Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

II. The Beati Paoli

214. Character of the Society.—The notices of this sect, which existed for many years in Sicily, are so scanty that we may form a high idea of the mystery in which it shrouded itself. It had spread not only over the island, where it created traditional terror, but also over Calabria, where it was first discovered, and cruelly repressed and punished by the feudatories, who saw their power assailed by it. A popular institution, in opposition to the daily arrogance of baronial or kingly power, it knew not how to restrain itself within the prescribed limits, and made itself guilty of reprehensible acts, so that it was spoken of in various ways by its contemporaries.

215. Tendencies and Tenets.—We have already seen that it had connections with the Holy Vehm, and its statutes were somewhat similar to this tribunal; but it is to be observed that it proceeded from that spiritual movement which produced the reaction of the Albigenses, the propaganda of the Franciscans, and the reformatory asceticism of the many heretics who roamed through Italy and the rest of Europe, preaching opposition to Rome, and organising a crusade against the fatuous and corrupt clerocracy. Among these heretics we must remember the Abbot Gioachimo, whose prophecies and strange sayings reappear in the Evangelium Aeternum of John of Parma, a book which was one of the textbooks of the Sicilian judges. The Evangelium Aeternum a tissue of cabalistic and Gnostic eccentricities, was by the Beati Paoli preferred to the Old and New Testaments; they renounced belief in dualism, and made God the creator of evil and death—of evil, because he placed the mystical apple in the mystical garden; of death, because he ordained the deluge, and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

216. Account of a Sicilian Writer.—Amidst the general silence of historians, the account of a Sicilian writer, which was published only in 1840, and is still generally unknown, may be considered the only document concerning this family of Avengers, who at the extreme end of Italy reproduced the struggles and terrors of the Westphalian tribunals. This writer says:—

"In the year 1185, at the nuptials. of the Princess Constance, daughter of the first King Roger of Sicily, with Henry, afterwards Henry VI., Emperor of Germany, there was discovered the existence of a new and impious sect, who called themselves the Avengers, and in their nocturnal assemblies declared every crime lawful committed on pretence of promoting the public good. Of this we find an account in an ancient writer, who does not enter into further details. The king ordered strict inquiry to be made, and their chief, Arinulfo di Ponte Corvo, having been arrested, he was sentenced to be hanged with some of his most guilty accomplices; the less guilty were branded with a red-hot iron.

"The belief exists among the vulgar that this secret society of Avengers still exists in Sicily and elsewhere, and is known by the name of the Beati Paoli. Some worthless persons even go so far as to commend the impious institution. Its members abounded especially at Palermo, and Joseph Amatore, who was hanged on December 17, 1704, was one of them. Girolamo Ammirata, comptroller of accounts, also belonged to this society, and suffered death on 27th April 1725. Most came to a bad end, if not by the hands of justice, by the daggers of their associates. The famous vetturino, Vito Vituzzo of Palermo, was the last of the wretches forming the society of the Beati Paoli. He escaped the gallows, because he turned in time from his evil courses, and thenceforward he passed all day in St. Matthew's Church, whence he came to be known by the surname of 'the church mouse.'

"The preceptors and masters of these vile men were heretics and apostates from the Minor Brethren of St. Francis, who pretended that the power of the pontiff and the priesthood had been bestowed on them by an angelic revelation. The house where they held their meetings is still in existence in the street de' Canceddi, and I paid it a visit. Through a gateway you pass into a courtyard, under which is the vault where the members met, and which receives its light through a grating in the stone pavement. At the bottom of the stairs is a stone altar, and at the side a small dark chamber, with a stone table, on which were written the acts and sentences of these murderous judges. The principal cave is pretty large, surrounded with stone seats, and furnished with niches and recesses where the arms were kept. The meetings were held at night by candle light. The derivation of the name, the Beati Paoli (Blessed Pauls), is unknown; but I surmise that it was adopted by the sect, because either the founder's name was Paul, or that he assumed it as that of a saint who, before his conversion, was a man of the sword, and, imitating him, was, during the day, a Blessed Paul, and at night at the head of a band of assassins, like Paul persecuting the Christians."

Such is the author's account, which I have greatly abbreviated, omitting nearly all his invectives against the sect, of which very little is known, and whose existence evidently, in its day, was to some extent beneficial; for Sicilians, on suffering any injury or loss, for which they cannot apply to justice, are often heard to exclaim—"Ah, if the Beati Paoli were still in being!"