“About one a clock at night, the Lecturer personating the Virgin Mary … made another Visit to Jetzer…”
We are in William Waller’s The tragical history of Jetzer. Or, A faithful narrative of the
This old story to the discredit of Catholics had been dragged up by the obstreperous Sir William Waller, son of the parliamentary general. The Popish plot was the sensation of the day, and Waller seems to have published it because all this profligate son of a vehemently puritanical mother had left in the way of religious feeling was a rabid anti-Catholicism.
Ketzer’s story was also told in Gilbert Burnet’s Some letters containing an account of what seemed most remarkable in Switzerland, Italy, some parts of Germany, &c. in the years 1685 and 1686 written by G. Burnet, D.D.. The tale was excerpted from Burnet in 1689, and alluded to by the (rather good) poet Thomas Heyrick in his The new Atlantis a poem, in three books: with some reflections upon The hind and the panther, 1687. Heyrick is talking about the state of the Catholic church, then so recently embraced by Dryden:, personifying the church as a credulous old woman:
Tir’d with old Age, bewayl’d her luckless Fate.
She doth no blessing of old Age retain,
The Inconveniencies alone remain.
Dotage, the Vice of ancient years, delights
In trifling Follies and in childish sights;
In outside Pomp and empty Pageantry,
In Paint and Varnish that attract the Eye.
Credulity each open Cheat doth own,
And greedily Impostures doth drink down …
Of Images that speak, lament and weep:
Of Wounds by Angels given to Saints asleep.
Of Prophesies and Works of th’ holy Maid,
And all the Tricks were e’re on Jetzer plaid.
The wildest Ravings are by her receiv’d,
And she'd have all she doth invent believ’d.
The story of Jetzer’s maltreatment by his fellow Dominicans began in their campaign against the Franciscan order, who upheld the doctrine of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. A small party of Dominicans in Basle decided on the (perhaps odd) tactic of having the Virgin herself appear to a suitably gullible member of their order, to explain indignantly that to ascribe this to her detracted from her Son, etc.
They chose John Jetzer, described in Waller’s telling as ‘thick skulled’, admitting him to the order solely to be imposed upon. First, he was led to believe that he had seen a ghost, that of a former prior, now in purgatory, who asked for penances to redeem him, and this spirit re-appeared eight nights later to say that he was now in heaven, and that Mary, the Blessed Virgin, was about to pop along with her own personal reward for this kindness.
The planning was very good as far as stage machinery was concerned:
"Whilst the Sub-prior and the Receiver were fitting their Tools, Properties, and Engines for the Show: All things being ready, their pulleys, Wheels, Screws, Wires, and Devices for the management of their Puppets orderly placed in the Receiver’s Chamber, to give life and motion to the Opera
Five other Candles miraculously lighted at a clap … Jetzer now lying with his eyes wide open, to make observations, saw to his astonishment the Virgin hanging in the Aire, between two Angels directly over the Hoste."
However, the basic difficulty the Dominican fraudsters were faced with was of their sex: one of them had to assume the role of the B.V.M., as they were unable to deploy a young woman. They were prepared to treat Jetzer cruelly: 'Mary' seizes his hand, and tells him he will receive as a favour the first wound done to her son, nailing him with a three-cornered dagger blade to the bedpost. Jetzer was clearly easily imposed upon, but wasn’t completely stupid: he is handled with male force, and keeps hearing a male timbre in the voice speaking to him, or recognizing protruding bits of a male arm, or sees a familiar male shoe beneath the robes.
The Dominicans did nevertheless string him along, making him play a part in his own deception: they put him up to spitting three times in Mary’s face, on the reasoning that a devil would not stand for such an affront. When they were caught out by Jetzer, the Dominicans explained that these impostures were mixed in by them and intended to make him more alert to the possibility of fraud.
The Sub-prior and his associates make a pact with the devil, signed in blood, to enable the deception to go ahead. Jetzer, who has already penetrated one appearance as fraudulent, was either persuaded of the truth of the whole matter (this is as Waller’s account tells it) or drugged into insensibility by the potion provided by the devil as a result of the blood pact the Dominicans have made (this in Waller’s version). Either way, Jetzer is made to acquire the full set of stigmata. They didn’t manage to get a hole all the way through his feet, while the first one through his hand had been as big as a pea. When he challenges the virgin about this, ‘she’ quick-wittedly replies that he is not fit to stand on the holy mark, so it will just have to be a wound on the top of his feet.
In the end, the cruelty of their actions undid the plot: they kept the wounds from healing up, as proper stigmata, and when Jetzer, amid a growing storm of debate, was finally taken out of the abbey, he noticed that his wounds then began to heal. It went to a trial, and Jetzer was tortured: partly, he still believed what he had seen, but he said enough to cause the friars to be brought to trial themselves. They held out through initial sessions on the rack, but began to crack when a second round of interrogation under duress was started.
Waller gives a hideous account of them being burned alive (Burnet says this was in front of the gratified Franciscans): the pyres were set up for a quick death, but a wind suddenly blew up, and the wretched men had their lower limbs slowly roasted, crying out in such agony that the executioner (later dismissed for the incompetence he had shown) was reduced to throwing billets of wood at their heads through the flames in an attempt to end it all. The sub-prior, always the sharpest witted of the accomplices, tried to breathe in the smoke and suffocate himself to end the torment.
Waller's book was part of a whole set of re-tellings of this story. It reminded me very much of Samuel Harsnett on the 'Egregious Popish Impostures', through its continuous use of theatrical references as part of the scorn for the tricks being played.
My image is adapted from the enthusiastically mariolatrous book by the Jesuit Henry Hawkins, Partheneia sacra. Or The mysterious and delicious garden of the sacred Parthenes symbolically set forth and enriched with pious deuises and emblemes for the entertainement of deuout soules; contriued al to the honour of the incomparable Virgin Marie mother of God; for the pleasure and deuotion especially of the Parthenian sodalitie of her Immaculate Conception. 1633