Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

C5. Fehm-Courts at Celle

At Brunswick—Tribunal of the Knowing in the Tyrol—The Castle of Baden—African Purrahs.

We have now gone through the constitution and modes of procedure of the Fehm-tribunals of Westphalia, as far as the imperfect notices of them which have reached the present age permit. It remains to trace their history down to the last vestiges of them which appear. A matter of some curiosity should, however, be previously touched on, namely, how far they were peculiar to Westphalia, and what institutions resembling them may be elsewhere found.

Fehm-tribunals were, in fact, as we have already observed, not peculiar to Westphalia. In a MS. life of Duke Julius of Celle, by Francis Algermann, of the year 1608, we read the following description of a Fehm-court, which the author remembered to have seen holden at Celle in his youth:—

"When the Fehm-law was to be put in operation, all the inhabitants of the district who were above twelve years of age were obliged to appear, without fail, on a heath or some large open place, and sit down on the ground. Some tables were then set in the middle of the assembly, at which the prince, his councillors, and bailiffs, took their seats. The Secret Judges then reported the delinquents and the offences; and they went round with a white wand and smote the offenders on the legs. Whoever then had a bad conscience, and knew himself to be guilty of a capital offence, was permitted to stand up and to quit the country within a day and a night. He might even wait till he got the second blow. But if he was struck the third time, the executioner was at hand, a pastor gave him the sacrament, and away with him to the nearest tree.

"But if a person was struck but once or twice, that was a paternal warning to him to amend his life thenceforward. Hence it was called Jus Veniae, because there was grace in it, which has been corrupted and made Vim-richt."

There were similar courts, we are told, at places named Wolpe and Rotenwald. Here the custom was for the Secret Judges, when they knew of any one having committed an offence which fell within the Fehm-jurisdiction, to give him a private friendly warning. To this end they set, during the night, a mark on his door, and at drinking-parties they managed to have the can sent past him. If these warnings took no effect the court was held.

According to an ancient law-book, the Fehm-court at Brunswick was thus regulated and holden. Certain of the most prudent and respectable citizens, named Fehmenotes, had the secret duty of watching the conduct of their fellow-citizens and giving information of it to the council. Had so many offences been committed that it seemed time to hold a Fehm-court, a day was appointed for that purpose. Some members of the council from the different districts of the town met at midnight in St. Martin's churchyard, and then called all the council together. All the gates and entrances of the town were closed; all corners and bridges, and the boats both above and below the town, were guarded. The Fehm-clerk was then directed to begin his office, and the Fehmenotes were desired to give their informations to him to be put into legal form if the time should prove sufficient.

At daybreak it was notified to the citizens that the council had resolved that the Fehm-court should be holden on this day, and they were directed to repair to the market-place as soon as the tocsin sounded.

When the bell had tolled three times all who had assembled accompanied the council, through the gate of St. Peter, out of the town to what was called the Fehm-ditch. Here they separated; the council took their station on the space between the ditch and the town-gate, the citizens stood at the other side of the ditch. The Fehmenotes now mingled themselves among the townsmen, inquired after such offences as were not yet come to their knowledge, and communicated whatever information they obtained, and also their former discoveries (if they had not had time to do so in the night) to the clerk, to be put by him into proper form and laid before the council.

The clerk having delivered his protocol to the council, they examined it and ascertained which of the offences contained in it were to be brought before a Fehm-court, and which not; for matters under the value of four shillings did not belong to it. The council then handed the protocol back to the clerk, who went with it to the Fehm-court, which now took its seat in presence of a deputation of the council.

Those on whom theft had been committed were first brought forward and asked if they knew the thief. If they replied in the negative, they were obliged to swear by the saints to the truth of their answer; if they named an individual, and that it was the first charge against him, he was permitted to clear himself by oath; but if there was a second charge against him, his own oath was not sufficient, and he was obliged to bring six compurgators to swear along with him. Should there be a third charge, his only course was to clear himself by the ordeal. He was forthwith to wash his hand in water, and to take in it a piece of glowing-hot iron, which the beadles and executioners had always in readiness on the left of the tribunal, and to carry it a distance of nine feet. The Fehm-count, according to ancient custom, chose whom he would to find the verdict. The council could dissolve the court whenever they pleased. Such causes as had not come on, or were put off on account of sickness, or any other just impediment, were, on such occasions, noted and reserved for another session.

It is evident, however, that this municipal court, of which the chief object was the punishment of theft, the grand offence of the middle ages, though called a Fehm-court, was widely different from those of the same name in Westphalia.

The Tribunal of the Knowing (Gericht der Wissenden), in Tyrol, has also been erroneously supposed to be the same with the Westphalian courts. The mode of procedure in this was for the accuser to lay his finger on the head of the accused, and swear that he knew him to be an infamous person, while six reputable people, laying their fingers on the arm of the accuser, swore that they knew him to have sworn truly and honestly. This was considered sufficient evidence against any person, and the court proceeded to judgment on it.

The ideal Fehm-court beneath the castle of Baden must not be passed over without notice, as it seems to be the model after which our popular novelist described his Fehm-tribunal in Switzerland! A female writer in Germany informs us that beneath the castle of Baden the vaults extend to a considerable distance in labyrinthine windings, and were in former times appropriated to the secret mysteries of a Fehm-tribunal. Those who were brought before this awful tribunal were not conducted into the castle-vaults in the usual way; they were, lowered into the gloomy abyss by a cord in a basket, and restored to the light, if so fortunate as to be acquitted, in the same manner; so that they never could, however inclined, discover where they had been. The ordinary entrance led through a long dark passage, which was closed by a door of a single stone as large as a tombstone. This door revolved on invisible hinges, and fitted so exactly, that when it was shut the person who was inside could not distinguish it from the adjoining stones, or tell where it was that he had entered. It could only be opened on the outside by a secret spring. Proceeding along this passage you reached the torture-room, where you saw hooks in the wall, thumb-screws, and every species of instruments of torture. A door on the left opened into a recess, the place of the Maiden's Kiss. When any person who had been condemned was led hither, a stone gave way under his feet, and he fell into the arms of the Maiden, who, like the wife of Nabis, crushed him to death in her arms, which were thick set with spikes. Proceeding on farther, after passing through several doors, you came to the vault of the Tribunal. This was a long spacious quadrangle hung round with black. At the upper end was a niche in which were an altar and crucifix. In this place the chief judge sat; his assessors had their seats on wooden benches along the walls.

We need not to observe how totally different from the proceedings of a genuine Fehm-tribunal is all this. That there are vaults under the castle of Baden is certain, and the description above given is possibly correct. But the Fehm-court which was held in them is the mere coinage of the lady's brain, and utterly unlike any thing real, unless it be the Holy Office, whose secret proceedings never could vie in justice or humanity with those of the Westphalian Fehm-courts. It is, moreover, not confirmed by any document, or even by the tradition of the place, and would be undeserving of notice were it not for the reason assigned above.

The similarity between the Fehm-courts and the Inquisition has been often observed. In the secrecy of their proceedings, and the great number of agents which they had at their devotion, they resemble each other; but the Holy Office had nothing to correspond to the public and repeated citations of the Fehm-courts, the fair trial given to the accused, the leaning towards mercy of the judges, and the right of appeal which was secured.

The most remarkable resemblance to the Fehm-tribunals is (or was) to be found among the negroes on the west coast of Africa, as they are described by a French traveller. These are the Purrahs of the Foollahs, who dwell between Sierra Leone river and Cape Monte.

There are five tribes of this people, who form a confederation, at the head of which is a union of warriors, which is called a Purrah. Each tribe has its own separate Purrah, and each Purrah has its chiefs and its tribunal, which is, in a more restricted sense, also called a Purrah. The general Purrah of the confederation is formed from the Purrahs of the five tribes.

To be a member of the inferior Purrahs, a man must be thirty years of age; no one under fifty can have a seat in the general Purrah. The candidate for admission into an inferior Purrah has to undergo a most severe course of probation, in which all the elements are employed to try him. Before he is permitted to enter on this course, such of his relatives as are already members are obliged to pledge themselves for his fitness, and to swear to take his life if ever he should betray the secrets of the society. Having passed through the ordeal, he is admitted into the society and sworn to secrecy and obedience. If he is unmindful of his oath, he becomes the child of death. When he least expects it a warrior in disguise makes his appearance and says, "The great Purrah sends thee death." Every one present departs; no one ventures to make any opposition, and the victim falls.

The subordinate Purrahs punish all crimes committed within their district, and take care that their sentences are duly executed. They also settle disputes and quarrels between the leading families.

It is only on extraordinary occasions that the great Purrah meets. It then decides on the punishment of traitors and those who had resisted its decrees. Frequently too it has to interfere to put an end to wars between the tribes. When it has met on this account it gives information to the belligerents, directing them to abstain from hostilities, and menacing death if a drop more of blood should be spilt. It then inquires into the causes of the war, and condemns the tribe which is found to have been the aggressor to a four days' plundering. The warriors to whom the execution of this sentence is committed must, however, be selected from a neutral district. They arm and disguise themselves, put horrible-looking vizards on their faces, and with pitch-torches in their hands set out by night from the place of assembly. Making no delay, they reach the devoted district before the break of day, and in parties of from forty to sixty men, they fall unexpectedly on the devoted tribe, and, with fearful cries, making known the sentence of the great Purrah, proceed to put it into execution. The booty is then divided: one half is given to the injured tribe, the other falls to the great Purrah, who bestow one half of their share on the warriors who executed their sentence.

Even a single family, if its power should appear to be increasing so fast as to put the society in fear for its independence, is condemned to a plundering by the Purrah. It was thus, though under more specious pretexts, that the Athenian democracy sought to reduce the power of their great citizens by condemning them to build ships, give theatrical exhibitions, and otherwise spend their fortunes.

Nothing can exceed the dread which the Purrah inspires. The people speak of it with terror and awe, and look upon the members of it as enchanters who are in compact with the devil. The Purrah itself is solicitous to diffuse this notion as much as possible, esteeming it a good mean for increasing its power and influence. The number of its members is estimated at upwards of 6000, who recognise each other by certain words and signs. Its laws and secrets are, notwithstanding the great number of the members, most religiously concealed from the knowledge of the uninitiated.