On this date* in 1619, Italian freethinker Lucilio Vanini was adorned with a placard reading ‘Ateiste et blasphemateur du nom de Dieu’ and taken to Toulouse’s Place du Salin where he had his blasphemous tongue cut out,** then was strangled and burned at the stake.
You can think of Vanini as a sort of Giordano Bruno mini-me — a bit less intellectually distinguished, a bit less famous, but doing the same peripatetic, pantheistic act before orthodoxy ran him down.
Ordained a priest (like Bruno), Vanini’s 34 years were spent perambulating (like Bruno): France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, even England, where he briefly auditioned Anglicanism.
Alas, (like Bruno) the libertine monk’s occult philosophy had no real home; he fled Paris for Toulouse (the place Bruno earned his doctorate), and was there charged with blasphemy.
Vanini veiled his dangerous speculations in nominally pietistic cant, but he probably could have done better misdirection than a title like De Admirandis Naturae Reginae Deaeque Mortalium Arcanis (Of the Marvelous Secrets of the Queen and Goddess Nature — available in Latin from Google books).
Vanini was bold enough to suggest an equivalency between human and animal souls, and reckon both mortal. Though his works purported to prove the existence of God, and he even made to his accusers a version of the “first cause” argument, they thought (probably rightly) he wasn’t being serious.
* Some sources report Feb. 19. The source of this discrepancy isn’t clear to me; the then-10-day gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars is an obvious suspect, but as this execution took place in Catholic France, the modern Gregorian calendar had been adopted decades before.
In any event, primary documentation appears to me to support the 9th.
” le samedi neuvième du mois de février … fut donné arrêt au rapport de M. de Catel, conseiller au parlement, par lequel il [Vanini] fut condamné à être traîné sur une claie, droit à l’Eglise Saint-Etienne, où il serait dépouillé en chemise, tenant un flambeau ardent en main, la hart [la corde avec laquelle on étranglait les criminels.] au col, et, tout à genoux devant la grande porte de la dite église, demanderait pardon à Dieu, au roi, à la justice, et de là … serait conduit à la place du Salin où, assis sur un poteau, la langue lui serait coupée, puis serait étranglé, son corps brûlé et réduit en cendres; ce qui fut exécuté le même jour.”
** “Before putting fire to the stake, Vanini was ordered to put forth his sacrilegious tongue for the knife. He refused; it was necessary to employ pincers to draw it forth, and when the executioner’s instrument seized and cut it off never was heard a more horrible cry. One might have thought that he heard the bellowing of an ox which was being slaughtered.” (Source) This account of the magistrate Gramont has to be considered in view of his interest in showing the condemned inadequate to his jaunty resolve, “Let us go, let us go joyfully to die, as becomes a philosopher.”