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Medieval Sourcebook:
Tales of Confession


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 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 time.

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 of confession.

NOVICE: Great is the virtue of confession which blotted out the me of adultery from the devil's memory and liberated a man from imminent peril.

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 OUT

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 WAS BURNT

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 the penitent."

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 to ashes.

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, pp. 14-17


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