Paris, 31st October 1376.
Pontius is speaking:
‘Who is the monster beneath the mask? My notary trembles: he believes the accused a leper. I can assure you, that assumption is false. Look at the limbs – the fingers and toes are intact; although the flesh is pale, there is no evidence of that demonic disease. No, this mask conceals a corruption far more hideous. Some reason him a simple freak of nature; but this mooncalf is beyond the spirit of reason and the limits of nature. He is fiend incarnate! Anyone who maintains the opposite, manifestly favours heresy.’[i]
He points to the vault where herald angels blow gilded horns:
‘Christians, look! See the heavenly hosts, resplendent in their glory! Holy Michael archangel, be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil.[ii] All good souls must partake at the altar of the Body and Blood of Christ; but the accused, in the perpetration of his evil art, has renounced God and defiled the sacrament! He has shat on the Host and pissed in the chalice of salvation! He has poured obscenities into the ears of women; he has let himself be venerated by healing the sick. The whole of Christendom reels at the depths of his heretical depravity. I myself am at a loss to comprehend it. Not even the beasts of the field could sink so low. Do you want to see this devil in the flesh? Shall I unlock his helmet?’
‘Yes, yes! Unlock!’
I hear the uproar but my eyes are on the moon. I gaze through my visor at Her pale face, fading in the morn sky. Sunbeams glide through the high arched windows, kissing the crucified Christ who hangs above the judges. The court is a sea of shimmering silks; ladies in brocade gowns and jewelled hats; prelates in purple and princes in gold. Monsieur le President sits on his throne like a slug in a scarlet cope. To his right are the councillors of the grand chamber, to his left, the councillors of the enquiry. The benches bulge with irate nobles in fur-trimmed cloaks. A seething mob swarms through the doors: students, merchants, fishwives, friars. The palace soldiers take ranks, hemming them in with pikes. A roaring din beats against my helmet:
‘Unlock! Unlock! Unlock!’
Pontius holds up the key. It quells the crowd at once: they wait with baited breath. He has them in palm of his hand…
‘Would I? Could I? Should I? For beneath this mask, is a face so foul, it will strike terror into the most courageous heart. Who is strong enough to gaze at such infernal deformity? ’Tis a visage so terrible, ’twill haunt you for the rest of your days. Not even the holy are beyond its bewitchment. It has turned monks into murderers and nuns into profligate whores; it has driven some men insane, others to suicide. I am ashamed to admit, that even I, who has witnessed all the horrors of my office, fainted when I first saw it…’
A lady swoons. Another licks her lips:
Pontius tucks the key in his pocket:
‘Already, you grow spellbound by his magic. I implore you, do not let the deceit of this demon lead you astray! The lady in blue velvet swoons, but what if she could see his gorgon face? One glimpse would surely petrify her soul. Therefore, to protect the weak, my Office decrees that his helmet remain locked.’
The bishop nods in agreement:
‘I concur. Only when this fiend has set aside all heretical evil, will it be safe to open it.’
Pontius waves a scroll to the lawyers:
‘Learned doctors, I have here a confession from a woman of Toulouse. She declared that since her youth, she was a devoted member of Satan’s army. She also confessed to copulation with the devil at the sabbat, where he took the form of a huge goat. When asked to reveal the priest of her sect, she replied, without provocation: Jacques Vallin.’
He passes the confession to the lawyers who study it in turn. Then he asks me:
‘Who is your familiar?’
‘Sire, I have none.’
‘But you have been caught, in flagrante delicto, talking to a raven.’
‘Monsieur, like all lunatics, I talk to many things.’
‘Oh come, come: we both know this lunacy is fabrication.’
A fly buzzes round his head. He flaps it away and leers:
‘Was that your familiar?’
‘No Monsieur, just a fly from the street.’
‘Strange, I have never seen flies in court before.’
Another fly enters: it circles the scribe and lands on his nose. He panics and paws his face. The desk jolts, spilling ink on the transcript. The bishop snatches the parchment and declares:
‘Surely, this black stain is the work of Beelzebub – for he is the Lord of flies. But let no devil prevent us from doing God’s work. We are servants of Christ, so let us be worthy of His promises. ’Tis my hope that through the infinite mercy of Mother Church, we may return this lost soul to the fold. For even at the stake, if he recants in heart, he may still die in Christ’s law.’
As if by diabolic diktat, two flies land on his face – one on each cheek. He stands motionless, staring with bulged cross-eyes. The court watches on dumbstruck. Then, like a praying mantis, he swats them dead with his palms. He twinkles and his mouth curls into a smile. The court bursts into applause.
Pontius erupts like a volcano:
‘Si – lence!’
His rage sweeps across the hall like a zephyr. A deathly hush falls on the crowd. He turns to me and asks:
‘Did you think that funny?’
‘No sire. I felt sorry for the flies.’
‘You adore demonic creatures?’
‘I adore what is godlike in them.’[iii]
‘And what, pray tell, is godlike in a fly? It eats and breeds on shit.’
‘It exists: therefore, it must have a divine purpose.’
‘Oh? Enlighten me. What is the divine purpose of a fly?’
‘You would have to ask my God.’
‘Who is your God?’
‘My God is the same as your God.’
‘When you say God, ’tis clear to every person present, that you really mean Lucifer. For the infernal purpose of these flies, was to torment the bishop and disrupt your trial.’
‘You have your own infernal purpose. By which the flies seem saintly; and the bishop is a Pythagorical fool if he believes that by metempsychosis, demons dwell in dung-flies.’
The bishop seethes:
‘There is no end to his demonic inversion! He thinks Mother Church corrupt! Did Christ not drive the unclean spirits into the swine? The whole herd ran into the sea and perished in the waters.[iv] What devil dwells in this proselyte? He is a Luciferan. A Luciferan, I tell you!’
‘What say you?’ Asks Pontius. ‘Are you a Luciferan?’
‘The bishop wears a ring stolen from my chamber: an emerald set with pearls on the forefinger of his left hand. If that makes him a Christian, then yes, I am a Luciferan.’
The bishop stands and shakes his fist in protest:
‘I was given this ring for services rendered to my diocese! The prisoner admits his heresy, and in my esteemed opinion is beyond redemption! Behold the man who would not hurt a fly. Yet this very year, by means of infernal oracle, he predicted the deaths of many nobles… Philip of Valois, duke of Orléans [v]; Joan of Ponthieu, dame of Epernon [vi]; and Simon Langham, the archbishop of Canterbury. [vii] Many other servants of Christ have died by his infernal divinations. How does he pry into the future? By desecration! He desecrates the host! The host, which is Christ in esse! [actuality]. He inscribes the name of his victim upon the holy wafer, which he then floats in a goblet of piss, extracted from a pregnant sow! Desecration! None are safe from the plague of his abominable heresies! His is famed throughout France for his sorcery and diabolism. On the Feast of the Virgin, he walked through the streets of Paris, attended by a multitude of ghostly figures, which he affirmed to be the souls of the dead! He has flown through the air and flung himself into fires without being burnt!’
The crowd gasps in awe. To which Pontius responds:
‘People, do you think that the illusory flames conjured by this devil are as harmless as the pyres of judicial decree? The accused will burn for his sorcery, and his flesh will scorch just like any other mortal. And whilst he may plead with Satan to relieve him in his extremity, the arch fiend will have no power to save him. Jacques Vallin will become a heap of ashes…’
‘If I were such a prodigious sorcerer, then surely I would turn the bishop into a frog this instant, and fly out the window. But of course, I can do none of these ridiculous things.’
‘Yes, yes, you can!’ insists the bishop. ‘Do not deny it! People of Paris, this servant of Satan has worked many other wonders. He has made trees and flowers spring up where he pleased, and caused fruits to ripen at the touch of his hands. He has walked through solid rock, and even across the waters of the Seine. Like the redeemer, he can call back the dead! By divination, he can pry into the future. He can read the thoughts of others. He can cause distant objects to move at his bidding. And by infernal metamorphosis, he changed his countenance and visage into that of a countess! This woman of Toulouse confessed it: she, a devoted member of Satan’s army, and Jacques Vallin, the priest of her sect. This Luciferan who summoned Satan at the Sabbat!’
‘You think such a thing within my power? Shall I summon him now?’
‘Silence! Jacques Vallin, the evidence is irrefutable. ’Tis beyond doubt that you summoned the Devil in person, and with your sect, celebrated a black mass, administering to your witches, turnip-rinds in place of the Holy Eucharist. [viii]’
‘Impossible. I hate turnips: they give me wind.’
The crowd bursts into raucous laughter, mocking and jeering. Pontius snarls and his face darkens. Then he whispers in my ear:
‘Another outburst like that and I will put such pains on you, that Christ himself would confess to anything.’
He holds up a hand and cues another silence.
‘City of Paris beware: he seduces you with jokes. Do not be fooled by his fine rhetoric and vain speech. This is no simple heretic or schismatic. His sorcery has resulted in irreparable harm. And whilst his evil reigns, we live under the greatest of threats. There are many strange and terrible things happening. A few days ago, the dean of Saint Michelle was arrested; two of his friends were summoned, but fled. Even a doctor of theology, a very learned man, was yesterday put to the pyre. Before his death, he confessed that more than a third of the whole city is involved.’
Gasps of dread echo round the vault. Pontius points on high:
‘Even the cherubims turn their faces. For some of the richest, most pious and prominent men of the clergy have already been implicated. None of you are above suspicion. So tell me what amuses you: I should like to know. A week ago, a maiden of nineteen was burnt; some say she was the fairest girl in Sens; indeed, she was held by all who knew her as a girl of singular modesty and purity. [ix] But she too confessed to coitus with Satan. Why then, do you laugh? You find turnip rinds amusing? Many have been condemned for less… Yes, many strange and terrible things are a happening. So be wary of your neighbours…’
He walks amongst the crowd. Not even a prince dare look him in the eye. He stops by the lady in blue velvet and strokes her cheek with his gloves:
‘Good woman, you grow pale… Perhaps you wonder why you came at all? Fear not: Mother Church will always protect the innocent. But I have no doubt, that in the coming weeks, seven, eight, or nine of the best and most attractive witches in Paris will perish at the stake.’
She swoons again but he lets her fall with a thud and takes centre court.
‘Christians, I am glad to finally have your attention. And Jacques Vallin, enough of your feeble quips, if you please.’
I rage in my chains:
‘Who is this woman of Toulouse? I demand that she be brought before the court!’
‘You demand?’ Sneers Pontius, ‘you are in no position to make demands.’
‘Then give me her name.’
‘I cannot reveal her name.’
‘You accuse me falsely! I know naught of this woman from Toulouse and I deny these heinous crimes! You refuse to give her name because she doesn’t exist!’
‘Doesn’t exist? But her confession is here in black and white, just as the names of all your sect are in black and white.’
‘A sect? I marvel to hear it! What fool could scarcely believe it?’
‘The bishop believes it. Indeed, the whole of Mother Church believes it. And she will conduct herself with decency and moderation if you confess now.’
‘I am innocent. And as for this sect…’
‘A demonstrable fact.’
‘Well, since you have given yourself to the study of holy law, and now that you have despoiled me of my goods and property, I ask that you reveal the names of this sect.’
‘All in good time.’
The president sighs impatiently:
‘Does the Grand Inquisitor have the names or not? If so, where are they writ? Let the court see.’
‘Most prudent lord, pray, if you will let me continue, I was about to make that clear.’
‘Oh, very well,’ grumbles the president, ‘carry on…’
‘Thank you my lord… Citizens, this perfidious proselyte shows no contrition for his diabolic crimes. Even now, within his helmet, he conspires with the devil…’
‘Better that I fall into his clutches than yours. And if I had my ring, which twinkles on the Bishop’s finger, I would give it to Charon, for my fare across the Styx.’
Pontius turns fiercely on his heels:
‘As well you might. As well you might! Learned doctors, in my pursuit of heretical wickedness, a certain secret was related to me. All participants made the same confession separately, with the same details, and with the same relation of the facts. As Christians we are all enrolled in the Book of Life, for we are baptised in Christ. But not so the accused, nor any member of his sect. For they are enrolled in another book altogether. Jacques Vallin, is it not true, that you and your disciples vowed never to be enrolled in the Book of Life, but were inscribed in what is called the Book of Death?’
‘This is a conspiracy to rob me of my property!’
‘– And that this Book of Death was writ by a demon notary…’
A spasm of fright grips the assembly.
‘Yes,’ affirms Pontuis. ‘A demon, who wrote each name in blood. There are some who attribute miraculous cures to the accused: an old woman with a twisted mouth; a child with a club foot; a blind man; a deaf maid, and a hundred other cases. But all these miracles were mischievous feats and malicious impostures of the Devil. I ask you, what was the price of his Jewish magic? By what pact were these cures granted?’
The bishop jumps from his chair, shaking his crosier:
‘The pact was desecration! These cures were granted by melting images of the Christ! Throughout Paris, churches and chapels have been robbed of their waxen figurines. They have been turned into candles for the Devil and statues for the sick. I have heard tales of infernal regions beneath Paris – of caves and grottos, crowded with waxen limbs – like the pagan shrines of Aesculapius…’
He sits back down and fumbles with my ring, twirling it round his middle finger.
‘Desecration indeed. You heard it from the bishop’s mouth: pagan shrines and waxen figurines. Our most Holy icons turned into vapours! But what else can we expect from such a prodigy of evil? The price of his cures is eternal damnation. His miracles arise not from divine providence, but the transgression of natural law. See how the accused falls silent. How he wishes he could turn to vapour and melt away. For he knows The Book of Death condemns him and every member of his sect.’
‘Er, where is this Book of Death?’ asks the president. ‘Does the Holy Office have it?’
‘Oh, Monsieur le President, I am sure it will yet be found. Indeed there is no little search being made for it. My holy office will not rest until it is safely in my hands.’
‘I hope you find it!’ cry I. ‘For the name of every person here is in it! God strike me down if I tell a lie. Good people of Paris, you think me a warlock? You want proof of my powers? I need not summon Satan; why, Satan is already here! Behold the Grand Inquisitor and his retinue of devils! Go gather your faggots and kindle your fires. For surely you will all burn at the hands of these lunatics!’
Murmurs of dissent echo round the chamber. The nobles cower behind their feathered hats and shuffle toward the door. The crowd begins to heave, huddled in a throng; princes press upon the backs of beggars and courtesans become lost amid groping friars.
The president cries:
The mob surges toward the doors but they are bolted shut and flanked by guards. Finding no escape, the people turn and wait, riveted with fear.
‘In the name of God and the Blessed Virgin, is the court full of so many sheep that they take flight, cowering at the threats of this devil? The lady swoons again! For why? Is she writ in the Book of Death? Has she made vows to trees or fountains? Or drunk a magic philter? You think me so conceited or lacking in good judgement? My demands are modest. Unlike her husband, I care not if the collar of her cotte is crumpled, or how well she keeps fleas from blankets. But only that she takes the Host and is faithful to Mother Church.’
He goes to the bishop and whispers in his ear. There follows a long silence as their world-hatched eyes contrive and conspire. I start trembling and my manacles rattle. At length Pontius turns and declares:
‘Monsieur le President, no doubt this proselyte will have accomplices. We must find the Book of Death with its enrollment of names, lest his evil spreads through the kingdom like a canker. I demand the application of torture.’
The president glares gravely:
‘Jacques Vallin, do you persist in denying the charges brought against you?’
‘Then you give me no choice. The Holy Office must put you to the question. Take the prisoner away. The court is adjourned ’til sunset…’
i “Whether the belief that there are such beings as witches is so essential a part of the Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion manifestly savours of heresy”. Malleus Maleficarum Part One, Question One.
ii. Sancte Míchaël Archángele, contra nequítiam et insídias diáboli esto præsídium.
iii. From “On the Invocation of Demons” by Raymond of Tarrega, a Spanish Dominican. See “Witchcraft in The Middle Ages”, by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Chapter 8: ‘The Beginning of the Witch Craze’ p. 206.
iv. Matthew, 8:32.
v. Born 1336, died 1st September 1375.
vi. Born 1336, died 30th May 1376.
vii. Born 1310, died 22nd July 1376.
viii. The dialogue for this passage is based on a letter that the Chancellor of the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg wrote to his friend in August, 1629. Although this was centuries later and at the height of the witch craze, burnings were already common in France by 1371, and even young children were put to the stake. [The Witch Persecution at Wurzburg George L. Burr, ed., The Witch Persecutions in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania History Department, 1898-1912) vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 28-2].
Copyright (c) Nicholas Shea 2006