Page images

reconsidered in the Council of Trevors. During the reign of Athelstan, A. D. 925-41, and of Ethelred, 978–1016, of England, laws were enacted by both these sovereigns declaring the ordeal by water, as well as by fire, a legal method of obtaining justice.

When the single combat was abolished in Denmark, toward the close of the tenth century, probably by Harold, who died in 981, or by Sweyn, his successor, the trial by ordeal, of fire and water, was appointed to take its place. But it was again abrogated by one of the Danish kings about a hundred years after.

In 1219 it was also abolished in England by the third parliament of Henry III., or, rather, as Blackstone thinks, by an order of the king in council. John, the predecessor of this monarch, granted authority to his ecclesiastics to use the judgments of water and fire, and it is just such a grant as might have been expected from that pusillanimous prince.

2. The second in course is the ordeal by fire. This and the trial by water were generally considered twin customs by those who most frequently used them. The remarks, therefore, which have just been made in reference to the legal enactments of different countries by which the latter was authorized or prohibited, will equally apply, with a few exceptions, to the former.

Dr. Clarke conjectures, very probably, that trial by fire originated with the ancient Persians, as by them "fire was not only held sacred, but considered as a god, or rather as the visible emblem of the supreme Deity.” The latter part of this sentence was quite necessary to prevent an erroneous impression being made; for the Persians of every age have denied that they worship fire as a god, though of this they have often been accused by many writers since the days of Herodotus, the Greek historian, who charges them with worshiping not only fire, but also the earth, water, winds, the sun and moon. But they disclaim this idolatry altogether, and assert that they revere these objects, and especially fire, light, and the sun, because they view them as the brightest symbols and most powerful agents of the divine Being. See Gibbon's Decline and Fall, vol. i, p. 114. Edition by Harper & Brothers, New-York.

Persian criminals were required to declare their innocence by an oath, as was customary in other countries, and put their veracity to the test by walking through the fire. Dr. Clarke and Sir William Blackstone both refer to an allusion to this usage in the Antigone of Sophocles, among the ancient Greeks, five hundred years before the birth of Christ. A person was suspected of a misdemeanor, and declared himself ready to “handle hot iron and walk over fire,” in proof of his innocence; and it is said this was then a very common purgation.

It is stated in Virgil's Æneid, xi, v. 787, that the priests of Apollo were accustomed to walk over burning coals uninjured. Something of the same kind is mentioned by Strabo, in his geography, of the worshipers of Feronia, the goddess of woods and groves. Pliny Natural History, b. vii, chap. xi, relates a similar circumstance of the Hirpii.

These examples of the marvelous do not, indeed, prove directly that fiery ordeals were then in existence; but they evidently refer to a custom of this kind. These sleight-of-hand and sleighl-of-feet miracles were wrought by the "cunning craftiness" of the priests to increase the popularity of their gods and goddesses, and to advance their own interests.

In the dark ages trials by fire were very numerous. The following are the different forms in which they were recognized. The person who was to be convicted or acquitted either thrust his hand into a red hot glove of iron, as in Denmark, or took up in his bare hand a red-hot iron-ball, or walked barefooted and blindfolded over burning coals, or nine heated ploughshares. In some cases there were more than nine ploughshares, in others less, according to the nature and number of his imputed offenses. But in every instance the criminal must either pass through the ordeal uninjured, or else suffer the punishment of his crimes. The trial took place in the church, or some other consecrated place, and in the presence of twenty-four spectators. Before the iron was touched by the culprit, he drank a cup of holy water, and sprinkled some on his hands or feet. Immediately after the ceremony, the part which came in contact with the iron was wrapped up in a piece of cloth, or tied up in a bag, and not opened until the third day.

The testimony of several eminent writers on this subject will confirm the truth of the remark, that as the priests alone had the management of this whole business, so whenever they could advance their own interest or power, or those of the churches, the offender invariably escaped without burning his fingers! The fire ordeal was for the higher classes of the people, and the water for the lower.

It was by tire St. Brice established his innocence in the fifth century, which Mr. Collier, in his Ecclesiastical History of England, represents as the first Christian trial of this kind; but Dr. M'Laine, the translator of Mosheim, thinks this a mistake, and adduces, in proof, an instance of fire ordeal which happened in the fourth century. This is the case of Simplicius, the bishop of Autun. Before his promotion to the episcopal office he had entered into the matrimonial state. This was forbidden by the canons of the church. His pious wise, however, unwilling to forsake him, continued to sleep in the same room with her husband. The sanctity of the bishop was soon impeached by the voice of rumor; and to convince the world that they were strictly continent, the good lady took up in her garment, and applied to her bosom, a quantity of burning coals, without the least injury! This was also done by her spouse, who likewise escaped. The report of a miracle was soon spread, and the easily duped populace readily announced the innocence of the pious pair!

Another example of this ordeal, occurring in high life, we have in the eleventh century. Emma, as the story goes, the mother of Edward the Confessor, was suspected and accused of forbidden familiarity with Alwyn, bishop of Winchester, or of Leicester, as some say; and to make her innocence apparent, she appealed to the trial by fire, and passed over nine red-hot ploughshares, on her bare feet and blindfolded, without touching any of them! Of course she was not punished.

3. We will now proceed to the third species, by the cross.

The cross, while it was at once the most ignominious instrument of punishment, the very significant symbol of the Christian religion, and the most powerful military standard, has also been, with the devotees of the popish priesthood, the most potent wand of superstition. In one part of the world it was erected with the body of an enslaved malefactor extended on it in heart-rending agony ; in another we behold elevated thereon the Lord of life and glory, as a victim to human malice and a sacrifice for human guilt; in a third it was held up by Peter the Hermit as a suitable standard for the blind nations of Europe to surround, and bear before them while they rushed to the rescue of the holy sepulchre; and in a fourth it is carefully preserved as a precious relic of antiquity, able to expel demons, heal diseases, counteract witchcraft, raise the dead, and discover the most hidden offenses of the criminal! All this the cross could do in the estimation of a pious Catholic.

This superstitious reverence for the crucifix arose from the following causes :

(1.) One was the alleged vision of Constantine the Great. This monarch, who was the first Christian emperor of the Romans, declared, with an oath, to Eusebius, the historian, some years after it should have happened, that about midday, shortly before his engagement with Maxentius, one of the principal competitors for the crown, he saw above the sun a luminous cross, with this inscription: Ev TOUTW vika, or, as some think, in Latin, In hoc vince, (By or in this conquer.) This, he asserted, was also seen by his whole army.

Not knowing what to understand by so singular a phenomenon, his astrologers having said it was an omen of evil, Jesus Christ appeared to him on the ensuing night, and commanded him to make a standard for his troops, of the form of a cross, such as he had seen in the sky. A very magnificent Labarum of this kind was then constructed, composed of a long spear or pike, with a transverse beam near the top, overlaid with gold; on the summit of the shaft, or upright piece, was a golden crown, set with the most costly jewels, and impressed with the sacred symbol, or mysterious monogram, XP, the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek. From the top of the cross, waving in the breeze, was suspended a square banner of purple silk, richly embroidered with gold, and ornamented with precious stones, which was singularly inwrought with the images of the emperor and his two sons. This standard was confided to the care of fifty of the most brave and trusty officers of the empire. These gallant defenders of the imperial military cross—which was adopted by Constantine instead of the Roman eagle—were constituted by their sovereign the celebrated knights of St. George. The mark of this order was a golden cross, bearing, on one side, the initials of In hoc signo vince, (with this sign or standard conquer,) I. H. S. V. The first three of these letters are still found on most of the Catholic crucifixes.

This dream of Constantine, as it is likely it was nothing else, had an astonishing influence on the Christian world in producing great reverence for the symbol of our religion. See the whole subject discussed by Mosheim and his translator, vol. i, p. 100, Balt. edition, and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. i, p. 417.

(2.) What increased this disposition in the credulous Catholics was the wonderful success of the Empress Helena. This lady, who was the mother of Constantine, and the daughter of a British king, Vol. X.-Jan., 1839.


or, as others affirm, of an ordinary innkeeper, it is stated, found the genuine cross on which the Saviour was crucified, on her way to Jerusalem. Two others were discovered by her, at the same time, not far from the spot where she first saw that of Christ. Being, however, at a loss to tell positively which was the cross of the Messiah, St. Macarius solved the difficulty by soliciting the people to unite with him in prayer, and by prevailing on a sick woman, who was near the point of death, to touch each of these instruments. As soon as she came to the true one, she was perfectly restored to health! This good fortune, and her subsequent piety, procured for the empress an act of canonization and the consequent title of saint.

In the Latin Church the festival usually called the invention of the cross,” is kept on the 3d of May; by the Greeks it is celebrated on the 11th of March, but the principal feast for this purpose is held on the 14th of September. In both churches these feasts were instituted to commemorate the appearance of the cross to Constantine, and its discovery by his mother. After the year 325 the sign of the cross was made upon the crowns of the emperors, and upon their helmets, shields, colors, and coins.

(3.) But what completed this infatuated regard for the instrument of Christ's death, or rather, for others made in imitation of that, was an edict of the sixth ecumenical or general council, which assembled in Constantinople in 680. This council decreed that Jesus Christ should be painted thenceforth in the human form on the cross, that the passion and death of the Saviour might be represented to his followers in the most lively and impressive manner. After this, the several emblematical figures of the Saviour, such as a lamb, expressive of his innocence and sacrifice; or a stag, to denote his opposition to Satan, as that animal was supposed to be the enemy of serpents,—were discontinued.

This was the origin of crucifixes, the devotion to which forms so great a part of the Roman Catholic worship. There are many crosses in different parts of Europe, all famous for some wonderful miracle having been wrought by them. The cross in the church of St. Dominic, at Naples, made an eloquent and grateful speech to St. Thomas Aquinas for his orthodox and instructive writings! The cross at Trent made signs of approbation to the council for the decrees passed by it in the sixteenth century! The cross at Loretto was transported by angels from Palestine to Italy! That at Lucca was finished by angels, and afterward went voluntarily to the separate churches! There is a cross at Rome which is celebrated for having conversed frequently with St. Peter and St. Paul! The cross of the Beguine nuns at Ghent once asked a sister of that establishment to be its wedded bride!

A hundred matters of this kind could here be related, and some of them much more ridiculous, were it necessary, to prove the absurd miracles of Catholic crucifixes. And as so many supernatural things were performed by means of the cross, after its invention, we need not be surprised that it was likewise used as a criterion of guilt or innocence, truth or falsehood.

The methods of trial by this instrument, which is yet the philosopher's stone of the Catholic Church, because it turns every thing into gold-were almost innumerable.' It will be sufficient, however, to notice only two. As was the custom in most cases of ordeal trials, the person accused of any crime was first to declare himself not guilty by a solemn oath. This was followed by the oaths of eleven compurgators, who testified that they believed he had sworn to the truth. Two pieces of wood were then taken, one of which was marked with the sign of the cross, wrapped into wool, and placed by the criminal upon the altar, or some celebrated relic. A prayer having been offered for the success of the process, the priest took up one of the pieces of wood; and if it happened to be that which was marked with the figure of the cross, the person was pronounced innocent; if not, guilty. See Hume's History of England, vol. i, p. 120, Phila. edition, 1828. But very often, after the usual oath, the parties at variance were required to stand before a crucifix, with their arms stretched out in a horizontal manner, forming, with the trunk of the body, the form of a cross, during the celebration of mass; and he who could remain in this position longer than the other was acquitted. It is observed by an old writer, Tertullian, that the primitive Christians commonly prayed with their arms expanded in this way, in remembrance of the crucifixion.

There are several examples on record of persons appealing to the judicium crucis, or judgment of the cross, in civil, criminal, and religious matters; but only one will here be introduced. This occurred during the reign and in the presence of the celebrated Charlemagne, in 775. The object of contention was the property of a small monastery, which was equally claimed by the bishop of Paris and the abbot of St. Dennis. As they were ecclesiastics, and of some standing, they could pass through this ordeal by proxy. The persons employed by them stood before a cross, in the manner already described, and the bishop, through his representative, lost his cause. Robertson's History of Charles V., vol. I, p. 348, Lon. edition, 1802. “ This practice,” says Mr. Hume, “as it arose from superstition, was abolished by it in France. Louis the Debonnaire prohibited this method of trial, not because it was uncertain, but lest that sacred figure, the cross, should be prostituted in common disputes and controversies."

4. The last mode of adjusting personal difficulties in the dark ages to be noticed in this essay is the trial by single combat, or duel. This ordeal, in the course of time, lost its judicial character, and it ceased also to be an appeal to Heaven for a decision of the point in dispute by the Supreme Being. It is now known merely as that species of individual revenge by means of the pistol, sword, or other weapon, recognized by gentlemen as the most honorable way of obtaining satisfaction for a real or supposed insult.

The word "duel" is of barbarous Latin origin, and compounded of duo, two, and bellum, war, and signifies, literally, a war between

To trace the true beginning of duels has puzzled antiquarians considerably. Some will have it that the first duel was fought by Cain and Abel; but this is mere trifling. That was a religious persecution, carried so far by the one, whose works were evil, as to cause the death of the other, whose works were righteous. Cain was an assassin; he rose up in the field against his brother, and slew him. It was no premeditated engagement by mutual consent; much less was it an appeal to divine justice to determine the righte

« PreviousContinue »