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Anne of Geierstein; Or, The Maiden of the Mist. Volume 1 (of 2), Page 2

Walter Scott




  This novel was written at a time when circumstances did not placewithin my reach the stores of a library tolerably rich in historicalworks, and especially the memoirs of the Middle Ages, amidst which Ihad been accustomed to pursue the composition of my fictitiousnarratives. In other words, it was chiefly the work of leisure hoursin Edinburgh, not of quiet mornings in the country. In consequence oftrusting to a memory, strongly tenacious certainly, but not lesscapricious in its efforts, I have to confess on this occasion moreviolations of accuracy in historical details, than can perhaps bealleged against others of my novels. In truth, often as I have beencomplimented on the strength of my memory, I have through life beenentitled to adopt old Beattie of Meikledale's answer to his parishminister when eulogising him with respect to the same faculty. "No,doctor," said the honest border-laird, "I have no command of mymemory; 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 mightbe unable at the close of the discourse to remember one word of it."Perhaps there are few men whose memory serves them with equal fidelityas to many different classes of subjects; but I am sorry to say, thatwhile mine has rarely failed me as to any snatch of verse or trait ofcharacter that had once interested my fancy, it has generally been afrail support, not only as to names, and dates, and other minutetechnicalities of history, but as to many more important things.

  I hope this apology will suffice for one mistake which has beenpointed out to me by the descendant of one of the persons introducedin this story, and who complains with reason that I have made apeasant deputy of the ancestor of a distinguished and noble family,none of whom ever declined from the high rank to which, as far as mypen trenched on it, I now beg leave to restore them. The name of theperson who figures as deputy of Soleure in these pages, was always, itseems, as it is now, that of a patrician house. I am reminded by thesame correspondent of another slip, probably of less consequence. TheEmperor of the days my novel refers to, though the representative ofthat Leopold who fell in the great battle of Sempach, never set up anypretensions against the liberties of the gallant Swiss, but, on thecontrary, treated with uniform prudence and forbearance such of thatnation as had established their independence, and with wise, as wellas generous kindness, others who still continued to acknowledge fealtyto the imperial crown. Errors of this sort, however trivial, oughtnever, in my opinion, to be pointed out to an author, without meetingwith a candid and respectful acknowledgment.

  With regard to a general subject of great curiosity and interest, inthe eyes at least of all antiquarian students, upon which I havetouched at some length in this narrative, I mean the _Vehmic_tribunals of Westphalia, a name so awful in men's ears during manycenturies, and which, through the genius of Goethe, has again beenrevived in public fancy with a full share of its ancient terrors, I ambound to state my opinion that a wholly new and most important lighthas been thrown upon this matter since Anne of Geierstein firstappeared, by the elaborate researches of my ingenious friend, Mr.Francis Palgrave, whose proof-sheets, containing the passages I alludeto, have been kindly forwarded to me, and whose complete work will bebefore the public ere this Introduction can pass through the press.

  "In Germany," says this very learned writer, "there existed a singularjurisdiction, which claimed a _direct descent from the Pagan policyand 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 thesupremacy of the Priests of the Eresburgh, the Temple which containedthe Irminsule, or pillar of Irmin. After the conversion of the people,the possessions of the temple were conferred by Louis the Pious uponthe Abbey which arose upon its site. The court was composed of sixteenpersons, who held their offices for life. The senior member presidedas 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 ofthese died, a new member was elected by the Priests, from amongst thetwenty-two septs or families inhabiting the Gau or district, and whoincluded all the hereditary occupants of the soil. Afterwards, theselection was made by the Monks, but always with the assent of theGraff and of the 'Frohner.'

  "The seat of judgment, the King's seat, or 'Koenigs-stuhl,' was alwaysestablished on the greensward; and we collect from the context, thatthe tribunal was also raised or appointed in the common fields of theGau, for the purpose of deciding disputes relating to the land withinits precinct. Such a 'King's seat' was a plot sixteen feet in length,and sixteen feet in breadth; and when the ground was firstconsecrated, the Frohner dug a grave in the centre, into which each ofthe Free Echevins threw a handful of ashes, a coal, and a tile. If anydoubt arose whether a place of judgment had been duly hallowed, theJudges sought for the tokens. If they were not found, then all thejudgments which had been given became null and void. It was also ofthe very essence of the Court, that it should be held beneath the sky,and by the light of the sun. All the ancient Teutonic judicialassemblies were held in the open air; but some relics of solar worshipmay perhaps be traced in the usage and in the language of thistribunal. The forms adopted in the Free Field Court also betray asingular affinity to the doctrines of the British Bards respectingtheir Gorseddau, or Conventions, which were 'always held in the openair, in the eye of the light, and in face of the sun.'[1]

  "When a criminal was to be judged, or a cause to be decided, the Graffand the Free Echevins assembled around the 'Koenigs-stuhl;' and the'Frohner,' having proclaimed silence, opened the proceedings byreciting the following rhymes:

  "Sir Graff, with permission, I beg you to say, According to 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 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 ofjudgment in the middle of the plot, and then he spake for the secondtime:

  "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 thenbegan 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 themete-wand along and athwart, and when the dimensions were found to betrue, the Graff placed himself in the seat of judgment, and gave thecharge to the assembled Free Echevins, warning them to pronouncejudgment, 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.
br />   "Judgment was given by the Free Echevins according to plurality ofvoices."

  After observing that the author of Anne of Geierstein had, by what hecalls a "very excusable poetical licence," transferred something ofthese judicial rhymes from the Free Field Court of the Abbey ofCorbey, to the Free Vehmic Tribunals of Westphalia, Mr. Palgraveproceeds to correct many vulgar errors, in which the novel he remarkson no doubt had shared, with respect to the actual constitution ofthose last-named courts. "The protocols of their proceedings," hesays, "do not altogether realise the popular idea of their terrors andtyranny." It may be allowed to me to question whether the mereprotocols of such tribunals are quite enough to annul all the importof tradition respecting them; but in the following details there is nodoubt much that will instruct the antiquary, as well as amuse thepopular reader.

  "The Court," says Mr. Palgrave, "was held with known and notoriouspublicity beneath the 'eye of light;' and the sentences, though speedyand severe, were founded upon a regular system of establishedjurisprudence, not so strange, even to England, as it may at firstsight appear.

  "Westphalia, according to its ancient constitution, was divided intodistricts called 'Freygraffschafften,' each of which usually containedone, and sometimes many, Vehmic tribunals, whose boundaries wereaccurately defined. The right of the 'Stuhlherr,' or Lord, was of afeudal nature, and could be transferred by the ordinary modes ofalienation; and if the Lord did not choose to act in his own person,he nominated a 'Freigraff' to execute the office in his stead. TheCourt itself was composed of 'Freyschoeppfen,' Scabini, or Echevins,nominated by the Graff, and who were divided into two classes: theordinary, and the 'Wissenden' or 'Witan,' who were admitted under astrict and singular bond of secrecy.

  "The initiation of these, the participators in all the mysteries ofthe tribunal, could only take place upon the 'red earth,' or withinthe limits of the ancient Duchy of Westphalia. Bareheaded and ungirt,the candidate is conducted before the dread tribunal. He isinterrogated as to his qualifications, or rather as to the absence ofany disqualification. He must be free born, a Teuton, and clear of anyaccusation cognisable by the tribunal of which he is to become amember.--If the answers are satisfactory, he then takes the oath,swearing by the Holy Law, that he will conceal the secrets of the HolyVehme from wife and child--from father and mother--from sister andbrother--from fire and water--from every creature upon which the sunshines, or upon which the rain falls--from every being between earthand heaven.

  "Another clause relates to his active duties. He further swears, thathe will 'say forth' to the tribunal all crimes or offences which fallbeneath the secret ban of the Emperor, which he knows to be true, orwhich he has heard from trustworthy report; and that he will notforbear to do so, for love nor for loathing, for gold nor for silvernor precious stones.--This oath being imposed upon him, the newFreischopff was then intrusted with the secrets of the Vehmictribunal. He received the password, by which he was to know hisfellows, and the grip or sign by which they recognised each other insilence; and he was warned of the terrible punishment awaiting theperjured brother.--If he discloses the secrets of the Court, he is toexpect 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 tornout through the back of his neck--and he is then to be hanged seventimes higher than any other criminal. And whether restrained by thefear of punishment, or by the stronger ties of mystery, no instancewas 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 leaguecontained upwards of one hundred thousand members. Persons of everyrank sought to be associated to this powerful community, and toparticipate in the immunities which the brethren possessed. Princeswere eager to allow their ministers to become the members of thismysterious and holy alliance; and the cities of the Empire wereequally anxious to enrol their magistrates in the Vehmic union.

  "The supreme government of the Vehmic tribunals was vested in thegreat or general Chapter, composed of the Freegraves and all the otherinitiated members, high and low. Over this assembly the Emperor mightpreside in person, but more usually by his deputy, the Stadtholder ofthe ancient Duchy of Westphalia; an office which, after the fall ofHenry the Lion, Duke of Brunswick, was annexed to the Archbishopricof Cologne.

  "Before the general Chapter, all the members were liable to accountfor their acts. And it appears that the 'Freegraves' reported theproceedings which had taken place within their jurisdictions in thecourse of the year. Unworthy members were expelled, or sustained aseverer punishment. Statutes, or 'Reformations,' as they were called,were here enacted for the regulation of the Courts, and the amendmentof any abuses; and new and unforeseen cases, for which the existinglaws did not provide a remedy, received their determination in theVehmic Parliament.

  "As the Echevins were of two classes, uninitiated and initiated, sothe Vehmic Courts had also a twofold character; the 'Offenbare Ding'was an Open Court or Folkmoot; but the 'Heimliche Acht' was thefar-famed Secret Tribunal.

  "The first was held three times in each year. According to the ancientTeutonic usage, it usually assembled on Tuesday, anciently called'Dingstag,' or court-day, as well as 'Diensttag,' or serving-day, thefirst open or working day after the two great weekly festivals ofSun-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 anycomplainant or appellant who sought to obtain the aid of the Vehmictribunal, in those cases when it did not possess that summaryjurisdiction from which it has obtained such fearful celebrity. Herealso the suitors of the district made presentments or 'wroge,' as theyare termed, of any offences committed within their knowledge, andwhich were to be punished by the Graff and Echevins.

  "The criminal jurisdiction of the Vehmic Tribunal took the widestrange. The 'Vehme' could punish mere slander and contumely. Anyviolation of the Ten Commandments was to be restrained by theEchevins. Secret crimes, not to be proved by the ordinary testimony ofwitnesses, such as magic, witchcraft, and poison, were particularly tobe restrained by the Vehmic Judges; and they sometimes designatedtheir jurisdiction as comprehending every offence against the honourof man or the precepts of religion. Such a definition, if definitionit can be called, evidently allowed them to bring every action ofwhich an individual might complain, within the scope of theirtribunals. The forcible usurpation of land became an offence againstthe 'Vehme.' And if the property of an humble individual was occupiedby the proud Burghers of the Hanse, the power of the Defendants mightafford a reasonable excuse for the interference of the Vehmic power.

  "The Echevins, as Conservators of the Ban of the Empire, were bound tomake constant circuits within their districts, by night and by day. Ifthey could apprehend a thief, a murderer, or the perpetrator of anyother heinous crime in possession of the 'mainour,' or in the veryact--or if his own mouth confessed the deed, they hung him upon thenext tree. But to render this execution legal, the followingrequisites were necessary: fresh suit, or the apprehension andexecution of the offender before daybreak or nightfall;--the visibleevidence of the crime;--and lastly, that three Echevins, at least,should seize the offender, testify against him, and judge of therecent deed.

  "If, without any certain accuser, and without the indication of crime,an individual was strongly and vehemently suspected; or when thenature of the offence was such as that its proof could only rest uponopinion and presumption, the offender then became subject to what theGerman jurists term the inquisitorial proceeding; it became the dutyof the Echevin to denounce the 'Leumund,' or manifest evil fame, tothe secret tribunal. If the Echevins and the Freygraff were satisfiedwith the presentment, either from their own knowledge, or from theinformation of their compeer, the offender was said to be'verfaembt;'--his life was forfeited; and wherever he was found by thebrethren of the tribunal, they executed him without the slightestdelay or mercy. An off
ender who had escaped from the Echevins wasliable to the same punishment; and such also was the doom of the partywho, after having been summoned pursuant to an appeal preferred inopen court, made default in appearing. But one of the 'Wissenden' wasin no respect liable to the summary process, or to the inquisitorialproceeding, unless he had revealed the secrets of the Court. He waspresumed to be a true man; and if accused upon vehement suspicion, or'Leumund,' the same presumption or evil repute which was fatal to theuninitiated might be entirely rebutted by the compurgatory oath of thefree Echevin. If a party, accused by appeal, did not shuninvestigation, he appeared in the open court, and defended himselfaccording to the ordinary rules of law. If he absconded, or if theevidence or presumptions were against him, the accusation then camebefore the Judges of the Secret Court, who pronounced the doom. Theaccusatorial process, as it was termed, was also, in many cases,brought in the first instance before the 'Heimliche Acht.' Proceedingupon the examination of witnesses, it possessed no peculiar character,and its forms were those of the ordinary courts of justice. It wasonly in this manner that one of the 'Wissenden,' or Witan, could betried; and the privilege of being exempted from the summary process,or from the effects of the 'Leumund,' appears to have been one of thereasons which induced so many of those who did not tread the 'redearth' to seek to be included in the Vehmic bond.

  "There was no mystery in the assembly of the Heimliche Acht. Under theoak, or under the lime-tree, the Judges assembled, in broad daylight,and before the eye of heaven; but the tribunal derived its name fromthe precautions which were taken, for the purpose of preventing anydisclosure of its proceedings which might enable the offender toescape the vengeance of the Vehme. Hence, the fearful oath of secrecywhich bound the Echevins. And if any stranger was found present in theCourt, the unlucky intruder instantly forfeited his life as apunishment for his temerity. If the presentment or denunciation didchance to become known to the offender, the law allowed him a right ofappeal. But the permission was of very little utility, it was aprofitless boon, for the Vehmic Judges always laboured to conceal thejudgment from the hapless criminal, who seldom was aware of hissentence until his neck was encircled by the halter.

  "Charlemagne, according to the traditions of Westphalia, was thefounder of the Vehmic tribunal; and it was supposed that he institutedthe Court for the purpose of coercing the Saxons, ever ready torelapse into the idolatry from which they had been reclaimed, not bypersuasion, but by the sword. This opinion, however, is not confirmedeither by documentary evidence or by contemporary historians. And ifwe examine the proceedings of the Vehmic tribunal, we shall see that,in principle, it differs in no essential character from the summaryjurisdiction exercised in the townships and hundreds of Anglo-SaxonEngland. Amongst us, the thief or the robber was equally liable tosummary punishment, if apprehended by the men of the township; and thesame rules disqualified them from proceeding to summary execution. AnEnglish outlaw was exactly in the situation of him who had escapedfrom the hands of the Echevins, or who had failed to appear before theVehmic Court: he was condemned unheard, nor was he confronted with hisaccusers. The inquisitorial proceedings, as they are termed by theGerman jurists, are identical with our ancient presentments.Presumptions are substituted for proofs, and general opinion holds theplace of a responsible accuser. He who was untrue to all the people inthe Saxon age, or liable to the malecredence of the inquest at asubsequent period, was scarcely more fortunate than he who was brandedas 'Leumund' by the Vehmic law.

  "In cases of open delict and of outlawry, there was substantially nodifference whatever between the English and the Vehmic proceedings.But in the inquisitorial process, the delinquent was allowed,according to our older code, to run the risk of the ordeal. He wasaccused by or before the Hundred, or the Thanes of the Wapentake; andhis own oath cleared him, if a true man; but he 'bore the iron' ifunable to avail himself of the credit derived from a good and fairreputation. The same course may have been originally adopted inWestphalia; for the 'Wissend,' when accused, could exculpate himselfby his compurgatory oath, being presumed to be of good fame; and itis, therefore, probable that an uninitiated offender, standing a stagelower in character and credibility, was allowed the last resort of theordeal. But when the 'Judgment of God' was abolished by the decrees ofthe Church, it did not occur to the Vehmic Judges to put the offenderupon his second trial by the visne, which now forms the distinguishingcharacteristic of the English law, and he was at once considered ascondemned. The Heimliche Acht is a presentment not traversable by theoffender.

  "_The Vehmic Tribunals can only be considered as the originaljurisdictions of the 'Old Saxons,' which survived the subjugation oftheir country. The singular and mystic forms of initiation, the systemof enigmatical phrases, the use of the signs and symbols ofrecognition, may probably be ascribed to the period when the wholesystem was united to the worship of the Deities of Vengeance, and whenthe sentence was promulgated by the Doomsmen, assembled, like the Asiof old, before the altars of Thor or Woden._ Of this connection withancient pagan policy, so clearly to be traced in the Icelandic Courts,the English territorial jurisdictions offer some very faint vestiges;but the mystery had long been dispersed, and the whole system passedinto the ordinary machinery of the law.

  "As to the Vehmic Tribunals, it is acknowledged, that in a trulybarbarous age and country, their proceedings, however violent, werenot without utility. Their severe and secret vengeance often deterredthe rapacity of the noble robber, and protected the humble suppliant;the extent, and even the abuse, of their authority was in some measurejustified in an Empire divided into numerous independentjurisdictions, and not subjected to any paramount tribunal, able toadminister impartial justice to the oppressed. But as the timesimproved, the Vehmic tribunals degenerated. The Echevins, chosen fromthe inferior ranks, did not possess any personal consideration.Opposed by the opulent cities of the Hanse, and objects of thesuspicion and the enmity of the powerful aristocracy, the tribunals ofsome districts were abolished by law, and others took the form ofordinary territorial jurisdictions; the greater number fell intodesuetude. Yet, as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, afew Vehmic tribunals existed in name, though, as it may be easilysupposed, without possessing any remnant of their pristinepower."--PALGRAVE _on the Rise and Progress of the EnglishCommonwealth. Proofs and Illustrations._ p. 157.

  I have marked _by italic letters_ the most important passage of theabove quotation. The view it contains seems to me to have everyappearance of truth and justice--and if such should, on maturerinvestigation, turn out to be the fact, it will certainly confer nosmall honour on an English scholar to have discovered the key to amystery, which had long exercised in vain the laborious and profoundstudents of German antiquity.

  There are probably several other points on which I ought to haveembraced this opportunity of enlarging; but the necessity of preparingfor an excursion to foreign countries, in quest of health andstrength, that have been for some time sinking, makes me cut short myaddress upon the present occasion.

  Although I had never been in Switzerland, and numerous mistakes mustof course have occurred in my attempts to describe the local sceneryof that romantic region, I must not conclude without a statementhighly gratifying to myself, that the work met with a reception ofmore than usual cordiality among the descendants of the Alpine heroeswhose manners I had ventured to treat of; and I have in particular toexpress my thanks to the several Swiss gentlemen who have, since thenovel was published, enriched my little collection of armour withspecimens of the huge weapon that sheared the lances of the Austrianchivalry at Sempach, and was employed with equal success on the bloodydays of Granson and Morat. Of the ancient doublehanded _espadons_ ofthe Switzer, I have, in this way, received, I think, not less thansix, in excellent preservation, from as many different individuals,who thus testified their general approbation of these pages. They arenot the less interesting, that gigantic swords, of nearly the samepattern and dimensions, were employed, in their conflicts with thebold knights and men-at-arm
s of England, by Wallace, and the sturdyfoot-soldiers who, under his guidance, laid the foundations ofScottish independence.

  The reader who wishes to examine with attention the historical eventsof the period which the novel embraces will find ample means of doingso in the valuable works of Zschokke and M. de Barante--which lastauthor's account of the Dukes of Burgundy is among the most valuableof recent accessions of European literature--and in the new Parisianedition of Froissart, which has not as yet attracted so much attentionin this country as it well deserves to do.


  ABBOTSFORD, _Sept. 17, 1831_.


  [1] Owen Pugh's Elegies of Lewarch Hen, Pref., p. 46. The place ofthese meetings was set apart by forming a circle of stones round the_Maen Gorsedd_, or Stone of the Gorsedd.