Anne of Geierstein, by Walter Scott


This novel was written at a time when circumstances did not place within my reach the stores of a library tolerably rich in historical works, and especially the memoirs of the middle ages, amidst which I had been accustomed to pursue the composition of my fictitious. Thus narratives. In other words, it was chiefly the work of leisure hours in Edinburgh, not of quiet mornings in the country. In consequence of trusting to a memory, strongly tenacious certainly, but not less capricious in its efforts, I have to confess on this occasion more violations of accuracy in historical details, than can perhaps be alleged against others of my novels. In truth, often as I have been complimented on the strength of my memory, I have through life been entitled to adopt old Beattie of Meikledale’s answer to his parish minister when eulogizing him with respect to the same faculty. “No, doctor,” said the honest border laird, “I have no command of my memory; 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 might be unable at the close of the discourse to remember one word of it.” Perhaps there are few men whose memory serves them with equal fidelity as to many different classes of subjects; but I am sorry to say, that while mine has rarely failed me as to any snatch of verse or trait of character that had once interested my fancy, it has generally been a frail support, not only as to names, and dates, and other minute technicalities of history, but as to many more important things.

I hope this apology will suffice for one mistake which has been pointed out to me by the descendant of one of the persons introduced in this story, and who complains with reason that I have made a peasant deputy of the ancestor of a distinguished and noble family, none of whom ever declined from the high rank, to which, as far as my pen trenched on it, I now beg leave to restore them. The name of the person who figures as deputy of Soleure in these pages, was always, it seems, as it is now, that of a patrician house. I am reminded by the same correspondent of another slip, probably of less consequence. The Emperor of the days my novel refers to, though the representative of that Leopold who fell in the great battle of Sempach, never set up any pretensions against the liberties of the gallant Swiss, but on the contrary, treated with uniform prudence and forbearance such of that nation as had established their independence, and with wise, as well as generous kindness, others who still continued to acknowledge fealty to the imperial crown. Errors of this sort, however trivial, ought never, in my opinion, to be pointed out to an author, without meeting with a candid and respectful acknowledgement.

With regard to a general subiect of great curiosity and interest, in the eyes at least of all antiquarian students, upon which I have touched at some length in this narrative, I mean the Vehmic tribunals of Westphalia, a name so awful in men’s ears during many centuries, and which, through the genius of Goethe, has again been revived in public fancy with a full share of its ancient terrors, I am bound to state my opinion, that a wholly new and most im portant light has been thrown upon this matter since Anne of Geierstein first appeared; by the elaborate researches of my ingenious friend; Mr. Francis Palgrave,1 whose proof sheets, containing the passages I allude to, have been kindly forwarded to me, and whose complete work will be before the public ere this Introduction can pass through the press.

“In Germany,” says this very learned writer, “there existed a singular jurisdiction, which claimed a direct descent from the Pagan policy and 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 the supremacy of the Priests of the Eresburgh, the Temple which contained the Irminsule, or pillar of Irmin. After the conversion of the people, the possessions of the temple were conferred by Louis the Pious upon the Abbey which arose upon its site. The court was composed of sixteen persons, who held their offices for lift. The senior member presided as 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 of these died, a new member was elected by the Priests, from amongst the twenty two septs or families inhabiting the Gau or district, and who included all the hereditary occupants of the soil. Afterwards, the selection was made by the Monks, but always with the assent of the Graff and of the ‘Frohner.’

“The seat of judgment, the King’s seat, or ‘Konigs-stuhl’ was always established on the greensward; and we collect from the context, that the tribunal was also raised or appointed in the Common fields of the Gau, for the purpose of deciding disputes relating to the land within its precinct. Such a ‘King’s seat’ was a plot sixteen feet in length, and sixteen feet in breadth’ and when the ground was first consecrated; the Frohner dug a grave in the centre, into which each of the Free Echevins threw a handful of ashes, a coal, and a tile. If any doubt arose whether a place of judgment had been duly hallowed; the judges sought for the tokens. If they were not found; then all the judgments which had been given became null and void. It was also of the very essence of the Court that it should be held beneath the sky, and by the light of the sun. All the ancient Teutonic judicial assemblies were held in the open air; but some relies of solar worship may, perhaps, be traced in the usage and in the language of this tribunal The forms adopted in the Free Field Court also betray a singular affinity to the doctrines of the British Bards respecting their Gorseddau, or Conventions, which were always held in the open air, in the eye of the light, and in face of the sun. 2

When a criminal was to be judged; or a cause to be decided; the Graff and the Free Echevins assembled around the ‘Konig - stuhl;’ and the ‘Frohner,’ having proclaimed silence, opened the proceedings by reciting 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 compliant may make,

And the defendant answer, — if he can.

“In conformity to this permission, the ‘Frohner’ placed the seat of judgment in the midst of the plot, and then he spake for the second time:

"Sir Graff Master brave,

I remind you of your honor, 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 then bcgan 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 Graif 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 the mete-wand along and athwart, and when the dimensions were found to be true, the Graff placed himself in the seat of judgment, and gave the charge to the assembled Free Echevms, warning them to pronounce judgment, 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.

“Judgment was given by the Free Echevins according to plurality of voices.”

After observing that the Author of Anne of Geierstein had; by what he calls a “very excusable poetical license,” transferred something of these judicial rhymes from the Free Field Court of the Abbey of Corbey to the Free Vehmic Tribunals of Westphalia, Mr. Palgrave proceeds to correct many vulgar errors, in which the novel he remarks on no doubt had shared; with respect to the actual constitution of those last-named courts. “The protocols of their proceedings,” he says, “do not altogether realize the popular idea of their terrors and tyranny.” It may be allowed to me to question whether the mere protocols of such tribunals are quite enough to annul all the import of tradition respecting them; but in the following details there is no doubt much that will instruct the antiquarian, as well as amuse the popular reader.

The Court,” says Mr. Palgrave, “was held with known and notorious publicity beneath the ‘eye of light;’ and the sentences, though speedy and severe, were founded upon a regular system of established jurisprudence, not so strange, even to England, as it may at first sight appear.

Westphalia, according to its ancient constitution, was divided into districts called ‘Freygraffschafften,’ each of which usually contained one, and sometimes many, Vehmic tribunals, whose boundaries were accurately defined. The right of the Stuhlherr,’ or Lord, was of a feudal nature, and culd be transferred by the ordinary modes of alienation; and if the Lord did not chose to act in his own person, he nominated a ‘Freigraff’ to execute the office in his stead. The court itself was composed of Frey-schoppfen,’ Scabini or Echevins, nominated by the Graff, and who were divided into two classes: the ordinary, and the ‘Wissenden’ or ‘Witan,’ who were admitted under a strict and singular bond of secrecy.

The initiation of these, the participators in all the mysteries of the tribunal, could only take place upon the ‘red earth,” or within the limits of the ancient Duchy of Westphalia. Bareheaded and ungirt, the candidate is conducted before the dread tribunal, He is interrogated as to his qualifications, or rather as to the absence of any disqualification. He must be freeborn, a Teuton, and clear of any accusation cognizable by the tribunal of which he is to become a member. — If the answers are satisfactory, he then takes the oath, swearing by the Holy Law that he will conceal the secrets of the Holy Vehme from wife and child — from father and mother — from sister and brother — from fire and water from every creature upon which the sun shines, or upon which the rain, falls from every being between earth and heaven.

“Another clause relates to his active duties. He further swears, that he will I say forth ‘ to the tribunal all crimes or offences which fall beneath the secret ban of the Emperor, which he knows to be true, or which he has heard from trustworthy report; and that he will not forbear to do so, for love nor for loathing, for gold nor for silver nor precious stones. — This oath being imposed upon him, the new Freischodff was then intrusted with the secrets of the Vehmic tribunal. He received the password by which he was to know his fellows, and the grip or sign by which they recognized each other in silence; and he was warned of the terrible punishment awaiting the perjured brother. — if he discloses the secrets of the Court he is to expect that he will be suddenly seized by the ministers of vengeance. Ths eyes are bound, he is cast down on the soil his tongue is torn out though the back of his neck — and he is then to be hanged seven times higher than any other criminal. And whether restrained by the fear of punishment or by the stronger ties of mystery, no instance was 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 league contained upwards of one hundred thousand members. Persons of every rank sought to be associated to this powerful community, and to participate in the immunities which the brethren possessed. Princes were eager to allow their ministers to become the members of this mysterious and holy alliance; and the cities of the Empire were equally anxious to enrol their magistrates in the Vehmic union.

The supreme government of the Vehmic tribunals was vested in the great or General Chapter, composed of the Freegraves and all the other initiated members, high and low. Over this assembly the Emperor might preside in person, but more usually by his deputy, the Stadtholder of the ancient Duchy of Westphalia; an once which, after the fall of Henry the Lion, Duke of Brunswick, was annexed to the Archbishopric of Cologne.

“Before the general Chapter all the members were liable to account for their acts. And it appears that the ‘Freegraves’ reported the proceedings which had taken place within their jurisdictions in the course of the year. Unworthy members were expelled, or sustained a severe punishment. Statutes, or ‘Reformations,’ as they were called, were here enacted for the regulation of the Courts, and the amendment of any abuses; and new and unforeseen cases, for which the existing laws did not provide a remedy, received their determination in the Vehmic Parliament.

“As the Echevins were of two classes, uninitiated and initiated, so the Vehmic Courts had also a twofold character: she ‘Ofenbare Ding’ was an Open Court or Folkmoot but the ‘Heissliche Acht’ was the far-famed Secret Tribunal.

The first was held three times in each year. According to the ancient Teutonic usage, it usually assembled on Tuesday, anciently called, ‘Dingstag,” or court-day, as well as ‘Dienstag,’ or serving-day, the first open or working-day, after the two great weekly festivals of Sun-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 any complainant or appellant who sought to obtain the aid of the Vehmic tribunal in those cases when it did not possess that summary jurisdiction from which it has obtained suck fearful celebrity. Here also the suitors ofthe district made presentments or ‘wroge,’ as they are termed, of any offences consmitted within their knowledge, and which were to be punished by the Graff and Echevins.

The criminal jurisdiction of the Vebmie Tribunal took the widest range. The ‘Vehme’ could punish mere slander and contumely. Any violation of the Ten Commandments was to be restrained by the Echevins. Secret crimes, not to be proved by the ordinary testimony of witnesses, such as magic, witch-craft, and poison, were particularly to be restrained by the Vehmic Judges; and they sometimes designated their jurisdiction as comprehending every offence against the honor of man or the precepts of religion. Such a definition, if definition it can be called, evidently allowed them to bring every action of which an individual might complain within the scope of their tribunals. The forcible usurpation of land became an offence against the ‘ Vehme.’ And if the property of an humble individual was occupied by the proud Burghers of the Hanse, the power of the Defendants might aford a reasonable excuse for the interference of the Vehmic power.

“The Eckevins, as Conservators of the Ban of the Empire, were bound to make constant circuits within their districts, by night and by day. If they could apprehend a thief, a murderer, or the perpetrator of any ether heinous crime, in possession of the ‘mainour,’ or in the very act — or if his own mouth confessed the deed, they hung him upon the next tree. But to render this execution legal the following requisites were necessary:— Fresh suit, or the apprehension and execution of the offender before daybreak or nightfall; the visible evidence of the crime; and lastly, that three Echevins, at least, should seize the offender, testify against him, and judge of the recent deed.

“If without any certain accuser, and without the indication of crime, an individual was strongly and vehemently suspected; or when the nature of the offence was such as that its proof could only rest upon opinion and presumption, the offender then became subject to what the German jurists term the inquisitorial proceeding; it became the duty of the Echevin to denounce the ‘Leumund,’ or manifest evil fame, to the secret tribunal. if the Echevins and the Freygraff were satisfied with the presentment, either from their own knowledge, or from the information of their compeer, the offender was said to be ‘verfambt’ — his life was forfeited; and wherever he was found by the brethren of the tribunal, they executed him without the slightest delay or mercy. An offender who had escaped from the Echevins was liable to the same punishment; and such, also, was the doom of the party who, after having been summoned pursuant ta an appeal preferred in open court, made default in appearing. But one of the ‘Wissenden’ was in no respect liable to the summary process, or to the inquisitonal proceeding, unless he had revealed the secrets of the Court. He was presumed to be a true man; and if accused upon vehement suspicion, or ‘Leumund,’ the same presumption or evil repute which was fatal to the uninitiated, might be entirely rebutted by the compurgatory oath of the free Echevin. If a party, accused by appeal did not shun investigation, he appeared in the open court, and defended himself according to the ordinary rules of law. If he absconded, or if the evidence or presumptions were against him, the accusation then came before the judges of the Secret Court, who pronounced the doom. The accusatorial process, as it was termed, was also, in many cases, brought in the first instance before the ‘Heimliche Acht.’ Proceeding upon the examination of witnesses, it possessed no peculiar character, and its forms were those of the ordinary courts of justice. It was only in this manner that one of the ‘Wissenden,’ or ‘Witan’, could be tried; and the privilege of being exempted from the summary process, or from the effects of the ‘Leumund,’ appears to have been one of the reasons which induced so many of those who did not tread the ‘red earth’ to seek to be included in the Vehmic bond.

There was no mystery in the assembly of the Heimliche Acht. Under the oak, or under the lime-tree, the Judges assembled in broad daylight, and before the eye of heaven; but the tribunal derived its name from the precautions which were taken for the purpose of preventing any disclosure of its proceedings which might enable the offender to escape the vengeance of the Vehme. Hence the fearful oath of secrecy which bound the Echevins. And if any stranger was found prescut in the Court, the unlucky intruder instantly forfeited his life as a punishment of his temerity. If the presentment or denunciation did chance to become known to the offender, the law allowed him a right to appeal. But the permission was of very little utility, it was a profitless boon, for the Vehmic Judges always labored to conceal the judgment from the hapless criminal who seldom was aware of his sentence until his neck was encircled by the halter.

“Charlemagne, according to the traditions of Vestphalia, was the founder of the Vehmic tribunal; and it was supposed that he instituted the Court for the purpose of coercing the Saxons, ever ready to relapse into the idolatry from which they had been reclaimed, not by persuasion, hut by the sword. This opinion, however, is not confirmed either by documentary evidence or by contemporary historians. And if we examine the proceedings of the Vehmic tribunal, we shall see that, in principle, it differs in no essential character from the summary jurisdiction exercised in the townships and hundreds of Anglo-Saxon England. Amongst us, the thief or the robber was equally liable to summary punishment, if apprehended by the men of the township: and the same rules disqualified them from proceeding to summary execution. An English outlaw was exactly in the situation of him who had escaped from the hands of the Echevins, or who had failed to appear before the Vehmic Court — he was condemned unheard, nor was he confronted with his accusers. The inquisitional proceedings, as they are termed by the German jurists, are identical with our ancient presentments. Presumptions are substituted for proofs, and general opinion holds the place of a responsible accuser. He who was untrue to all the people in the Saxon age, or liable to the malcredence of the inquest at a subsequent period, was scarcely more fortunate than he who was branded as ‘Leumund’ by the Vehmic law.

“In cases of open delict and of outlawry, there was substantially no defference 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 was accused by or before the Hundred, or the Thanes of the Wapentake; and his own oath cleared him, if a true man: but he ‘bore the iron’ if unable to avail himself of the credit derived fame a good and fair reputation. The same course may have been originalty adopted in Westphalia: for the ‘Wissend,’ when accused, could exculpate himself by his compurgatory oath, being presumed to be of good fame; and it is therefore probable that an uninitiated offender, standing a stage lower in character and credibility, was allowed the last resort of the ordeal. But when the Judgment of God, was abolished by the decrees of the Church, it did not occur to the Vehmic Judges to put the offender upon his second trial by the visne, which now forms the distinguishing characteristic of the English law, and he was at once considered as condemned. The Heimliche Acht is a presentment not traversable by the offender.

“The Vehmic Tribunals can only be considered as the original jurisdictions of the ‘Old Saxons,’ which survived the subjugation of their country. The singular and mystic forms of initiation, the system of enigmatical phrases, the use of the signs and symbols of recognition, may probably be ascribed to the period when the whole system was united to the worship of the Deities of Vengeance, and when the sentence was promulgated by the Doomsmen, assembled, like the Asi of old, before the altars of Thor or Woden. Of this connection with ancient 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 passed into the ordinary machinery of the law.

As to the Vehmic Tribunals, it is acknowledged that, in a truly barbarous age and country, their proceedings, however violent, were not without utility. Their severe and secret vengeance often deterred the rapacity of the noble robber, and protected the humble suppliant; the extent, and even the abuse, of their authority was in some measure justified in an Empire divided into numerous independent jurisdictions, and not subjected to any paramount tribunal, able to administer impartial justice to the oppressed. But as the times improved, ihe Vehmic tribunals degenerated The Echevins, chosen from the inferior ranks, did not possess any personal consideration. Opposed by the opulent cities of the Hanse, and objects of the suspicion and the enmity of the powerful aristocracy, the tribunals of some districts were abolished by law, and others took the form of ordinary territorial jurisdictions; the greater number fell into desuetude. Yet, as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, a few Vehmic tribunals existed in name, though, as it may be easily supposed, without possessing any remnant of their pristine power.” — PALGRAVE on the Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth. Proofs and Illustrations, p. 157

I have marked by Roman letters the most important passage of the above quotation. The view it contains seems to me to have every appearance of truth and Justice and if such should, on maturer investigation, turn out to be the fact, it will certainly confer no small honor on an English scholar to have discovered the key to a mystery which had long exercised in vain the laborious and profound students of German antiquity.

There are probably several other points on which fought to have embraced this opportunity of enlarging; but the necessity of preparing for an excursion to foreign countries in quest of health and strength, that have been for some time sinking, makes me cut short my address upon the present occasion.

Although I had never been in Switzerland, and numerous mistakes must of course have occurred in my attempts to describe the local scenery of that romantic region, I must not conclude without a statement highly gratifying to myself that the work met with a reception of more than usual cordiality among the descendants of the Alpine heroes whose manners I had ventured to treat of; and I have in particular to express my thanks to the several Swiss gentlemen who have, since the novel was published; enriched my little collection of armor with specimens of the huge weapon that sheared the lances of the Austrian chivalry at Sempach, and was employed with equal success on the bloody days of Granson and Morat. Of the ancient doublehanded espadons of the Switzer, I have, in this way, received, I think, not less than six, in excellent preservation, from as many different individuals, who thus testified their general approbation of these pages. They are not the less interesting, that gigantic swords, of nearly the same pattern and dimensions, were employed in their conflicts with the bold knights and men-at-arms of England; by Wallace, and the sturdy foot-soldiers who, under his guidance, laid the foundations of Scottish independence.

The reader who wishes to examine with attention the historical events of the period which the novel embraces, will find ample means of doing so in the valuable works of Zschokke and M. de Barante — which last author’s account of the Dukes of Burgundy is among the most valuable of recent accessions of European literature — and in the new Parisian edition of Froissart, which has not as yet attracted so much attention in this country as it well deserves to do. 3

ABBOTSFORD, Sept. 17, 1831.

1 Now Sir Francis Palgrave.

2 Owen Pugh's Elegies of Lewarch Hen, Pref., p. 46. — The place of these meetings was set apart by forming a circle of stones around the Maen Gorsedd, or stone of the Gorsedd.

3 Note A. Remarks on the Novel.

Anne of Geierstein, which appeared in May, 1829, may be almost called the last work of Scott’s imaginative genius, and was received at least as well as the Fair Maid of Perth, or indeed as any novel of his, after the Crusaders. Its pages display in Undiminished perfection all the skill and grace of the mere artist, with occasional outbreaks of the old poetic spirit. Indeed, the various play of fancy in the combination of persons and events, and the airy liveliness of both imagery and diction, may well justify us in applying to the Author what he beautifully says of his King Rene —

A mirthful man he was; the snows of age

Fell, but they did not chill him.

Chap. xxix.

It is a common saying, that there is nothing so distinctive of genius as the retention, in advanced years, of the capacity to depict the feelings of youth with all their original glow and purity. But I apprehend this blessed distinction belongs to, and is the just reward of, virtuous genius only . . . . Perhaps Scott has nowhere painted such feelings more deliciously than in those very scenes of Anne of Geierstein, which offer every now and then, in some incidental circumstance or reflection, the best evidence that they are drawn by a gray-headed man. — J. G. Lockhart.

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