Tales of Confession
The following tales are from sermon stories from these three
Jacques de Vitry was born probably before 1180, studied
theology at Paris, and was ordained priest in 1210. He preached
first in 1213 in favor of the crusade against the Albigenses.
The following year he led a large army of crusaders to the siege
of Toulouse. He next preached a crusade against the Saracens.
In 1214 he was elected bishop of Acre, was approved by the Pope
in 1215, and was consecrated 1216. He took a prominent part in
the crusade of 1218-1221. In the winter of 1219-1220 he wrote
his well known historical work. In 1226 or 1227 he resigned his
bishopric, and devoted himself again to preaching the crusade
against the Albigenses. In1228 he was made a cardinal, and bishop
of Tusculum. In 1239, probably, he was elected patriarch of Jerusalem.
He died about 1240. The anecdotes quoted are taken from the exempla in the sermones vulgares, ad status or ad omne hominum
genus, 74 in number. Thes eexempla have been edited with great
learning by Thomas Frederick Crane, M. A., under the title The
Exempla of Jacques de Vitry, for the Folk Lore Society, 1890.
This is the best work on the subject.
Étienne de Bourbon, a Dominican, was born towards
the end of the twelfth century and died about 1261. In his youth
be passed some years in the schools of the church of Saint-Vincent
at Macon. Later be studied at the University of Paris. In his
writings there are a number of interesting anecdotes concerning
student-life in his days. As an inquisitor he acquired much information
about,the heretics, which he incorporated in his writings. Although
he was zealous in his work he was prudent, and rejected many fables
current about the heretics. He wrote sermons which were popular
and widely used. The title shows his purpose, Tractatus de
diversis materiis praedicabilibus. The tales used in this
pamphlet are from Anecdotes Historiques, Légendes et
Apolologues tirés du recueil inédit d'Etienne de
Bourbon, dominicain du xiiie siècle, publés pour
la Société de l'Histoire de France, par A. Lecoy
de la Marche, Paris, 1877.
Caesar of Heisterbach was born about 1180, possibly in
Cologne, and died before 1250. He was " master of the novices
" and prior in the monastery at Heisterbach. His Dialogue was one of the commonest sources for sermon-stories. The best
edition of his work is Caesarii Heisterbacensis monachi ordinis
Cisterciensis Dialogus Miraculroum, edited by Strange, 2 Vols.,
Paris, 1851. The biographical facts given above are taken mainly
from the introductions to the editions cited.
The object of these sermon-stories was to arouse interest and
to convey moral truths. Jacques de Vitry said, " It is necessary
to employ a great many proverbs, historical stories and anecdotes,
especially when the audience is tired and begins to gett sleepy."
Etienne de Bourbon said that Jacques owed his great success to
this practice. The use of anecdotes spread rapidly and widely,
and many collections have been preserved. For bibliographies and
Hauréau: Notices et Extraits de quelques
manuscrits latins de la Bibliothéque nationale, 6 vols.,
TALES OF CONFESSION
1. BY CONFESSION A GUILTY PRIEST ESCAPED EXPOSURE
Caesar of Heisterbach, Dist. III, Cap. II. (Vol.
I, pp 112-13.)
A certain soldier dwelt in a certain village with whose wife the
priest of the same village committed adultery. The soldier was
told that the priest was carrying on an intrigue with his wife.
He, since he was a prudent man and did not readily believe the
story, wished to say nothing about it to his wife or the priest,
but to learn the truth more fully. But he was not without some
suspicion. There happened to be in another village, not far distant
from the one in which the soldier lived, a possessed person, in
whom there was such a wicked demon that in the presence of bystanders
she revealed sins which were not cloaked by a true confession.
When the soldier learned this from common report he asked the
priest, whom he suspected, to go to a certain meeting with him.
And the priest promised.
When they had reached the village where the possessed one was,
the priest, conscious of his guilt, began to suspect the soldier,
because he was not ignorant that one possessed by so wicked a
demon dwelt there. And, fearing for his life if he was betrayed
by the demon, feigning some necessity, he entered a stable and
throwing himself at the feet of a servant of the soldier, said,
I ask you in the name of the Lord to hear my confession."
The servant greatly terrified raised him up and heard what he
had to say. After the confession had been made, the priest asked
that a penance should be inflicted upon him; and the servant replied
very prudently, saying, "Whatever you would enjoin on another
priest for such a crime, shall be your atonement."
And so going forth now in greater security, the priest came with
the soldier to the church. There meeting the possessed one, the
soldier "Do you know anything about me?" For he did
this on purpose to take away any suspicion that the priest might
have. When demon made some reply to him which I do not know, he
added "What do you know about that master?" The demon
replied, "I know nothing about that one." And after
he had said this in German, he immediately added in Latin, "He
was justified in the stable." No clerk was present at the
NOVICE: I am sure that the devil did not speak Latin of his own
free will at that time.
MONK: He was not allowed to speak German, lest the knight would
understand what be said and learn the truth; and he was not permitted
to be silent, in order that he might show to the priest the virtue
NOVICE: Great is the virtue of confession which blotted out the
me of adultery from the devil's memory and liberated a man from
MONK: I heard also the fruit of this confession. The priest, not
mindful of the benefit conferred upon him, deserted the world
and became a monk in a certain monastery of our order. He is believed
to be still living, as I have learned from a certain abbot of
the Cistercian order.
NOVICE: The prophecy of that impudent demon was the cause of great
salvation for him.
2. THROUGH CONFESSION THE DE VIL'S RECORD BLOTTED
Étienne de Bourbon, No. 176. (pp. 155-156.)
The manifold inconveniences and losses which our enemies suffer
from the confession of our sins ought to incite us to confession
It destroys the devil's records. And note how, when a certain
clerk was leading a most holy life so that the devil envied him,
the devil by tempting the clerk caused him to fall into grievous
sin. When moreover the devil wished to confound him, and having
assumed human for had accused him before his bishop, and a day
had been fixed on which the devil was to prove his charges, by
bringing before the judge his, accounts in which were recorded
the place, the time, and the persons to whose knowledge the clerk
had sinned, the latter, seeing that he was in hard straits, confessed
all, grieving and purpling not to return to sin. When moreover
they were in the presence of the judge and the devil said he had
much against the clerk which he could prove by writing and witnesses,
he unrolled his records and found all that had been in them erased.
He said, "All that I had against this man was certainly written
here this very day and I do not know who has destroyed it all."
Having thus spoken, he vanished. The clerk, moreover, narrated
all of these things to the bishop, in the secrecy of confession.
3. THROUGH CONFESSION A FORGOTTEN PRAYER ERASED
FROM THE DEVIL'S BOOK.
Étienne de Bourbon, No. 177. (p. 156.)
Also it is related that when a certain holy father was at one
time engaged with the brethren in some work and had forgotten,
on account of his occupation, to say the none at the right time,
he saw the devil passing before him, bearing on his shoulders
a very large book in the shape of a roll which looked as large
as a tower. He adjured the devil in the name of the Lord to drop
that book, and when he unrolled the book, he found written on
one page that he himself had not said the none on the day and
at the hour when he ought to have said it. Moreover, prostrating
himself at once at the feet of his companions, he confessed his
negligence, and immediately looking again in the devil's roll,
he found that what had been written there before was erased, and
thereby he knew the efficacy of confession.
4. A HERE TIC HEALED BY CONFESSION RELAPSED AND
Caesar of Heisterbach, Dist. III, Cap. XVII. (Vol.
II p. 133-34)
In the same city, namely Argentina which is Strassburg, ten heretics
were seized. When they denied their guilt, they were convicted
by the ordeal of red-hot iron and were condemned to be burnt.
When on the appointed day they were being led to the fire, one
of the attendants said to one of them, "Wretched one, you
are condemned. Now do penance and confess your sins, lest after
the burning of the body, which is only momentary, hell-fire burns
your soul eternally." When man replied, "I certainly
think that I have been mistaken, but I fear repentance in so great
straits is by no means acceptable to God." The former replied,
"Only confess from your heart. God is merciful and will receive
Wonderful fact ! For as soon as the man confessed his perfidy,
his hand was fully healed. While he delayed in confession, the
judge summoned him to the punishment. His confessor replied to
the judge " It is not just that an innocent man should be
condemned unjustly.'' Since no trace of a burn was found on his
hand, he was dismissed.
The man had a wife living not far from the city entirely ignorant
of these things which have been related. When he came to her rejoicing
, and said, "Blessed be God who has liberated me today from
the destruction of body and soul !" and explained to her
the cause; she replied, "What have you done, most wretched
man, what have you done? Why have you withdrawn from your holy
and sacred faith for fear of momentary pain? You ought rather,
if it were possible, expose your body a hundred times to the flames
than once to withdraw from a faith so well proven."
Whom does not the voice of the serpent seduce? That man, unmindful
of the favor divinely conferred upon him, unmindful of the so
manifest miracle, followed his wife's advice and returned to his
former error. God, not unmindful truly of the crime, in return
for so great ingratitude, tortured the hand of each one. The burn
was renewed in the hand of the heretic and, because his wife was
the cause of his returning to his error, she was made his companion
in the renewed pain. So vehement was the burn that it penetrated
to the bones. And since they did not dare in the village to utter
the cries which the violence of the pain extorted, they fled into
the nearest woods, howling e like wolves. Why protract my words?
They were betrayed, led into to the city, and together cast into
the fire, which was not yet fully extinguished, and were burnt
NOVICE: "They were justly punished."
University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations
and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published
for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia,
University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4,
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© Paul Halsall July 1997