Medieval Sourcebook: Caesarius of Heisterbach:
Confession, Ordeal and Miracle
(from Dialogus Miraculorum)
[Adapted from Coulton Introduction, p.58] Caesarius of Heisterbach was possibly born
and certainly educated in Cologne. After some inward struggle
he became a Cistercian monk at the monastery of Heisterbach, where
he eventually became prior and Teacher of the Novices. It was
for the novices that he wrote his Dialogus Miraculorum,
one of the most intimate documents of the Middle Ages. This, some
biographical and chronological treatises and some homelies were
all apparently written between 1220 and 1235. The Dialogue was printed five times between 1475 and 1605. His faults are those
of his time, but his earnestness and vividness are apparent also.
Modern commentators have note, however, his credulousness. The
citation here are to the volume and page numbers of Joseph Strange's
critical edition (Cologne: 1851).
CONFESSION, ORDEAL AND MIRACLE
From Caes. Heist. vol. II, p. 243.
DOM BERNARD of Lippe, who was once an abbot and is now a bishop
in Livonia, is wont to tell a miracle contrary to this last. "I
knew, (he said,) a fisher in the bishopric of Utrecht who had
long lived incontinently with a certain woman; and, because his
sin was too notorious, fearing one day to be accused at the synod
then impending, he said within himself: 'What will you now do,
poor wretch? If you are accused of incontinence in this synod
and must confess, you will forthwith be compelled to take her
to wife; or if you deny it you will be convicted by the ordeal
of white-hot iron and be still more confounded." So, coming
forthwith to a priest (rather, as the event showed, from fear
of punishment than from love of righteousness), he confessed his
sin, asked from counsel and found it-. 'If,' said the priest,
'you have a firm purpose never to sin again with her, then you
may carry the white-hot iron without further care and deny your
sin; for I hope that the virtue of confession will free you."
And this did, to the amazement of all who well knew his incontinence.
Lo! here by God's power, as in former examples, the fire restrained
its force against its own nature; and, as you will hear later,
it grew hot even more marvelously against nature. To be brief,
the man was absolved. Many days afterwards, as he rowed with another
fisher at his work on the river, and the house of the aforesaid
woman came in sight, then the other said unto him: 'I marvel greatly,
and many marvel with me, why the iron did not burn you at the
synod, though thy sin was so notorious.' He, boasting unworthily
of the grace that had been conferred on him (for he had already
conceived the purpose of sinning again), smote the river water
with his hand and said: 'The fire hurt me no more than this water!'
Mark the marvelous justice of God! who had guarded the penitent
in His mercy, punished now by a just and strange miracle the same
man when he relapsed: for no sooner had he touched the water than
it was to him as white-hot iron. He drew back his hand suddenly
cried aloud; but he left his skin in the water. Then, in tardy
repentance, he told his comrade all that had befallen him."
Our fellow-monk Lambert was wont to tell a like miracle to this.
A countryman who had a feud against another gave money to a certain
wicked man of the Order of wandering Religious, (of whom there
are many,) that he might burn the other's house; which this man,
entering under the cloak of religion, set afire at a convenient
time. Again this abandoned wretch, forgetful of the hospitality
he had-received, set fire to the same house for the same bribe,
after that it had been rebuilt. The, master, troubled at this
double loss, accused all of whom he had any suspicion, but they
purged themselves by the ordeal of white-hot iron. Again the burned
house was rebuilt; and this iron which had been used for the ordeal
was thrown into one corner of it. To be brief, that false religious
vagrant came again, corrupted by his former covetousness, and
was received with all kindness. He marked the aforesaid iron and
asked what purpose it served: to which his host answered: "I
know not who has twice set fire to my house; and, though I had
suspicion of certain men, they have borne that iron at white-heat
and yet were not burned" Then said the other: "The iron
might be turned to some use": and lifting it up (as God would
have it) he was so burned in the hand that he cried aloud and
cast it down. When the master of the house saw this, he caught
the incendiary by the cloak and cried: "Thou art the true
culprit!" The e man was taken before the judge, confessed
his crime unwillingly, and was condemned to be broken upon the
From C.G. Coulton, ed, Life in the Middle Ages, (New York:
Macmillan, c.1910), Vol I, 73-74 [slightly modernized]
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(c)Paul Halsall August 1996