YOU must know that in the venerable convent of San Domenico, at Modena, Brother Agostino Moro being prior at that time, as doubtless you are aware, there happened to be an excellent preacher on the third day of Easter. All through Lent he had preached to the general satisfaction of the whole city, and was now about to take leave of his congregation with such rites and ceremonies as preachers commonly adopt. When it got about that this was the father’s farewell sermon, all folk flocked to the church, so that it seemed as if the day were one of plenary indulgence. So hot and stifling had the church become with the crowd and the breath of so many men and women, that when the sermon was over — it had lasted from dinner-time to four o’clock — the friars found it passing difficult to chant vespers and compline together. Being a shrewd and thoughtful person, the sacristan opened all the doors and windows of the church to cool the air, waiting as long as he could before closing the great door, especially as at nightfall they were to bury there a man of very foul reputation, to whom, when dying, as all averred, the devil had appeared in the flesh, so that they thought he would be carried away, soul and body. When the funeral rites for this arch-sinner were ended, the sacristan closed the central door of the church, but left the one leading to the first cloister 36 open, so that the church might grow cooler during the night.
That same evening a friar arrived who had been preaching in the mountains, and brought his baggage with him upon a little ass as black as pitch, which he put up in a stable hard by. But, while all slept, the donkey, I know not how, got out of the stable and strayed into the cloister, where the grass was rich and tender. Here it stopped for a while to eat its fill. Then, being thirsty perhaps, it went sniffing about till it spied the vessel containing holy water, and drank it all up, as the friars next day discovered. Having eaten and drunk, it approached the grave of the wicked man, which had been filled in with sand, and, after turning round several times, stretched itself out there to rest.
Now, at the first stroke of matins it is usual for novices to go to the choir and set books and candles in readiness for chanting the service. So, at the time stated, two boys came in to prepare all that was necessary, and, passing through the sacristy, they saw Master Jackass stretched out upon the grave. His eyes looked like two great burning coals, while his long ears seemed for all the world like a pair of horns. Darkness, that fosterer and ally of fear, the thought of the newly buried sinner, and the sight of so horrible a brute at such an hour, fairly robbed the poor timid lads of their senses, and they firmly believed that the beast was none other than the devil. So, in their terror, they fled as fast as their legs would carry them; and he who ran swiftest deemed himself very lucky. On reaching the dormitory, breathless and speechless, they met some of the friars going to the choir, among these being the master of the novices. Seeing, by the light that burns all night long in the dormitory, that the boys had come back, he asked them why they had not gone 37 to prepare for matins, when in great fear and trembling they told him that on the grave of the man buried overnight they had actually seen the enemy of mankind.
The good monk, by no means the most courageous of men, began to tremble with fear, uncertain whether to go down into the church or not. Just then Brother Giovanni Mascarello came up, leader of the choir, and an excellent musician. Hearing the lads’ story, he boldly ran down and went into the church. Here he saw the brute crouched on the grave, with ears erect because of the noise it heard, and quickly turning his back to it, he slammed the door of the sacristy and rushed up-stairs, screaming at the top of his voice, “Fathers, it is indeed the devil, the enemy of mankind.” This he repeated again and again. As you know, he has a very powerful voice, and he shouted so loud that there was not a friar in the convent who did not hear him.
At last the prior came out of his cell, and, approaching Brother Giovanni, said, “What folly is this that you say? Are you raving mad, or what is it? Be still, and do not make such a noise at this hour. In God’s name, what is the matter?”
“Holy father,” replied Brother Giovanni, “I am not raving mad, but I tell you that the devil is in the church, and with my own eyes I actually saw him on the grave of that wicked man whom we buried yestereve. Methinks he has come to bear away the sinner’s body with him to hell! These lads here have seen him also.”
Having questioned the boys, who confirmed this statement, the prior, with some of the monks whom the outcry had brought thither, went down into the church. Their imagination being excited by what they had heard, at the sight of the ass they all firmly believed that it was the Prince of Evil. 38 So, quaking with fear, each made the sign of the cross and went back to the sacristy, whereupon the prior, after brief consultation with the friars, had the big bell rung, which brought all the inmates of the monastery together, when he exhorted them to be of good courage and not to dread this devilish apparition. Emboldened by this speech, the friars went in a body to the sacristy, where they donned their sacred vestments, and took all the relics they possessed, so that each bore some holy thing in his hand. Then, the cross going before, they marched forth in procession, chanting with great fervor the Salve Regina. But Master Jackass remained completely at his ease through it all, never budging an inch from his self-chosen position. Few of the friars were brave enough to look at the brute, being firmly convinced that it was the devil, while none of them had the least idea that it was a donkey. When the Salve Regina had been sung and the beast showed no signs of moving, the prior called for the book of exorcisms, which is used to drive out evil spirits from the bodies of those possessed, and he then read all those holy words which are meet in such emergencies; yet, for all this, master donkey never stirred.
At last the prior took the sprinkler used for holy water, and coming somewhat closer to the brute, he raised his hand, and making the sign of the cross, began to sprinkle holy water, never perceiving that the foul fiend of his imagination was none other than an ass. So he soused him soundly two or three times, when, either because the water was cold or because he thought the sprinkling stick would hit him — for he saw the prior continually raise his hand as if about to beat him — Master Neddy stood up on all-fours and brayed with hideous vigor. By this ludicrous signal he proved to the prior and the monks that he was not Satan, after all, but 39 an ass. The good friars were filled with confusion, not knowing what to say nor what to do. But the whole thing ended in loud laughter, as it seemed to them a mighty joke that young and old, philosophers and theologians, should one and all have been thus mocked by an ass.