“I don’t know who he really was,” the young monk Michael said, staring deeply into the center of the table at the Hog’s Snout.

Our group met at the ale house soon after I visited Michael’s parents.  Clearly the evening with the Black Rider had opened Michael’s memories of his dead brother.

Dame with Landsknecht--Durer

Hubmaier pushed a tankard toward the younger man.  “You were a boy.  He was your hero.”

Michael nodded.  “I had five years when Jakob came home for the first time in the regalia of a Landsknecht, the red, yellow and blue blouse, the fawn hat with ostrich plumes.  He told of close fighting with two-handed swords, knives, katzbalgers.

“Two years later, he returned from Novara with a horse and a crossbow.  But soon, a harquebus replaced the crossbow, the wooden powder charges called apostles–because there were twelve of them–carried in a bandoliera across his chest.

“The next year, no colorful blouse.  He became a Black Rider, and all was black, even the horse.  He showed me the chain mail armor, the black breastplate, and the pistols.  He was a god to me then.”

Michael picked up the tankard but then turned his eyes toward each of us in turn.  “Now, I think that perhaps he was just a mercenary who fought only for money, a savage butcher with no regard for any life, even his own.  ‘Today glory,’ he said.  ‘Tomorrow, death.'”

It was true, I thought.  The Black Riders were elite of Landsknechte.  Though they swore loyalty to the Empire, they were independent and difficult to control.  They fought for religion, they fought for beer.  But if they didn’t get paid, they didn’t fight at all.  “No money, no Landsknecht,” was their motto.

“They lack passion for a cause,” Matthew Zell said.  “That’s why they were beaten at Dornach.  The Switzer confederates fought for their freedom.  They had passion.”

Fabri nodded.  “The Switzers had forced marched all night when they arrived and saw the Landknechte reveling in camp.  They attacked immediately.”

“My father is so proud of being a leather merchant,” Michael said, his blue eyes still drilling into the table.  “He acts as if he did it all himself.  But how did a vinedresser, a peasant, move to the city and become a leather merchant?  How afford the horse and cart, the house in town, the first wares?”

Michael raised his tankard at last and downed half of the ale.  “My brother’s spoils of war.  Whenever he returned home, Jakob came with gold chains, sacks of guilders.”

Then Fabri leaned back in his jurist’s robe.  “The questions are not simple.  Without trained mercenaries, the Emperor would conscript farmers’ sons, who would have to be trained and armed.  Your brother provided all his own equipment.”

Michael nodded.  “The horse cost 44 guilders.  And the armor, 16.”

“So,” Fabri said, “I see nothing wrong with a man choosing to become a soldier for hire.  It’s like any other profession.”

“I’m against warring,” Michael said.  “I agree with Erasmus that no practice violates Jesus’ law of love so grossly as war.”

“Yes, but if we must have war,” I said, “and it seems we must, then let it be fought by professionals.”

“I agree,” Hubmaier said.  “For soon there would be a shortage of farmers’ sons, and they would start conscripting scholars!”

Even Michael managed a weak smile.  Then Fabri said, “the problem is that these troops answer to no one.  If they disobey the Emperor, how shall he discipline them?”

“Revoke their contract,” Zell suggested.

“He can’t,” Hubmaier said.  “He’s too desperate for trained soldiers.  And once they get war fever, it seems some of them can’t stop.  So they pillage and destroy without fear of retribution, each rousing his fellows up to a fevered pitch of lust and carnage.”

“If they commit an outrage in another land,” Fabri said, “whose courts should try them?”  Hubmaier, Fabri, Zell and I expounded at length on this question from moral, legal, and philosophical angles.

Then the tender young monk spoke.  “But what of the man?

“Jakob once said to my father:  When the sword is hot from prolonged combat, the blood will smoke upon the blade.  And I have stood, my sword smoking, and felt nothing.

“What of the man?” Michael asked again, his blue eyes moistening.  “It’s unnatural to create a war machine by deadening a man’s better impulses.  What happens to the man?  To his soul?  To his heart?”

The Knight, Death, and the Devil

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Johannes Pfefferkorn is an Ass

By Jove!  What a stir an idiot can make in this world.  Doubtless, Gentle Reader, you have heard of the ruckus this stubborn fool, Johannes Pffefferkorn, has instigated, but if not, I shall present the facts so that you can render a judgment.  

Pfefferkorn (peppercorn) was born a Jew but now inflicts misfortune on his people.  He was convicted of burglary in Cologne and imprisoned in 1504.  The next year, he converted to Christianity.  Some say this was to be set free, but my sources say that he was already free.

Pfefferkorn became assistant to Jacob van Hoogstraaten, the prior of the Dominicans, those most zealous Inquisitors.  Van Hoogstraaten must have rejoiced to land a prize fish, for now he had a Jew to testify to the crimes of the Jews. 

The Dominicans published Pfefferkorn’s slanderous pamphlets, in which he attempted to prove that Jewish religious writings were hostile to Christianity.  Immediately all true Hebrew scholars recognized Pfefferkorn as all pepper and no meat; that is, that he had little understanding of Hebrew writings and could not discuss them with any intelligence.

Jewish moneylenders

Pfefferkorn demanded that the Jews cease lending money at interest, work for their living and attend Christian sermons.  He demanded that the Talmud and all Jewish writings be destroyed.  With each succeeding pamphlet, he grew more venomous, until he advocated taking Jewish children from their parents and expelling all Jews from Christian lands. 


The Dominicans convinced Kunigunde, sister of Emperor Maximillian, to plead for Pfefferkorn.  She went before the Emperor and begged him on her knees to order the Jews to deliver their books to Pfefferkorn for destruction.  (Some suggested a Dominican ruse, for as the authorized instruments of the Inquisition, the Dominicans can also rule books acceptable and return them to the Jews, for a price.)

The Jews appealed to the Emperor.  They asked for a commission to investigate Pfefferkorn’s claims.  The Emperor then asked for opinions from several universities and individuals, including the Hebrew scholar, Johann Reuchlin.  Though two universities ruled against the Jewish books, Reuchlin stood in favor of the Jews and gave a scholarly and brilliant answer.

Reuchlin divided Jewish literature into six classes, exclusive of the Bible.  (1) poetry, fable and satire; (2) commentaries; (3) sermons, songs and prayers; (4) philosophy and science; (5) the Talmud, and (6) Kabbala.

“In the first class,” said Reuchlin, “are to be found books which deny or criticize the Christian religion.”  But he knew of only two, a pamphlet by Lipman and the life of Jesus.  The Rabbis prohibit Jews to possess or read these books under threat of severe penalties. 

Reuchlin said that the second class contained nothing harmful to Christianity, but was of great value in interpreting the Scriptures.  Christian scholars cannot fully understand the Bible because of their ignorance of Hebrew, for the best understanding of Scripture comes from knowledge of the original language.  Reuchlin compared the scholar who says that he does not need a Hebrew commentary, because he has many Christian ones, to a person wearing a light garment in cold weather.

The Jews, Reuchlin observed, have received from emperors and popes the privilege of unmolested worship and, so, should keep the third class, and the fourth class is equal to books in Latin, Greek, or German.

“But of the Talmud,” Reuchlin said, “I must own that it is to me a sealed book, and it is evident that those who pass judgment upon it have as little knowledge of it as I.  They have no idea of its nature or history.  Nevertheless, they talk as if they understood it clearly.  I can only compare such people to those who criticise algebra while they are totally ignorant of the rudiments of arithmetic.”

Reuchlin praised the Kabbala, reporting that Pope Sixtus VI studied it and found so much in support of Christianity that he translated Kabbalistic books into Latin.

Alluding to Pfefferkorn, though not by name, Reuchlin said, “What use is advice given by people who abandon Judaism through jealousy, animosity, fear of persecution. . .Such individuals bear the name of Christians, but in heart they are not Christians.  I know of some whose faith in both religions, Christianity and Judaism, is weak, and who, if their schemes were brought to naught, would become disciples of Mohammedanism.

“The Jews have been citizens of German lands for three centuries and should be protected by the law.  It would be ridiculous to adjudge them heretics, for they were not born Christians, but have been Jews from a time antecedent to the birth of Christianity.”

Reuchlin argued so powerfully that the emperor suspended his edict and returned the Jews’ books.  However, it is said the Pfefferkorn rages like a rabid dog against the Jews and against Reuchlin, sharpening his pens to needles and dipping them in poison, as he prepares yet another pamphlet.  So I doubt that this ends the matter.

Simon of Trent ritual sacrifice--1493

I, Capito, wish we would deal more kindly with the Jews.  For is that not what we are enjoined by our Christ to do?  Even if they should make themselves our enemies–though I very much doubt that Jews sacrifice Christian babies in their rites or even poison wells–are we not to love our enemies?

As a scholar, I am appalled at the destruction of any book, particularly an ancient one in the original language, and especially one which contains the history and root of our Christian faith.  Which makes me think that I shall study Hebrew.

If Pepperpill leaves me any books.

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Gotefrit in the Liederhandschrift--14th century

Capito has been hard at work on a bibliography page for this blog, a process every bit as tedious as proofing type at the printers.

What better way to rest one’s brain than to spend a rainy weekend with Gottfried von Strassburg’s account of the love miseries of Tristan and Isolt? 

Do not be put off, Best Reader, by the seemingly endless repetition.  Our modern world, as fast as a runaway horse, has no patience or skill at reposeful reading.  But stick with it, and you will find that no one in any century has so perfectly captured the confusion and tangled emotions called by that simple name of love. 

Though the characters had existed for centuries, Gottfried lifted them from legend and gave them depth and humanity.  No wonder his version has survived three hundred years.  Here is an interesting translation by Professor Lee Stavenhagen.  

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Published in: on May 14, 2011 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Witch and a Demon? Part 1

The young monk, Michael, hesitantly invited me to his parents’ home.  He confessed that visitors were limited to a few close friends to protect his mother from the common eye.  “She’s. . . fragile.”  But then he admitted the fear that she would be accused of witchcraft if her true nature came to public light.

At first, I saw nothing unusual in the thin woman who served a delectable meal, including minced pork sweet cakes and trout sauced with crumbled honey bread and milk.  And wine, which surprised me, for I expected only ale in the house of a simple traveling merchant. 

She said little, but there was a table of garrulous male guests.  The physician, Hans Murer, was a puffy man, in a coat with no sleeves, as if his beshortened arms could not bear any encumbrances to the emphatic gestures with which he seasoned his conversation.

And there was a Schwarze Reiter, a fearsome Black Rider, which Michael’s brother, Jakob, had also been.  Elite in the Imperial Army, these famous armored pistoliers, with their all black horses and their three pistols–two in saddle holsters and one in a boot–could fire an harquebus from the shoulder while riding a horse without the reins.  This dinner guest had been best companion to Jacob, who seemed to be with us, though he died over a decade before.

“I fought with Jacob at Dornach,” the Black Rider said, “where he inflicted much misery on the enemy, hanging to the side of the horse as it ran, so that it looked riderless until he fired across the saddle.  He was taught that trick by a Hospitaler, and it was no small thing with a matchlock, for we had no wheellocks at Dornach.”

“Dornach,” said Dr. Murer.  “Freedom to the Confederates at last.”  The doctor looked even softer beside the weathered Black Rider.  “Yes, you were soundly beaten there.” 

It seemed rude to rub a man’s face in a defeat.  But this Black Rider, who could converse with soldiers in four languages and had seen the sea and the Pope, was philosophical about his battles.  He arrest his tankard in mid-air to give Murer his polite attention.  “To fight for the Holy Empire against the Turk is one thing.  To fight so that the House of Hapsburg can beat the freedom out of the Switzers–that we had no heart to do. 

The pistolier grinned.  “Who cares?  There will be other wars.  Always other wars.  I prefer to fight the Turks.  Then one’s enemy is always the enemy. 

“But the Switzers are magnificent soldiers.  We outnumbered them three to one at Dornach.  Yet we left 3000 upon the field, including many men of rank.”  He took out a gold toothpick and began to pick his teeth.  “A man who fights for freedom carries a sword of passion.  In the Engadine, the Switzers burned their own villages, so our army had to retreat or starve.”

Murer’s face grew red with passion.  “And to think their freedom began with the peasants, who made pikes by tying their scythes to their hiking sticks.”

“That was many years ago.  I assure you, there were no hiking sticks on the field at Dornach.”

“But that was the beginning.  Our own peasants have more power than they know.”  

“My friend, Dr. Murer,” Michael’s father said loudly, “you may be a doctor, but you are an idiot!  Peasants have no power.  What has ever been gained by their revolts?  Nothing but more taxes.  More can be gained by patience than war.  The way,” he dropped his voice, “to better one’s lot is to take advantage of the times.”

Michael nudged me.  “This is my father’s favorite speech.”

“There is much change everywhere,” the father said.  “The power of the nobles is crumbling.  Peasants move to the cities.  No one notices.  The cities need the labor.  They work, they buy citizenship.  Soon they become craftsmen.  Craftsmen become merchants.

He paused and took a long drink of his wine.  “Look at me.  My father was not a free man.  He belonged to the manor.  When he married, my mother was from a free family, but their children were born tenants of the manor.  But now, I am a merchant of leather goods.  I am free.  And my son was a Reiter, not a conscripted villager or some poor journeyman standing in for his master, but a professional soldier, paid in wages and spoils.”

In all this, no one paid the least attention to Michael’s mother, who suddenly made a choking sound which drew all our eyes.  I was astonished to see her trembling violently, like a hairless dog in snow.  Her expression was terrified, as she looked down the table toward us, and yet, I believe, not seeing us.  Michael quickly went to her.  “Mutti,” he said with great tenderness, “come lie down.” 

His father only shrugged and murmured, “Too much war talk.”

Sanctuary of Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue, France

She wrapped her arms around herself and moaned, “Sabnacke.  Oh-h-h-h-h!”  And she gave such an eerie, piteous moan that the hair on my neck stirred.

Sabnacke.  A demon who afflicts men with sores, rotten with maggots.  He preys particularly on soldiers.

But I must tell you the rest in my next post, Best Reader.  For the courier’s horse paws impatiently, and the man himself glares at my delay.


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 (Schwarze Reiter image from CHART Figurines.)

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A Witch and a Demon? Part 2

A Witch and a Demon?   Part 1

A Mother’s Sorrow  (featuring Pietàs for the day of Mothers)

While Michael attended to his mother, his father refilled our glasses.  “She wasn’t always like this,” he said.

Dr. Murer and the Black Rider nodded.

“Oh, she was always skittish,” the father continued.  “Always praying at the church.  Always blaming evil spirits if cream failed to come in her churn or worms took the cabbages.”

“But when I first visited here with Jakob,” the Black Rider said, “she was light and happy.  Almost like a girl.  Jakob brought her an Italian shawl, and she danced around in it.  She was beautiful.”

Michael returned and took his place silently at the table, pouring himself a glass of wine and drinking half quickly.

“Jakob’s death did it,” the father murmured.  “It broke her spirit.”

The silence lasted so long, I finally said, “Was he killed in battle?”

“He died here,” the father said.  But then stopped.

Michael told the tale.  “I remember I had ten years, for it was 1500, the year Pope Alexander declared a crusade against the Turk.  Mother was happy that Jakob was ‘taking the cross,’ though he told her that no one used those words any more.  He said that the crusade was only so that the Pope could reclaim seaports for the Venetians. 

“But she paid no attention, for the Pope had declared that any who died on this crusade would go straight to heaven.  So she was free of her normal anxiety over his dangerous career.”

The young monk’s eyes froze toward the center of the table.  “Jakob was to depart the next day and had taken the black horse to be shod.  I polished his sword all morning and was working on my Latin in the yard.  Caesar’s Wars.  It is again told Caesar that the Helvetii intended to march through the country of the Sequani and the Aedui into the territories of the Santones. . .   It was so tiresome.  

“Then, the black horse’s shadow came over the book.  As I looked up, Jakob fell to the ground.  His eyelids were balls of red flesh, his lips like black slugs.  His tongue was so swollen that it hung from the side of his mouth.  He was choking, but it sounded only like a little coo.  He opened his eyes to tiny slits, looked at me, and then the light just went out.  

“I screamed.  The neighbors arrived, but no one would come near.  I sat in the dirt by the body and heard their words.  A witch has done this surely.  A demon.  Sabnacke.  Yah, Sabnacke who preys on soldiers.  Look, he has beshit himself.  Yes.  A fine end for a fancy Black Rider.  So Sattler will not have so much to brag over.  A pox.  A pest.  A new plague.

“Then Mother came with a basket of eggs–she planned to make us nut pudding.  She fell down by Jakob, and the eggs rolled to the feet of the neighbors. . .”

Michael looked up, took a quick breath, and cleared his throat.  “She sent me for a priest, but I knew he was dead.  It was too late even for the last rites.  There would be no crusade for Jakob.”

After a moment’s silence, I said, “Was it plague, then?”

“No,” said the doctor.  “I had just moved to Freiburg, a young doctor fresh out of medical school at Montpelier.  We had a lecture on this, and I knew what to look for.  Sure enough, there was a stinger still embedded in Jakob’s neck.”

“A bee?” I said, incredulous.

“Yes.  But no one believed me.  Certainly not the mother.” 

“I believed you,” Michael said.  “But Mother could not understand it, because he had been stung many times as a child.” 

“Nevertheless, that was the cause of his death,” Dr. Murer said.  “I am convinced.”

“After that,” the father said, with great weariness, “she was in bed, staring at the wall without speaking, or at the church.  She was–is–much at the church, praying for Jakob’s soul, which she believes roasts in Purgatory.”  He gestured toward Michael.  “She pushed this one to become a monk.  To pray always for Jakob.”

“That’s not true, Father.”

“I lost two sons that day,” the father said.  “My only two.”

That night, I could not sleep.  I understand why this family is careful to keep the mother out of society, for her bizarre behavior following the mysterious death of her son would indeed raise the foreheads of the neighbors.

The obsession with witches waxes and wans, but there is a general fear among the people.  Pope Innocent specifically loosed the Inquisition on the German lands in 1484, through a Bull which gave unlimited powers to the witchhunters, Kramer and Sprenger.  They published the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, found on every magistrate’s desk.  This manual details the nature and behavior of witches and gives instructions for trials and tortures.  It declares as heretics any who do not believe in witches.

But we scholars discreetly express our doubts.  Without mentioning witchcraft, Erasmus, in Encomium Moriae or Praise of Folly, ridicules the Dominican inquisitors who sacrifice innocent people because of their own silly fears.  He says they are gullible, superstitious, and bloodthirsty.

And what of Michael’s mother?  What do you think, Gentle Reader?  For myself, I see no witch, but only a mother’s love.  No demon, but only dolor matris.  A mother’s sorrow.


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