The most spectacular if not the most significant event of the decade in France was the visit to Paris of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, in December to January 1377–78. Coucy’s notable social presence was again called on, as it had been for the wedding of the Duke of Burgundy, to lend his quality of grace and splendor to the escort of nobles for the visitor. In the jeweled glow of the occasion’s majestic pageantry, Charles V’s reign came to its zenith. The public was awed and gratified by the splendid ceremonies, and the propaganda value for Valois prestige probably equaled the incalculable expense.
Although Charles V was the third generation of Valois on the throne, he was not entirely free of uneasiness about the legitimacy of the title, the more so because of doubts about his own paternity. For private and for state reasons, his constant effort was to enhance the dignity of the crown. Politically his purpose in arranging the visit was to isolate England by tightening his ties with his uncle the Emperor, and he also had questions of territorial transfer and marital arrangements to discuss with him. Emotionally the kinship was important to him, although he knew his uncle to be calculating and slippery when it came to the test. Above all, he would have an occasion for the kind of grandiose public ceremony so important to medieval rule.
In theory the Holy Roman Emperor exercised a temporal sway matching the spiritual rule of the Pope over the universal community under God. Although vestiges of the imperial prestige remained, neither theory nor title any longer corresponded to existing reality. Imperial sovereignty in Italy was hardly more than a sham; it was dwindling on the western fringe of the empire in Hainault, Holland, and Luxemburg, and retreating in the east before the growing nationhood of Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland. Its core was a haphazard federation of German principalities, duchies, cities, leagues, margraves, archbishoprics, and counties under shifting and overlapping sovereignties. Hapsburgs and Luxemburgs, Hohenstaufens, Hohenzollerns, Wittelsbachs, and Wettins despoiled each other in endless wars; the Ritter or knight lived by robbing the merchant; every town believed its prosperity depended on the ruin of its rival; within the towns, merchants and craft guilds contended for control; an exploited peasantry smoldered and periodically flamed in revolt. The Empire had no political cohesion, no capital city, no common laws, common finances, or common officials. It was the relic of a dead ideal.
As theoretic lay leader of the Christian community, the Emperor was an elected sovereign currently drawn from the Luxemburg rulers of Bohemia. Charles IV’s family ties with France, the preferred home of his father, John the Blind, were close. He had been brought up at the French court from the age of seven, had married a sister of Philip VI, and his own sister Bonne had married Philip’s son Jean II. Though slightly hunchbacked and sallow of skin, he had been handsome in his prime, with long black hair and beard and lustrous black eyes. Now 61, he had outlived three wives, wedded a fourth, and married off seven or eight of his offspring into an intricate network of Hungarian, Bavarian, and Hapsburg dynasties. Seemingly affable and meek, he was quick and firm in decision, but restless and never still. He was given to whittling willow branches as he listened apparently abstracted to petitioners and advisers, and then made to each a reply “full of wisdom.” He spoke and wrote Czech as well as French, Italian, German, and Latin, all equally proficiently. In being cerebral and shrewd, he was like his nephew Charles V, both being the opposite of irrational, intemperate fathers.
Charles IV was astute enough to recognize that the Empire of his title was not that of Charlemagne. His central concern was the Kingdom of Bohemia, whose territorial enlargement and cultural enrichment he pursued with effect that earned him the title “Father of His Country.” He himself represented the nationalist tendencies that were making his imperial title obsolete.
While the Emperor’s welcome was being prepared, Coucy entered the war with England, not in his home territory of Picardy but in Languedoc against the Gascons, under the leadership of the Duc d’Anjou, Governor of Languedoc. Like Lancaster also a king’s brother, Anjou was driven by ambition for a crown of his own. In joining him, Coucy forged the connection that within a few years was to draw him into Anjou’s fateful pursuit of the crown of Naples.
After two months of siege and skirmish in Gascony, Coucy returned to Paris to serve as an escort to the Emperor. The welcoming party that was to greet him at Cambrai on the Hainault border included, besides Coucy, the King’s two chief advisers, Rivière and Mercier, and many nobles, knights, and squires, making in all a party of 300 resplendent horsemen. On December 22, they rode forward a league from the city to meet the advancing guests. Two hundred of Cambrai’s leading townsmen and clergy, headed by the Bishop, rode with them through ranks of archers and commoners stationed at the gates. The Emperor in a furred winter cloak of gray on a gray horse, together with his eldest son, Wenceslas, King of the Romans, was escorted into the city, where he dismounted with some difficulty, being afflicted by gout, and accompanied the Bishop to prayers in the church.
His primary purpose in coming, he told the French lords afterward at dinner, was to visit King Charles and his Queen and their children whom he wished to see “more than any other creatures in the world.” When he had accomplished this and presented his son to them, he would die with a quiet mind whenever God wished to take him. The Emperor was in fact in the last year of his life, and perhaps anticipating death, as people did in a time of few remedies or cures, he may have undertaken the uncomfortable journey more from a desire to revisit the Paris of his youth than for political advantage.
At each town in his progress through Picardy and the Ile de France, delegations met him in ceremonial welcome and presented gifts of meat, fish, bread, wines, and wagonloads of hay and oats, paid for by the King. On each occasion the Emperor was careful to state that he was a guest in a city of the King of France, while his hosts took pains that no bells should be rung or other rituals allowed that might signify imperial supremacy. The Emperor’s choice of a gray horse was a gesture to mark the distinction from an entry into a town of the Empire, when he customarily rode a white horse. The emphasis placed by the authorized French chronicle on these points of protocol shows that the matter was much on the mind of the French King. Charles V wanted to build up the visit as a showcase for his claim of a just war, but not to leave his people under any illusions about the Emperor as overlord or universal monarch. The elaborate courtesies and festivities he arranged were a measure of the great significance he attached to the visit. In the semi-official chronicle of his reign, no less than eighty pages of detailed account were devoted to it.
At Compiègne near Paris, the Emperor was welcomed by the Duc de Bourbon, brother of the Queen, with a retinue in new liveries of parti-colored white and blue. At Senlis the welcomers were the Dukes of Berry and Burgundy and the Archbishop of Sens with a suite of 500 all dressed alike in gray and black, the knights in velvet and the squires in silk of the same colors. Enjoying this spectacle, the viewer would spread word of the occasion’s grandeur, but its unhappy hero, whose gout took a turn for the worse, had to forgo a planned banquet and proceed the rest of the way by means of the Dauphin’s litter harnessed to two mules and two horses.
At the Abbey of St. Denis, three archbishops, ten bishops, and the entire Royal Council awaited the Emperor for the visit to the royal mausoleum, where he had to be lifted from his litter and carried into the church to pray devoutly at the tomb of St. Louis. Expressing himself as “madly desirous” to see the famous treasure and relics of St. Denis, the Emperor was shown the preserved body of the saint, who, having been martyred by decapitation on the hill of Montmartre (hence its name), had walked with his head in his hands to the site where he laid the head down and founded the abbey. The Emperor gazed for a long time at the relics and the jeweled crown of St. Louis and the royal tombs, especially of Philip VI, his onetime brother-in-law.
His entry into Paris, for which the King had planned to present him with a black war-horse, had to be made instead in the Queen’s litter. The Provost’s Guard and 2,000 merchants, magistrates, and citizens of Paris, all on horseback and uniformly dressed in parti-colored gowns of white and violet, were waiting to escort him to the meeting with the King. Gout or not, this ceremony had to be equestrian. Lifted to the saddle, the Emperor, with his son alongside, awaited the parade advancing toward them from the old palace on the Ile de la Cité. Not for a generation had Paris witnessed such a royal procession. Particular care had been taken that, in spite of great crowds, everyone should be able to see. Guards with mace and sword were placed at every intersection along the route, and, warned by criers a day in advance, people were forbidden to cross the Rue St. Denis. Street barriers were erected and sergeants given precise orders as to where and when pedestrians and riders could or could not cross.
First came Marshal Sancerre and his guard wearing two swords each and ruffled hats, followed by the King’s trumpeters flourishing bright pennants from their silver trumpets. The four dukes—Berry, Burgundy, Bourbon, and the Duc de Bar, husband of the King’s sister and future father-in-law of Marie de Coucy—rode two by two, followed by twelve counts, including Coucy as Count of Soissons, and a long parade of prelates, nobles, judges, councillors, and officers of the royal household, each group uniformly dressed according to function. Chamberlains wore parti-colored velvet or silk in two shades of scarlet, stewards were in velvet of sky blue and fawn, grooms of the King’s armor in blue damask, ushers in blue and red, butlers in white and fawn satin, chefs and squires of the kitchen in fur-lined silk surcoats with pearl buttons, valets de chambre in black striped in white and gray, wine stewards in brown stripes over red.
Last came the scrawny long-nosed King riding a white palfrey and wearing a fur-lined scarlet mantle and beaked hat “after the ancient manner.” The length of the procession took half an hour to leave the palace, and because of the press of people, it was even longer before the two sovereigns came face to face. Both doffed their hats as they met. Taking care not to rub against the painful legs of his uncle, Charles placed himself between the Emperor and Wenceslas, and so they rode three abreast back through the city to the palace.
Seated in a gold-draped chair in the courtyard where once Provost Marcel had dumped the bodies of the murdered Marshals, the Emperor heard an address of welcome by his host, and afterward in their chambers “they removed their hats and spoke together with great friendship and joy of meeting.” The next days were filled with banquets, conferences, gift-giving by the goldsmiths of Paris of their finest art, and special services and viewing of relics in the Sainte Chapelle, so richly decorated and lighted that “it was a marvel to see.” In between, the sovereigns held private talks, one lasting three hours “without even the Chancellor present,” as the Chancellor’s chronicler took care to note, “and what they said no one knows.”
The state dinners drew on all the resources of the 14th century to delight, amaze, and glut the guests. So many torchbearers stood like living candlesticks against the pillars of the great stone hall that “one could see as well as if it were day.” So many courses and dishes were served that for once there were “too many to tell,” and indeed too many for the ailing guest of honor. The King had ordered four courses of ten pairs of dishes in each, but thoughtfully eliminated one course of ten to reduce the time the Emperor would have to sit at table. As it was, he would have had to partake of thirty pair of such dishes as roast capons and partridges, civet of hare, meat and fish aspics, lark pasties and rissoles of beef marrow, black puddings and sausages, lampreys and savory rice, entremet of swan, peacock, bitterns, and heron “borne on high,” pasties of venison and small birds, fresh- and salt-water fish with a gravy of shad “the color of peach blossom,” white leeks with plovers, duck with roast chitterlings, stuffed pigs, eels reversed, frizzled beans—finishing off with fruit wafers, pears, comfits, medlars, peeled nuts, and spiced wine.
So well ordered was the service for 800 guests at the banquet of January 6 that the low tables were served at the same time and with the same dishes as the high, and all alike were set with gold and silver plate. The crowned heads and guests of highest rank sat at five tables on raised platforms, each under an individual canopy of cloth of gold, with the Emperor, King, and Archbishop of Reims at a marble table in the center. Cloth of gold adorned with fleurs-de-lys made the tablecloths and festooned pillars and windows. Tapestries covered the walls between. Coucy sat with the Duc de Bourbon at the table of the nine-year-old Dauphin “to keep him company and guard him from the great multitude.” Young Marie de Coucy was among the “great ladies” attending the Queen. At late refreshment after entertainment by minstrels, the Duc de Berry and his brother of Burgundy served wine and spices to the King and Emperor, but whether on horseback, as was often the custom of noble servitors, the exhausted chronicler fails to say. On a previous visit by the Emperor to the Count of Savoy in 1365, mounted nobles had served platters of food poised on the ends of lances especially fitted with brackets for the purpose. Whatever its moral limitations, chivalry required a strong wrist.
For the grand climax, all 800 guests moved to the Hall of Parlement, where the spectacle presented to them, representing the taking of Jerusalem by the First Crusade, was a triumph of the stagecraft in which the 14th century excelled. Artificers at banquets, as described in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, could bring bodies of water into the hall, make boats row up and down, grim lions appear, flowers spring from meadows, grapevines grow, and a castle seemingly made of stone vanish, or “thus it seemed to every manne’s sight.” At a banquet given in Coucy’s time by a certain Vidame de Chartres, the ceiling painted like a sky opened to allow the dinner to descend on machines resembling clouds, which raised the dishes again when they had been emptied. An artificial storm lasting half an hour accompanied dessert, dropping a rain of scented water and a hail of sweetmeats.
In the miracle plays and mysteries staged for the populace, realism was the desired effect. A system of weights and pulleys resurrected Jesus from the tomb and lifted him to a ceiling of clouds. Angels and devils were made to appear magically through trapdoors; Hell opened and closed its monstrous mouth, and Noah’s flood inundated the stage from casks of water overturned backstage while stone-filled barrels turned by cranks resounded with thunder. When John the Baptist was decapitated, the actor was whisked away so cunningly in exchange for a fake corpse and fake head spilling ox blood that the audience shrieked in excitement. Actors playing Jesus sometimes remained tied to the cross reciting verses for three hours.
More completely than any other medium, the stage mirrored medieval life. Developing out of liturgical plays performed at the church door, drama had left the church for the street, where it was produced by guilds and confréries on wheeled platforms with different scenes drawn along in succession. The plays traveled from town to town, attracting all of society as audience—peasants and bourgeois, monks and students, knights and ladies, and the local seigneur in a front-row seat. For a major performance, criers went out to inform the public a day in advance. Subject matter was religious, but manner was secular, designed for entertainment. Every mystery of the Christian story, and its central mystery of salvation through the birth and death of Christ, was made physical and concrete and presented in terms of everyday life—irreverent, bloody, and bawdy. The shepherds who watched by night were portrayed as sheep-stealers, pathos in the sacrifice of Isaac was played to the hilt, the favorite comic relief was the on-stage donkey for Balaam’s ass or for the Virgin to ride on the Flight into Egypt or for the Three Kings in lieu of camels. The “hin-han” brayed by the actor inside the donkey’s skin and the turds dropped from a lifted tail evoked howls of delight even when the donkey bore Jesus into Jerusalem.
Sex and sadism were relished in the rape of Dinah, in the exposure of Noah naked and drunk, the sins of the Sodomites, the peeping of the Elders at Susanna, and all the varieties of torn flesh in the martyrdom of saints. Scenes of torture in revolting realism were regular theatrical fare, as if a violent time bred enjoyment of violence. Nero slitting open the belly of his mother to see where he came from was performed with the aid of gory entrails, supplied by the local pork butcher, spilling from the victim. Schadenfreude was not peculiar to the Middle Ages, but it was a dark variety indeed, induced by plague and successive calamities, that found expression in gruesome scenes of the tortures on the cross, with the soldiers shown spitting on the Redeemer of man.
In an age of anxiety, the Miracles of Notre Dame, a series of plays originating in the second half of the century, supplied what comfort faith in divine omnipotence could offer. No wretch so poor or wicked, no misery or injustice but could be remedied by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Virgin. The most vulnerable figure of society, a wronged woman, seduced and deserted or falsely accused of crime, was usually the central figure. In one play a long-barren woman whose prayers to the Virgin have at last brought her a son is exhausted by the pains of childbirth and falls asleep while bathing her baby. When he drowns in the tub, the mother is accused of child-murder and condemned to the stake. In response to her husband’s prayers, Notre Dame descends from Heaven to comfort him, and when the mother, about to be burned, begs for one last look at her child, he is restored to life in her arms.
Guilty passions, faithless spouses, agonies of childbirth, frail nuns and pregnant abbesses, adulterous queens, cruel deaths of children made up the plots. All humanity—proud cardinals and beggars, bailiff and butcher’s wife, Jews, innkeepers, riotous students, knights, wood-cutters, midwives, village fools—were the characters. The Virgin befriended and forgave them all, even the mother of a Pope who is so swollen with pride that she thinks herself greater than the Mother of God. After appropriate punishment, she too receives grace.
God in the plays was costumed in a white robe with gilt wig and beard and gilded face, angels had gilded wings, Herod had a black beard and Saracen’s robes, devils and demons wore grisly masks, horns, forked tails, and body suits covered with horsehair. Often they ran through the audience to pinch and frighten the spectators.
Apocalypse, never far out of mind, was enacted in the Day of Judgment and the Harrowing of Hell when Christ goes down to lead Adam and the prophets out to Paradise. Anti-Christ appears at his appointed time, traditionally fixed at three and a half years before the Last Judgment. Born of Satan’s seduction of a woman of Babylon, and instructed in all the demonic arts, he gains such power that kings and cardinals pay him homage until he is overthrown at Armageddon in the triumph of good over evil. The saved are separated from the damned, and angels empty the vials of wrath.
A Lollard preacher in England, seeking to justify the 14th century stage, said that men and women seeing the Passion of Christ and his saints would be moved to “compassion and devotion, weeping bitter tears, not scorning God but worshiping.” Seeing how the Devil moved people to lechery and pride and made them his servants to bring them to Hell, they would be converted to “good living,” therefore the playing of miracles “turneth men to bileve and not perverteth.” Perhaps unconvinced by his own argument, he added reasonably that men must have some recreation and it was better, or at least less evil, that they took it in the playing of miracles than by other “japes.”
The siege of Jerusalem played before the Emperor broke away from previous subject matter to present for the first time the re-enactment of a historical event. Its technical marvels and verve of staged battle were breathtaking. The crusaders’ ship, complete with mast, sail, and flying banners, was propelled down the hall so “lightly and softly” as actually to seem to be moving on water. Knights, wearing the correct heraldry if not costumes of nearly 300 years before, poured from the ship to assault the reconstructed battlements of Jerusalem. From a painted Moslem tower a muezzin chanted the wailing Arabic prayer. Saracens in turbans flashed wicked scimitars, crusaders were thrown from siege ladders, the onlookers gazed in wonder, stirred by the beauty and excitement to enthusiasm for a new crusade—which indeed was the purpose of the performance. The leading propagandist of crusade, Philippe de Mézières, was much admired by the King, who had appointed him a member of the Royal Council and tutor of his son.
Next day provided still another wonder. A specially constructed boat, fitted like a residence with halls, chambers, fireplaces, chimneys, and a court bed, was provided to convey the royal party half a mile down the river to the new palace of the Louvre. The Emperor was visibly impressed. Charles showed him the reconstructions by which he had transformed the old fortress into a “true royal palace”—windows and wide staircase, chapels, gardens, frescoes, paneled rooms, as well as the original weapons room, where arrows were fashioned and women feathered the shafts. After dinner the faculties of the University were presented to the Emperor, who responded in Latin to a formal address by the University’s chancellor.
Charles’s ultimate purpose, the apotheosis of his case against England, was reached the following day at a state assembly attended by fifty of the imperial party and about the same number of leading French personages—royal Dukes, prelates, peers including Coucy, knights, and members of the Council. According to the chronicler, the King was motivated by “the lies the English were spreading in Germany,” but more fundamentally he seems always to have been seeking some ultimate justification. He would lay before his uncle, perhaps as a father figure, the concessions he had offered for the sake of peace and let him judge of their sufficiency.
Charles spoke for two hours, tracing the ancient quarrel down the centuries from Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Treaty of Brétigny and rehearsing the intricate legalities under which the treaty had been voided and war renewed in 1369. If the speech was a tour de force of legal and historical argument, the Emperor’s response was a masterpiece of ornate formula. He spoke of loyalty and kinship, and the depth of his and his son’s and his subjects’ devotion which entitled them to be considered the defenders of the King’s honor and realm, brothers and children—let them indeed be called “allies.” Yet, when examined, the substance was shadowy. If, in the end, the speech—and the entire visit—produced no concrete alliance, the imposing verbal effect may have been what Charles of France wanted.
He did not stint in further courtesies and gift-giving, exchanging with the Emperor presents of enameled goblets and jeweled daggers set with rubies and diamonds, sapphires and pearls. Princely magnificence, Charles considered, was best displayed by jewels, tapestries, and the goldsmith’s art. His uncle was not embarrassed to ask for an exquisite Book of Hours, and when Charles set two before him, one large and one small from which to choose, the Emperor, preferring not to select, kept both. Sensibility had its hour when he visited the Queen and her mother, the dowager Duchess of Bourbon, whose sister Beatrice had been his first wife. Tears flowed freely in mutual memory although Beatrice had been dead for thirty years and her place filled by three wives since. The last day was spent in sylvan pleasure at Vincennes, where at the edge of the noble forest on the bank of the river the King had built his favorite country manor, called Beauté-sur-Marne. Furnished in luxury and comfort with beautiful tapestries, a Flemish organ, and turtledoves cooing in the courtyard, it was lauded by the poet Deschamps as “Of all places pleasant and agreeable, / Gay and lovely for joyous living.”
Departing by way of Reims, the Emperor was escorted to the frontiers of the kingdom by Coucy and attendant nobles. Possibly hastened by the exertions of so much ceremonial, his death followed ten months later in November 1378.
The memorable visit, even if devoid of practical effect, honored and enhanced the crown of France. Although royal powers were undefined, and the Council’s authority unformulated, and the institutions of royal government always in flux, Charles V’s sense of the crown’s role was firm: kingship depended on the King’s will. The sovereign was not above the law; rather, his duty was to maintain the law, for God denied Paradise to tyrants. Sanction derived in theory from the consent of the governed, for kings and princes, as a great theologian, Jean Gerson, was to remind Charles’s successor, “were created in the beginning by the common consent of all.” As Charles knew well, the cult of monarchy was the basis of the people’s consent. He deliberately fed the cult while at the same time he was the first to show that rulership could be exercised “from the chamber” independent of personal leadership in battle.
In the bright apogee of 1378, France was not immune from trouble. War had come back to Brittany and Normandy; Charles of Navarre, as venomous as ever after twenty years, was again in dangerous league with the English; heresy and sorcery were on the rise, testifying to needs unsatisfied by the Church.
For all its dominance, there never was a time when the Church was not resisted somewhere by dissent. In the distracted 14th century, when God seemed hostile to man or else hidden behind ecclesiastical counting of coins and selling of benefices, the need for communion with God was never greater, nor less satisfied by His appointed agents. A Church preoccupied with war in Lombardy and revenues in Avignon and the mundane necessities of maintaining its position was not ministering to popular need. The friars’ movements had been the last effort for reform from within, and when they, too, succumbed to the lure of endowments, the seekers of spiritual comfort increasingly sought it outside the Church in the mystical sects.
The Beghards, or Brethren of the Free Spirit, who claimed to be in a state of grace without benefit of priest or sacrament, spread not only doctrinal but civil disorder. One of the sects of voluntary poverty that perennially rose against the establishment, they had flourished for over a century in Germany, the Low Countries, and northern France, sometimes fading or driven underground by persecution but re-stimulated in the 14th century by the worldliness of Avignon and the mendicant orders. Because the Free Spirits believed God to be in themselves, not in the Church, and considered themselves in a state of perfection without sin, they felt free to do all things commonly prohibited to ordinary men. Sex and property headed the list. They practiced free love and adultery and were accused of indulging in group sex in their communal residences. They encouraged nudity to demonstrate absence of sin and shame. As “holy beggars,” the Brethren claimed the right to use and take whatever they pleased, whether a market woman’s chickens or a meal in a tavern without paying. This included the right, because of God’s immanence, to kill anyone who forcibly attempted to interfere.
If the Brethren’s habits came to be less pure than their precepts, the impulse was nevertheless religious. They were in search of personal salvation, not social justice. Medieval heresies were concerned with God, not man. Poverty was embraced not only in imitation of Christ and the Apostles but in deliberate contrast to the avarice that corrupted men of property. To be without property was to be without sin. Dissent was not a denial of religion but an excess of piety in search of a purer Christianity. It became heresy by definition of the Church, which recognized in the mystics’ renunciation of property the same threat as in Wyclif’s disendowment.
In monk-like robes deliberately ragged, the Brethren of the Free Spirit cluttered the towns like sparrows, preaching, begging, interrupting church services, scorning monks and priests. Drawn from clerks, students, dissenting clergy, and from the propertied class, especially women, they were articulate and usually literate. Women, out of their frustrations and search for ecstasy, were prominent among the mystics. In the Béguines they had a sect of their own, a lay order that followed its own religious rule of good works and, when nunneries had no room, provided a place for unmarried women and widows, or, as a bishop wrote in criticism of the Béguines, a retreat from the “coercion of marital bonds.” Members joined the Béguines by taking an oath of dedication to God before a parish priest or other cleric, but the movement was never quite sanctioned by the Church. At street meetings the Béguines read the Bible translated into French.
While the Brethren of the Free Spirit admitted both sexes, its two major gospels were written or formulated by women, one a shadowy figure known only as Schwester Katrei, the other named Marguerite Porete, who wrote The Mirror of Free Souls and was excommunicated and burned along with her book in 1310. Following her, the daughter of a rich merchant of Brussels known as Bloemardine attracted fervent disciples by her preaching. In 1372 the movement was condemned by the Inquisition, its books were burned in Paris on the Place de Grève, and a woman leader of the French group, Jeanne Dabenton, was burned at the stake together with the corpse of a male associate who had died in prison. Like the heresy of the Spiritual Franciscans, the sect of the Free Spirit persisted and spread in spite of the Inquisition.
Apocalypse was in the air. The Duc d’Anjou in 1376, in the course of authorizing an annual corpse for dissection by the medical faculty of Montpellier, took notice that the population was so reduced, owing to epidemics and wars, that “it may be diminished to ever greater extent and the world brought to nothing.” Under the influence of malign and capricious events, overwrought minds turned to magic and the supernatural. The Inquisitor of France, on inquiring of the Pope in 1374 if he should take cognizance of sorcerers, was authorized by Gregory XI to pursue them vigorously. Since early in the century the papacy had been taking an increasingly punitive view of recourse to the supernatural, especially during the hyperactive reign of John XXII. In a series of Bulls in the 1320s, Pope John had equated sorcerers with heretics and authorized their punishment as such, since they had made a “pact with Hell,” forsaking God and seeking the aid of the Devil. He ordered their books of magic lore to be sought out and burned. Despite his alarm, prosecuted cases were few until the second half of the century, when sorcery and its links to demonology took on new life and were met by new efforts at repression. In 1366 the Council of Chartres ordered anathema to be pronounced against sorcerers every Sunday in every parish church.
Demonology and the black arts were the opposite of heresy, not more pious than the Church but impious, seeking communion with the Devil, not God. Adepts in their rites worshiped Lucifer arrayed as the King of Heaven and believed that he and the other fallen angels would recapture Heaven while the Archangel Michael and his fellows would take their places in Hell. A pact with the Devil offered pleasure without penitence, enjoyment of sexuality, riches, and earthly ambitions. If the price was eternal hellfire, that was what many could expect anyway at the Day of Judgment. Though old and indigenous, demonology was never more than an aberration, but insofar as it offered an alternative answer, it was seen by the Church as dangerous.
The problem was to distinguish between diabolic and lawful magic powers. Respectable sorcerers claimed that their images of wax or lead acquired potency through being baptized and exorcised, that their mysteries were consecrated by celebration of the mass, that God was invoked to compel the obedience of demons—indeed, that God flowed from their arts, as proved by the fulfillment of wishes. Theologians disallowed such pretensions. Even if it was only to recover a straying lover or cure a peasant’s sick cow, sorcerers were offering aid outside the approved channel of prayer, priests, and saints. As the times darkened, all magic and witchcraft came to be taken as an implied contract with Satan.
Women turned to sorcery for the same reasons they turned to mysticism. In Paris in 1390 a woman whose lover had jilted her was tried for taking revenge by employing the magical powers of another woman to render him impotent. Both were burned at the stake. In the following year two more women were condemned on charges of maleficiam or doing evil. Since confessions in trials for sorcery were extracted by torture, they tended to reflect the accusations of diabolic power drawn up by the prosecutors, and since the accused were likely to be cranks or fanatics or otherwise disturbed, they did not hesitate to claim the powers imputed to them. They admitted to consorting with demons and to pacts with the Devil for lust or revenge, to diabolic rites and flights through the night to copulate with the Devil in the shape of a monstrous black cat or goat with flaming eyes or a gigantic man with black skin, a huge phallus, and eyes like burning coals. The Devil was a Gothic satyr with horns and cloven hoofs, fierce teeth and claws, a sulfurous smell and sometimes ass’s ears. The lore developed as much from the minds of the prosecutors as from the hallucinations of the accused, and together they laid the ground for the rage against witchcraft that was to explode upon the next century.
The clear voice of common sense spoke through the King’s adviser in philosophy, Nicolas Oresme, who despised both astrology and sorcery. A man of scientific spirit though a bishop, he was a mathematician and astronomer and translator of the Politics and Ethics of Aristotle. One of his books began with the sentence, “The earth is round like a ball,” and he postulated a theory of the earth’s rotation. Refuting the powers ascribed to sorcerers, he denied that they could invoke demons, although he did not rule out the existence of demons. Not all things, he wrote, could be explained by natural causes; some marvels or extraordinary strokes of fortune must be the work of angels or demons, but he preferred to look for a natural and rational explanation. Magicians, he pointed out, were adept at using aids to favor illusions—darkness, mirrors, drugs, or gases and fumes that could be made to give rise to visions. The basis for illusion was likely to be an abnormal state of mind induced by fasting or by frightening phenomena. A man ahead of his time, Oresme suggested that the source of demons and specters could be the disease of melancholy. He also made the point that evidence for sorcery was derived from confessions under torture, and that many miracles were fraudulently devised by the clergy to increase offerings to their churches.
Oresme proves the frailty of generalization. He was highly esteemed by the same King in whose employ the astrologer Thomas of Pisano fashioned wax images to destroy the English.
Scientific spirit could not dispel the sense of a malign influence upon the times. As the century entered its last quarter, the reality and power of demons and witches became common belief. The theological faculty of the University of Paris in a solemn conclave at the end of the century declared that ancient errors and evils, almost forgotten, were emerging with renewed vigor to infect society. They drew up a statement of 28 articles to disprove, not the power of the black arts, but their lawfulness. No less emphatically they rejected the incredulity of those who questioned the existence and activity of demons.
Unorthodoxy, as always, made disproportionate noise. Heresy and sorcery, though increasingly significant, were not the norm. In 1378 the real danger to the Church emerged from within.