name of The Fair Mary. This did some visit privily, and told that from that hour was their prayer fulfilled. So soon, therefore, as the matter became noised abroad, even then was there a running from all parts thither, as though the people were bewitched, of wife, of child, of gentlemen, some spiritual, some worldly, they coming so long a way, it might be having eaten nothing. Certain children who knew not the road did come from afar with a piece of bread, and the people came with so manifold an armoury, even such as it chanced that each had, the while he was at his work, the one with a milking-pail, the other with a hay-fork. Some there were that had scarce aught on in the greatest cold, wherewithal to cover them in barest need. Some there were that did run many miles without speaking, as they might be half-possessed or witless; some did come barefoot with rakes, axes and sickles; these had fled from the fields and forsaken their lords; some caméd in a shirt they had by chance laid hands on as they arose from their bed; some did come at midnight; some there were that ran day and night; and there was in all such a running from all lands that, in the space of but one day, many thousands of men had come in.

“One there was that saw miracles from so much and so divers silver, gold, wax, pictures and jewels that were brought thither. There were daily so many masses read that one priest could scarce but meet the other, as he departed from the altar. When one did read the Communion (Commun], the other even then did kneel before the altar with his Confiteor. These things came to pass daily till well-nigh beyond noon, and although many altars were set up both within and without the Temple, yet nevertheless could not one priest but encounter the other.

“The learned did sing many Carmina in praise of Fair Mary, and many and divers offices were devised of signs, of pipes and of organs. Much sick folk did they lead and bear thither, and also, as some do believe, dead men whom they brought home again restored and living. There befel also many great signs and wonders, the which it would not be fitting to tell of, and whereof all especial cheat was rumoured, in that what any brought thither, did he but vow himself with his offering, straightway was he healed, not alone from his sicknesses, but the living did receive also their dead again, the blind saw, the halt ran, did leave their crutches in the Temple, and walked upright from thence. Some ran thither from the war; yea, wives from their husbands, children from the obedience and will of their fathers would thither, saying that they might not remain away, and that they had no rest day nor night.

“Some as they entered into the Temple and beheld the image straightway fell down as though the thunder had smote them. As the mad rabble beheld how such did fall, they bethought them that it were the power of God, and that each must needs fall in this place. Thus there came to pass such a falling (such as was a foolishness and unrestrained and of the devil’s likeness) that well-nigh each that came to these places did fall, and many from the rabble, who did not fall, believed themselves to be unholy and did enforce themselves straightway to fall, till the Council [Rath] was moved, as they say, to forbid such, and then did the signs and fallings cease.

“It is wondrous to relate with what strange Instruments the people caméd thither; as one was seized in the midst of his labour, lie took not the time to lay aside that which he held in his hand but bore it with him, and each ran unshrived away, being driven by his own spirit. But whether the great Holy Spirit did move to such ill-considered tumult against obedience, did drive the mother from the child, the wife from the husband, the servant and the child contrary to the obedience to be rendered to the master and the father, I will leave to others to determine. Many do even believe as I do, that it cannot be the work of God inasmuch as it is contrary to His word, work, manner, nature and the interpretation of the Scriptures.

“Now this running toward hath held a goodly season, as it may be six or eight years, but hath now ceased, albeit not wholly.”

I have reproduced as literally as possible from Franck’s own language, not (as will have been noticed) omitting or toning down the repetitions and incoherences of style.