A Tale of the Secret Tribunal/A Tale of the Secret Tribunal I

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The Secret Tribunal*[1], which attained such formidable power towards the close of the fourteenth century, is mentioned in history as an institution publicly known so early as in the year 1211. Its members, who were called Free Judges, were unknown to the people, and were bound, by a tremendous oath, to deliver up their dearest friends and relatives, without exception, if they had committed any offence cognizable by the tribunal. They were also under an obligation to relate all they knew concerning the affair, to cite the accused, and, in case of his condemnation, to pursue and put him to death, wherever he might be met with. The proceedings of this tribunal were carried on at night, and with the greatest mystery; and though it was usual to summon a culprit three times before sentence was passed, yet persons obnoxious to it were some times accused and condemned without any citation. After condemnation, it was almost impossible for any one to escape the vengeance of the Free Judges, for their commands set thousands of assassins in motion, who had sworn not to spare the life of their nearest relation, if required to sacrifice it, but to execute the decrees of the order with the most devoted obedience, even should they consider the object of their pursuit as the most innocent of men. Almost all persons of rank and fortune sought admission into the society; there were Free Judges even amongst the magistrates of the imperial cities, and every prince had some of their order in his council. When a member of this tribunal was not of himself strong enough to seize and put to death a criminal, he was not to lose sight of him until he met with a sufficient number of his comrades for the purpose, and these were obliged, upon his making certain signs, to lend him immediate assistance, without asking any questions. It was usual to hang up the person condemned, with a willow-branch, to the first tree; but, if circumstances obliged them to dispatch him with a poniard, they left it in his body, that it might be known he had not been assassinated, but executed by a Free Judge. All the transactions of the Sages, or Seers, (as they called themselves,) were enveloped in mystery, and it is even now unknown by what signs they revealed themselves to each other. At length their power became so extensive and redoubtable, that the Princes of the Empire found it necessary to unite their exertions for its suppression, in which they were at length successful.

The following account of this extraordinary association is given by Madame de Staël:—"Des juges mysterieux inconnus l'un à l’autre, toujours masqués, et se rassemblant pendant la nuit, punissoient dans le silence, et gravoient seulement sur le poignard qu'ils enforçoient dans le sein du coupable ce mot terrible: Tribunal Secret. Its prévenoient le condamné, en faisant crier trois fois sous les fenêtres de sa maison, Malheur, Malheur, Malheur! Alors l'infortuné savoit que par-tout, dans l'étranger, dans son concitoyen, dans son parent même, il pouvoit trouver son meurtrier. La solitude, la foule, les villes, les campagnes, tout étoit rempli par la présence invisible de cette conscience armée qui poursuivoit les criminels. On conçoit comment cette terrible institution pouvoit être necessaire, dans un temps où chaque homme étoit fort contre tous, au lieu que tous doivent être forts contre chacun. Il falloit que la justice surprit le criminel avant qu'il pût s'en defendre; mais cette punition qui planoit dans les airs comme une ombre vengeresse, cette sentence mortelle qui pouvoit receler le sein même d'un ami, frappoit d’une invincible terreur."

L'Allemagne. Vol. II.

  1. * See the works of Baron Bock and Professor Kramer.