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On the "Sevenfold women"
in a letter to
innocent relates the martyrdom of the women that could not
be killed with the sword - though it came upon her in sevenfold.
You have frequently asked me, dearest
Innocent, not to pass over in silence the marvelous event which has happened in
our own day. I have declined the task from modesty and, as I now feel, with
justice, believing myself to be incapable of it, and because any bureau language
is inadequate to the divine praise.
And because of inactivity, acting like rust
upon the intellect, it has dried up any little power of expression that I have ever
had. You in reply urge that in the things of God we must look not at the work
which we are able to accomplish, but at the spirit in which it is undertaken,
and that he can never be at a loss for words who has believed on the Word.
What, then, must I do? The task is beyond
me, and yet I dare not decline it. I am a mere unskilled passenger, and I find
myself placed in charge of a freight ship. I have not so much as handled a
rowboat on a lake, and now I have to trust myself to the noise and turmoil of
I see the shores sinking beneath the
horizon, "sky and sea on every side"; darkness lowers over the
water, the clouds are black as night, the waves only are white with foam. You
urge me to hoist the swelling sails, to loosen the sheets, and to take the helm.
At last I obey your commands, and as love can do all
things I will trust in the Holy Ghost to guide my course,
and I shall console myself, whatever the event. For if our ship is dwarfed by
the surf into the wished-for haven, I shall be content to be told that the pilot
But, if through my unpolished
run aground amid the rough cross-currents of language, you may blame it on my lack of
power, but you will at least recognize my good intentions.
To begin, then: Vercellae is a Ligurian
town, situated not far from the base of the Alps, once important, but now
sparsely peopled and fallen into decay. When the consular was holding his
visitation there, a poor woman and her paramour were brought before him - the
charge of adultery had been fastened upon them by the husband - and both were
consigned to the horrors of a prison.
Shortly afterwards, an attempt was made to
elicit the truth by means of torture, and when the blood-stained hook smote the
young man's live flesh and tore furrows in his side, the unhappy wretch sought to
avoid prolonged pain by a speedy death.
falsely accusing his own passions, he
involved yet another in the charge; And so it appeared that of all men - he was the most
miserable, and that his execution was just, inasmuch as he had left an innocent
woman with no means of self-defense.
But the woman, if
weaker in sex, was stronger in virtue, and though her frame was stretched upon
the rack, and her hands, stained with the filth of the prison, were tied behind her,
she looked up to
heaven with her eyes, which alone the torturer had been unable to bind, and
while tears rolled down her face, she said:
"Thou art witness,
Lord Jesus, to whom nothing is hid, who tries the reins and the heart. Thou art
witness that it is not to save my life that I deny this charge. I refuse to lie
because to lie is sin.
And as for you, unhappy man, if you are
bent on hastening your death, why must you destroy not one innocent person, but
two? I also, myself, desire to die. I desire to put off this hated body, but not
as an adulteress. I offer my neck; I welcome the shining sword without fear; yet
I will take my innocence with me. He does not die who is slain while purposing
so to live."
The consular, who had been feasting his
eyes upon the bloody spectacle, now, like a wild beast, which after once tasting
blood always thirsts for it, ordered the torture to be doubled, and cruelly
gnashing his teeth, threatened the executioner with like punishment if he failed
to extort from the weaker sex a confession which a man's strength had not been
able to keep back.
Send help, Lord Jesus. Because for this
one creature of Thine - every manner of torture is devised. She is bound by the
hair to a stake, her whole body is fixed more firmly than ever on the rack; fire
is brought and applied to her feet; her sides quiver beneath the executioner's
probe; even her breasts do not escape.
Still the woman remains unshaken; and
triumphing in spirit over the pain of the body, she enjoys the happiness of a good
conscience, around which the tortures rage in vain.
The cruel judge rages. Yet overcome with passion, she still prays to God.
Her limbs are wrenched from their sockets, only
her eyes are turned to heaven. Then another confesses what is thought their
common guilt. But she, for the sake of the confessor , denies the confession,
peril of her own life, clears one who is in peril of his.
Meanwhile she has but one thing to say "Beat
me, burn me, tear me, if you will; I have not done it. If you will not believe
my words, a day will come when this charge shall be carefully sifted.
I have One
who will judge me."
Wearied out at last, the torturer sighed in response to her groans; nor could he find a spot on which to inflict a fresh wound. His cruelty overcome, he shudders to see the body he has torn. Immediately the consular cries out in a fit of passion:
"Why does it surprise you,
bystanders, that a woman prefers torture to death? It takes two people, most
assuredly, to commit adultery; and I think it more credible that a guilty woman
should deny a sin than that an innocent young man should confess one."
Accordingly, a like sentence was passed on
both, and the condemned pair were dragged to execution. The entire crowd poured
out to see the sight; indeed, so closely were the gates thronged by the
out-rushing crowd, that you might have fancied the city itself to be migrating.
At the very first stroke of the sword the
head of the hapless youth was cut off, and the headless trunk rolled over in its
blood. Then came the woman's turn. She knelt down upon the ground, and the
shining sword was lifted over her quivering neck.
But though the headsman summoned all his
strength into his bared arm, the moment it touched her flesh the fatal blade
stopped short, and, lightly glancing over the skin, merely grazed it
sufficiently to draw blood.
The striker, with terror saw his hand
unnerved, and amazed at his defeated skill, and at his drooping sword, he whirled
it aloft for another stroke. But
the blade fell forceless on the woman, sinking harmlessly on her neck, as though
the steel feared to touch her.
The enraged and panting officer, who had
thrown open his cloak at the neck in order to give his full strength to the
blow, shook to the ground at which the brooch, which clasped the edges of his
mantle fell down, and not noticing this he began to poise his sword for a fresh stroke.
"Behold," cried the woman, "a jewel has fallen from your shoulder. Pick up what you have earned by hard toil, that you may not lose it. What, I ask, is the secret of such confidence as this?"
Death draws near, but it has no terrors for her. When
smitten she exults, and the executioner turns pale. Her eyes saw the brooch, but
failed to see the sword. And, as if intrepid in the presence of
death were not enough, she confers a favor upon her cruel foe.
And, as if intrepid in the presence of death were not enough, she confers a favor upon her cruel foe.
And now the
mysterious Power of the Trinity rendered even a third blow in vain.
But as a marvel unheard of in the ages, the sword bent back to the hilt. And the man in its defeat looked to its master, as if confessing its inability to slay her.
this point let me recall to my aid the example of the
three holy children, who, amid the cool, encircling fire, sang hymns, instead of
weeping, and around whose turbans and holy hair the flames played harmlessly.
And let me recall also the story of the blessed Daniel, in whose presence, though he
was their natural prey, the lions crouched, with fawning tails and frightened
Let Susannah also rise in the nobility of
her faith before the thoughts of all; who, after she had been condemned by an
unjust sentence, was saved through a youth inspired by the Holy Ghost.
In both cases the Lord's mercy was shown alike;
For while Susannah was set free by the
judge, so as not to die by the sword, this woman, though condemned by the judge,
was acquitted by the sword.
Now at length the populace rose in arms to
defend the woman. Men and women of every age joined in driving away the
executioner, shouting around him in a surging crowd. Hardly a man dared to trust
his own eyes.
The disquieting news reached the city
close at hand, and the entire force of constables is mustered. The officer who
is responsible for the execution of criminals bursts from among his men, and
staining his hoary hair with soiling dust, exclaims:
"What! citizens, do you mean to seek
my life? Do you intend to make me a substitute for her? However much your minds
are set on mercy, and however much you wish to save a condemned woman, yet
assuredly I who am innocent--ought not to perish."
His tearful appeal is impressed upon the
crowd, and now numbed by the influence of sorrow, an extraordinary
change of feeling is manifested. Shortly before it had seemed a duty to plead for the
woman's life, yet now it seemed a duty to allow her to be executed.
Accordingly, a new sword is fetched, and a
new headsman appointed. The victim takes her place, and once more strengthened only
with the favor of Christ, the first blow makes her quiver, and beneath the second
she sways to and fro, and by the third she falls wounded to the ground.
Oh, majesty of the divine power highly to
be extolled! She who previously had
received four strokes without injury, now, a few moments later, seems to die -
so that an innocent man may not perish in her stead.
Those of the clergy whose duty it is to
wrap the blood-stained corpse in a winding-sheet, dig out the earth and, heaping
together stones, form the customary tomb. The sunset comes on quickly, and by
God's mercy the night of nature arrives more swiftly than is its wont to do.
Suddenly the woman's bosom heaves, her
eyes seek the light, her body is quickened into new life. A moment afterwards she
sighs, she looks round, she gets up and speaks. At last she is able to cry: "The
Lord is on my side; I will not fear, what can man do unto me?"
Meanwhile an aged woman, supported out of
the funds of the church, gave back her spirit to heaven from which it came.
And so it
seemed as if the course of events had been thus purposely ordered, for her body took the place of the other beneath the mound.
In the gray dawn, the devil comes on the
scene in the form of a constable, and asks for the corpse of her who had been
slain, and desires to have her grave pointed out to him. Surprised that she
could have died, he fancies her to be still alive.
The clergy shows him the fresh turf, and
meets his demands by pointing to the earth lately heaped up, taunting him with
such words as these: "Yes, of course, tear up the bones which have been
Declare war anew against the tomb, and if
even that does not satisfy you, pluck her limb from limb for birds and beasts to
mangle! Mere dying is too good for one whom it took
seven strokes to kill."
Before such opprobrious words the
executioner retires in confusion, while the woman is secretly revived at home.
Then, lest the frequency of the doctor's visits to the church might give
occasion for suspicion, they cut her hair short and send her in the company of
some virgins to a sequestered country house.
There she changes her dress for that of a
man, and scars form over her wounds. Yet even after the great miracles worked on
her behalf, the laws still rages against her. So
true is it that, where there is most law, there, there is also most injustice.
But now behold where the progress of my
story has brought me; we come upon the name of our friend Evagrius whose
exertions in the cause of Christ were so great that if it were possible for me
to adequately describe them, I should only show my own folly;
And were I to deliberately pass them by, I
still could not prevent my voice from breaking out into cries of joy.
For who can fittingly praise the vigilance which enabled him to be rest
in peace, if I may so say, before his death - by that auxentius
of Milan, that accursed (person) brooding over the church?
his death - by that auxentius
of Milan, that accursed (person) brooding over the church?
Or who can sufficiently extol the
discretion with which he rescued the Roman bishop from the toils of the net in
which he was fairly well entangled, and showed him the means of overcoming
his opponents and of sparing them in their discomfiture?
But such topics I must leave to other
bards, shut out by envious straits of time and space.
I am satisfied now to record the conclusion of my tale.
Evagrius seeks a special audience of the
Emperor; and importunes him with his entreaties, and wins his favor by his
services, and finally gains his cause through his earnestness. The Emperor
restored to liberty the woman whom God had restored to life.