This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Vatican, Rome, 1484
’Innocent, Bishop, Servant of the servants of God, Ad futuram rei memoriam.
Desiring with supreme ardour, as pastoral solicitude requires, that the catholic faith in Our days everywhere grow and flourish as much as possible, and that all heretical depravity be put far from the territories of the faithful, We freely declare and anew decree this by which Our pious desire may be fulfilled, and, all errors being rooted out by Our toil as with the hoe of a wise labourer, zeal and devotion to this faith may take deeper hold on the hearts of the faithful themselves.
It has recently come to Our ears, not without great pain to Us, that in some parts of upper Germany, many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the Catholic Faith, give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth; that they afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving and prevent all consummation of marriage….’
‘This is unbelievable.’ The hand bearing the heavy Papal ring lifted from the parchment in protest. ‘These are the superstitions of the ignorant!’
Heaven help us…
Once the Church had believed superstition and folk beliefs to be no more than ignorance and folly. But it had become aware of the danger in such doctrine, and through revelation and the magisterium of its Bishops had determined that belief in anything other than the truths taught by the Holy Church to be evidence of witchcraft or other heresy.
As this man should know.
’It may be so, Holiness. Nevertheless, it will be believed. By many.’
The Cardinal thought the face of the new Holy Father was too loose, his body too heavy, the face and body of a self-indulgent man, a licentious man, poorly disguised by the heavy vestments and rich trappings of office. He could well believe that the man had fathered a dozen bastards on as many women, most of them married. With yet another on the way according to his informants.
’And this Holy Order will make disbelief an act of heresy, punishable by death or excommunication, so those who do not believe will stay silent and comply. Qui tacet, consentire videtur. That is also important.’
And his spending…He knew that the Holy Father had ordered new curial offices be created and auctioned – buying the Triple Crown had been expensive and his would clearly not be an austere Papacy. Land on the hill above the Vatican had already been bought for a huge sum, and the plans for the palazzetto the new Pope wanted built there were well advanced.
Take the tiara, and know that Thou art the Father of princes and kings, the Ruler of the World, the Vicar on earth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, whose glory and honour shall endure through all eternity.
The Cardinal felt a stab of anger, so sharp it pained him. Simony, sodomy, sacrilege, adultery, gluttony, blackmail, extortion, infidelity, fornication and bastardry. Centuries of schism between Roman Popes and the Avignon anti-Popes. Doctrinal differences with the Church in Constantinople, poisonous and irresolvable amidst mutual accusations of heresy - the outcome a rupture, absolute and un-healable, and the emergence of two Christian Churches instead of one in defiance of God’s Will. The reputation of Mother Church, holy, universal and apostolic, work of the One incarnate God and therefore perfect, indivisible, infallible, had suffered grievously as a result. He had read and listened appalled as his agents reported confusion and dismay amongst the most ardent of the faithful; as they reported that the Church and its servants had become a source of contempt and mockery amongst peasant, merchant and noble alike. There was even renewed discontent within the sacred body of the Church itself despite the efforts of the Inquisitors.
’You take much upon yourself, Eminence.′ The Pope’s voice was heavy with resentment and dislike. The Cardinal thought it sounded corpulent, like the rest of the man.
He shivered and drew his garments tighter around him. The air in the marbled room was chill on his aging bones despite the large fire the Papal servants kept well stoked, the heat vanishing into the high ceiling of the chamber. It was far colder than normal for Rome at this time of year and that was a small blessing, freshening the air that was normally foul with the smells of the city. Of human and animal dung, sewers and cesspits, sickhouses and catacombs. Of sweat and molding linens, food cooking and food spoiling, rotting rushes underfoot, the smells of butchers and fishmongers and tanners, of the piles of waste that swarmed with flies most of the year. A city plagued with fevers and whorehouses and thieves and riots and looters, yes, its roads and alleys dangerous to all but the most heavily armed - common gossip had it that if there is a Hell, then Rome is built on it. But Rome was still Urbs Sacra,Caput Mundi, the Eternal City, Seat of St. Peter, centre of Christian pilgrimage and worship.
But while he gave thanks for the relief that the cold brought to his blessed city, he still struggled to understand the Divine purpose in all that was happening around him. The severe and unseasonal weathers they had endured for so many years, and the droughts or floods and famines that followed. The shaking of the earth that destroyed palaces and churches and the homes of the faithful, entire towns. The land releasing foul odours, groaning and roaring and twisting before violently tearing itself apart as if demons and blasphemous beasts were struggling to escape the Eternal Pit and re-claim the world of Man.
And the plagues that appeared then vanished, leaving death, mourning - and panic - in their wake.
Only a hundred years before, the Great Plague had burst out of the heathen East and within a few brief, shocking years swept across all the lands of Christendom, taking rich and poor alike, monk and thief alike, leaving mere remnants of families, villages, monasteries, cities. The dead had been uncountable, buried five, six, ten deep and unshriven in unconsecrated pits of lime if buried at all. Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis - What we were, you are; what we are, you will be. A time when doors were shut to family and friends, when brother abandoned brother, parents their children, and strangers were driven away with stones. A time of terror, chaos, collapse of order, and all wondered if the Last Days had finally come as long promised.
A time too of questions, and the most common question – the most dangerous one of all – had been, why? In judgment of a people’s many sins, the Church had answered, so fast and pray and repent your sins. But prayer and penance did not stop the pestilence and it slew and slew and slew. An esteemed panel of doctors assured His Holiness that a conjunction of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter had caused the air to become bad - or perhaps a comet had done so. But the planets moved on and the comet passed and still people died. Even when the filth of the cities and villages was removed to clear the air of its evil vapours people died, and though the afflicted were lanced and bled and purified with burning, they died, and thus the puffed-up pride of the men of science was shown to be false. But the bones of saints and other holy relics provided no protection, and so at the risk to their souls people turned to the amulets, charms and talismans of the pagans which helped them not either. Out of the death-towns came a rumour, more easily believed than bad air, of a Plague Maiden, a malevolent spirit seen travelling from house to house leaving the Black Death behind Her. Other rumours, that the plague was a poison conjured by magic and spread amongst God’s people by the Jew, the Muslim, the gypsy, the leper, the stranger.
Conjured by magic and spread by the witch.
And though the Great Plague had spared neither Jew nor Muslim, gypsy, leper nor stranger, in fear and hatred they were slain. But even when they were no more, killed or driven off, still the pestilence spread and killed. And God’s people began to say God is deaf, even to His Church.
Now, it was God’s Will to once more send freezing weather and savage storms that destroyed crops and ruined businesses, leaving people without work, homeless, starving, roaming, robbing and killing. Prayers again went unanswered, the faith of many was weakened, and men were once again asking questions of their priests and their Church.
It was easy to believe the afflictions were sent upon a sinful people for their correction by the just wrath of God – people were sinful, omnes enim peccaverunt et egent gloriam Dei, and God’s wrath was righteous and terrible. But belief, even a true and steadfast belief as was his, did not stop the dreadful questions that intruded upon his prayers. If this was the work of God, then why was He deaf to His Church and the prayers of His Servants?
But if this was the work of the Enemy, then where was God?
If he, faithful servant of the Church, guardian of its sacred purpose and purity, protector of its holy sacraments and rituals, soldier in the eternal battle with the Enemy, disciplined and full of zeal, could be troubled by such heretical thoughts, then...
‘That is why the Office I represent was created by those who came before you, Holiness,’ he reminded the new Pontiff, his tone reasonable. ‘To bear that burden.’ Power did not always have to be a cudgel; sometimes a stiletto would carry the lesson just as effectively. ’Our flock is weak and superstitious. They delight in sin and in satisfying their base appetites. They return quickly to their heretical depravities of old - the supplication of witches and warlocks, goblins and trolls, wood nymphs and water spirits, forgetful of their eternal peril. We must ensure they have a greater fear of our power than that of the Enemy if they are to stay constant to the True Faith.’
The eyes that stared back at him were puffy and already seemed tired, worn. He thought he was losing their attention and reminded himself that as Bishop and Cardinal this man was known for seeking - and enjoying - easy solutions. He knew there were bags under his own eyes, so dark as to be bruises, but those came from carrying out the necessary tasks that hard answers demanded. Carrying them out without hesitation, without flinching.
Without false mercy.
As with the wars against the ancient pagan cults, long stamped out, their shrines destroyed and built over with holy places of worship; their sacred days seized and held hostage to the True Faith. As with the heretics, the Donatists, Pelagianists, Cathars, Waldensians, Lollards, the Beguines and Hussites and other corrupters of the One Truth, burnt out of Christian lands - still being burnt out - with the sword and cleansing fire, convicta et combusta. As with the Jews, made to convert or wear a badge of shame and live apart from good Christians if permitted to live at all. As with the infidels with whom God’s holy warriors still fought.
And now, as it would be with the witch. Seeker of forbidden knowledge, practitioner of forbidden arts. Lustful, cunning, malicious, unruly. Disobedient, unrepentant Woman, foremost servant of the Great Abomination.
‘We will remind our flock of the eternal flame that awaits all sinners,’ he continued, ’and that outside the Holy Church there is neither salvation nor remission of sins, nulla salus extra ecclesiam. Once they have been reminded, we will take the stake and gallows and garrotte and we will destroy the servants of the Enemy before their eyes. And we will destroy those that give them aid. And those that show them sympathy. We will destroy them all. Hang them, until the forests groan. Burn them, until there are no trees left to burn.’
There was a vast silence in the room, empty except for the two high Officers of the Church.
‘Many will die then?,’ asked the Pope eventually, his tone sullen.
Where was the relevance in that question? The life of man was short and brutal and full of suffering, massa damnata; that of woman, unsealer of the Forbidden Fruit, more so, in just punishment of her weakness and great disobedience. What did brief torment in this world matter if it brought eternal afterlife? And if the innocent were slain along with the guilty, what of it, the Lord would surely recognise their innocence and grant them His salvation…
The Cardinal was almost offended by the reluctance he heard. He thought the Pontiff must be considering how such a Holy Order would affect the tithes and tariffs, the donations and incomes that he required. Ferdinand of Naples, furious about the new papal tax on royal investitures, was preparing for conflict with the Papacy, and with the other sovereigns already engaged in a brutal struggle over who should hold dominion in Christendom, there was little sympathy for the new Pope.
He wished he could shrug his shoulders in response to the question he had been asked, if only to ease the ache there – he had not been invited to sit. Instead he kept his discipline and gave no indication of his discomfort. Or his irritation.
‘Many will die,’ he affirmed, remorselessly, ’that is the point. Without wrath, there can be no fear. Without fear, there will be no obedience. Without obedience, there is no authority. Our wrath must be terrible.’
The Holy Father said nothing, just continued to stare at the document in front of him.
’…that it shall be permitted to the said Inquisitors in these regions to exercise their office of Inquisition and to proceed to the correction, imprisonment, and punishment of the aforesaid persons for their said offences and crimes…’
The Cardinal sighed to himself and elaborated. ‘Those accused will forfeit their possessions. And the innocent will be restored to their devotion in the Church: their offerings will increase, so too will their desire to be forgiven their many sins – no doubt they will pay and pay well for the privilege.’ He knew the Pontiff’s plans for the selling of indulgences were well advanced.
A grunt, and he thought the point had been accepted.
‘When will it be done?’
‘The Bull is ready for your approval as you see, Holiness’, raising a thin finger to indicate the parchment that lay on the wide table between them. ’It will awaken all to the threat that witchcraft poses, how it shrinks not from the foulest abominations to prevent the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Through it every servant of the Church and every king, every lord, every judge and magistrate in Christendom will be made clear as to their duty, on pain of excommunication for hindrance of our Inquisitors.’ He shifted his feet to ease the burning pain in his back. ’Also, our Friars will soon complete their work on the identification and prosecution of the profane creatures - no longer will we have to rely on the whim and learning of each Bishop and lord. With Your consent it is to be named Malleus Maleficarum, ‘Hammer of Witches’’.
There was a silence that dragged on and on.
How did this man ever become Supreme Pontiff? By agreeing to make della Rovere Bishop of Ostia and Borgia Vice-Chancellor. By meeting the written demands of another dozen less powerful Cardinals, all signed without even reading the conditions according to his sources. And now, having bought the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, having become Vicaruius filii Dei, Vicar of Christ on Earth, endowed with the power to bind on earth and loose on earth, cura ei totius Ecclesiae et principatus committitur, he, once Giovanni Battista Cibo, now Innocent, eighth of that name, was beyond judgment. Oh, his poor Church, to be left in such hands…
Finally, the capped head nodded, the jowls below juggling with the movement. The hand with the heavy ring lifted, ready for the kiss of deference and homage.
The Cardinal heard his knees creak as he knelt, his aging bones reluctant and noisy, but he dismissed the discomfort gladly.For the witch-finders would be loosed, the great hunt begun.
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