Communication of Europe and the Saracens (1/3)

It appears to have been about the close of the tenth century that the more curious and inquisitive spirits of Europe first had recourse to the East as a source of such information and art, as they found most glaringly deficient among their countrymen. We have seen that in Persia there was an uninterrupted succession of professors in the art of magic: and, when the followers of Mahomet by their prowess had gained the superiority over the greater part of Asia, over all that was known of Africa, and a considerable tract of Europe, they gradually became awake to the desire of cultivating the sciences, and in particular of making themselves masters of whatever was most liberal and eminent among the disciples of Zoroaster. To this they added a curiosity respecting Greek learning, especially as it related to medicine and the investigation of the powers of physical nature. Bagdad became an eminent seat of learning; and perhaps, next to Bagdad, Spain under the Saracens, or Moors, was a principal abode for the professors of ingenuity and literature.

Gerbert, Pope Silvester II
As a consequence of this state of things the more curious men of Europe by degrees adopted the practice of resorting to Spain for the purpose of enlarging their sphere of observation and knowledge. Among others Gerbert is reported to have been the first of the Christian clergy, who strung themselves up to the resolution of mixing with the followers of Mahomet, that they might learn from thence things, the knowledge of which it was impossible for them to obtain at home. This generous adventurer, prompted by an insatiable thirst for information, is said to have secretly withdrawn himself from his monastery of Fleury in Burgundy, and to have spent several years among the Saracens of Cordova. Here he acquired a knowledge of the language and learning of the Arabians, particularly of their astronomy, geometry and arithmetic; and he is understood to have been the first that imparted to the north and west of Europe a knowledge of the Arabic numerals, a science, which at first sight might be despised for its simplicity, but which in its consequences is no inconsiderable instrument in subtilising the powers of human intellect. He likewise introduced the use of clocks. He is also represented to have made an extraordinary proficiency in the art of magic; and among other things is said to have constructed a brazen head, which would answer when it was spoken to, and oracularly resolve many difficult questions. The same historian assures us that Gerbert by the art of necromancy made various discoveries of hidden treasures, and relates in all its circumstances the spectacle of a magic palace he visited underground, with the multiplied splendours of an Arabian tale, but distinguished by this feature, that, though its magnificence was dazzling to the sight, it would not abide the test of feeling, but vanished into air, the moment it was attempted to be touched.

It happened with Gerbert, as with St. Dunstan, that he united an aspiring mind and a boundless spirit of ambition, with the intellectual curiosity which has already been described. The first step that he made into public life and the career for which he panted, consisted in his being named preceptor, first to Robert, king of France, the son of Hugh Capet, and next to Otho the Third, emperor of Germany. Hugh Capet appointed him archbishop of Rheims; but, that dignity being disputed with him, he retired into Germany, and, becoming eminently a favourite with Otho the Third, he was by the influence of that prince raised, first to be archbishop of Ravenna, and afterwards to the papacy by the name of Silvester the Second.

Cardinal Benno, who was an adherent of the anti-popes, and for that reason is supposed to have calumniated Gerbert and several of his successors, affirms that he was habitually waited on by demons, that by their aid he obtained the papal crown, and that the devil to whom he had sold himself, faithfully promised him that he should live, till he had celebrated high mass at Jerusalem. This however was merely a juggle of the evil spirit; and Gerbert actually died, shortly after having officially dispensed the sacrament at the church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which is one of the seven districts of the city of Rome. This event occurred in the year 1008.

Benedict the Ninth
According to the same authority sorcery was at this time extensively practised by some of the highest dignitaries of the church, and five or six popes in succession were notorious for these sacrilegious practices. About the same period the papal chair was at its lowest state of degradation; this dignity was repeatedly exposed for sale; and the reign of Gerbert, a man of consummate abilities and attainments, is almost the only redeeming feature in the century in which he lived. At length the tiara became the purchase of an ambitious family, which had already furnished two popes, in behalf of a boy of twelve years of age, who reigned by the name of Benedict the Ninth. This youth, as he grew up, contaminated his rule with every kind of profligacy and debauchery. But even he, according to Benno, was a pupil in the school of Silvester, and became no mean proficient in the arts of sorcery. Among other things he caused the matrons of Rome by his incantations to follow him in troops among woods and mountains, being bewitched and their souls subdued by the irresistible charms of his magic.

Gregory the Seventh
Benno presents us with a regular catalogue of the ecclesiastical sorcerers of this period: Benedict the Ninth, and Laurence, archbishop of Melfi, (each of whom, he says, learned the art of Silvester), John XX and Gregory VI. But his most vehement accusations are directed against Gregory VII, who, he affirms, was in the early part of his career, the constant companion and assistant of these dignitaries in unlawful practices of this sort.

Gregory VII, whose original name was Hildebrand, is one of the great champions of the Romish church, and did more than any other man to establish the law of the celibacy of the clergy, and to take the patronage of ecclesiastical dignities out of the hands of the laity. He was eminently qualified for this undertaking by the severity of his manners, and the inflexibility of his resolution to accomplish whatever he undertook.

His great adversary was Henry the Fourth, emperor of Germany, a young prince of high spirit, and at that time (1075) twenty-four years of age. Gregory sent to summon him to Rome, to answer an accusation, that he, as all his predecessors had done, being a layman, had conferred ecclesiastical dignities. Henry refused submission, and was immediately declared excommunicated. In retaliation for this offence, the emperor, it is said, gave his orders to a chief of brigands, who, watching his opportunity, seized the pope in the act of saying mass in one of the churches of Rome, and carried him prisoner to a tower in the city which was in the possession of this adventurer. But no sooner was this known, than the citizens of Rome, rose en masse, and rescued their spiritual father. Meanwhile Henry, to follow up his blow, assembled a synod at Worms, who pronounced on the pope, that for manifold crimes he was fallen from his supreme dignity, and accordingly fulminated a decree of deposition against him. But Henry had no forces to carry this decree into execution; and Gregory on his side emitted a sentence of degradation against the emperor, commanding the Germans to elect a new emperor in his place. It then became evident that, in this age of ignorance and religious subjugation, the spiritual arm, at least in Germany, was more powerful than the temporal; and Henry, having maturely considered the perils that surrounded him, took the resolution to pass the Alps with a few domestics only, and, repairing to the presence of the pope, submit himself to such penance as the pontiff should impose. Gregory was at this time at Canosa, a fortress beyond Naples, which was surrounded with three walls. Henry, without any attendant, was admitted within the first wall. Here he was required to cast off all the symbols of royalty, to put on a hair-shirt, and to wait barefoot his holiness’s pleasure. He stood accordingly, fasting from morn to eve, without receiving the smallest notice from the pontiff. It was in the month of January. He passed through the same trial the second day, and the third. On the fourth day in the morning he was admitted to the presence of the holy father. They parted however more irreconcileable in heart than ever, though each preserved the appearance of good will. The pope insisted that Henry should abide the issue of the congress in Germany, of which he constituted himself president; and the emperor, exasperated at the treatment he had received, resolved to keep no terms with Gregory. Henry proceeded to the election of an anti-pope, Clement the Third, and Gregory patronised a new emperor, Rodolph, duke of Suabia. Henry had however generally been successful in his military enterprises; and he defeated Rodolph in two battles, in the last of which his opponent was slain. In the synod of Brixen, in which Clement the Third was elected, Gregory was sentenced as a magician and a necromancer. The emperor, puffed up with his victories, marched against Rome, and took it, with the exception of the castle of St. Angelo, in which the pope shut himself up; and in the mean time Henry caused the anti-pope, his creature, to be solemnly inaugurated in the church of the Lateran. Gregory however, never dismayed, and never at an end of his expedients, called in the Normans, who had recently distinguished themselves by their victories in Naples and Sicily. Robert Guiscard, a Norman chieftain, drove the Germans out of Rome; but, some altercations ensuing between the pontiff and his deliverer, the city was given up to pillage, and Gregory was glad to take refuge in Salerno, the capital of his Norman ally, where he shortly after expired, an exile and a fugitive.

Gregory was no doubt a man of extraordinary resources and invincible courage. He did not live to witness the triumph of his policy; but his projects for the exaltation of the church finally met with every success his most sanguine wishes could have aspired to. In addition to all the rest it happened, that the countess Matilda, a princess who in her own right possessed extensive sovereignties in Italy, nearly commensurate with what has since been styled the ecclesiastical state, transferred to the pope in her life-time, and confirmed by her testament, all these territories, thus mainly contributing to render him and his successors so considerable as temporal princes, as since that time they have appeared.

It is, however, as a sorcerer, that Gregory VII (Hildebrand) finds a place in this volume. Benno relates that, coming one day from his Alban villa, he found, just as he was entering the church of the Lateran, that he had left behind him his magical book, which he was accustomed to carry about his person. He immediately sent two trusty servants to fetch it, at the same time threatening them most fearfully if they should attempt to look into the volume. Curiosity however got the better of their fear. They opened the book, and began to read; when presently a number of devils appeared, saying, “We are come to obey your commands, but, if we find ourselves trifled with, we shall certainly fall upon and destroy you.” The servants, exceedingly terrified, replied, “Our will is that you should immediately throw down so much of the wall of the city as is now before us.” The devils obeyed; and the servants escaped the danger that hung over them. It is further said, that Gregory was so expert in the arts of magic, that he would throw out lightning by shaking his arm, and dart thunder from his sleeve.

But the most conspicuous circumstance in the life of Gregory that has been made the foundation of a charge of necromancy against him, is that, when Rodolph marched against Henry IV, the pope was so confident of his success, as to venture publicly to prophesy, both in speech and in writing, that his adversary should be conquered and perish in this campaign. “Nay,” he added, “this prophecy shall be accomplished before St. Peter’s day; nor do I desire any longer to be acknowledged for pope, than on the condition that this comes to pass.” It is added, that Rodolph, relying on the prediction, six times renewed the battle, in which finally he perished instead of his competitor. But this does not go far enough to substantiate a charge of necromancy. It is further remarked, that Gregory was deep in the pretended science of judicial astrology; and this, without its being necessary to have recourse to the solution of diabolical aid, may sufficiently account for the undoubting certainty with which he counted on the event.

In the mean time this statement is of great importance, as illustrative of the spirit of the times in general, and the character of Gregory in particular. Rodolph, the competitor for the empire, has his mind wrought up to such a pitch by this prophetic assurance, that, five times repulsed, he yet led on his forces a sixth time, and perished the victim of his faith. Nor were his followers less animated than he, and from the same cause. We see also from the same story, that Gregory was not an artful and crafty impostor, but a man spurred on by a genuine enthusiasm. And this indeed is necessary to account for the whole of his conduct. The audacity with which he opposed the claims of Henry, and the unheard-of severity with which he treated him at the fortress of Canosa, are to be referred to the same feature of character. Invincible perseverance, when united with great resources of intellect and a lofty spirit, will enable a man thoroughly to effect, what a person of inferior endowments would not have dared so much as to dream of. And Gregory, like St. Dunstan, achieved incredible things, by skilfully adapting himself to circumstances, and taking advantage of the temper and weakness of his contemporaries.

Duff, King of Scotland
It is not to be wondered at, when such things occurred in Italy, the principal seat of all the learning and refinement then existing in Europe, that the extreme northerly and western districts should have been given up to the blindest superstition. Among other instances we have the following account in relation to Duff, king of Scotland, who came to the crown about the year 968. He found his kingdom in the greatest disorder from numerous bands of robbers, many of whom were persons of high descent, but of no competent means of subsistence. Duff resolved to put an end to their depredations, and to secure those who sought a quiet support from cultivating the fruits of the earth from forcible invasion. He executed the law against these disturbers without respect of persons, and hence made himself many and powerful enemies. In the midst of his activity however he suddenly fell sick, and became confined to his bed. His physicians could no way account for his distemper. They found no excess of any humour in his body to which they could attribute his illness; his colour was fresh, and his eyes lively; and he had a moderate and healthful appetite. But with all this he was a total stranger to sleep; he burst out into immoderate perspirations; and there was scarcely any thing that remained of him, but skin and bone. In the meantime secret information was brought that all this evil was the result of witchcraft. And, the house being pointed out in which the sorcerers held their sabbath, a band of soldiers was sent to surprise them. The doors being burst open, they found one woman roasting upon a spit by the fire a waxen image of the king, so like in every feature, that no doubt was entertained that it was modelled by the art of the devil, while another sat by, busily engaged in reciting certain verses of enchantment, by which means, as the wax melted, the king was consumed with perspiration, and, as soon as it was utterly dissolved, his death should immediately follow. The witches were seized, and from their own confession burned alive. The image was broken to pieces, and every fragment of it destroyed. And no sooner was this effected, than Duff had all that night the most refreshing and healthful sleep, and the next day rose without any remains of his infirmity.

This reprieve however availed him but for a short time. He was no sooner recovered, than he occupied himself as before with pursuing the outlaws, whom he brought indiscriminately to condign punishment. Among these there chanced to be two young men, near relations of the governor of the castle of Fores, who had hitherto been the king’s most faithful adherents. These young men had been deluded by ill company: and the governor most earnestly sued to Duff for their pardon. But the king was inexorable. Meanwhile, as he had always placed the most entire trust in their father, he continued to do so without the smallest suspicion. The night after the execution, the king slept in the castle of Fores, as he had often done before; but the governor, conceiving the utmost rancour at the repulse he had sustained, and moreover instigated by his wife, in the middle of the night murdered Duff in his bed, as he slept. His reign lasted only four years.

The seventh king of Scotland after Duff, with an interval of sixty-eight years, was Macbeth. The historian begins his tale of witchcraft, towards the end of the reign of Duncan, his predecessor, with observing, “Shortly after happened a strange and uncouth wonder, which afterward was the cause of much trouble in the realm of Scotland. It fortuned, as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed towards Fores, where the king as then lay, they went sporting by the way together, without other company save only themselves, passing through the woods and fields, when suddenly, in the midst of a laund, there met them three women in strange and ferly apparel, resembling creatures of an elder world, whom when they attentively beheld, wondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said, All hail, Macbeth, thane of Glamis (for he had lately entered into that dignity and office by the death of his father Synel). The second of them said, Hail, Macbeth, thane of Cawdor. But the third said, All hail, Macbeth, that hereafter shall be king of Scotland. Then Banquo, What sort of women, said he, are you, that seem so little favourable unto me, whereas to my fellow here, besides high offices, ye assign also the kingdom, appointing forth nothing for me at all? Yes, saith the first of them, we promise greater benefits unto thee than unto him, for he shall reign indeed, but with an unlucky end, neither shall he leave any issue behind him to succeed in his place; where contrarily thou indeed shall not reign at all, but of thee those shall be born, which shall govern the Scottish kingdom by long order of continual descent. Herewith the foresaid women vanished immediately out of their sight.

“This was reputed at the first but some vain fantastical illusion by Macbeth and Banquo, insomuch that Banquo would call Macbeth in jest king of Scotland, and Macbeth again would call him in sport likewise the father of many kings. But afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as you would say) the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies, endued with knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science, because every thing came to pass as they had spoken.

“For shortly after, the thane of Cawdor, being condemned at Fores of treason against the king committed, his lands, livings and offices were given of the king’s liberality unto Macbeth.”

Malcolm, the preceding king of Scotland, had two daughters, one of them the mother of Duncan, and the other of Macbeth; and in virtue of this descent Duncan succeeded to the crown. The accession of Macbeth therefore was not very remote, if he survived the present king. Of consequence Macbeth, though he thought much of the prediction of the weird sisters, yet resolved to wait his time, thinking that, as had happened in his former preferment, this might come to pass without his aid. But Duncan had two sons, Malcolm Cammore and Donald Bane. The law of succession in Scotland was, that, if at the death of the reigning sovereign he that should succeed were not of sufficient age to take on him the government, he that was next of blood to him should be admitted. Duncan however at this juncture created his eldest son Malcolm prince of Cumberland, a title which was considered as designating him heir to the throne. Macbeth was greatly troubled at this, as cutting off the expectation he thought he had a right to entertain: and, the words of the weird sisters still ringing in his ears, and his wife with ambitious speeches urging him to the deed, he, in conjunction with some trusty friends, among whom was Banquo, came to a resolution to kill the king at Inverness. The deed being perpetrated, Malcolm, the eldest son of Duncan, fled for safety into Cumberland, and Donald, the second, into Ireland.

Macbeth, who became king of Scotland in the year 1010, reigned for ten years with great popularity and applause, but at the end of that time changed his manner of government, and became a tyrant. His first action in this character was against Banquo. He remembered that the weird sisters had promised to Banquo that he should be father to a line of kings. Haunted with this recollection, Macbeth invited Banquo and his son Fleance to a supper, and appointed assassins to murder them both on their return. Banquo was slain accordingly; but Fleance, under favour of the darkness of the night, escaped.

This murder brought Macbeth into great odium, since every man began to doubt of the security of his life, and Macbeth at the same time to fear the ill will of his subjects. He therefore proceeded to destroy all against whom he entertained any suspicion, and every day more and more to steep his hands in blood. Further to secure himself, he built a castle on the top of a high hill, called Dunsinnan, which was placed on such an elevation, that it seemed impossible to approach it in a hostile manner. This work he carried on by means of requiring the thanes of the kingdom, each one in turn, to come with a set of workmen to help forward the edifice. When it came to the turn of Macduff, thane of Fife, he sent workmen, but did not come himself, as the others had done. Macbeth from that time regarded Macduff with an eye of perpetual suspicion.

Meanwhile Macbeth, remembering that the origin of his present greatness consisted in the prophecy of the weird sisters, addicted himself continually to the consulting of wizards. Those he consulted gave him a pointed warning to take heed of Macduff, who in time to come would seek to destroy him. This warning would unquestionably have proved fatal to Macduff; had not on the other hand Macbeth been buoyed up in security, by the prediction of a certain witch in whom he had great trust, that he should never be vanquished till the wood of Bernane came to the castle of Dunsinnan, and that he should not be slain by any man that was born of a woman; both which he judged to be impossibilities.

This vain confidence however urged him to do many outrageous things; at the same time that such was his perpetual uneasiness of mind, that in every nobleman’s house he had one servant or another in fee, that he might be acquainted with every thing that was said or meditated against him. About this time Macduff fled to Malcolm, who had now taken refuge in the court of Edward the Confessor; and Macbeth came with a strong party into Fife with the purpose of surprising him. The master being safe, those within Macduff’s castle threw open the gates, thinking that no mischief would result from receiving the king. But Macbeth, irritated that he missed of his prey, caused Macduff’s wife and children, and all persons who were found within the castle, to be slain.

Shortly after, Malcolm and Macduff, reinforced by ten thousand English under the command of Seyward, earl of Northumberland, marched into Scotland. The subjects of Macbeth stole away daily from him to join the invaders; but he had such confidence in the predictions that had been delivered to him, that he still believed he should never be vanquished. Malcolm meanwhile, as he approached to the castle of Dunsinnan, commanded his men to cut down, each of them, a bough from the wood of Bernane, as large as he could bear, that they might take the tyrant the more by surprise. Macbeth saw, and thought the wood approached him; but he remembered the prophecy, and led forth and marshalled his men. When however the enemy threw down their boughs, and their formidable numbers stood revealed, Macbeth and his forces immediately betook themselves to flight. Macduff pursued him, and was hard at his heels, when the tyrant turned his horse, and exclaimed, “Why dost thou follow me? Know, that it is ordained that no creature born of a woman can ever overcome me.” Macduff instantly retorted, “I am the man appointed to slay thee. I was not born of a woman, but was untimely ripped from my mother’s womb.” And, saying this, he killed him on the spot. Macbeth reigned in the whole seventeen years.


Month at a Glance

November 2013
« Oct   Dec »


Filed Under:

Hit On Me!

  • 407,329 hits

%d bloggers like this: