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Medieval Sourcebook: Caesarius of Heisterbach:
Confession, Ordeal and Miracle
(from Dialogus Miraculorum)

[Adapted from Coulton Introduction, p.58] Caesarius of Heisterbach was possibly born and certainly educated in Cologne. After some inward struggle he became a Cistercian monk at the monastery of Heisterbach, where he eventually became prior and Teacher of the Novices. It was for the novices that he wrote his Dialogus Miraculorum, one of the most intimate documents of the Middle Ages. This, some biographical and chronological treatises and some homelies were all apparently written between 1220 and 1235. The Dialogue was printed five times between 1475 and 1605. His faults are those of his time, but his earnestness and vividness are apparent also. Modern commentators have note, however, his credulousness. The citation here are to the volume and page numbers of Joseph Strange's critical edition (Cologne: 1851).




From Caes. Heist. vol. II, p. 243.

DOM BERNARD of Lippe, who was once an abbot and is now a bishop in Livonia, is wont to tell a miracle contrary to this last. "I knew, (he said,) a fisher in the bishopric of Utrecht who had long lived incontinently with a certain woman; and, because his sin was too notorious, fearing one day to be accused at the synod then impending, he said within himself: 'What will you now do, poor wretch? If you are accused of incontinence in this synod and must confess, you will forthwith be compelled to take her to wife; or if you deny it you will be convicted by the ordeal of white-hot iron and be still more confounded." So, coming forthwith to a priest (rather, as the event showed, from fear of punishment than from love of righteousness), he confessed his sin, asked from counsel and found it-. 'If,' said the priest, 'you have a firm purpose never to sin again with her, then you may carry the white-hot iron without further care and deny your sin; for I hope that the virtue of confession will free you." And this did, to the amazement of all who well knew his incontinence. Lo! here by God's power, as in former examples, the fire restrained its force against its own nature; and, as you will hear later, it grew hot even more marvelously against nature. To be brief, the man was absolved. Many days afterwards, as he rowed with another fisher at his work on the river, and the house of the aforesaid woman came in sight, then the other said unto him: 'I marvel greatly, and many marvel with me, why the iron did not burn you at the synod, though thy sin was so notorious.' He, boasting unworthily of the grace that had been conferred on him (for he had already conceived the purpose of sinning again), smote the river water with his hand and said: 'The fire hurt me no more than this water!' Mark the marvelous justice of God! who had guarded the penitent in His mercy, punished now by a just and strange miracle the same man when he relapsed: for no sooner had he touched the water than it was to him as white-hot iron. He drew back his hand suddenly cried aloud; but he left his skin in the water. Then, in tardy repentance, he told his comrade all that had befallen him."

Our fellow-monk Lambert was wont to tell a like miracle to this. A countryman who had a feud against another gave money to a certain wicked man of the Order of wandering Religious, (of whom there are many,) that he might burn the other's house; which this man, entering under the cloak of religion, set afire at a convenient time. Again this abandoned wretch, forgetful of the hospitality he had-received, set fire to the same house for the same bribe, after that it had been rebuilt. The, master, troubled at this double loss, accused all of whom he had any suspicion, but they purged themselves by the ordeal of white-hot iron. Again the burned house was rebuilt; and this iron which had been used for the ordeal was thrown into one corner of it. To be brief, that false religious vagrant came again, corrupted by his former covetousness, and was received with all kindness. He marked the aforesaid iron and asked what purpose it served: to which his host answered: "I know not who has twice set fire to my house; and, though I had suspicion of certain men, they have borne that iron at white-heat and yet were not burned" Then said the other: "The iron might be turned to some use": and lifting it up (as God would have it) he was so burned in the hand that he cried aloud and cast it down. When the master of the house saw this, he caught the incendiary by the cloak and cried: "Thou art the true culprit!" The e man was taken before the judge, confessed his crime unwillingly, and was condemned to be broken upon the wheel.

From C.G. Coulton, ed, Life in the Middle Ages, (New York: Macmillan, c.1910), Vol I, 73-74 [slightly modernized]

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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(c)Paul Halsall August 1996
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