Vol. 4, Chapter VI (Cont’d) – The Ordeal


Grimm: Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer, Göttingen 1828, p. 908 sqq. Hildenbrand: Die Purgatio canonica et vulgaris, München 1841. Unger: Der gerichtliche Zweikampf, Göttingen 1847. Philipps: Ueber die Ordalien, München 1847. Dahn: Studien zur Gesch. der Germ. Gottesurtheile, München 1867. Pfalz: Die german. Ordalien, Leipz. 1865. Henry C. Lea: Superstition and Force, Philad. 1866, p. 175-280. (I have especially used Lea, who gives ample authorities for his statements.) For synodical legislation on ordeals see Hefele, Vols. III. and IV.

Another heathen custom with which the church had to deal, is the so-called Judgment of God or Ordeal, that is, a trial of guilt or innocence by a direct appeal to God through nature. It prevailed in China, Japan, India, Egypt (to a less extent in Greece and Rome), and among the barbaric races throughout Europe.

The ordeal reverses the correct principle that a man must be held to be innocent until he is proved to be guilty, and throws the burden of proof upon the accused instead of the accuser. It is based on the superstitious and presumptuous belief that the divine Ruler of the universe will at any time work a miracle for the vindication of justice when man in his weakness cannot decide, and chooses to relieve himself of responsibility by calling heaven to his aid. In the Carlovingian Capitularies the following passage occurs: “Let doubtful cases be determined by the judgment of God. The judges may decide that which they clearly know, but that which they cannot know shall be reserved for the divine judgment. He whom God has reserved for his own judgment may not be condemned by human means.”

The customary ordeals in the middle ages were water-ordeals and fire-ordeals; the former were deemed plebeian, the latter (as well as the duel), patrician. The one called to mind the punishment of the deluge and of Pharaoh in the Red Sea; the other, the future punishment of hell. The water-ordeals were either by hot water, or by cold water; the fire-ordeals were either by hot iron, or by pure fire. The person accused or suspected of a crime was exposed to the danger of death or serious injury by one of these elements: if he escaped unhurt — if he plunged his arm to the elbow into boiling water, or walked barefoot upon heated plough-shares, or held a burning ball of iron in his hand, without injury, he was supposed to be declared innocent by a miraculous interposition of God, and discharged; otherwise he was punished.

To the ordeals belongs also the judicial duel or battle ordeal. It was based on the old superstition that God always gives victory to the innocent. It was usually allowed only to freemen. Aged and sick persons, women, children, and ecclesiastics could furnish substitutes, but not always. Medieval panegyrists trace the judicial duel back to Cain and Abel. It prevailed among the ancient Danes, Irish, Burgundians, Franks, and Lombards, but was unknown among the Anglo-Saxons before William the Conqueror, who introduced it into England. It was used also in international litigation. The custom died out in the sixteenth century.

The medieval church, with her strong belief in the miraculous, could not and did not generally oppose the ordeal, but she baptized it and made it a powerful means to enforce her authority over the ignorant and superstitious people she had to deal with. Several councils at Mainz in 880, at Tribur on the Rhine in 895, at Tours in 925, at Mainz in 1065, at Auch in 1068, at Grau in 1099, recognized and recommended it; the clergy, bishops, and archbishops, as Hincmar of Rheims, and Burckhardt of Worms, and even popes like Gregory VII. and Calixtus II. lent it their influence. St. Bernard approved of the cold-water process for the conviction of heretics, and St. Ivo of Chartres admitted that the incredulity of mankind sometimes required an appeal to the verdict of Heaven, though such appeals were not commanded by, the law of God. As late as 1215 the ferocious inquisitor Conrad of Marburg freely used the hot iron against eighty persons in Strassburg alone who were suspected of the Albigensian heresy. The clergy prepared the combatants by fasting and prayer, and special liturgical formula; they presided over the trial and pronounced the sentence. Sometimes fraud was practiced, and bribes offered and taken to divert the course of justice. Gregory of Tours mentions the case of a deacon who, in a conflict with an Arian priest, anointed his arm before he stretched it into the boiling caldron; the Arian discovered the trick, charged him with using magic arts, and declared the trial null and void; but a Catholic priest, Jacintus from Ravenna, stepped forward, and by catching the ring from the bubbling caldron, triumphantly vindicated the orthodox faith to the admiring multitude, declaring that the water felt cold at the bottom and agreeably warm at the top. When the Arian boldly repeated the experiment, his flesh was boiled off the bones up to the elbow.

The Church even invented and substituted new ordeals, which were less painful and cruel than the old heathen forms, but shockingly profane according to our notions. Profanity and superstition are closely allied. These new methods are the ordeal of the cross, and the ordeal of the eucharist. They were especially used by ecclesiastics.

The ordeal of the cross is simply a trial of physical strength. The plaintiff and the defendant, after appropriate religious ceremonies, stood with uplifted arm before a cross while divine service was performed, and victory depended on the length of endurance. Pepin first prescribed this trial, by a Capitulary of 752, in cases of application by a wife for divorce. Charlemagne prescribed it in cases of territorial disputes which might arise between his sons (806). But Louis-le-Débonnaire, soon after the death of Charlemagne, forbade its continuance at a Council of Aix-la-Chapelle in 816, because this abuse of the cross tended to bring the Christian symbol into contempt. His son, the Emperor Lothair, renewed the prohibition. A trace of this ordeal is left in the proverbial allusion to an experimentum crucis.

A still worse profanation was the ordeal of consecrated bread in the eucharist with the awful adjuration: “May this body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ be a judgment to thee this day.” It was enjoined by a Synod of Worms, in 868, upon bishops and priests who were accused of a capital crime, such as murder, adultery, theft, sorcery. It was employed by Cautinus, bishop of Auvergne, at the close of the sixth century, who administered the sacrament to a Count Eulalius, accused of patricide, and acquitted him after he had partaken of it without harm. King Lothair and his nobles took the sacrament in proof of his separation from Walrada, his mistress, but died soon afterwards at Piacenza of a sudden epidemic, and this was regarded by Pope Hadrian II. as a divine punishment. Rudolfus Glaber records the case of a monk who boldly received the consecrated host, but forthwith confessed his crime when the host slipped out of his navel, white and pure as before. Sibicho, bishop of Speier, underwent the trial to clear himself of the charge of adultery (1049). Even Pope Hildebrand made use of it in self-defense against Emperor Henry IV. at Canossa, in 1077. “Lest I should seem,” he said “to rely rather on human than divine testimony, and that I may remove from the minds of all, by immediate satisfaction, every scruple, behold this body of our Lord which I am about to take. Let it be to me this day a test of my innocence, and may the Omnipotent God this day by his judgment absolve me of the accusations if I am innocent, or let me perish by sudden death, if guilty.” Then the pope calmly took the wafer, and called upon the trembling emperor to do the same, but Henry evaded it on the ground of the absence of both his friends and his enemies, and promised instead to submit to a trial by the imperial diet.

The purgatorial oath, when administered by wonder-working relics, was also a kind of ordeal of ecclesiastical origin. A false oath on the black cross in the convent of Abington, made from the nails of the crucifixion, and derived from the Emperor Constantine, was fatal to the malefactor. In many cases these relics were the means of eliciting confessions which could not have been obtained by legal devices.

The genuine spirit of Christianity, however, urged towards an abolition rather than improvement of all these ordeals. Occasionally such voices of protest were raised, though for a long time without effect. Avitus, bishop of Vienne, in the beginning of the sixth century, remonstrated with Gundobald for giving prominence to the battle-ordeal in the Burgundian code. St. Agobard, archbishop of Lyons, before the middle of the ninth century (he died about 840) attacked the duel and the ordeal in two special treatises, which breathe the gospel spirit of humanity, fraternity and peace in advance of his age. He says that the ordeals are falsely called judgments of God; for God never prescribed them, never approved them, never willed them; but on the contrary, he commands us, in the law and the gospel, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and has appointed judges for the settlement of controversies among men. He warns against a presumptuous interpretation of providence whose counsels are secret and not to be revealed by water and fire. Several popes, Leo IV. (847-855), Nicolas I. (858-867), Stephen VI. (885-891), Sylvester II. (999-1003), Alexander II. (1061-1073), Alexander III. (1159-1181), Coelestin III. (1191-1198), Honorius III. (1222), and the fourth Lateran Council (1215), condemned more or less clearly the superstitious and frivolous provocation of miracles. It was by their influence, aided by secular legislation, that these God-tempting ordeals gradually disappeared during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but the underlying idea survived in the torture which for a long time took the place of the ordeal.


80. The Torture

Henry C. Lea: Superstition and Force (Philad. 1866), p. 281-391. Paul Lacroix: Manners, Customs, and Dress of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance Period (transl. from the French, N. York 1874), p. 407-434. Brace. Gesta Christi, ch. XV.

The torture rests on the same idea as the ordeal. It is an attempt to prove innocence or guilt by imposing a physical pain which no man can bear without special aid from God. When the ordeal had fulfilled its mission, the torture was substituted as a more convenient mode and better fitted for an age less superstitious and more sceptical, but quite as despotic and intolerant. It forms one of the darkest chapters in history. For centuries this atrocious system, opposed to the Mosaic legislation and utterly revolting to every Christian and humane feeling, was employed in civilized Christian countries, and sacrificed thousands of human beings, innocent as well as guilty, to torments worse than death.

The torture was unknown among the Hindoos and the Semitic nations, but recognized by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as a regular legal proceeding. It was originally confined to slaves who were deemed unfit to bear voluntary testimony, and to require force to tell the truth. Despotic emperors extended it to freemen, first in cases of crimen laesae majestatis. Pontius Pilate employed the scourge and the crown of thorns in the trial of our Saviour. Tiberius exhausted his ingenuity in inventing tortures for persons suspected of conspiracy, and took delight in their agony. The half-insane Caligula enjoyed the cruel spectacle at his dinner-table. Nero resorted to this cruelty to extort from the Christians the confession of the crime of incendiarism, as a pretext of his persecution, which he intensified by the diabolical invention of covering the innocent victims with pitch and burning them as torches in his gardens. The younger Pliny employed the torture against the Christians in Bithynia as imperial governor. Diocletian, in a formal edict, submitted all professors of the hated religion to this degrading test. The torture was gradually developed into a regular system and embodied in the Justinian Code. Certain rules were prescribed, and exemptions made in favor of the learned professions, especially the clergy, nobles, children below fourteen, women during pregnancy, etc. The system was thus sanctioned by the highest legal authorities. But opinions as to its efficiency differed. Augustus pronounced the torture the best form of proof. Cicero alternately praises and discredits it. Ulpian, with more wisdom, thought it unsafe, dangerous, and deceitful.

Among the Northern barbarians the torture was at first unknown except for slaves. The common law of England does not recognize it. Crimes were regarded only as injuries to individuals, not to society, and the chief resource for punishment was the private vengeance of the injured party. But if a slave, who was a mere piece of property, was suspected of a theft, his master would flog him till he confessed. All doubtful questions among freemen were decided by sacramental purgation and the various forms of ordeal. But in Southern Europe, where the Roman population gave laws to the conquering barbarians, the old practice continued, or revived with the study of the Roman law. In Southern France and in Spain the torture was an unbroken ancestral custom. Alfonso the Wise, in the thirteenth century, in his revision of Spanish jurisprudence, known as Las Siete Partidas, retained the torture, but declared the person of man to be the noblest thing on earth, and required a voluntary confession to make the forced confession valid. Consequently the prisoner after torture was brought before the judge and again interrogated; if be recanted, he was tortured a second, in grave cases, a third time; if he persisted in his confession, he was condemned. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the system of torture, was generally introduced in Europe, and took the place of the ordeal.

The church, true to her humanizing instincts, was at first hostile to the whole system of forcing evidence. A Synod of Auxerre (585 or 578) prohibited the clergy to witness a torture. Pope Gregory I. denounced as worthless a confession extorted by incarceration and hunger. Nicolas I. forbade the new converts in Bulgaria to extort confession by stripes and by pricking with a pointed iron, as contrary to all law, human and divine (866) Gratian lays down the general rule that “confessio cruciatibus extorquenda non est.”

But at a later period, in dealing with heretics, the Roman church unfortunately gave the sanction of her highest authority to the use of the torture, and thus betrayed her noblest instincts and holiest mission. The fourth Lateran Council (1215) inspired the horrible crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, and the establishment of the infamous ecclesiastico-political courts of Inquisition. These courts found the torture the most effective means of punishing and exterminating heresy, and invented new forms of refined cruelty worse than those of the persecutors of heathen Rome. Pope Innocent IV., in his instruction for the guidance of the Inquisition in Tuscany and Lombardy, ordered the civil magistrates to extort from all heretics by torture a confession of their own guilt and a betrayal of all their accomplices (1252). This was an ominous precedent, which did more harm to the reputation of the papacy than the extermination of any number of heretics could possibly do it good. In Italy, owing to the restriction of the ecclesiastical power by the emperor, the inquisition could not fully display its murderous character. In Germany its introduction was resisted by the people and the bishops, and Conrad of Marburg, the appointed Inquisitor, was murdered (1233). But in Spain it had every assistance from the crown and the people, which to this day take delight in the bloody spectacles of bullfights. The Spanish Inquisition was established in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella by papal sanction (1478), reached its fearful height under the terrible General Inquisitor Torquemada (since 1483), and in its zeal to exterminate Moors, Jews, and heretics, committed such fearful excesses that even popes protested against the abuse of power, although with little effect. The Inquisition carried the system of torture to its utmost limits. After the Reformation it was still employed in trials of sorcery and witchcraft until the revolution of opinion in the eighteenth century swept it out of existence, together with cruel forms of punishment. This victory is due to the combined influence of justice, humanity, and tolerance.



I. “The whole system of the Inquisition,” says Lea (p. 331), “was such as to render the resort to torture inevitable. Its proceedings were secret; the prisoner was carefully kept in ignorance of the exact charges against him, and of the evidence upon which they were based. He was presumed to be guilty, and his judges bent all their energies to force him to confess. To accomplish this, no means were too base or too cruel. Pretended sympathizers were to be let into his dungeon, whose affected friendship might entrap him into an unwary admission; officials armed with fictitious evidence were directed to frighten him with assertions of the testimony obtained against him from supposititious witnesses; and no resources of fraud or guile were to be spared in overcoming the caution and resolution of the poor wretch whose mind had been carefully weakened by solitude, suffering, hunger, and terror. From this to the rack and estrapade the step was easily taken, and was not long delayed.” For details see the works on the Inquisition. Llorente (Hist. crit. de l’Inquisition d’Espagne IV. 252, quoted by Gieseler III. 409 note 11) states that from 1478 to the end of the administration of Torquemada in 1498, when he resigned, “8800 persons were burned alive, 6500 in effigy, and 90,004 punished with different kinds of penance. Under the second general-inquisitor, the Dominican, Diego Deza, from 1499 to 1506, 1664 persons were burned alive, 832 in effigy, 32,456 punished. Under the third general-inquisitor, the Cardinal and Archbishop of Toledo, Francis Ximenes de Cisneros, from 1507 to 1517, 2536 were burned alive, 1368 in effigy, 47,263 reconciled.” Llorente was a Spanish priest and general secretary of the Inquisition at Madrid (from 1789-1791), and had access to all the archives, but his figures, as he himself admits, are based upon probable calculations, and have in some instances been disproved. He states, e.g. that in the first year of Torquemada’s administration 2000 persons were burned, and refers to the Jesuit Mariana (History of Spain), but Mariana means that during the whole administration of Torquemada “duo millia crematos igne.” See Hefele, Cardinal Ximenes, p. 346. The sum total of persons condemned to death by the Spanish Inquisition during the 330 years of its existence, is stated to be 30,000. Hefele (Kirchenlexikon, v. 656) thinks this sum exaggerated, yet not surprising when compared with the number of witches that were burnt in Germany alone. The Spanish Inquisition pronounced its last sentence of death in the year 1781, was abolished under the French rule of Joseph Napoleon, Dec. 4, 1808, restored by Ferdinand VII. 1814, again abolished 1820, and (after another attempt to restore it) in 1834. Catholic writers, like Balmez (l.c. chs. xxxvi. and xxxvii.) and Hefele (Cardinal Ximenes, p. 257-389, and in Wetzer and Welte’s Kirchen-Lexicon, vol. V. 648-659), charge Llorente with inaccuracy in his figures, and defend the Catholic church against the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, as this was a political rather than ecclesiastical institution, and had at least the good effect of preventing religious wars. But the Inquisition was instituted with the express sanction of Pope Sixtus IV. (Nov. 1, 1478), was controlled by the Dominican order and by Cardinals, and as to the benefit, the peace of the grave-yard is worse than war. Hefele adds, however (V. 657): “Nach all’ diesen Bemerkungen sind wir übrigens weit entfernt, der Spanichen Inquisition an sich das Wort reden zu wollen, vielmehr bestreiten wir der weltlichen Gewalt durchaus die Befugniss, das Gewissen zu knebeln, und sind von Herzensgrund aus jedem staatlichen Religionszwang abhold, mag er von einem Torquemada in der Dominikanerkutte, oder von einem Bureaucraten in der Staatsuniform ansgehen. Aber das wollten wir zeigen, dass die Inquisition das schändliche Ungeheuer nicht war, wozu es Parteileidenschaft und Unwissenheit häufig stempeln wollten.”

II. The torture was abolished in England after 1640, in Prussia 1740, in Tuscany 1786, in France 1789, in Russia 1801, in various German states partly earlier, partly later (between 1740 and 1831), in Japan 1873. Thomasius, Hommel, Voltaire, Howard, used their influence against it. Exceptional cases of judicial torture occurred in the nineteenth century in Naples, Palermo, Roumania (1868), and Zug (1869). See Lea, p. 389 sqq., and the chapter on Witchcraft in Lecky’s History of Rationalism (vol. I. 27-154). The extreme difficulty of proof in trials of witchcraft seemed to make a resort to the torture inevitable. English witchcraft reached its climax during the seventeenth century, and was defended by King James I., and even such wise men as Sir Matthew Hale, Sir Thomas Browne, and Richard Baxter. When it was on the decline in England it broke out afresh in Puritan New England, created a perfect panic, and led to the execution of twenty-seven persons. In Scotland it lingered still longer, and as late as 1727 a woman was burnt there for witchcraft. In the Canton Glarus a witch was executed in 1782, and another near Danzig in Prussia in 1836. Lecky concludes his chapter with an eloquent tribute to those poor women, who died alone, hated, and unpitied, with the prospect of exchanging their torments on earth with eternal torments in hell.

I add a noble passage on torture from Brace’s Gesta Christi, p. 274 sq. “Had the ‘Son of Man’ been in body upon the earth during the Middle Ages, hardly one wrong and injustice would have wounded his pure soul like the system of torture. To see human beings, with the consciousness of innocence, or professing and believing the purest truths, condemned without proof to the most harrowing agonies, every groan or admission under pain used against them, their confessions distorted, their nerves so racked that they pleaded their guilt in order to end their tortures, their last hours tormented by false ministers of justice or religion, who threaten eternal as well as temporal damnation, and all this going on for ages, until scarce any innocent felt themselves safe under this mockery of justice and religion — all this would have seemed to the Founder of Christianity as the worst travesty of his faith and the most cruel wound to humanity. It need not be repeated that his spirit in each century struggled with this tremendous evil, and inspired the great friends of humanity who labored against it. The main forces in medieval society, even those which tended towards its improvement, did not touch this abuse. Roman law supported it. Stoicism was indifferent to it; Greek literature did not affect it; feudalism and arbitrary power encouraged a practice which they could use for their own ends; and even the hierarchy and a State Church so far forgot the truths they professed as to employ torture to support the ‘Religion of Love.’ But against all these powers were the words of Jesus, bidding men ‘Love your enemies’ ‘Do good to them that despitefully use you!’ and the like commands. working everywhere on individual souls, heard from pulpits and in monasteries, read over by humble believers, and slowly making their way against barbaric passion and hierarchic cruelty. Gradually, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the books containing the message of Jesus circulated among all classes, and produced that state of mind and heart in which torture could not be used on a fellow-being, and in which such an abuse and enormity as the Inquisition was hurled to the earth.”


81. Christian Charity

See the Lit. in vol. II. § 88. Chastel: Études historiques sur l’influence de la charité (Paris 1853, English transl., Philad. 1857 — for the first three centuries). Häser: Geschichte der christl. Krankenpflege und Pflegerschaften (Berlin 1857). Ratzinger: Gesch. der christl. Armenpflege (Freib. 1869, a new ed. announced 1884). Morin: Histoire critique de la pauvreté (in the “Mémoirs de l’ Académie des inscript.” IV). Lecky: Hist. of Europ. Morals, ch. 4th (II. 62 sqq.). Uhlhorn: Christian Charity in the Ancient Church (Stuttgart, 1881; Engl. transl. Lond. and N. York 1883), Book III., and his Die Christliche Liebesthaetigkeit im Mittelalter. Stuttgart, 1884. (See also his art. in Brieger’s “Zeitschrift für K. G.” IV. 1). B. Riggenbach: Das Armenwesen der Reformation (Basel 1883). Also the articles Armenpflege in Herzog’s “Encycl.”2 vol. I. 648-663; in Wetzer and Welte’s “Kirchenlex.”2 vol. I. 1354-1375; Paupérisme in Lichtenberger X. 305-312; and Hospitals in Smith and Cheetham I. 785-789.

From the cruelties of superstition and bigotry we gladly turn to the queen of Christian graces, that “most excellent gift of charity,” which never ceased to be exercised wherever the story of Christ’s love for sinners was told and his golden rule repeated. It is a “bond of perfectness” that binds together all ages and sections of Christendom. It comforted the Roman empire in its hoary age and agonies of death; and it tamed the ferocity of the barbarian invaders. It is impossible to overestimate the moral effect of the teaching and example of Christ, and of St. Paul’s seraphic praise of charity upon the development of this cardinal virtue in all ages and countries. We bow with reverence before the truly apostolic succession of those missionaries, bishops, monks, nuns, kings, nobles, and plain men and women, rich or poor, known and unknown, who, from gratitude to Christ and pure love to their fellow-men, sacrificed home, health, wealth, life itself, to humanize and Christianize savages, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to entertain the stranger, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, to call on the prisoner, to comfort the dying. We admire and honor also those exceptional saints who, in literal fulfillment or misunderstanding of the Saviour’s advice to the rich youth, and in imitation of the first disciples at Jerusalem, sold all their possessions and gave them to the poor that they might become perfect. The admiration is indeed diminished, but not destroyed, if in many cases a large measure of refined selfishness was mixed with self-denial, and when the riches of heaven were the sole or chief inducement for choosing voluntary poverty on earth.

The supreme duty of Christian charity was inculcated by all faithful pastors and teachers of the gospel from the beginning. In the apostolic and ante-Nicene ages it was exercised by regular contributions on the Lord’s day, and especially at the communion and the agape connected with it. Every congregation was a charitable society, and took care of its widows and orphans, of strangers and prisoners, and sent help to distant congregations in need.

After Constantine, when the masses of the people flocked into the church, charity assumed an institutional form, and built hospitals and houses of refuge for the strangers, the poor, the sick, the aged, the orphans. They appear first in the East, but soon afterwards also in the West. Fabiola founded a hospital in Rome, Pammachius one in the Portus Romanus, Paulinus one in Nola. At the time of Gregory I. there were several hospitals in Rome; he mentions also hospitals in Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. These institutions were necessary in the greatly enlarged sphere of the church, and the increase of poverty, distress, and disaster which at last overwhelmed the Roman empire. They may in many cases have served purposes of ostentation, superseded or excused private charity, encouraged idleness, and thus increased rather than diminished pauperism. But these were abuses to which the best human institutions are subject.

Private charity continued to be exercised in proportion to the degree of vitality in the church. The great fathers and bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries set an illustrious example of plain living and high thinking, of self-denial and liberality, and were never weary in their sermons and writings in enjoining the duty of charity. St. Basil himself superintended his extensive hospital at Caesarea, and did not shrink from contact with lepers; St. Gregory Nazianzen exhorted the brethren to be “a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God,” for there is “nothing so divine as beneficence;” St. Chrysostom founded several hospitals in Constantinople, incessantly appealed to the rich in behalf of the poor, and directed the boundless charities of the noble widow Olympias. St. Ambrose, at once a proud Roman and an humble Christian, comforted the paupers in Milan, while he rebuked an emperor for his cruelty; Paulinus of Nola lived in a small house with his wife, Theresiâ and used his princely wealth for the building of a monastery, the relief of the needy, the ransoming of prisoners, and when his means were exhausted, he exchanged himself with the son of a widow to be carried away into Africa; the great Augustin declined to accept as a present a better coat than he might give in turn to a brother in need; St. Jerome founded a hospice in Bethlehem from the proceeds of his property, and induced Roman ladies of proud ancestry to sell their jewels, silk dresses, and palaces, for the poor, and to exchange a life of luxurious ease for a life of ascetic self-denial. Those examples shone like brilliant stars through the darkness of the middle ages.

But the same fathers, it must be added, handed to the middle ages also the disturbing doctrine of the meritorious nature and atoning efficacy of charity, as “covering a multitude of sins,” and its influence even upon the dead in purgatory. These errors greatly stimulated and largely vitiated that virtue, and do it to this day.

The Latin word caritas, which originally denotes dearness or costliness (from carus, dear), then esteem, affection, assumed in the church the more significant meaning of benevolence and beneficence, or love in active exercise, especially to the poor and suffering among our fellow-men. The sentiment and the deed must not be separated, and the gift of the hand derives its value from the love of the heart. Though the gifts are unequal, the benevolent love should be the same, and the widow’s mite is as much blessed by God as the princely donation of the rich. Ambrose compares benevolence in the intercourse of men with men to the sun in its relation to the earth. “Let the gifts of the wealthy,” says another father, “be more abundant, but let not the poor be behind him in love.” Very often, however, charity was contracted into mere almsgiving. Praying, fasting, and almsgiving were regarded (as also among the Jews and Mohammedans) as the chief works of piety; the last was put highest. For the sake of charity it is right to break the fast or to interrupt devotion.

Pope Gregory the Great best represents the medieval charity with its ascetic self-denial, its pious superstitions and utilitarian ingredients. He lived in that miserable transition period when the old Roman civilization was crumbling to pieces and the new civilization was not yet built up on its ruins. “We see nothing but sorrow,” he says, “we hear nothing but complaints. Ah, Rome! once the mistress of the world, where is the senate? where the people? The buildings are in ruins, the walls are falling. Everywhere the sword! Everywhere death! I am weary of life!” But charity remained as an angel of comfort. It could not prevent the general collapse, but it dried the tears and soothed the sorrows of individuals. Gregory was a father to the poor. He distributed every month cart-loads of corn, oil, wine, and meat among them. What the Roman emperors did from policy to keep down insurrection, this pope did from love to Christ and the poor. He felt personally guilty when a man died of starvation in Rome. He set careful and conscientious men over the Roman hospitals, and required them to submit regular accounts of the management of funds. He furnished the means for the founding of a Xenodochium in Jerusalem. He was the chief promoter of the custom of dividing the income of the church into four equal parts, one for the bishop, one for the rest of the clergy, one for the church buildings, one for the poor. At the same time he was a strong believer in the meritorious efficacy of almsgiving for the living and the dead. He popularized Augustin’s notion of purgatory, supported it by monkish fables, and introduced masses for the departed (without the so-called thirties, i.e. thirty days after death). He held that God remits the guilt and eternal punishment, but not the temporal punishment of sin, which must be atoned for in this life, or in purgatory. Thus be explained the passage about the fire (1Co_3:11) which consumes wood, hay, and stubble, i.e. light and trifling sins such as useless talk, immoderate laughter, mismanagement of property. Hence, the more alms the better, both for our own salvation and for the relief of our departed relatives and friends. Almsgiving is the wing of repentance, and paves the way to heaven. This idea ruled supreme during the middle ages.

Among the barbarians in the West charitable institutions were introduced by missionaries in connection with convents, which were expected to exercise hospitality to strangers and give help to the poor. The Irish missionaries cared for the bodies as well as for the souls of the heathen to whom they preached the gospel, and founded “Hospitalia Scotorum.” The Council of Orleans, 549, shows acquaintance with Xenodochia in the towns. There was a large one at Lyons. Chrodegang of Metz and Alcuin exhort the bishops to found institutions of charity, or at least to keep a guest-room for the care of the sick and the stranger. A Synod at Aix in 815 ordered that an infirmary should be built near the church and in every convent. The Capitularies of Charlemagne extend to charitable institutions the same privileges as to churches and monasteries, and order that “strangers, pilgrims, and paupers” be duly entertained according to the canons.

The hospitals were under the immediate supervision of the bishop or a superintendent appointed by him. They were usually dedicated to the Holy Spirit, who was represented in the form of a dove in some conspicuous place of the building. They received donations and legacies, and were made the trustees of landed estates. The church of the middle ages was the largest property-holder, but her very wealth and prosperity became a source of temptation and corruption, which in the course of time loudly called for a reformation.

After we have made all reasonable deduction for a large amount of selfish charity which looked to the donor rather than the recipient, and for an injudicious profusion of alms which encouraged pauperism instead of enabling the poor to help themselves by honest work, we still have left one of the noblest chapters in the history of morals to which no other religion can furnish a parallel. For the regular gratuitous distribution of grain to the poor heathen of Rome, who under Augustus rose to 200,000, and under the Antonines to 500,000, was made from the public treasury and dictated by selfish motives of state policy; it called forth no gratitude; it failed of its object, and proved, together with slavery and the gladiatorial shows for the amusement of the people, one of the chief demoralizing influences of the empire.

Finally, we must not forget that the history of true Christian charity remains to a large part unwritten. Its power is indeed felt everywhere and every day; but it loves to do its work silently without a thought of the merit of reward. It follows human misery into all its lonely griefs with personal sympathy as well as material aid, and finds its own happiness in promoting the happiness of others. There is luxury in doing good for its own sake. “When thou doest alms,” says the Lord, “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth, that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall reward thee.”



Uhlhorn closes his first work with this judgment of medieval charity (p. 396 sq. of the English translation): “No period has done so much for the poor as the middle ages. What wholesale distribution of alms, what an abundance of institutions of the most various kinds, what numbers of hospitals for all manner of sufferers, what a series of ministrant orders, male and female, knightly and civil, what self-sacrifice and devotedness! In the medieval period all that we have observed germinating in the ancient Church, first attains its maturity. The middle ages, however, also appropriated whatever tendencies existed toward a one-sided and unsound development. Church care of the poor entirely perished, and all charity became institutional; monks and nuns, or members of the ministrant orders, took the place of the deacons — the diaconate died out. Charity became one-sidedly institutional and one-sidedly ecclesiastical. The church was the mediatrix of every exercise of charity, she became in fact the sole recipient, the sole bestower; for the main object of every work of mercy, of every distribution of alms, of every endowment, of all self-sacrifice in the service of the needy, was the giver’s own salvation. The transformation was complete. Men gave and ministered no longer for the sake of helping and serving the poor in Christ, but to obtain for themselves and theirs, merit, release from purgatory, a high degree of eternal happiness. The consequence was, that poverty was not contended with, but fostered, and beggary brought to maturity; so that notwithstanding the abundant donations, the various foundations, the well-endowed institutions, distress was after all not mastered. Nor is it mastered yet. “The poor ye have always with you” (Joh_12:8). Riggenbach (l.c.) maintains that in the middle ages hospitals were mere provision-houses (Versorgungshäuser), and that the Reformation first asserted the principle that they should be also houses of moral reform (Rettungshäuser and Heilanstalten).

Lecky, who devotes a part of the fourth chapter of his impartial humanitarian History of European Morals to this subject, comes to the following conclusion (II. 79, 85): “Christianity for the first time made charity a rudimentary virtue, giving it a leading place in the moral type, and in the exhortations of its teachers. Besides its general influence in stimulating the affections, it effected a complete revolution in this sphere, by regarding the poor as the special representatives of the Christian Founder, and thus making the love of Christ, rather than the love of man, the principle of charity …. The greatest things are often those which are most imperfectly realized; and surely no achievements of the Christian Church are more truly great than those which it has effected in the sphere of charity. For the first time in the history of mankind, it has inspired many thousands of men and women, at the sacrifice of all worldly interests, and often under circumstances of extreme discomfort or danger, to devote their entire lives to the single object of assuaging the sufferings of humanity. It has covered the globe with countless institutions of mercy, absolutely unknown to the whole Pagan world. It has indissolubly united, in the minds of men, the idea of supreme goodness with that of active and constant benevolence. It has placed in every parish a religious minister who, whatever may be his other functions, has at least been officially charged with the superintendence of an organization of charity, and who finds in this office one of the most important as well as one of the most legitimate sources of his power.”