For murdering German Enlightenment intellectual Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Habsburg Trieste on this date in 1768 inflicted a breaking-wheel execution straight out of antiquity.
A Saxon cobbler’s son, Winckelmann (German Wikipedia link) showed academic aptitude from youth and spent his twenties reading theology and medicine at the Universities of Halle and of Jena while he tutored to pay the bills. This scuffling scholar got his big break when his gifts were noticed by the visiting papal nuncio, who recruited him to court service in Rome on condition of his conversion to Catholicism — a spiritual epiphany which dovetailed perfectly with his growing interest in art and drew him to Italy. (pdf)
Winckelmann traveled and read widely in Italy. He was a great admirer of the restrained classical Grecian aesthetic whose celebrated exemplars were being unearthed throughout the Mediterranean world;* some papers he wrote during the 1760s are regarded as seminal documents in the study of art history and of archaeology, and he in turn became a celebrity intellectual sought-after in the salons of visiting art-fanciers.
Having begun so mean and climbed so very high, Winckelmann was set up for golden years savoring the view from the pinnacle — but he was never destined to receive them.
Taking ill on a trip with friend and fellow classicist Bartolomeo Cavaceppi in 1768, Winckelmann tapped out and returned alone to Trieste where he shared a room at a seaside hotel** with a chance acquaintance of the road: our post’s subject, Francesco Arcangeli. (German Wikipedia again)
Arcangeli, it turned out, was a thief who had already been expelled from Vienna and now compounded his villainy by throttling and stabbing Winckelmann. Though the wounds were mortal, Winckelmann lived on for several hours in full command of his senses, evenly providing every bit of information that would be needed to avenge his murder. The self-evident inference of robbery forms Arcangeli’s accepted motive, but alternative hypotheses have attracted attention over the years: in particular, Winckelmann is thought to have been homosexual, so it’s possible their shared lodging was really an assignation that went very bad; more exotic is the idea that Winckelmann was intentionally assassinated further to some inscrutable plot among Vatican rivals or art cognoscenti.
A Winckelmann Society in the man’s hometown of Stendal, Germany maintains its native son’s scholarly focus on classical antiquity. Readers of German might also appreciate Goethe’s essay on the man.
On this date in 1699 the robber prince Nikol List was broken on the wheel in the town of Celle — along with seven other members of his gang.
A former soldier and beer-house keeper, Saxony’s bandit career owned the usual long roster of outrages upon person and property but really fixed his name in the heavens (and his soul in the other place) by robbing St. Michael’s Church of Lüneburg of its treasured Golden Plate and sacrilegiously melting it down.
In the end his career was not long — just a few years in the late 1690s, nothing to compare with the likes of his near-contemporary Lips Tullian — for the outrage at St. Michael’s attracted the fury of the Duke of Brunswick who dedicated himself to the prompt destruction of these outlaws.
List is no. 6 in this illustration conflating the executions of various gang members who suffered at different times and places. The full numbered key to this forest of corpses can be found, along various other illustrations, here.
While List was alive and “working” his former house in Beutha was razed and a pillory set on the place instead, to disgrace the naughty native son. Worn “Nikol List Stones” can still be seen there. Two commemorate citizens whom List shot dead evading arrest on St. John’s Eve in 1696:
Christoph Kneuffler, farmer and sheriff of Hartenstein, shot on St. John’s Eve 1696 by Nikol List. This honest man was 50 years and 27 weeks old, and leaves a troubled widow and four children, namely three sons and one daughter.
Gottfried Eckhardt, citizen and butcher of Hartenstein, shot on St. John’s Eve 1696 by Nikol List. This man was 34 years and 34 weeks old, and has a poor afflicted widow and three small uneducated children, two sons and a daughter.
On this date in 1573, the Jewish courtier Lippold ben Chluchim was broken on the wheel and cut into quarters.
Most of the readily available information about poor Lippold is in German; his was a fate similar to the 18th century “Jud Süß”, minus the worldwide notoriety conferred by a Nazi propaganda film.
Though born in Prague, Lippold would live a life, and die a death, in the orbit of the Elector of Brandenburg — a principality where Jews endured precipitous reversals of fortune over the centuries.
Elector Joachim I had actually expelled Jews from the territory in 1510* after riots incited by rumors of desecrating the Host; Lippold and his family would benefit when Joachim’s son, also named Joachim, rescinded some of the old man’s harsh ordinances and invited Jews to return. Lippold was about 12 years old when his family took advantage of the liberalization and relocated to Berlin in 1542.
By adulthood, the able Lippold had plugged into Joachim II’s court and become a trusted favorite. While Joachim’s dad must have been turning in the grave, one imagines the son appreciated the loyalty of an aide whose prestige depended entirely upon the prince himself.
Events would underscore painfully Lippold’s vulnerability to the turning wheel of fortune.
As Brandenburg’s master of the mint, it fell to Lippold to implement a wide-ranging currency debasement program required by Joachim to finance his spendthrift government — basically passing on the cost to merchants who were required by edict to accept the local coinage at its fanciful face value.
Despite this hated policy, plus additions to the state’s rounds of direct taxation, Joachim was 2.5 million guilders in debt when he died suddenly during a hunting trip on the third of January in 1571. Things immediately turned grim for Brandenburg’s Jewry after the liberal Joachim fils was in the earth; a pogrom sacked Berlin’s synagogue and rampaged through the Jewish quarter.
Joachim’s son and successor Johann Georg likewise found in his father’s Jewish henchman — a man who had naturally waxed very wealthy and very unpopular doing the previous sovereign’s dirty work — a ready scapegoat for Brandenburg’s financial woes. Johann Georg accused Lippold of using black magic and poison to assassinate his benefactor and persuaded Lippold in the usual way to confirm it. Jews beheld the reinstatement of that old proscription, little more than 30 years after Joachim II had canceled it — and they were once again expelled from Berlin en masse.
We’ve touched in these pages on the appealing diary of Felix Platter, a youth from Basel, Switzerland, studying medicine in Montpellier, France.
This was published in English as Beloved Son Felix; sadly, it’s now out of print, though it can be perused for free on archive.org.
A murderer was executed on the 14th of December. Three years earlier he had been a servant with a canon, who lived alone in his house, and carried a quantity of gold sewn into his clothes. The servant plotted with another man to kill his master. One evening, when the canon was sitting in a corner of the hearth, roasting a partridge, the servant felled him with a blow of a club on the back of the head. The villains then cut his throat and fled with the money, which came to a good sum. When the crime was discovered a sergeant was sent after them; but he allowed himself to be corrupted, and instead of arresting them he accepted a bribe and left them free to take the road to Spain. There they were too ostentatious with their wealth, and as a result they were robbed by brigands. However, the servant continued on his way, now alone. Without resources, he took employment with a Spanish shoemaker, and remained there three years. He let his beard grow, and believing that he would no longer be recognized he returned to France, and went to Lunel by way of Montpellier, but he was arrested there and brought back to Montpellier.
Although buried three years, the canon was disinterred, so that the murderer could be confronted with his victim. However, there were none of the signs they expected to see on such an occasion — as for example the opening of the wound and the gushing forth of blood; although it should be added that the corpse was very wasted. The accused man made a full confession and was condemned to the punishment they call massarer.* He appealed to Toulouse, succeeded in escaping as he was being taken across a river, was recaptured, condemned anew to that cruel punishment, and brought back to Montpellier for the sentence to be carried out. After the judgment had been read aloud, the executioner put the man on a cart, where he was laid on the lap of the executioner’s wife. He then began to pinch him with red-hot tongs, and this treatment continued until they came to the canon’s house. There the executioner cut off both the man’s hands on a block placed on the cart for that purpose. The woman held him with his eyes blindfolded, and as each hand was cut off she pulled a pointed linen bag over the stump, from which shot a jet of blood, and tied the bag on tightly to stop the bleeding. The man was taken afterwards to the Cour du Bayle, and there he was beheaded. His body was cut in quarters, and the pieces were hung up on the olive trees outside the town.
The sergeant who had taken the bribe, and who had been betrayed by the murderer, was tied to the cart, his body bare to the waist. The executioner scourged him until the blood came, several times over. After this he was banished.
Felix Platter noted a number of different executions in his five-year diary of Montpellier, but he didn’t let them get him down. The following February 27, Platter finally “with a heavy heart quitted this beloved town, in which I had lived for so long” and made for Basel where a respectable life as a doctor awaited him. (Felix was well-qualified for this from his coming of age in Montpellier, having dissected frequently: his journal records with something approaching glee the numerous midnight grave-robbings he undertook to secure subjects.)
* Massarer was the local version of the widespread and horrible “breaking” punishment of smashing the offender’s limbs one by one. Platter had earlier noted such an execution in 1554, and explained that it was carried out upon “a Saint Andrew’s cross … with two hollowed-out balks of timber.” Once the condemned murderer was trussed to the cross, the executioner “took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it … The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.”
The French robber Gaspard de Besse was broken on the wheel in Aix-en-Provence on this date in 1781.
From a cave in the Esterel Mountains looming over the French Riviera, Gaspard raided the ample traffic wealthy merchants sent to and from the Mediterranean and Italy. He established a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” profile by dint of his targets and populist provocations like, “the two scourges of Provence are the mistral and the parliament!”
Legend holds that he was unfailingly courteous in his raids and never killed those he preyed upon.
No surprise, he did not enjoy a like deference once one of his gang betrayed him. Hopefully amid the limb-shattering blows of the executioner he could console himself with the prospect of posterity’s renown.
(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)
October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.
Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.
It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.
17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.
On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.
The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.
Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:
in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.
On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.
Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.
Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.
A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)
Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.
Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.
“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”
Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”
The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.
The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”
They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.
What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.
“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.
The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”
But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.
O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”
“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.
Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.
[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.
“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.
“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?
Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.
We have had occasion to profile the famous Nuremberg executioner (and diarist) Franz Schmidt, who is the subject of a recent book on his life and times.
This date in 1589 marked one of executioner Schmidt’s more high-profile appearances. The occasion was the execution of parricide Franz Seuboldt, who killed his own father by ambush while dad was setting bird traps.
For this transgression, Seuboldt was condemned to be drawn through Nuremberg and “nipped” by the executioner’s red-hot tongs. With these, Franz Schmidt ripped bloody chunks of the murderer’s flesh. When at last they reached the “raven stone” execution platform outside Nuremberg’s sturdy walls, Schmidt stretched out his patient and set about methodically smashing his limbs with a heavy wooden “Catherine wheel”: “only” two limbs in Seuboldt’s case, before administering the coup de grace.
This broadsheet illustration traces the case in a U shape from crime (upper left) to tongs (foreground) to execution (right) and finally the mounted wheel.
Although reserved for more exceptional crimes than the everyday thefts that merited hanging, breaking on the wheel was a fairly common form of execution in Germany, France, and elsewhere in continental Europe for many, many years. Indeed, while the wheel would fade from the Nuremberg scene during the 17th century, the horrible device remained in (increasingly rare) use in France right up to the French Revolution.
Alv Erlingsson made his sea-dog bones in this conflict, terrorizing Hanseatic League fleets and eventually raiding the Danish coast as well. His “Viking” reputation proceeds not only from this mastery of the waves but from his willingness to direct it even against his own king and country.
Although he was a senior enough official to be dispatched as an envoy to the English king in 1286,* a falling-out with King Eric‘s brother Haakon led Erlingsson to actually attack Oslo the following year.** His marauders put it to the torch and murdered the garrison commander — after which Erlingsson was a robber baron in the fullest sense of both words.
He set up as a freebooter operating out of Riga and preying by land and sea on whomever he could lay a sword on: the Teutonic Knights fretted the “harmful wolves led by the Count of Tønsberg.” This too is a part of his Viking image: King Eric and the Hanse made peace soon enough so that everyone could resume getting rich on trade. Erlingsson didn’t, or couldn’t, make that arrangement and so made his way taking plunder from the fringes of proper civilization. From the standpoint of posterity he looks positively anachronistic.
Call it Viking or piratical, romantic or loathsome — it caught up with him quickly in 1290 when he was captured on the Danish coast. Now despite his high birth he had no clout of his own and no diplomatic protection to shield him from revenge against the devastation he had visited upon those lands.
Information on this amazing character is not as widely available as one might hope; there’s a useful biographical sketch of him by Gabriele Campbell here (already cited in this post). The same blogger also has a follow-up post unpacking the games of thrones taking place in the same milieu.
* England and Norway were on a friendly footing, and the countries were maneuvering towards terms for Norwegian-Scots Princess Margaret to come to the Scottish throne.
** Erlingsson’s successful 1287 attack on Oslo led directly to the initial construction (in the 1290s) of Akershus Fortress, to shore up that city’s defenses. This medieval castle still guards the port to this day; it also hosted the execution of Vidkun Quisling and several other condemned traitors after World War II.
On this date in 1715, the legendary outlaw Filip Mengstein was broken on the wheel in Dresden’s marketplace, along with four henchmen.
With the wiseguy nickname “Lips Tullian”, our cutthroat’s gangland derring-do cuts a truly timeless profile. But it happens that Lips did his cutting in the environs of Saxony and Bohemia, exploiting for many years lax domestic security in the Holy Roman Empire occasioned by the preoccupations of the Great Northern War. Legend has it that he was a former dragoon forced to take to the road around 1702 when he slew a comrade in a duel.
From wilderness haunts — there’s still a “Lips Tullian Hill” in Saxony’s Tharandt Forest — Tullian’s “Black Guard” gang sallied into towns to raid prosperous homes and churches. When caught, he had a knack for the dramatic breakout, returning again and again to his gang.
Alas, it was an unsuccessful escape attempt in 1713 that finally caused his captors of the day to realize who they had and put him to torture and, eventually, the brutal breaking-wheel execution.
Immortalized in subsequent folklore, especially in Bohemia, Lips Tullian is best noted recently as the subject of a popular 1970s Czech comic published (until Communist authorities suppressed it) by Mlady Svet. The illustrator Kaja Saudek based his Lips Tullian on the romantic 19th century interpretation of Kvidon de Felses — presenting him as a gold-hearted rogue with an impressively chiseled physique.
The moral panic (and torture-aided interrogation) that broke out when Trent’s Jews were suspected of having killed a Christian child led to a batch of executions in June 1475. But that was only the first act of a drama that would reach all the way to the courts of popes and emperors in the subsequent months … a conflict that would not end even when the last “murderer”, Israel, was broken on the wheel on January 19, 1476.
Trent lay at the southern fringe of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire,* literally halfway from Vienna to Rome … and Trent’s ambitious prince-bishop Johannes Hinderbach was likewise beholden to both those poles of authority.
The sitting pope, Sixtus IV, was pretty sympathetic to Jews in general and very definitely not okay with Hinderbach’s theater of torture and execution. Sixtus was certainly also feeling plenty of pushback from other Jewish communities in Europe to make sure Trent wouldn’t be a precedent for similar freakouts in the future, and from Christian elites who didn’t want muddleheaded fanatics running around.
In Trent, “the Jews” meant literally three households — a tiny handful of people. By contrast, in cosmopolitan, humanist Rome, Jews were prominent among the intelligentsia and their presence taken for granted. Sixtus had Jewish “advisors and physicians in the papal court. They were teachers of music, theater, and science. Rome was a center of Hebrew literature and publishing … Sixtus IV, like most of his predecessors, took his role as a defender of Jews from violence more or less for granted.”**
But Hinderbach and the Trentini refused to cooperate (Italian link) with the investigation. Hinderbach, for his part, was all-in on the Simonino story: just like today, nobody on the hook for a wrongful execution is going to advance his career by acknowledging that fact.
Resentfully, Hinderbach put his unwelcome papal visitor Battista Dei Guidici up in a crappy room, and “many people, moved more by furor than reason, temerity than devotion, threatened to kill the commissioner in the streets of the city, if he did not confirm the miracles and the asserted martyrdom” of little Simon. If anyone in Trent thought otherwise, he did not dare make it known to the closely-watched investigator.
Trent still had Jews in prison at this point, but Hinderbach resolutely prevented the pope’s agent from interviewing with them. “It was to be feared,” Hinderbach said, “that if he talked to them, he or his men could give some sign to the Jews, who would be rendered more obstinate, since they were always saying, ‘A man will come to free us.'”
After having bribed a servant to deliver word to the imprisoned Jewish women that they had an advocate, Dei Guidici relocated to nearby Venetian territory — “where innocent people are not killed, where Christians do not plunder Jews, as it was in Trent” — and papers started flying.
Dei Guidici appealed to — and eventually ordered — Hinderbach to release the remaining Jews in his custody, while the pope sent out directives quashing any preaching on Simon’s “martyrdom.” Italian Jews poured into Dei Guidici’s offices appealing for their fellows and attesting that they could not travel through Trent for fear of mob violence.† A verse from a Veronese rabbi dating to late 1475 curses the nearby city: “Hills of Trent, may you not have rain or dew / Seven times may you fall and not rise.”
Hinderbach, for his part, sent his own envoys to German cities that had persecuted Jews for ritual murder in the past to get his own paper trail establishing that, yes, the Hebrew liked a good drink of Christian blood. More significantly, as a prince-bishop, Hinderbach also sent his own appeals up the Holy Roman Empire’s secular chain of command, objecting to the ecclesiastical meddling.
Hinderbach’s only concession to his apostolic scold was to release the children he had in custody. In October 1475, his political machinations with the Habsburgs yielded authorization from the powerful Tirolean Archduke Sigismund to resume judicial proceedings against “the Jewish men and women you have in prison” and “render justice as it should be, and let the death sentences be carried out.”
Interrogations for six Jewish men still in custody resumed on October 25, again with the aid of the horrible strappado to confirm and elaborate upon the already-determined official story of Simon’s martyrdom.
Denial — or even confessing, but guessing the wrong detail to “admit” — was not an option, as this October 26 interrogation record indicates.
He was asked whether he saw the murdered boy.
JOAFF [one of the Jewish households’ servants]: In the ditch.
He was ordered stripped, tied by the rope, and hoisted up.
JOAFF: Let me down, I’ll speak the truth.
PODESTA: Speak it on the ropes.
JOAFF: I have never done anything evil.
He was hoisted up and dropped.
This continues until Joaff has been dropped enough times to agree that he saw Simon’s body on Saturday night, on a bench in the synagogue. They knew that was the truth because it confirmed what they already wanted to hear.
This would be the end of Trent’s Jewish men in January 1476.
Israel, a 23-year-old copyist, was the last to die, and his fate is particularly poignant.
He had half-escaped the pall of death by accepting baptism the previous spring, and lived freely during the following months under the name Wolfgang. Dei Guidici interviewed him, one of the few productive sessions the pope’s man was able to arrange in Trent, and learned thereby of the details of Hinderbach’s interrogations.
Once Dei Guidici withdrew to Venetian soil, Jews of that principality would begin reaching out to “Wolfgang” in their efforts to communicate with the remaining imprisoned Jews.
This skullduggery came came apart when the persecution fired back up in October, and Israel was re-arrested, and put again and repeatedly to the rope. He was a man bound to be crushed by the legal machinery arrayed against him, but it was not only that. As Israel was well-traveled, he was tortured for information about ritual murders in other German cities; his forced denunciation of 14 named Jews in Regensburg initiated a blood-libel proceeding in that city that was only aborted by intervention from the Emperor himself.
And while Israel struggled to portray himself as a faithful convert and appeal to little Simon for an exculpatory miracle that never came, he at least once threw aside the mask to give his tormenters a piece of his mind.
PODESTA: What did he think of the Christian faith?
ISRAEL: He wants to say the truth. He does not believe in anything of the Christian faith … It is a joke to say that God came down from heaven to earth, walked around and lived among men. He believes only in God and nothing more. He believes also that the Jewish faith is right and holy.
PODESTA: Does he believe that it is right, according to Jewish law, that Jews kill Christian children and drink and eat their blood as he himself had said.
ISAREL: He believes firmly that it is right that Jews kill Christian children and eat their blood. He wants to have Christian blood at Easter, even now that he is baptized he wants to die a Jew.
Four other Jews from Trent died by hanging earlier in January 1476. The last one put to death was Israel on January 19 — “thief, eater and drinker of Christian blood, poisoner, blasphemer, traitor, and an enemy of Christ and Godly majesty.”
Even his death did not finally put a stop to the affair, for the women of the Jewish community were still in prison, and still being tortured as late as March. They would eventually accept baptism as the price of their release.
Meanwhile, Hinderbach and Dei Guidici carried their scrap to the curia. Hinderbach’s dogged advocacy of his burgeoning cult of Simon — and the odd ad hominem against his foe here and there — won some allies against Dei Guidici’s protests against “the peril which would be incumbent on the Christian religion, on account of the dealings in Trent, and the lies that would reach the ignorant.”
In the end, the Church decided it on political grounds. It could not encourage more Trents; neither could it invite the scandal of disavowing the one that had already taken place. It upheld Hinderbach’s conduct while also reiterating standing prohibitions against blood-libel trials or oppressing the Jews.
Hinderbach very naturally took this as vindication and spent the balance of his life propagating the Simonino cult. Artwork throughout northern Italy, some of it still visible in situ today in its original public monuments and chapel frescoes, attested to his success.
In the dungeons of these buildings, where once a synagogue stood, and now a shrine, the blessed martyr Simon of Trent, in his 29th month of life, was killed with excruciating pain by the Jews in the deep of the night of April 10, 1475 A.D.
The Simon of Trent cult — never the face of Christianity that the institutional church really wanted to feature — was only officially suppressed in the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council.
* Trent’s position on the frontier of the Italian and German worlds is also the reason the next century’s major anti-Reformation Council of Trent was held there.
** Sixtus wasn’t all good news for Jews. More from political necessity than affirmative desire, he also authorized the Spanish Inquisition and appointed Torquemada.
† During this time, Dei Guidici also managed to extract a Trent resident named Anzelino Austoch. Under Dei Guidici’s torture, Austoch accused the man named der Schweizer, “the Swiss” — the very man who had suggested that the Jewish homes be searched for Simon’s body — of committing the murder. Dei Guidici clearly believed that either the Schweizer, or Austoch, or both, had actually killed Simon and intentionally framed the city’s Jews.
‡ Trent does not, of course, still avow the legitimacy of these proceedings; the city has elsewhere put up plaques apologizing for it.