T
by Phil Slattery
he View from the Apex of Civilization

 

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Abstractions

A few hundred years ago, a young woman in the town of Nueva León, Spain, was condemned as a witch by the Inquisition, tried, and sentenced to agony until she confessed her sins and accepted the forgiveness of God.  The place chosen for her redemption was a dungeon at the bottom of a long, curving, stone staircase. As two burly men in black hoods were tying her squirming onto the rack, two other men leaned against the bottom steps and watched. Closest to the foot of the steps, the portly mayor of Nueva León stood watching the proceedings with disinterest.  Next to him stood the bishop of the local diocese, awestruck, with one shoulder against the staircase and his back to its top.

For the bishop the glow of white-hot iron and the smell of searing flesh held a deeper meaning than simply an application of brute force. It was a focal point of the millennia-long war between heaven and hell. Inside a few pounds of flesh and bone a battle raged that would determine whether a woman’s soul would spend eternity in bliss or a minion of Satan would succeed in invading the bishop’s territory.

“Mercy, my Lord! Mercy!” begged the girl.

“Are you ready to confess your crime?” asked the mayor.

“I do not know what I have done.”

“Your memory will improve as the rack tightens.”  The mayor looked at the executioners.  “Gag her until you are ready to begin.”

“Yes, my lord,” said the larger of the men.  The smaller and younger of the two picked up a bloodstained rag from the floor and stuffed it into the woman’s mouth as the other held her down.

“Do you realize, Lord Mayor,” asked the Bishop, “how fortunate we are to be living in such an enlightened age as this? We are at the apex of civilization.”

The mayor cast a sideways glance at the Bishop “No, I never thought about it.  I must confess that I am not a deep thinker like yourself.”

“We are living in a truly wondrous age.  Less than 100 years ago we didn’t even have this.” He pointed to a dirty, well-worn book entitled Malleus Maleficarum on a nearby stool “Do you know what Malleus Maleficarum means?”

The mayor thought for a second. “It has something to do with hammers doesn’t it? My Latin isn’t very good.  I’m afraid I speak just enough to get through Mass.”

“It means ‘The Hammer of Witches’.  It’s not a hammer to be used by them, you understand, but one to be used on them. It is used to hammer witches into submission to the will of God and the church. In this one volume is set down all the means of determining who is a witch, who is a sorcerer, a werewolf, et cetera.”

“That’s quite interesting,” said the mayor as he started to yawn while the bishop was too intent on the woman being stretched to notice.

The bishop continued, “They say we are at the beginning of a new age of science and I must admit that until I saw this book I had my doubts. Now at last the world has a definitive work, which can be used as a standard reference in the war against Satan. In the short time this has existed, it has spread like wildfire throughout the civilized world and now there are almost as many of these are there are Bibles. God be praised; we are finally winning the war against Satan.”

The woman, who had been moaning, now began to scream through her gag as her bonds tightened.

“Careful! Careful!” the bishop warned the executioners, “we don’t want her to pass out. It’s impossible to purge the sins of an unconscious soul.  How are the coals coming?”

The senior executioner loosened the girl enough that she stopped screaming while the younger pulled an iron from the coals.  The iron was hot, but still mostly black.  “Not ready,” he muttered.

“Get a bellows. Pump up the flames,” said the mayor.

The executioners looked around on the floor, under the rack, and behind the wheel and among the other devices until turning to the mayor and shrugging their shoulders.

“Go get one.”

“Yes, Lord Mayor.” The younger executioner grabbed a torch and scurried out a small door in the staircase behind the bishop.

“It can get no better than this,” said the bishop.  “We are at the summit of civilization.  Where is there to go? The greatest minds in the world are pondering the greatest questions.  Our knowledge of sciences such as medicine, mathematics, astrology, and divination is expanding each day and through the intervention of the church we can even get souls out of hell. The Spanish empire is expanding throughout the new world, while the realm of the church broadens as untold thousands of Indians are converted daily. An unimaginable wealth flows in from the new trade routes opened by such men as Pizarro and Cortéz.  Do you know there are cities in the new world where the streets are paved with gold?”

The mayor snapped his head around. “What did you say about gold?”

“There are cities in the new world, whose streets are paved with it.”

“Oh, that.” He returned to staring at the magnificent breasts of the woman on the rack.  “I’ve heard that, too.  It sounds interesting.” He yawned again.

The bishop looked to see what the mayor was watching so intently and noticed the woman’s blouse was half open. God, he thought, she has beautiful breasts. He turned back to the mayor. “Oh, yes, where was I? Oh, uh, they are lined with gold.”

“It certainly seems that way, but I think it’s just the torches reflecting in her sweat.”

“No, the streets in the new world are lined with gold.”

“Oh, yes, that. I agree wholeheartedly.”

The bishop continued, “It is our own nature and greed that constrains us, that sets limitations on what we can attain as a people by distracting us from what should be the goal of every scholar and that is to better ourselves morally and spiritually. For example, this young woman was seduced by worldly possessions left to her by her late husband, became corrupt, and was seduced by Satan.  We, as the church, saw it as our duty to save this woman’s soul from the fires of eternal damnation by confiscating her possessions and purifying her with fire.”

“Speaking of fire, where’s that damned bellows?” roared the mayor at the remaining executioner.

The senior executioner shrugged his monstrous shoulders and said, “It is on its way, your eminence.”

The mayor glared angrily at the executioner for a second, then ignored him, and addressed the bishop.  “I agree. She’s a lucky girl.”

“Yes, she is. What she suffers here would be nothing compared to the torments she would suffer in hell. She is getting off quite easy.”

“Yes, she is. Yes, she is.” The mayor suppressed a yawn then looked around at the bishop. “Do we have the same deal as always? The city gets fifty percent of her property to cover back taxes, the administrative costs of her trial and imprisonment, as well as small rewards to myself and the city council for ferreting her out while the church gets the remainder to pay for indulgences, overdue tithes, and other costs involved in saving her soul.  That is how we have done it in the past and that is how we are going to continue, isn’t it?”

“Well, not quite. The expansion of Christendom into the new world has brought not only new wealth and souls, but new expenses as well.  But to be brief, we understand the city of Nueva León has its own administrative and court costs and fees and the witch has back taxes to pay and what have you¾

“Exactly how much is the church requiring, your worship?”

“Seventy per cent.”

“Seventy per cent! That’s an outrage! A Jew wouldn’t demand seventy per cent.”

“Careful, my son, whom you call a Jew.  Jews are not the only heretics the inquisition can stretch on the rack.”

“Of course, your worship, I never meant to imply that you or anyone of the holy and one true church should ever be confused with a Jew.  I was just saying that, uh, a Jew in your worship’s place, uh, well, uh, would be greedy and, uh, refuse to give the church what it clearly deserves, which is, uh, well…more.”

“Seventy-five per cent it is, then.  And to show the church’s gratitude for your devotion and charity, I, myself, shall pray to the Virgin Mary on your behalf tonight.”

“I am too overwhelmed with emotion to express my feelings to your Worship.”

The mayor and the bishop watched the woman closely.  Her sweat made her peasant’s blouse cling tightly to her large breasts and narrow waist.  Fright widened her eyes, revealing their brown depths, and made her hips writhe.

“If that moron doesn’t bring the bellows soon, I’ll put him on the rack,” snapped the mayor.

The senior executioner, who had been stirring the coals, looked at the mayor nervously. “Shall I fetch him, my Lord?”

“No, no. Go sharpen something.  Let him pay the price for tardiness.  There’s no point in putting you both in irons.”

The executioner picked up a whetstone, stepped quickly over to the other side of the dungeon, and began sharpening the spikes in the iron maiden.

The small door in the staircase burst open and the young executioner dashed inside carrying the bellows and almost collided into the bishop’s back, but the bishop’s gaze was too intent on the woman to notice.  The senior executioner did notice, however, and as the boy stepped around the bishop and ambled up to the coals, the senior executioner stepped over and boxed his ears.

“What was that for?” whined the apprentice.

“If you had run over the bishop,” whispered the executioner, “it would be you on the rack instead of the witch.  You have angered them by taking so long.  Now, pump up the coals.”

As the executioners set about their tasks, the bishop pointed to the younger and continued pontificating to the mayor.  “You see, there is the true basis of our society and, indeed, our entire faith: punishment.  Truly, it is amazing, but here in a dungeon, the most wretched of places, one can find the true nature of not only man’s soul, but of the universe as well.  The young man was tardy, therefore the older man punished him to correct his ways and set him on the right path.  Isn’t that so, executioner?”

The executioner yawned beneath his hood as he continued sharpening.  “Whatever you say, your worship.”

“See?” the bishop remarked to the mayor. “That is the place of the dungeon in our world; the dungeon is the box on the ears of the Jew, the heretic, the unfaithful, the lawless, the witch, that sets them on the right path.  Certainly, it is not pleasant for them, but neither is medicine.  This young wench in front of us has been very obstinate in feigning ignorance of her crime.  She knows very well what she has done: she is a witch. But when the inquisition asked her, as is their normal procedure, ‘what is your crime, child?’ All she could say was ‘I know not, my lord. Please spare me.’ And she continued with her shameless charade even when the inquisitor told her that she would not have been brought before them if she had not committed a crime.  She had to know what the crime was, because how can a criminal not be aware of the crime he, or in this case, she, is committing.  It was a slap in the face of the inquisition.”

“I know what you mean, your Worship.  Sometimes my wife gets out of line and I have to give her a good belt.”

“Me, too” muttered the older executioner so that no one but his apprentice could hear, as he tested the sharpness of the maiden’s points with his thumb.

“I am not yet married, sire,” said the boy to the mayor, “but if I were, I would not give her a simple belt, but a proper thrashing.”

The older executioner stepped nonchalantly over to the younger and whispered.  “Keep your tongue, boy.  Don’t meddle in the bishop’s business.  He’ll swat you as quickly as he would a fly. Let me do the talking.  Keep it up and they’ll put you on the rack.  And you know how I take pride in my work.”  With that he stepped nonchalantly back to the iron maiden as his apprentice halfheartedly started his task.

“Again,” pontificated the bishop to the mayor, “here in a dungeon, you see the true essence of man’s soul.  The younger man errs and the older speaks a few words of correction to set him aright, but because the words were not reinforced with action, such as a pummeling, the younger man does not return to work as enthusiastically as he could have.  Don’t misunderstand.  In the mouth of an artisan skilled in their use, words can be powerful tools.  They can even be superior to those brands heating in the fire.  But stumbling off the crude tongue of an inept and contemptible brute such as this, they are completely worthless.”

The older executioner glanced scornfully over his shoulder, biting his tongue hard and muttering to himself.  “Inept? Brute? If his worship were strapped to the rack instead of this witch, I would show him exactly how skilled an artisan this brute could be in the use of his tools.”

The apprentice turned to the bishop.  “Right you are, sir.  Right you are. Words can be powerful, like a rod across the back.”

The executioner turned and whispered so only the apprentice could hear.  “Don’t do this, boy, or you will find out how powerful a rod can be.” The boy turned grumbling back to his coals.  With head lowered, the executioner glanced over his shoulder to see the bishop scowling at the apprentice.

The bishop was obviously annoyed by the boy and glared at him briefly before turning back to the mayor. “As I was saying before I was interrupted, words can be powerful tools unless they come from the maul of a braying ass¾such as this boy. Words can convey the gospel or they can deliver threats.  They can order or they can request.  They can beg or they can command.  But words are most powerful when they convince.”

“And conviction is strengthened in a dungeon,” said the mayor.

“Exactly.  The dungeon is the crucible of conviction.  Redemption is in the rack.”

“I must confess my ignorance, but how does your worship know, outside of a dungeon, that a man is, in his heart, truly convinced?  It is difficult even in here.  A man will say anything to make the pain go away.  Once he leaves the warm company of these fine gentlemen, he can again say anything he wants.”

“Very true.  I have no way of looking into a man’s heart.  Admittedly, all I can do is watch his actions and listen to his words.  If he does and says what I want, then what does it matter what lies in his heart?  Thus it is, sadly, with the holy church.  What ability have we, as mortals, to look into the hearts of men?  None.  Only God can do that.  We cannot know a man’s heart; we can know only his words and deeds.  And so long as he does and says what we want, who cares what he thinks?  Let him think what he wants.  As the archbishop often says, ‘we have his body and mouth, if not his heart and soul.’”

“But if the church cannot control souls, why bother to expand into new lands?”

“Why do you think?  Why does any empire want to expand?”

“Gold.”

“In part, but not entirely.  There are clergy at all levels in the church, who are genuinely concerned with winning souls.  For them, expansion is the grace of God pouring forth upon the earth.  I, myself, would like to win over as many souls for the church as possible.  But, there are others for whom expansion means neither gold nor souls but power. There are probably a thousand other reasons, but expansion for the sake of expansion is the ultimate aim of all. The result is that the empires of Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, and England are nothing when compared to the empire of the church. In fact, they are parts of the church’s empire. The church is, in effect, its own nation with its own laws, which extend over the borders of other nations. But instead of controlling provinces, as other nations do, we control empires.

“When one thinks about it, the method is brilliant. Nations can only destroy a body. Death can then be a release from temporal suffering. But a church can damn a soul to eternal hell.  That is the stick.  Being a part of a powerful church and being able to forge powerful alliances with other parts of the church is the carrot. Excommunication then becomes the spiritual equivalent of the dungeon.  When you want to extract a confession from prisoner, what is the first thing you do?”

“We take them into the dungeon and show them the torture devices and explain to them the purpose of each.  They almost always confess on the spot and then we give them back to the church to decide what penance is appropriate.  Usually, they then do what we want and we don’t have to bother with torture. We torture few and are forced to execute even fewer.”

“Exactly.  So it is with excommunication.  The threat of excommunication is enough to keep most people in line.”

“And so the church manipulates Christendom into doing and saying what it wants.”

“Yes, sadly, but people will always say and do what they think their masters want to hear or see.  This is a great tragedy to me, who, as a clergyman, is sincerely concerned with the souls of my congregation.  Because a weak man will not concern himself with what is truly right or wrong, but only with what he thinks his master wants to hear.  And true, stouthearted men will always concern themselves with what is right or wrong regardless of what anyone else deems proper.  And they will die for those beliefs.  They will die for what they believe is right.  They are men of ideals and a man of ideals will die for his ideals.”

The older executioner spoke up.  “A man of ideals is dangerous. He will not only die for his ideals; he will kill for them.  He will even kill his friends.”

The bishop nodded in agreement.  “Exactly right.  That takes resolve and is evidence of strong character.  One must firmly believe in his ideals, if he is willing to kill his friends for them.  But do not interrupt me again.”

The mayor, lost in thought, spoke absent-mindedly to himself, though all heard his words. “I do not trust men of ideals; too often others pay the price for those ideals.” Suddenly he realized what he had done. His eyes darted to each of the others and finally fixed on the bishop. “However, the archbishop is different.  The church is different.  Your worship is different.  I am speaking only of the layman.”

“It matters not of whom you speak; your words are true. I would be a fool to deny them.” The bishop paused.  His eyes focused on the girl.  Now he spoke absent-mindedly more to himself than to anyone else. “This is what breaks my heart.  Here we have a young woman we are about to break on the rack. In all honesty, she probably has committed no sin, other than to be an object of envy for the small-minded that can accuse just as easily and more readily than the just. These two beasts will defile and abuse her in every way imaginable until she says exactly what we want.  But if she is convinced she is right and she has true strength in her soul, she will die miserably suffering the torments of hell.  For this I must, as a man, admire her, but as a representative of the church, I must condemn her for this.  She will not bow to the will of my master, the church, and to please the church, I must suffer at the sight of her agony.”

From his position with his back against the stairs, as soon as he glanced at the bishop to reply, the mayor could see the dungeon’s main entrance at the top of the staircase slowly open and the archbishop step out and look below as he searched for the bishop.  The mayor watched quietly as the archbishop spotted the bishop and gingerly and quietly descended the staircase one step at a time trying not to aggravate either his bad back or his hoarse voice.  The mayor smiled as he remembered a sensitive issue for the bishop.  “Still, there must be many rewards for a man of your position.  I would imagine serving the archbishop must be one.  I have met the archbishop only twice, but I believe him to be a scholar of great learning and a man of exceptional nobility and honor.”  The mayor glanced over the bishop’s shoulder and saw the archbishop smile on hearing his words.  “I have no doubt that one day he will be a fine cardinal and eventually a splendid pope.” 

The bishop laughed.  “That doddering old fool…pope?  I obviously mistook you for someone of intelligence.”

The mayor glanced again over the bishop’s shoulder and saw that the archbishop’s smile had quickly changed into a frightening frown.  The archbishop stopped on seeing the mayor’s glance and raised a gnarled finger to his lips to signal the mayor not to speak.  The mayor nodded slightly and furtively to the archbishop as the bishop glanced at the woman. 

“What is the matter, your eminence?  I always thought you had great respect for the archbishop.”

“I have tremendous respect for the archbishop, as long as he is within eyesight or earshot, which, for him, is not far in either case.”

“A word of caution, your eminence, the walls may have ears.”

“If they are the archbishop’s ears, they are long and droop like an old hag’s breasts and can hear about as well.  Whom else do I have to fear?  I am bishop and that fool of an archbishop will readily take my word over the word of anyone else solely because of my position. This is a good example of what I am saying.  I have power.  And because the archbishop often, not always but often, takes my advice, I have influenceat least over that old goat.  I suppose, that when one boils it all down, almost all conflicts originate in the lust for power or gold or beautiful women such as the one stretched before us.  Ideals, such as saving souls and bringing pagans to the one true god are good and have their place in the universe, but most change with time.  Greed for gold, power, and women is the only true constant in the nature of man.  The church may pass with time and another god may replace ours, but greed will remain. This happened with the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Philistines, the Egyptians, the Romans, and the Greeks.  Ideals are like the leaves on an oak, which come with great promise and then fade and drop as the men that created them themselves wither and become dust.  However, that said, I am glad to be living in this enlightened age that at least has a glorious promise before it too fades away and the world changes into something unrecognizable and hideousas the archbishop has.”

The younger executioner turned to tell the bishop the coals were ready, but on seeing the archbishop, dropped to one knee, bowed his head, and said reverently, “your grace.”  Catching this out of the corner of his eye, the older executioner quickly turned and did the same as did the mayor.  The bishop turned and stared at the archbishop for a moment, before realizing what had happened and likewise dropped to one knee.

“Rise,” said the archbishop bracing against the stone wall and carefully descending one step at a time as all stood and fixed their attention on him.  “Just so you will know, my eyes and ears may be failing, but not my acumen.  Unfortunately, much of what you say is true.  That is why men of ideals, such as myself, are needed in all ages to keep the higher nature of man vigorous and growing so that the world does not degenerate into constant warfare for gold, power, and women.  Mankind is not perfect, but he can never be as good as he can be, if he does not strive for something higher.  Ideals are needles on a pine, not the leaves on an oak.”

The bishop faltered for a second before smiling and speaking.  “Did I not mention that your grace is not only a very powerful man, but a very handsome one as well?”

The archbishop smiled.  “Thank you very much.  The reason I came into this pit today is to issue a pardon for the young woman before it was too late.  The injustice of her case came to my attention this morning and after reviewing it I spoke to the inquisition and they agreed to change her sentence to a rather light penance not involving physical discomfort.  Release her immediately.”

“Yes, your worship,” replied the executioners as they set about carrying out the archbishop’s orders.

“However, a much more serious matter has come to my attention, in which I shall advise the inquisition to show little mercy.  If I cannot have a man’s heart and soul, I will at least have his body and mouth.  Redemption is in the rack, you know.”

A few days later the twenty-second psalm ran through the bishop’s mind, as he lay stretched upon the rack.  Looking up he saw the eyes of the executioners looking down on him from behind their hoods.

“So, your worship,” said the older, “you shall now find out how inept I am as an artisan.”  He turned to the younger.  “Pay attention, boy.  You’ll learn a lot today.”

As the bishop writhed in vain trying to squirm out of his bonds, he rolled his head to the side and he spotted the mayor leaning with his back to the staircase and watching. 

“Do not worry about your estate,” said the mayor.  “In light of my faith, the archbishop has agreed that from now on anything confiscated will be divided equally between the church and the city.” Then he smiled.  “By the way, you were right.  We are fortunate to be living in such enlightened times at the apex of civilization.”