Dramatic Romances, by Robert Browning

The Heretic’s Tragedy

A Middle-Age Interlude

Rosa Mundi; Seu, Fulcite Me Floribus.

A Conceit of Master Gysbrecht, Canon-Regular of Saint Jodocus-By-The-Bar, Ypres City. Cantuque, Virgilius. And Hath Often Been Sung at Hock-Tide and Festivals. Gavisus Eram, Jessides.

(It would seem to be a glimpse from the burning of Jacques du Bourg–Molay, at Paris, A.D. 1314, as distorted by the refraction from Flemish brain to brain, during the course of a couple of centuries.)

[Molay was Grand Master of the Templars when that order was suppressed in 1312.]


Preadmonisheth the Abbot Deodaet.

The Lord, we look to once for all,

Is the Lord we should look at, all at once:

He knows not to vary, saith Saint Paul,

Nor the shadow of turning, for the nonce.

See him no other than as he is!

Give both the infinitudes their due—

Infinite mercy, but, I wis,

As infinite a justice too.

[Organ: plagal-cadence.]

As infinite a justice too.


[One Singeth]


John, Master of the Temple of God,

Falling to sin the Unknown Sin,

What he bought of Emperor Aldabrod,

He sold it to Sultan Saladin:

Till, caught by Pope Clement, a-buzzing there,

Hornet-prince of the mad wasps’ hive,

And clipt of his wings in Paris square,

They bring him now to be burned alive.

[And wanteth there grace of lute or clavicithern, ye shall say to confirm him who singeth—

We bring John now to be burned alive.


In the midst is a goodly gallows built;


‘Twixt fork and fork, a stake is stuck;

But first they set divers tumbrils a-tilt,

Make a trench all round with the city muck;

Inside they pile log upon log, good store;

Faggots no few, blocks great and small,

Reach a man’s mid-thigh, no less, no more—

For they mean he should roast in the sight of all.


We mean he should roast in the sight of all.


Good sappy bavins that kindle forthwith;

Billets that blaze substantial and slow;


Pine-stump split deftly, dry as pith;

Larch-heart that chars to a chalk-white glow:

They up they hoist me John in a chafe,

Sling him fast like a hog to scorch,

Spit in his face, then leap back safe,

Sing “Laudes “ and bid clap-to the torch.


Laus deo — who bids clap-to the torch.


John of the Temple, whose fame so bragged,

Is burning alive in Paris square!

How can he curse, if his mouth is gagged?


Or wriggIe his neck, with a collar there?

Or heave his chest, which a band goes round?

Or threat with his fist, since his arms are spliced?

Or kick with his feet, now his legs are bound?

— Thinks John, I will call upon Jesus Christ.

[Here one crosseth himself.]


Jesus Christ — John had bought and sold,

Jesus Christ — John had eaten and drunk;

To him, the Flesh meant silver and gold.

(Salva reverentia.)

Now it was,” Saviour, bountiful lamb,


“I have roasted thee Turks, though men roast me!

“See thy servant, the plight wherein I am!

“Art thou a saviour? Save thou me!”


’Tis John the mocker cries, “Save thou me!”


Who maketh God’s menace an idle word?

— Saith, it no more means what it proclaims,

Than a damsel’s threat to her wanton bird?

For she too prattles of ugly names.

— Saith, he knoweth but one thing — what he knows?

That God is good and the rest is breath;


Why else is the same styled Sharon’s rose?

Once a rose, ever a rose, he saith.


O, John shall yet find a rose, he saith!


Alack, there be roses and roses, John!

Some, honied of taste like your leman’s tongue:

Some, bitter; for why? (roast gaily on!)

Their tree struck root in devil’s-dung.

When Paul once reasoned of righteousness

And of temperance and of judgment to come,

Good Felix trembled, he could no less:


John, snickering, crook’d his wicked thumb.


What cometh to John of the wicked thumb?


Ha ha, John plucketh now at his rose

To rid himself of a sorrow at heart!

Lo — petal on petal, fierce rays unclose;

Anther on anther, sharp spikes outstart;

And with blood for dew, the bosom boils;

And a gust of sulphur is all its smell;

And lo, he is horribly in the toils

Of a coal-black giant flower of hell!



What maketh heaven, That maketh hell.


So, as John called now, through the fire amain,

On the Name, he had cursed with, all his life—

To the Person, he bought and sold again—

For the Face, with his daily buffets rife—

Feature by feature It took its place:

And his voice, like a mad dog’s choking bark,

At the steady whole of the Judge’s face—

Died. Forth John’s soul flared into the dark.

Subjoineth the Abbot Deodaet.

God help all poor souls lost in the dark!

“The Heretic’s Tragedy” is an Interlude imagined in the manner of the Middle Ages, and typically representing this period of human development in its quaint piety and prejudice, its childish delight in cruelty, and its cumulative legend-making during the course of two centuries as reflected through the Flemish nature. It is supposed to be sung by an abbot, a choir-singer, and a chorus, in celebration of the burning of Jacques du Bourg–Molay, last Grand Master of the wealthy and powerful secular order of Knights Templar, which came into rivalry with the Church after the Crusades and was finally suppressed by Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V, Molay’s burning at Paris in 1314 being a final scene in their discomfiture and the Church’s triumph.

8. Plagal-cadence: a closing progression of chords in which the sub-dominant or chord on the fourth degree of the scale precedes the tonic or chord on the first degree of the scale. The name arises from the modes used in early church music called Plagal Modes, which were a transposition of the authentic modes beginning on the fourth degree of the authentic modes.

12. Bought of . . . Aldabrod, etc.: Clement’s arraignment of Jacques or John being that the riches won piously by the order during the Crusades, he had not scrupled to sell again to Saladin, the Sultan, who is portrayed by Scott in “The Talisman.”

14. Pope Clement: the fifth Clement (1305–1314).

18. Clavicithern: a cithern with keys like a harpsichord.

25. Sing “Laudes”: Sing the seven Psalms of praise making up the service of the Church called Lauds.

48. Salvâ, etc. the bidding to greet here with a reverence, according to custom, the Host, or Christ’s flesh, which had been mentioned.

60. Sharon’s rose: Solomon’s Song 2.1.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50