Caesarius of Heisterbach: TWO HERETICS WORKED MIRACLES BY THE AID OF THE DEVIL (from Dialogus Miraculorum)

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.

 Content Question: What specific properties does Caesarius allege the Devil possesses?

Analysis Question: What roles do these stories of the Devil play in the Medieval Catholic religion?

Evaluative Question: Why were stories such as these so readily believed in the Medieval period?


Two men simply clad, but not without guile, not sheep but ravening wolves, came to Besançon, feigning the greatest piety. Moreover they were pale and thin, they went about barefooted and fasted daily, they did not miss a single night the matins in the cathedral, nor did they accept anything from any one except a little food. When by such hypocrisy they had attracted the attention of every one, they began to vomit forth their hidden poison and to preach to the ignorant new and unheard of heresies. In order, moreover, that the people might believe their teachings they ordered meal to be sifted on the sidewalk and walked on it without leaving a trace of a footprint. Likewise walking upon the water they could not be immersed; also, they had little huts burnt over their heads, and after those had been burnt to ashes, they came out uninjured. After this they said to the people, ‘If you do not believe our words, believe our miracles.”

The bishop and the clergy hearing of this were greatly disturbed. And when they wished to resist those men, affirming that they were heretics and deceivers and ministers of the devil, they escaped with difficulty from being stoned by the people. Now that bishop was a good and learned man and a native of our province. Our aged monk, Conrad, who told me these facts and who was in that city at the time, knew him well.

The bishop seeing that his words were of no avail and that the people entrusted to his charge were being subverted from the faith by the devil’s agents, summoned a certain clerk that he knew, who was very well versed in necromancy, and said, “Certain men in my city are doing so and so. I ask you to find out from the devil by your art who they are, whence they come, and by what means so many and so wonderful miracles are wrought. For it is impossible that they should do wonders through divine inspiration when their teaching is so contrary to God’s.” The clerk said, “My lord, I have long renounced that art.” The bishop replied, “You see clearly in what straits I am. I must either acquiesce in their teachings or be stoned by the people. Therefore I enjoin upon you for the remission of your sins that yon obey me in this matter.”

The clerk, obeying the bishop, summoned the devil, and when asked why he had called him responded, “I am sorry that I have deserted you. And because I desire to be more obedient to you in the future than in the past, I ask you to tell me who these men are, what they teach, and by what means they work so great miracles.” The devil replied, “They are mine and sent by me, and they preach what I have placed in their mouths.” The clerk responded, “How is it that they cannot be injured, or sunk in the water, or burned by fire?” The demon replied again, “They have under their arm-pits, sewed between the skin and the flesh, my compacts in which the homage done by them to me is written; and by virtue of these they work such miracles and can not be injured by any one.” Then the clerk, “What if those should be taken away from them?” The devil replied, “Then they would be weak, just like other men.” The clerk having heard this, thanked the demon, saying, “Now go, and when you are summoned by me, return.”

He went to the bishop and recited these things to him in order. The latter filled with great joy summoned all the people of the city to a suitable place and said, “I am your shepherd, ye are my sheep. If those men, as you say, confirm their teaching by signs, I will follow them with you. If not, it is fitting that they should be punished and that you should penitently return to the faith of your fathers with me.” The people replied, ,We have seen many signs from them. The bishop replied “But I have not seen them.” Why protract my words? The plan pleased the people. The heretics were summoned. A fire was kindled in the midst of the city. Nevertheless before the heretics entered it, they were secretly summoned to the bishop. He said to them, “I want to see if you have any evil about you.” Hearing this they stripped quickly and said with great confidence, “Search our bodies and our garments carefully.” The soldiers, truly, following the instructions of the bishop, raised their arms and noticing under the arm-pits some scars that were healed up broke them open with their knives and extracted from them the little scrolls which had been sewed in.

Having received these the bishop went forth with the heretics to the people and, having commanded silence, cried out in a loud voice, “Now shall your prophets enter the fire, and if they are not injured I will believe in them.” The wretched men trembled and said, “We ar not able to enter now.” Then the bishop told the people of the evil which had been detected, and showed the compacts. Then all furious hurled the devil’s ministers, to be tortured with the devil in eternal flames, into the fire which had been prepared. And thus through the grace of God and the zeal of the bishop the growing heresy was extinguished and the people who had been seduced and corrupted were cleansed by penance.

University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4, pp. 7-11