Anne of Geierstein/Introduction

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This novel was written at a time when circumstances did not place within my reach the stores of a library tolerably rich in historical works, and especially the memoirs of the middle ages, amidst which I had been accustomed to pursue the composition of my fictitious narratives. In other words, it was chiefly the work of leisure hours in Edinburgh, not of quiet mornings in the country. In consequence of trusting to a memory, strongly tenacious certainly, but not less capricious in its efforts, I have to confess on this occasion more violations of accuracy in historical details, than can perhaps be alleged against others of my novels. In truth, often as I have been complimented on the strength of my memory, I have through life been entitled to adopt old Beattie of Meikledale’s answer to his parish minister when eulogizing him with respect to the same faculty. “No, doctor,” said the honest border-laird, “I have no command of my memory; it only retains what happens to hit my fancy, and like enough, sir, if you were to preach to me for a couple of hours on end, I might be unable at the close of the discourse to remember one word of it.” Perhaps there are few men whose memory serves them with equal fidelity as to many different classes of subjects; but I am sorry to say, that while mine has rarely failed me as to any snatch of verse or trait of character that had once interested my fancy, it has generally been a frail support, not only as to names, and dates, and other minute technicalities of history, but as to many more important things.

I hope this apology will suffice for one mistake which has been pointed out to me by the descendant of one of the persons introduced in this story, and who complains with reason that I have made a peasant deputy of the ancestor of a distinguished and noble family, none of whom ever declined from the high rank, to which, as far as my pen trenched on it, I now beg leave to restore them. The name of the person who figures as deputy of Soleure in these pages, was always, it seems, as it is now, that of a patrician house. I am reminded by the same correspondent of another slip, probably of less consequence. The Emperor of the days my novel refers to, though the representative of that Leopold who fell in the great battle of Sempach, never set up any pretensions against the liberties of the gallant Swiss, but, on the contrary, treated with uniform prudence and forbearance such of that nation as had established their independence, and with wise, as well as generous kindness, others who still continued to acknowledge fealty to the imperial crown. Errors of this sort, however trivial, ought never, in my opinion, to be pointed out to an author, without meeting with a candid and respectful acknowledgment.

With regard to a general subject of great curiosity and interest, in the eyes at least of all antiquarian students, upon which I have touched at some length in this narrative, I mean the Vehmic tribunals of Westphalia, a name so awful in men’s ears during many centuries, and which, through the genius of Goethe, has again been revived in public fancy with a full share of its ancient terrors, I am bound to state my opinion that a wholly new and most important light has been thrown upon this matter since Anne of Geierstein first appeared, by the elaborate researches of my ingenious friend, Mr. Francis Palgrave, whose proof-sheets, containing the passages I allude to, have been kindly forwarded to me, and whose complete work will be before the public ere this Introduction can pass through the press.

“In Germany,” says this very learned writer, “there existed a singular jurisdiction, which claimed a direct descent from the Pagan policy and mystic ritual of the earliest Teutons.

“We learn from the Historians of Saxony, that the ‘Frey Feld gericht,’ or Free Field Court of Corbey, was, in Pagan times, under the supremacy of the Priests of the Eresburgh, the Temple which contained the Irminsule, or pillar of Irmin. After the conversion of the people, the possessions of the temple were conferred by Louis the Pious upon the Abbey which arose upon its site. The court was composed of sixteen persons, who held their offices for life. The senior member presided as the Gerefa or Graff; the junior performed the humbler duties of ‘Frohner,’ or summoner; the remaining fourteen acted as the Echevins, and by them all judgments were pronounced or declared. When any one of these died, a new member was elected by the Preists, from amongst the twenty-two septs or families inhabiting the Gau or district, and who included all the hereditary occupants of the soil. Afterwards, the selection was made by the Monks, but always with the assent of the Graff and of the ‘Frohner.’

“The seat of judgment, the King’s seat, or ‘Königs-stuhl,’ was always established on the greensward; and we collect from the context, that the tribunal was also raised or appointed in the common fields of the Gau, for the purpose of deciding disputes relating to the land within its precinct. Such a ‘King’s seat’ was a plot sixteen feet in length, and sixteen feet in breadth; and when the ground was first consecrated, the Frohner dug a grave in the centre, into which each of the Free Echevins threw a handful of ashes, a coal, and a tile. If any doubt arose whether a place of judgment had been duly hallowed, the Judges sought for the tokens. If they were not found, then all the judgments which had been given became null and void. It was also of the very essence of the Court, that it should be held beneath the sky, and by the light of the sun. All the ancient Teutonic judicial assemblies were held in the open air; but some relics of solar worship may perhaps be traced in the usage and in the language of this tribunal. The forms adopted in the Free Field Court also betray a singular affinity to the doctrines of the British Bards respecting their Gorseddau, or Conventions, which were ‘always held in the open air, in the eye of the light, and in the face of the sun.’[1]

“When a criminal was to be judged, or a cause to be decided, the Graff and the Free Echevins assembled round the ‘König-stuhl;’ and the ‘Frohner,’ having proclaimed silence, opened the proceedings by reciting the following rhymes:

“Sir Graff, with permission,
      I beg you to say,
 According to the law, and without delay,
      If I, your Knave,
      Who judgment crave,
 With your good grace,
 Upon the King’s seat this seat may place.

“To this address the Graff replied:

“While the sun shines with even light,
 Upon Masters and Knaves, I shall declare
 The law of might, according to right.
 Place the King’s seat true and square,
 Let even measure for justice’ sake,
 Be given in the sight of God and man,
 That the plaintiff his complaint may make,
 And the defendant answer,—if he can.

“In conformity to this permission, the ‘Frohner’ placed the seat of judgment in the middle of the plot, and then he spake for the second time:

“Sir Graff, Master brave,
 I remind you of your honour, here,
 And moreover that I am your knave;
 Tell me, therefore, for law sincere,
 If these mete-wands are even and sure,
 Fit for the rich and fit for the poor,
 Both to measure land and condition;
 Tell me as you would eschew perdition.

And so speaking, he laid the mete-wand on the ground. The Graff then began to try the measure, by placing his right foot against the wand, and he was followed by the other Free Echevins in rank and order, according to seniority. The length of the mete-wand being thus proved, the Frohner spake for the third time:

“Sir Graff, I ask by permission,
 If I, with your mete-wand may mete
 Openly, and without displeasure,
 Here the King’s free judgment seat.

“And the Graff replied:

“I permit right.
 And I forbid wrong,
 Under the pains and penalties
 That to the old known laws belong.

“Now was the time of measuring the mystic plot; it was measured by the mete-wand along and athwart, and when the dimensions were found to be true, the Graff placed himself in the seat of judgment, and gave the charge to the assembled Free Echevins, warning them to pronounce judgment, according to right and justice.

“On this day, with common consent
 And under the clear firmament,
 A free field court is established here
      In the open eye of day;
      Enter soberly, ye who may.
 The seat in its place is pight,
 The mete-wand is found to be right;
 Declare your judgments without delay:
 And let the doom be truly given
 Whilst yet the Sun shines bright in heaven.

“Judgment was given by the Free Echevins according to plurality of voices.”

After observing that the author of Anne of Geierstein had, by what he calls a “very excusable poetical license,” transferred something of these judicial rhymes from the Free Field Court of the Abbey of Corbey, to the Free Vehmic Tribunals of Westphalia, Mr. Palgrave proceeds to correct many vulgar errors, in which the novel he remarks on no doubt had shared, with respect to the actual constitution of those last named courts. “The protocols of their proceedings,” he says, “do not altogether realize the popular idea of their terrors and tyranny.” It may be allowed to me to question whether the mere protocols of such tribunals are quite enough to annul all the import of tradition respecting them; but in the following details there is no doubt much that will instruct the antiquarian, as well as amuse the popular reader.

“The Court,” says Mr. Palgrave, “was held with known and notorious publicity beneath the ‘eye of light;’ and the sentences, though speedy and severe, were founded upon a regular system of established jurisprudence, not so strange, even to England, as it may at first sight appear.

“Westphalia, according to its ancient constitution, was divided into districts called ‘Freygraffschafften,’ each of which usually contained one, and sometimes many, Vehmic tribunals, whose boundaries were accurately defined. The right of the ‘Stuhlherr,’ or Lord, was of a feudal nature, and could be transferred by the ordinary modes of alienation; and if the Lord did not choose to act in his own person, he nominated a ‘Freigraff’ to execute the office in his stead. The Court itself was composed of ‘Freyschöppfen,’ Scabini, or Echevins, nominated by the Graff, and who were divided into two classes: the ordinary, and the ‘Wissenden’ or ‘Witan,’ who were admitted under a strict and singular bond of secrecy.

“The initiation of these, the participators in all the mysteries of the tribunal, could only take place upon the ‘red earth,’ or within the limits of the ancient Duchy of Westphalia. Bareheaded and ungirt, the candidate is conducted before the dread tribunal. He is interrogated as to his qualifications, or rather as to the absence of any disqualification. He must be free born, a Teuton, and clear of any accusation cognizable by the tribunal of which he is to become a member.—If the answers are satisfactory, he then takes the oath, swearing by the Holy Law, that he will conceal the secrets of the Holy Vehme from wife and child—from father and mother—from sister and brother—from fire and water—from every creature upon which the sun shines, or upon which the rain falls—from every being between earth and heaven.

“Another clause relates to his active duties. He further swears, that he will ‘say forth’ to the tribunal all crimes or offences which fall beneath the secret ban of the Emperor, which he knows to be true, or which he has heard from trustworthy report; and that he will not forbear to do so, for love nor for loathing, for gold nor for silver nor precious stones.—This oath being imposed upon him, the new Freischopff was then intrusted with the secrets of the Vehmic tribunal. He received the password, by which he was to know his fellows, and the grip or sign by which they recognized each other in silence; and he was warned of the terrible punishments awaiting the perjured brother.—If he discloses the secrets of the Court, he is to expect that he will be suddenly seized by the ministers of vengeance. His eyes are bound, he is cast down on the soil, his tongue is torn out through the back of his neck—and he is then to be hanged seven times higher than any other criminal. And whether restrained by the fear of punishment, or by the stronger ties of mystery, no instance was ever known of any violation of the secrets of the tribunal.

“Thus connected by an invisible bond, the members of the ‘Holy Vehme’ became extremely numerous. In the fourteenth century, the league contained upwards of one hundred thousand members. Persons of every rank sought to be associated to this powerful community, and to participate in the immunities which the brethren possessed. Princes were eager to allow their ministers to become the members of this mysterious and holy alliance; and the cities of the Empire were equally anxious to enrol their magistrates in the Vehmic union.

“The supreme government of the Vehmic tribunals was vested in the great or general Chapter, composed of the Freegraves and all the other initiated members, high and low. Over this assembly the Emperor might preside in person, but more usually by his deputy, the Stadtholder of the ancient Duchy of Westphalia; an office, which, after the fall of Henry the Lion, Duke of Brunswick, was annexed to the Archbishopric of Cologne.

“Before the general Chapter, all the members were liable to account for their acts. And it appears that the ‘Freegraves’ reported the proceedings which had taken place within their jurisdictions in the course of the year. Unworthy members were expelled, or sustained a severer punishment. Statutes, or ‘Reformations,’ as they were called, were here enacted for the regulation of the Courts, and the amendment of any abuses; and new and unforeseen cases, for which the existing laws did not provide a remedy, received their determination in the Vehmic Parliament.

“As the Echevins were of two classes, uninitiated and initiated, so the Vehmic Courts had also a two-fold character; the ‘Offenbare Ding’ was an Open Court or Folkmoot; but the ‘Heimliche Acht’ was the far-famed Secret Tribunal.

“The first was held three times in each year. According to the ancient Teutonic usage, it usually assembled on Tuesday, anciently called ‘Dingstag,’ or court-day, as well as ‘Dienstag,’ or serving-day, the first open or working day after the two great weekly festivals of Sun-day and Moon-day. Here all the householders of the district, whether free or bond, attended as suitors. The ‘Offenbare Ding’ exercised a civil jurisdiction; and in this Folkmoot appeared any complainant or appellant who sought to obtain the aid of the Vehmic tribunal, in those cases when it did not possess that summary jurisdiction from which it has obtained such fearful celebrity. Here also the suitors of the district made presentments or ‘wroge,’ as they are termed, of any offences committed within their knowledge, and which were to be punished by the Graff and Echevins.

“The criminal jurisdiction of the Vehmic Tribunal took the widest range. The ‘Vehme’ could punish mere slander and contumely. Any violation of the Ten Commandments was to be restrained by the Echevins. Secret crimes, not to be proved by the ordinary testimony of witnesses, such as magic, witchcraft, and poison, were particularly to be restrained by the Vehmic Judges; and they sometimes designated their jurisdiction as comprehending every offence against the honour of man or the precepts of religion. Such a definition, if definition it can be called, evidently allowed them to bring every action of which an individual might complain, within the scope of their tribunals. The forcible usurpation of land became an offence against the ‘Vehme.’ And if the property of an humble individual was occupied by the proud Burghers of the Hanse, the power of the Defendants might afford a reasonable excuse for the interference of the Vehmic power.

  1. Owen Pugh’s Elegies of Lewarch Hen, Pref., p. 45. The place of these meetings was set apart by forming a circle of stones round the Maen Gorsedd, or Stone of the Gorsedd.