Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli


Oldham, in his “Satires upon the Jesuits,” a work which would admit of a curious commentary, alludes to their “lying legends,” and the innumerable impositions they practised on the credulous. I quote a few lines in which he has collected some of those legendary miracles, which I have noticed in the article Legends, and the amours of the Virgin Mary are detailed in that on Religious Nouvellettes.

Tell, how blessed Virgin to come down was seen,

Like play-house punk descending in machine,

How she writ billet-doux and love-discourse,

Made assignations, visits, and amours;

How hosts distrest, her smock for banner wore,

Which vanquished foes!

—— how fish in conventicles met,

And mackerel were with bait of doctrine caught:

How cattle have judicious hearers been! —

How consecrated hives with bells were hung,

And bees kept mass, and holy anthems sung!

How pigs to th’ rosary kneel’d, and sheep were taught

To bleat Te Deum and Magnificat;

How fly-flap, of church-censure houses rid

Of insects, which at curse of fryar died.

How ferrying cowls religious pilgrims bore

O’er waves, without the help of sail or oar;

How zealous crab the sacred image bore,

And swam a catholic to the distant shore.

With shams like these the giddy rout mislead,

Their folly and their superstition feed.

All these are allusions to the extravagant fictions in the “Golden Legend.” Among other gross impositions to deceive the mob, Oldham likewise attacks them for certain publications on topics not less singular. The tales he has recounted, Oldham says, are only baits for children, like toys at a fair; but they have their profounder and higher matters for the learned and inquisitive. He goes on:—

One undertakes by scales of miles to tell

The bounds, dimensions, and extent of HELL;

How many German leagues that realm contains!

How many chaldrons Hell each year expends

In coals for roasting Hugonots and friends!

Another frights the rout with useful stories

Of wild chimeras, limbos — PURGATORIES—

Where bloated souls in smoky durance hung,

Like a Westphalia gammon or neat’s tongue,

To be redeem’d with masses and a song. —



The readers of Oldham, for Oldham must ever have readers among the curious in our poetry, have been greatly disappointed in the pompous edition of a Captain Thompson, which illustrates none of his allusions. In the above lines Oldham alludes to some singular works.

Treatises and topographical descriptions of HELL, PURGATORY, and even HEAVEN, were once the favourite researches among certain zealous defenders of the Romish Church, who exhausted their ink-horns in building up a Hell to their own taste, or for their particular purpose.1 We have a treatise of Cardinal Bellarmin, a Jesuit, on Purgatory; he seems to have the science of a surveyor among all the secret tracks and the formidable divisions of “the bottomless pit.”

Bellarmin informs us that there are beneath the earth four different places, or a profound place divided into four parts. The deepest of these places is Hell; it contains all the souls of the damned, where will be also their bodies after the resurrection, and likewise all the demons. The place nearest Hell is Purgatory, where souls are purged, or rather where they appease the anger of God by their sufferings. He says that the same fires and the same torments are alike in both these places, the only difference between Hell and Purgatory consisting in their duration. Next to Purgatory is the limbo of those infants who die without having received the sacrament; and the fourth place is the limbo of the Fathers; that is to say, of those just men who died before the death of Christ. But since the days of the Redeemer, this last division is empty, like an apartment to be let. A later catholic theologist, the famous Tillemont, condemns all the illustrious pagans to the eternal torments of Hell? because they lived before the time of Jesus, and therefore could not be benefited by the redemption! Speaking of young Tiberius, who was compelled to fall on his own sword, Tillemont adds, “Thus by his own hand he ended his miserable life, to begin another, the misery of which will never end!” Yet history records nothing bad of this prince. Jortin observes that he added this reflection in his later edition, so that the good man as he grew older grew more uncharitable in his religious notions. It is in this manner too that the Benedictine editor of Justin Martyr speaks of the illustrious pagans. This father, after highly applauding Socrates, and a few more who resembled him, inclines to think that they are not fixed in Hell. But the Benedictine editor takes great pains to clear the good father from the shameful imputation of supposing that a virtuous pagan might be saved as well as a Benedictine monk! For a curious specimen of this odium theologicum, see the “Censure” of the Sorbonne on Marmontel’s Belisarius.

The adverse party, who were either philosophers or reformers, received all such information with great suspicion. Anthony Cornelius, a lawyer in the sixteenth century, wrote a small tract, which was so effectually suppressed, as a monster of atheism, that a copy is now only to be found in the hands of the curious. This author ridiculed the absurd and horrid doctrine of infant damnation, and was instantly decried as an atheist, and the printer prosecuted to his ruin! Cælius Secundus Curio, a noble Italian, published a treatise De Amplitudine beati Regni Dei, to prove that Heaven has more inhabitants than Hell, — or, in his own phrase, that the elect are more numerous than the reprobate. However we may incline to smile at these works, their design was benevolent. They were the first streaks of the morning light of the Reformation. Even such works assisted mankind to examine more closely, and hold in greater contempt, the extravagant and pernicious doctrines of the domineering papistical church.

1 One of the most horrible of these books was the work of the Jesuit Pinamonti; it details with frightful minuteness the nature of hell-torments, accompanied by the most revolting pictures of the condemned under various refined torments. It was translated in an abbreviated form, and sold for a few pence as a popular religious book in Ireland, and may be so still. It is divided into a series of meditations for each day in the week, on hell and its torments.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53