A few more pages may be devoted to recalling some of the many shapes taken by those superstitions which occupied so prominent a place among the household words of our forefathers. It is well for us to think sometimes of household words now past and gone. The other day we discussed only the spirits of the elements, and found how the belief in them beset the daily life of men with gloom and terror. But there existed other goblin fancies.
Even at this day. Can we say fairly that the belief in death omens has gone the way of all error? The death-watch still sets many a heart beating and there are even people who would resent the imputation of ignorance unable to hear unmoved at night the howling of a dog. The dog always was considered a beast sensitive to impressions from the spirit world. Eumaean dogs, says Homer, could see the apparition of Pallas when Telemachus saw nothing. In the sixteenth century, Jerome Cardan, the Milanese physician, relates that a dog howled before his marriage, and explains that his guardian angel came in grief to his threshold, and that the dog felt the presence of the spirit. In the same century – in the year fifteen hundred and fifty-three, a few weeks before a great mortality in Saxony, the dogs, it is said, assembled in a great troop in Meissen, and ran howling and yelling dismally through field and forest.
There are still women, and even men, afraid of corpse-lights. The most elaborate superstition of this kind, is that which used to prevail in Wales, through Cardigan, Caermarthen, and Pembroke. A fire, it was believed, rose out of the bed of the person who was about to die; it went thence to the churchyard, and the way it took was precisely the way that it would be taken by coffin. If anywhere it turned aside, the bearers of the coffin would in the same place be compelled to turn aside to avoid filth, or some other obstruction. John Davis, in the year sixteen hundred and fifty-six, related this belief of his neighbours in a letter published by Richard Baxter. A little pale or bluish light, he said, went before the corpse of an infant or young child, a thicker one before an adult, and two or three together preceded as many deaths. A neighbour of Davis’s, about to give birth to a child, met two such lights at her house-door as she was entering; they were are large light and a little one. May we not think it a direct consequence of the fear attending superstition, though Davis takes it as a quite natural sequence, that directly afterwards this woman fell ill, and the child came before long into the world, and that the mother and child died? Davis’s wife’s sister, Joanna Wyat, had been nurse in a great house, thirty-five years before he wrote his letter, and then one day, then the lady of the house lay dead, the housekeeper went into the maid-servant’s room, and saw five of these lights. Afterwards the room was whitened, and to hasten drying, a brasier of charcoal was put into it. The servants went to bed, and five of them were dead the next morning.
Philip Camerarius wrote thus of signs of death: “Some princes are warned by a roaring of lions, or a strange howling of dogs, a nightly thumping or stamping about their castles, or the untimely striking of their clocks. In monasteries, it happens not unfrequently that the seats of monks or nuns, who are about to die, are occupied by shadows without heads. I know a noble family that has the surest token of death when a certain fountain, usually clear, is clouded by a worm otherwise quite unknown. Another family of great note is warned of death by the occurrence of a landslip in their neighbourhood.”
Whoever may be disposed to shudder at the reading of such things may judge of the dread excited by the commonest occurrences, when rich and poor alike were taught thus to interpret them in solemn earnest.
Lavater wrote, near the end of the sixteenth century, that when a town councilor or other public person was about to die, a loud report, or other token of death, proceeded from the seat in the hall habitually inhabited by him. In monasteries, he wrote that monks had heard their coffins being ordered for them exactly as they were really ordered not many days after, and he said, when any one is about to die in the villages, the people hear, in the dusk of evening or at night, a sound of spades in the churchyard, and it is precisely the same sound, stroke for stroke, that will be made the next day by the sextons. After citing other tokens of the same kind, he added: “Executioners are often heard to say that they know generally beforehand when a criminal will be delivered to them, because their swords more of their own accord upon the wall; some even say that they can fortell by such signs the exact manner in which the condemned man will be put to death.”
The spontaneous clashing of the headsman’s implements is an idea kindred to the belief that when an absent knight is killed, blood breaks out upon the sword that he has left at home, and many a warrior’s wife may by this superstition have been made to tremble at the apparition of a few streaks of red rust.
It was a prettier fancy that prevailed among the monks of Corbei; the angel of death laid a lily on the seat of the brother who would next be taken. Such a monk would no doubt have been half or quite frightened to death if any one had put, secretly through malice, a lily in his chair. The magnates of the high church of Breslau translated this fancy – and spoil it, as translators do spoil nearly everything: their token of death was not a lily, but a rose.
Sir Walter Scott has made us all familiar with White Ladies. The White Lady superstition was extremely prevalent, but not before the fifteenth century. It began, perhaps, with the story of Melusina to the princes of the House of Lusignan. White Ladies appeared before the death of lords or princes only, or of members of their family, and often only before those deaths which were to cause the transfer of their lands to a new line of heirs. There was a famous White Lady attached to the House of Brandenburg. An Italian writer upon Judas Iscariot told of three great Italian houses, those of Torelli, Pio, and Gozaga, in which a White Lady always appeared before death, and occupied the room in which the body would afterwards be laid out. It was believed that this was the apparition of a former mistress of infidelity, and had therefore been wrapped up in white linen and thrown out of an upper window.
As I find that my own flesh begins to creep, I shall be glad to change the topic. First, however, let me add a rational explanation that has been offered of the origin of the White Lady superstition. White used to be the colour in which noble ladies mourned. To say, “the White Lady will soon be seen,” was to say that the lord of the house or one of the family would die. Thence by an easy corruption, the whole superstition might in time have come.
Farmers of old time did not grumble at the weather, but at the neighbour who had raised the weather. In the early times of the Romans that was so, and there is a pretty story on the subject, very familiar to all readers of Roman history. It will be more to our purpose to illustrate the strong working of such a superstitious fancy in much later times. Here is a story (how suggestive!) told by Bodimus, in his “Daemonomania,” nearly at the end of the sixteenth century. He had it from the Admiral Colingy, who was a victim of the massacre of St. Bartholomew.
“A young man in Poiton, was accused of the murder of two gentlemen. He confessed that he had been their servant, and seen how they strewed powder over the sown fields, with the words, ‘Curse light upon this fruit, upon this house, upon this neighbourhood.’ He then took the same powder, of which he had got possession, and threw it into the bedroom of these nobles, and so it followed that each of them was found dead in his bed. The judges thereupon pronounced the young man guiltless.”
There were men who were supposed able to raise storms, and men able to defend against them. People who assumed the latter power were paid by the farmers, just as payment would now be made to a hail-insurance office; and “There are many,” said Archbishop Agobard, of Lyons, very bitterly, “many who never pay their tithes with a good will to the priest, and never give alms to the widow, the orphan, or to any other of the poor, however much they may be exhorted to do so; yet these men will pay their fees to the storm-preventer with the utmost punctuality, and without any need of a reminder.”
“Again,” said Agobard, “most people are so foolish and thoughtless as to believe and declare that there is a land called Magnolia, from which ships come sailing over the clouds to draw up cargoes of the fruit broken to the ground by storms of hail, and so take them home into the land, and they say that the people of these ships in the air are in alliance with the storm-raisers who, for certain gifts, lift the fruit up to them.” Three men and a woman, Agobard said, he had himself saved from being stoned to death in a village to which they had come as strangers, because it was believed they had tumbled down in a storm out of the air ships. Very faint, in comparison with the idea of society thus given, is even a humorous exaggeration of our own dark side of life presented to the world by Mr. Leech. A happy Londoner enjoys the air in one of our politest mining districts. Two of the natives eye him, and thus talk together: “Who’s him, Bill?” – “A stranger.” – “’Eave ‘arf a brick at ‘im.”
In the sixteenth century, Godelmann wrote thus: - “In the year fifty-three, two witches were taken in Berlin, who had agreed together to make ice and spoil the fruit season. And these women had stolen a child from another woman who was their neighbour, and cut it into pieces to cook it. It happened, by the will of Heaven, that the mother seeking her child, came upon then and saw the little limbs of her lost infant in the kettle. Then when the women were both taken and put to the torture, they confessed that if their cooking had been finished, a great frost would have come over the land with ice, and all the fruit would have been nipped.” The whole story may be true, except that the kettle of these two poor witches contained harmless meat.
Luther uses to tell of two women who went to an inn, and put aside two jars of water. While so doing they were heard to debate with themselves whether they would touch the bread or the wine, the corn or the grapes. When the landlord, who stood by in a corner, heard that, he took both the pitchers, and when the women were in bed, poured the contents over them. The water became ice, and from that hour the women fell sick, so that they died of it. That story also may be true. The poor wretches had discussed together very likely what they would eat or drink at the inn; for which crime they were drenched at midnight, during frosty weather, and perished, as tens of thousands perished, in their homes or at the scaffold – victims of superstition.
Then there were some people – especially old women – who had the evil eye; whose looks were poisonous to man, and beast, and field. The Greeks used to believe this of some inhabitants of Pontus, who were said to have two pupils in each eye, or the image of a horse in one.
There was a belief also that people could be, not “damned with faint praise,” but cursed by too much flattery. In some respects, that would be a wholesome notion. It is like a superstition still current, that if you boast of a thing, you are sure to lose it. The belief in cursing by loud praise dates as far back as the time of Plautus, and both Greeks and Romans had a special word prefixed very commonly to high praise, when it was designed to guard against the idea that a curse might be intended or drawn down by it. This notion existed through many centuries; and even our distrust of a man who “does not look you in the face,” though it has grounds of a reasonable kind to stand upon, may yet be strengthened by a relic of the old dread that an evil charm was being worked by any one who, while he addressed another, looked either up into the sky, or down towards the earth.
We now talk pleasantly of true love-knots; such things used to be charms to attract love, worn round the arm or knee; and there were knots that destroyed love, used by enemies, to render married people childless. Charms spoken on the threshold in the marriage hour were also supposed to prevent the birth of children; and Paracelsus states what must be done to counteract such charms.
I must say little of the belief that disease was caused by the practice of some witch upon the waxen image of the patient. Duff, King of Scotland, had a disease that, legendary as it is, may be recognized as consumption, with great fever and night sweats when he went to bed. Physicians did him no good. Then there was a great rumour that the King of Moravia was plagued by the Scottish witches in the neighbourhood of Forres. Macbeth knew Forres for a witch neighbourhood, and in this legend we find that it really used to be so reputed. King Duff ordered research to be made on his own account, and the busy magistrate of Forres at last contrived one night to break into a house where an old witch and a young one were roasting a waxen image of the king upon a spit before a low fire. The slow melting of the wax all night was the cause of the king’s night sweats and of his wasting; the heat of the fire caused his fever. After these women had been burnt the king recovered.
I will add only one fact concerning witches. It was in most places either understood fact or a direct injunction to their judges, that these women, when under sentence to be burnt or tortured, were enabled by the devil to give utterance to peculiarly heartrending cries, and to plead for pity in toned to which it was dangerous to listen; that the judge must be forewarned of this, and that if he was deluded, and shrank from duty, in his struggle against the Evil One, he would be made answerable for such relentings as for a very grave offence. Superstition steeled the heart thus against even the best impulse of humanity. When ignorance was the rule, men who were wiser than the world about them, if they produced wonderful results of knowledge, were supposed to be magicians. In many cases they fell in with the prevailing error, and as they found it hard to obtain credit for what they were, and easy to get renown and influence by letting themselves be considered what they were not, they accepted the title of magicians, and said and did things to maintain them in that repute, for magicians generally were respected, and not burnt. The belief in them had already become very faint when the belief in witches had attained its worst development.
The most famous of the legendary enchanters were our own Merlin, and Virgil the poet. Of Merlin we know much. We have all heard of the round table made by him for King Arthur, before which the twelfth (or Judas) seat was so constructed that whoever sat upon it went down to perdition. Merlin was, on the whole, very beneficent, and did not deserve that he should have his own arts fatally practiced upon himself by the hard-hearted lady to whom he taught them. Virgil was more known by the Italians of the middle ages as enchanter than as poet. It is odd that he should have so survived. A thick book might be filled with legends told about him. He built Naples upon eggs; lapse of time may, therefore, account for the rottenness of the foundation upon which the city stands; or, as other legends say, he build part of it on underground pillars, and built in the vermin under the stairs of a certain tower, so that they never troubled the houses or the gardens. He established a mechanical night police of iron men, who went about with flails, and who would have broken the bones of any one who stirred abroad at an untimely hour. He built a bit of meat into the wall of the shambles, so that all the meat there sold was prevented from being offensive to the eyes, nose, or mouth. He made a garden under a rock just outside of town, in which he put a statue with a trumpet at its mouth facing south; and whenever the south wind blew into this, the statue blew it back, and twisted the whole wind round to the opposite quarter. The reason of this was, that a mountain in the Terra di Lavoro gave out smoke and ashes, it being supposed to be an air-hole over the infernal regions. In May the south wind used to blow this smoke over Napels; and to drive it away, Virgil made his statue. After a life spent in this way, Virgil, a very old man, was willing, for the sake of a lady, to become young again; and shutting himself up in his castle, bade the lady and a pupil of his cut him up into small pieces, put him in a tub and salt him; a certain lamp was then to hang over the tub, which should drop oil over his remains for a given time, and other things were to be done; I forget precisely what they were, and how they came to be left undone. The process certainly was interrupted, and Virgil remained buried in the brine-tub.
There was a famous German conjurer named Zytho, who lived in the time of Emperor Wenzel, about the end of the fourteenth century. The most popular part of his story is that which relates to is introduction to the Emperor. It was thus told and believed in the year fifteen hundred and fifty-five, by Hans Jacob Fugger, in his “Mirror of Honour for the House of Austria.” Emperor Wenzel had married a second wife, who brought with her certain adepts in the black art. “As these were practicing their tricks in the open market-place, one of the spectators, named Zytho, stepped forward, with a mouth stretching from ear to ear, and he swallowed the principle conjurer, just as he was, clothes, skin, and hair, down to his shoes, which he spat out because they were dirty. Afterwards he went into the next house and turned the big morsel out into a cistern of water, so that he brought the poor fellow back half drowned.” Of course, he won by this feat the heart of the Emperor.
The great German enchanter was named Klingesohr or Clinshor, and his name is connected with the stories of the Germain minnesingers, such as Wolfram of Eschenbach, and that Henry of Ofterdingen upon whom poor Novalis founded a romance. We must be content with mentioning this wonder-worker, and pass on to Albertus Magnus – a learned monk of the thirteenth century, of whom this story is told in Lehmann’s “Chronicles of Spires,” as one of the incidents of the year twelve hundred and forty-eight. The Emperor came to Cologne at the Feast of the Three Kings, and was invited by Albert to come and dine with all his court in a garden near the monastery to which the belonged. The day was not only cold, but much snow fell, and the courtiers thought the monk unreasonable in asking them to dine under the open sky. The Emperor, however, went, and they all sat down to a table among the snow, enveloped in warm wrappers – speaking as moderns, we may say, in their great coats and comforters. A splendid dinner was then brought by beautiful and courteous attendants, who nobody knew; and as the dinner came the snow went, the day overhead became clear and summery, grass broke out of the ground, and the trees burst into leaf, flowers grew up and blossomed while a plate was changing; the fruit trees also blossomed, and directly afterwards went on to fruit-bearing, the fruit ripened, and all kinds of birds flocked in to feed upon it, and these made the air ring with delicious singing. The heat by that time had so much increased that the diners took off all their wrappers and such other clothes as they could properly dispense with. After dinner, the servants went away with the remnants and were no more seen. The birds then flew away; then the grass and the flowers perished out of sight, the winter and the snow returned, so that the guests were glad to put on their great coats and go away. But the Emperor William was so charmed with this little dinner entertainment that he made rich grants of land to the convent, and always held Albertus Magnus in the best esteem. This story, put into another form, was used, some readers will remember, by Boccaccio.
I should not omit mention of Dr. Faustus, a legendary person, founded on superstitions associated with a real John Faust, who was too clever for his neighbours in the first year of the sixteenth century. He has been used as a peg on which to hang nearly all tales of the magicians who had gone before him. Much has been said and sung of him; here let him rest in peace.
We must no longer rejoice in an escape from the dark regions of practical superstitions; for it is impossible to omit all mention of the ugliest and most prominent of all the shapes that peopled it, the master of magicians, the legendary Satan. The Satan or the devil of old superstition was an imaginary being quite of his own kind. He was not the Satan of theology, though there were drawn between the two a few strong lines of connection. He was the builder of all castles, bridges, and works of art that seemed beyond man’s strength, even of mountains and valleys, that looked as if they had been made, as not as if they were ordinary parts of the surrounding scenery. Such works were, however, in some cases, attributed to the giants, of whom there will not be room to speak. In the south the same wild influences that operated upon all the legends represented Satan as a gentleman. In the fabliaux of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and in the songs of the minstrels, he is at the worst a criminal judge who holds men to their duty: but in the north he has a fiercer character. Phrases now almost unmeaning on the lips of those who use them formerly were of frightful import. Here is an illustration from Gervasius Tilberiensis: “There is in Catalonia a very high mountain, called Cavaga, steep and nearly inaccessible. On its summit is a lake, with blackish water. Thereunder, it is said, lies a house of demons, after the manner of a palace, very extensive, and with one closed gate. Its shape is unknown to the people, because it is invisible. When anybody throws a stone into the water there breaks out a storm, as if the demons were offended. On one of the peaks of this mountain are eternal snow and ice; there is much crystal, and the sun never shines there. Now let the reader hear what lately happened on this spot.
“In a village built near the mountain, named Junchera, there lived a peasant, Peter de Cabina, who one day stayed at home, doing some work in his own cottage. And he being annoyed by the constant squalling of his infant whom he could not quiet, cried out, as people do when they consider themselves injured, saying, ‘The devil take my child!’
“Instantly his offer was accepted, and by unseen hands his little girl was dragged out of her cradle, and carried away in a whirlwind. Seven years afterwards a native of the place was traveling on foot about the mountain, when he saw a man who ran by wailing piteously. ‘Woe’s me,’ he cried, ‘woe’s me that I am pressed under such a burden!’ Asked by the traveler, ‘What is the cause, then, of your pain?’ he said, ‘I have been now seven years on this mountain Cavaga because I was committed to the devils, and they ride me daily, and whip me as their horse.’ Lest the hearer might doubt him, he told, as a sure sign of his truth, that the daughter of Peter Cabina, born at Sanchera, had also been committed to the devil, but that the demons were tired of managing her education, and would be glad to give her back, if her father would come up the mountain for her.
“Then when the demons had been solemnly adjured, the girl appeared in a moment. She was of great stature, dry, frightful to behold, with wild eyes, and in such state that her bones, nerves, and skin, hardly hung together. She was of horrible countenance, and spoke or understood no human language, and there were few human affairs that they could make her understand.”
This part of the subject is, in almost every one of its forms, so shocking, that although it would display, more than anything, the active terrors, by day and by night, that were linked with the superstition of our forefathers, I would rather not enforce it by a body of examples. I will end, therefore, with one of the lighter narratives of the class. It illustrates the phrase – now comic, once terrible – for it was regarded as a penal adjuration, used in many a contest, and readily caught up by the person who was sure to obtain something thereby – the devil take the hindmost. In Luther’s “Table-talk,” there was a story told of a number of young nobles who rode a race shouting, “The devil take the hindmost.” The foremost had a led horse, which he let go, and galloped on. Then the loose horse fell into the rear and at the end of the race was carried away through the air.
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