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Medieval Sourcebook:
Tales of the Virgin

The following tales are from sermon stories from these three writers.

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 examples see… Hauréau: Notices et Extraits de quelques manuscrits latins de la Bibliothéque nationale, 6 vols., Paris, 1890-93.

TALES OF THE VIRGIN

1. VIRGIN SAVED MATRON AND MONK WHO ELOPED
WITH TREASURES OF MONASTERY

Jacques de Vitry, CCLXXXII. (pp. 117, ff.)

A certain very religious man told me that this happened in a place where he had been living. A virtuous and pious matron came frequently to the church and served God most devoutly, day and night. Also a certain monk, the guardian and treasurer of the monastery, had a great reputation for piety, and truly he was devout. When, however, the two frequently conversed together in the church concerning religious matters, the devil, envying their virtue and fame, tempted them sorely so that the spiritual love was changed to carnal. Accordingly they made an agreement and fixed upon a night in which the monk was to leave his monastery, taking the treasures of the church, and the matron was to leave her home, with a sum of money which she should secretly steal from her husband.

After they had left and fled, the monks on rising in the morning saw that the receptacles were broken and the treasures of the church stolen and not finding the monk, they quickly pursued him. Likewise the woman's husband, seeing his chest open and the money gone, pursued his wife. Seizing the monk and the woman with the treasure and money, they brought them back and threw them into prison. Moreover so great was the scandal through all that part of the country and so much were all religious persons reviled that the damage from the infamy and scandal was far greater than from the sin itself.

Then the monk restored to his senses, began with many tears to pray to the blessed Virgin, whom from infancy he had always served, and never before had any such misfortune happened to him. Likewise the matron began urgently to implore the aid of the blessed Virgin whom, frequently, day and night, she had been accustomed to salute and before whose image she had been wont to kneel in prayer. At length the blessed Virgin appeared before them in great anger and after she had upbraided them severely, she said, "I am able to obtain pardon for your sins from my son, but what can I do about such an awful scandal? For you have so befouled the name of religious persons before all the people, that in the future no one will trust them. This ia an almost irremediable injury."

At length the pious Virgin, overcome by their prayers, summoned the demons who had caused the deed and enjoined upon them that, as they had caused the scandal to religion, they must bring the infamy to an end. Since, indeed, they were not able to resist her commands, after much anxiety and various conferences they found a way to remove infamy. In the night they placed the monk in the church and repairing the broken receptacle as it had been before, they placed the treasure in it. Also they closed and locked the chest which the matron had opened and replaced the money in it. And they set the woman in her room and in the place where she was accustomed to pray by night.

When, moreover, the monks found the treasure of their house and monk, who was praying to God just as he had been accustomed to do; and the husband found his wife and the treasure; and they found the money just as it had been before, they began to be amazed and to wonder. Rushing to the prison they saw the monk and the woman in fetters just as they had left them. For one of the demons was seen by them transformed into the figure of a monk and another into the shape of a woman. When the whole city had come together to see the miracle, the demons said in the hearing of all, "Let us go, for long enough have we deceived these people and caused ill to be thought of religious persons." And having said this they vanished. Moreover all fell down at the feet of the monk and of the woman and demanded pardon.

Behold how great infamy and scandal and how inestimable damage the devil would have wrought against religious persons, if the blessed Virgin had not aided them.

2. VIRGIN IN PLACE OF NUN WHO HAD FLED FROM THE CONVENT

Caesar of Heisterbach, Distinctio VII, Cap. XXXIV. (Vol. II, pp. 42-43.)

Not many years ago, in a certain monastery of nuns, of which I do not know the name, there lived a virgin named Beatrix. She was beautiful in form, devout in mind, and most fervent in the service of the mother of God. As often as she could offer secretly to the Virgin special prayers and supplications, she held them for her dearest delight Indeed, having been made custodian, she did this more devoutly because more freely.

A certain clerk, seeing and lusting after her, began to tempt her. When she spurned the words of lust, and on that account he insisted the more strenuously, the old serpent enkindled her breast so vehemently that she could not bear the flames of love. Therefore coming to the altar of the blessed Virgin, the patroness of the oratory, she spoke thus: "Mistress, I have served thee as devoutly as I could; behold, I resign thy keys to thee, I cannot longer withstand the temptations of the flesh." And, having placed the keys on the altar, she secretly followed the clerk.

When that wretched man had corrupted her, he abandoned her after a few days. Since she had no means of living and was ashamed to return to the convent, she became a harlot. After she had continued in that vice publicly for fifteen years, she came one day in a lay habit to the door of the monastery. She said to the doorkeeper, "Did you know Beatrix, formerly custodian of this oratory?" When the latter replied, it I knew her very well. For she is an honest and holy woman, and from infancy even to the present day she has remained in this monastery without fault." When she hearing, the man's words, but not understanding them, wished to go away, the mother of mercy appeared in her well-known image and said to her, "During the fifteen years of thy absence, I have performed thy task; now return to thy place and do penance; for no one knows of thy departure." In fact, in the form and dress of that woman, the mother of God had performed the duties of custodian. Beatrix entered at once and returned thanks as long as she lived, revealing through confession what had been done for her.

3. WOMAN PUNISHED FOR DESPISING A STATUE OF THE VIRGIN

Caesar of Heisterbach, Distinctio VII, Cap. XLV. (Vol. II, pp. 62-63.)

In the chapel of the castle of Veldenz there is a certain ancient image of the blessed Virgin holding her son in her bosom. This image is, indeed, not very well made, but is endowed with great virtue. A certain matron of this castle, which is situated in the diocese of Trier,

standing in the chapel one day looked at the image and despising the workmanship, said, "Why does this old rubbish stand here?'"

The blessed Mary, the mother of mercy, not as I think, complaining to her son of the woman who spoke so foolishly, but predicting the future penalty for the crime to a certain other matron, said "Because that lady," designating her by name, "called me old rubbish, she shall wretched as long as she lives."

After a few days that lady was driven out by her own son from all her possessions and property, and up to the present day she begs wretchedly enough, suffering the punishment for her foolish speech. Behold how the blessed Virgin loves and honors those who love her, and punishes and humbles those who despise her.

4. HORRIBLE DEATH OF A BLASPHEAFER OF THE VIRGIN

Étienne de Bourbon, No. 133. (p. 113)

Also near Cluny, as I have heard from many, it happened recently, namely, in the year of our Lord 1246, when I was there, that a certain tavern keeper on the Saturday before Advent, in selling wine and taking his pay, blasphemed Christ during the whole day. But when about the ninth hour, in the presence of a multitude of men, he had sworn by the tongue of the blessed Virgin, by blaspheming her he lost the use of his tongue, and by speaking basely of her, suddenly stricken in the presence of the multitude, he fell dead.

5. ROBBER DELI VERED FR OM HANGING BECAUSE OF
HIS PRAYERS TO THE VIRGIN

Étienne de Bourbon, No. 119. (p. 103)

Also we read that a certain robber had this much of good in him, that he always fasted on bread and water on the vigils of the blessed Mary, and, when he went forth to steal, he always said, "Ave Maria", asking her not to permit him to die in that sin. When moreover he was captured and hung, he remained there three days and could not die. When he called out to the passers by, that they should summon a priest to him, and when the priest had come and the prefect and others, he was removed from the gallows, and said that a most beautiful virgin had held him up by the feet during the three days. Promising reform, he was let go free.

6. THE DEVIL THWARTED BY PRAYERS TO THE VIRGIN

Étienne de Bourbon, No. 129. (p. 110)

Also it is related that there was a certain knight, lord of a castle in Auvergne, whom the devil served in human form for twelve years, as he wanted to carry the knight off on account of his sins, if he should find him at any time unfortified. When this was revealed to a certain holy man, he approached the castle, saying that he wished to speak with the servants. When, moreover, the devil seeing the holy man, wanted to run away and hide, the latter had him summoned and adjured him to say what he wanted and who he was. He replied that he was the devil and that for twelve years he had been waiting for a chance to carry off that lord; but he was not able to do so, because seven times each day the lord with bent knees was accustom the blessed Virgin, and to say the "Pater noster" seven times. Adjured in the name of the blessed Virgin he left the foul corpse in which he was and fled.

From 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, pp. 2-7


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© Paul Halsall July 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu