Posts filed under 'Burned'

1704: Roland Laporte, posthumously, and five aides, humously

1 comment August 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1704, the great Camisard commander Pierre Laporte was publicly burned. He was already two days dead, but the same could not be said by five comrades-in-rebellion who were quite alive as they were broken on the wheel.

Familiarly known by the nom de guerre “Roland”, Laporte (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed French) was a whelp of 22 when entrusted with command of about 400 Protestant guerrillas operating around Lassalle, and his native Mialet.

These were rebels in a very dirty regional civil war in France’s heavily Protestant southeast, following the crown’s revocation of tolerance for the heretics. Roland proved himself one of its ablest prosecutors, putting Catholics to fire and sword be they enemy troops or wrongthinking neighbors.

By 1704 the insurgency was circling the drain as Camisard officers were either killed off or bought off. Our self-proclaimed “general of the children of god” was not the type to be had for 30 pieces of silver plus an army commission,* and so only violence would do for him. On August 14, betrayed by an informer who was amenable to purchase, Roland was slain in a Catholic ambush at Castelnau-les-Valence. Five officers escorting him opted not to go down fighting and surrendered instead, which proved a regrettable decision.

But even death could not slake the vengeance of his foes. “On the 16th August, 1704, the body of Roland Laporte, general of the Camisards … was dragged into Nimes at the tail of a cart and burnt, while 5 of his companions were broken on the wheel around his funeral pyre.”

For the unusually interested reader, there’s a 1954 French biography by Henri Bosc — who also authored a multi-volume history of the Camisard war — titled Un Grand Chef Camisard Pierre Laporte dit Roland, 1680-1704. It’s long out of print and appears to be difficult to come by.

* Not long before Roland’s defeat, just such a deal had shockingly induced fellow Camisard commander Jean Cavalier to turn coat.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Mass Executions,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Terrorists,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1293: Capocchio, Inferno-bound

Add comment August 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1293, the heretic and alchemist Capocchio was burned at the stake in Siena.

Little is known about about this man’s life, but thanks to his contemporary Dante we know a great deal about his afterlife. Capocchio appears among the “Falsifiers” or “Imposters” haunting the eighth circle of hell in Cantos XXIX and XXX of the Inferno.

We meet Capocchio butting into a conversation Dante is having with a different (also executed) shade — Capocchio crying out to support their mutual disdain for the “flighty” Sienese.

“But should you want to know who seconds you
Against the Sienese, direct your eyes to me
So that my face can give you a clear answer:
 
“See, I am the shade of Capocchio
Who falsified base metals through alchemy
And, if I read you rightly, you recall
 
“How fine an ape of nature I have been.”

This remark implies that Dante might have known Capocchio in life. Dante had a vivid destiny in mind for his maybe-acquaintance a few passages later, when

two shadows I saw, stripped and pallid,
Biting and running in the selfsame way
A hog behaves when let out of the sty.
 
One came straight at Capocchio and sank
His tusks into his scruff and, dragging him,
Scraped his stomach against the stony floor.
 
And the one left behind, the Aretine,
Shivering said, “That ghoul is Gianni Schicchi,
And he goes rabid, like that, mauling others.”

The attacker was another notorious imposter, with an artistic legacy of his own in the form of Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi … or both together on canvas via William-Adolphe Bouguereau.


Dante e Virgilio by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) has the two named characters contemplating from the background as Gianni Schicchi takes a bite out of Capocchio.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Death Penalty,Execution,Heresy,Italy,Pelf,Public Executions

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1599: Elisabeth Strupp, Gelnhausen witch

Add comment August 3rd, 2018 Headsman

The German town of Gelnhausen executed Elisabeth Strupp as a witch on this date in 1599.


Sculpture erected before Gelnhausen’s Marienkirche on the 400th anniversary of Elisabeth Strupp’s prosecution; it is one of five monuments to the victims of Gelnhausen’s witch hunts — all 52 of whom were symbolically rehabilitated in 2015.

The widow of a Protestant pastor,* Strupp is little known for her life. Strupp was probably in her sixties when a preceding accused witch, one Barbara Scherer, served Strupp’s name up to interrogators in a Hexenprozesse.


Illustration of a witches’ sabbat, from the Swiss National Museum.

The usual farrago of gossip and defamation then compiled itself into legal trappings sufficient for execution: a woman who miscarried after Strupp stroked her belly; some foul words exchanged with a maid; a couple of townsfolk who had suffered random injuries that they attributed to Elisabeth Strupp’s influence; and some colorful confessions of black sabbaths. Her rank earned her only the “privilege” of beheading prior to burning.

Elisabeth Strupp is the best-known witch hunted in Gelnhausen, thanks in part to a romantic early 20th century novel by Heinrich Zipf which names her “Maria” and considerably fictionalizes her story. This book is presumably in the public domain, but if it’s available online I have not been able to locate it.

* The Strupp family had been instrumental in the early promulgation of Lutheranism in Gelnhausen.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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1550: Jacopo Bonfadio, indiscreet

Add comment July 19th, 2018 George Bruce Malleson

(Thanks to George Bruce Malleson for the guest post on Italian humanist Jacopo Bonfadio (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). Although time’s ravages against the original legal paper trail has fogged the matter, it appears to be July 19 of 1550* that the Republic of Genoa took Bonfadio’s head for sodomy. In our more queer-friendly time, many scholars now believe (contra our Victorian guest author) that the scandalous charge might well have been accurate, although also one that most observers believe was invoked due to Bonfadio’s creditable disdain for protecting the secrets of the powerful. Malleson’s biographical vignette was originally published Studies from Genoese History. -ed.)

To possess genius — to have cultivated your talents to a degree which places you above the level of a prejudiced and half-educated community — to be incorruptible in a corrupt society — to have acquired, in virtue of your office, secrets which make you dreaded by the guilty — these are crimes which society, in a low state of morality, never has forgiven, never will forgive. They are, in fact, crimes which in every age have driven the perpetrator of them to exile, to proscription, and to death!

The truth of this statement has been illustrated by many noble examples, but of these there is not one more striking than that of Jacopo Bonfadio.

One of the most brilliant writers of the sixteenth century, a philosopher, a poet, and a historian, occupying one of the most important posts in the republic of Genoa, it was the fate of Bonfadio to be sentenced to be burnt alive for an offence which he had not committed, simply because, in his Annals of the Genoese, he had given certain indication of the possession of knowledge, which some influential families considered compromised themselves.

This was the sole crime of Jacopo. He was a self-made man; he had raised himself by his own abilities to the position he occupied; he was the intellectual life of Genoa; he possessed the confidence and affection of the learned; yet from this great position he was hurried to death by the machinations of the half-educated, corrupt, and demoralised amongst the influential families of the ‘proud city.’ [“la Superba”, the city’s nickname -ed.]

What he was, intellectually, may be gathered from the recorded opinions of his contemporaries, and of the great writers of subsequent ages. Thus, the French writer, Antoine Teissier, who flourished in the second half of the seventeenth century, pronounces him ‘l’un des plus beaux esprits d’ltalie;’ Menagio places him in the front rank amongst the poets of Italy; Bayle, in his dictionary, speaks of him as one of the best writers of the sixteenth century. ‘His private letters in particular,’ writes Mazzuchelli, ‘are held in the greatest esteem, so that not only are they considered equal to those of our best masters, such as Caro, Tasso, and Tolomei, but they are preferred by the soundest critics to the choicest productions of all the others. I do not propose to prove this by the sole authority of Octavio Rossi, who calls the style of his familiar letters “unique and inimitable,” for I can cite as strong supporters both Gianmatteo Toscano, who affirms without hesitation that Bonfadio might be regarded “in epistolis familiaribus Etrusca lingua tenui stylo, ac presso compositis, omnium Princeps;” and Scipione Ammirato, a judge not less competent, who frankly asserts that “he knows not what there is of polish in the art and manner of writing letters which is not to be found in the letters of Bonfadio.” Many other authorities are cited; but I need only name one, that of Ludovico Dolce, who, writing to Count Fortunate Martineiigo, thus expresses himself: ‘I have a liking for many men, but an especial liking for Bonfadio. I often see his letters, and I adore them.’

To his most famous work, The Annals of Genoa from 1528 to 1550, intended as the continuation of the history of Uberto Foglietta, it would be difficult to ascribe too much praise. The style is admittedly clear, elegant, and precise. But there belongs to it a greater praise — a praise the greatest of all — but which, by a strange contradiction of right, was earned by a quality which caused the death of the author. This quality, so rare, has thus been described in the concluding lines of a sonnet addressed to him by Alessandro Piccolomini, and which thus terminates:

Dunque direm de vostri scritti poi,
Quel che forse di rado in altro e detto;
Cosl series’ei, cosi fu fatto a punto.

And which may thus be imperfectly rendered:

In your writings we feel most acutely
A virtue so rarely conferred;
The events you describe so minutely
Are just the events which occurred.

It was because these annals were so true — I may say, so uncompromising in their truth — that they drew upon the author an anger, born of a lax perception of moral duties, which could only be satiated by his death. Written by Bonfadio in Latin, and translated into Italian by Paschetti, in 1586, they constitute to the present day the most valuable history of the events of the administration of the country after the recovery of its liberty by Andrea Doria, including the account of the conspiracy of Gianluigi Fiesco.

I will but briefly refer to the other writings of Bonfadio. They may, including those specially mentioned, be comprised under the following headings: I. His ‘Carmina,’ or Latin elegies; II. His rhymes. III. His letters. IV. His translation into Italian of the oration of Cicero in defence of Milo. V. The Annals of Genoa. VI. Poems translated from the Greek.

Regarding these I will extract only one criticism, and that will be on his elegies. Of these Antonio Abate Sambuca writes: ‘To all who examine them they appear a chef-d’oeuvre, whether for the perfection and regularity of the language, for the strength and novelty of the sentences, for the expression of the affections and manners, for the nobleness of the figures, for the clearness and sweetness of the style, and for the happiness and vividness of the rhyme.’ Of his poetry I shall give specimens at the end of the story, which I propose now to narrate, of his career.

The precise date of the birth of Jacopo Bonfadio has not been traced, but it is certain that he came into the world about the year 1500. He was born in Gazano, a small property in the Riviera di Said, in the province of Brescia. This property was situated between Salo and the river Clisi. He always believed that his family was of German origin, of noble race, and that his ancestors, settling on the banks of the river Clisi, had pursued there the vocation of blacksmiths. Such was the family tradition; but there seems reason to believe that he may have been mistaken, and that his ancestors were mountaineers of Brescia. This, however, is of little consequence.

Jacopo early displayed a happy disposition, and his natural genius was fostered by a careful education. At an early age he was sent to Verona and placed under the care of Signor Niccolo Pellegrini. Thence he migrated to Padua, to finish his studies at the university of that famous city. Here he so distinguished himself as to be accounted one of the most promising scholars of the university, from which he in after years received the degree of doctor of law.

His education completed, he set out for Rome — then the arena for the debut of a young man of ambition and of education. His first step seemed to promise success, for he was almost immediately appointed secretary to Cardinal di Bari. In this office he remained till the death of the cardinal, three years later. His life at this period he thus describes, in a letter written subsequently to his friend, Francesco della Torre: ‘For three years at Rome I served Cardinal di Bari in a very honourable position — that of secretary to himself — and I received from that Signor all the kindnesses which can be desired, without my asking for even one. And, besides presents, which he gave me every year, he promised to obtain for me a good position, in the most obliging manner, for he said I should not hope for it as emanating from his courtesy, but from my deserts. But when the time came he died, and all my hopes vanished.’

The loss thus sustained by Bonfadio was a great one. Again was he on the world. The new cardinal, Girolamo Ghinucci, did indeed appoint him as secretary, but he found himself on a footing very different to that he had occupied under his predecessor. ‘I served then,’ wrote he in the same letter to della Torre, ‘in the same office, Cardinal Ghinucci; and although one of his ministers, a man born in the country and brought up in the mountains, who had come smoke-dried and starved to Rome, with the old fierceness of soul and thenew avidity for office — although, I say, this man, who could do much, persecuted me with bitter hatred, in order to give my place to one of his friends, yet I might have hoped to obtain from the cardinal the post which Messer Giacomo Gallo, who succeeded to me, had afterwards, but, for my misfortune, a serious and long illness deprived me of my secretaryship.’

It was probably a little after this time, when at Venice, on his way to his native place, that Bonfadio incurred the temporary displeasure of two famous men of letters, his friends Paolo Manuzio and the Padre Ottavio Pantagato. It would appear that some four years previously the padre had made certain corrections in translations made by Bonfadio from the orations of Cicero. The translations as originally made Bonfadio had given to Manuzio, but he had refused to send him the emendations. Nevertheless, he did give or sell these to a printer named Giunta. The story is chiefly interesting from the insight afforded into his character by the letters of excuse he wrote on the subject to Manuzio: ‘Tramentino,’ he wrote, ‘gave me your letter. You can conceive how agreeable it was to me, and I thank you from my heart. I shall reply confusedly, for my mind is now agitated by pleasure and displeasure. I shall begin with that which weighs most upon it.

‘It is true that on the departure from Venice of the friend to whom I owed my life, it being necessary for him, in a matter concerning his honour, to go to Rome — he having no money even for his journey I was assailed by him with the most earnest and ardent prayers I ever heard, and, having no other means of succouring him, I did give to Giunta those corrections made four years ago by Padre Ottavio in certain orations of Cicero which you had from me in the Casa Colonna. … And although the cause which induced me to do this was one of humanity and duty, as you see, I am nevertheless liable to be blamed by the other side because I have disobliged you.’ He proceeds then to enter more fully, and with great feeling and eloquence into the case. The letter is a masterpiece of pleading, and of successful pleading, for it removed all anger from the mind of Manuzio.

Shortly after this correspondence Bonfadio received an offer to proceed to Spain in the suite of the Signor Guido Bagno, envoy of the Duke of Mantua. He accepted the appointment, in every respect very desirable, but he arrived at Rome to take it up only to find that Guido Bagno had just died. Full of sad thoughts Bonfadio at once quitted Rome for the kingdom of Naples. In this he passed many months travelling. He visited the places most famous for their beauty, their antiquity, and their historical recollections,. reaping much enjoyment, though, he adds very feelingly in a letter, no profit. In fact, his means at this period appear to have been extremely restricted. Having explored Naples, and found it intellectually barren, Bonfadio had resolved to proceed by sea to Venice, thence by land to Padua — the city of his education. But at this juncture he received a letter from his friend Marcantonio Flaminio, strongly urging him to return by way of Rome, as he would find in that city a patron in the person of Cardinal Ridolfo Pio di Carpi. He followed the advice, was well received by the cardinal, and assigned a stipend. Still retaining this he set out for Padua, where he had determined to fix his abode. He proceeded thither by way of Florence and Ferrara, renewing his acquaintance with valued friends at both those places. Arrived at Padua, fortified by his five years’ experience of the shallowness and instability of a courtier’s life, Bonfadio applied himself steadily to the study of the fine arts and of philosophy. He lodged in the house of Cardinal Bembo, who had for him so great an esteem that he appointed him one of the tutors to his son Torquato. He devoted likewise a considerable portion of his time to the education of the youth of the city, earning thereby their gratitude — for his name had become already established.

During his stay of from four to five years in Padua it was the custom of Bonfadio to make autumnal visits to various parts of the country. Thus, in the month of September, 1541, we find him at Verona; in October at Colognola, enjoying the society of his distinguished friend, Marcantonio Flaminio. More than once, too, he visited his native Gazano. The good effect on him of the re-opening of ties which exist between a man and the place in which he is born he thus recounts in one of his letters: ‘You know well,’ he writes, ‘that in Padua I was often tormented by a cloud of black thoughts, and that I came here to recover my serenity. That which I could not do myself by myself; that which you could not do by faithful reminders, by sweet reprovals, nor by efficacious prayers — for you are indeed a true friend to me; that which time could not do, although it is generally accustomed to do it — to be the only author of joy — that did in a moment the sight of this Riviera; for at the very first glance a deep sigh issued from my heart, and seemed to take away from me a mountain of humours, which till then had weighed me down.’

In a letter to another friend he thus expresses himself: ‘I am longing for the time to come when I may be there. Oh, happy time! I shall be in Gazano with the mountains and the rivers near me. Every eight days I shall descend to the lake, free from those thoughts which have kept my mind withered and burnt up. Carrying in my heart a lake of perfect joy, I shall go diverting myself, living a pure life, an Arcadian life with shepherds, shepherdesses, and the muses.’

It is not difficult to divine the cause of the sad thoughts to which Bonfadio alludes in these letters. He had, since his arrival in Padua, been mainly dependent for his livelihood upon the stipend granted him by cardinal Ridolfo Pio di Carpi. This stipend the cardinal suddenly, and without given reason, stopped. It became then difficult for Bonfadio to live in Padua in a style suited to his position and increasing fame. On this subject he thus wrote to his friend Francesco della Torre: ‘You know the conditions on which I now live in Padua; and it is because the maintenance I enjoy is not very secure, — not, indeed, because the Signor who keeps me here, Cardinal Bembo, is not very liberal, — I am always fearful lest it should diminish, — and the doubt which I feel regarding the future is the reason why I do not enjoy the present.’

Many thoughts of how to better his position appear to have crossed his mind at this period. At one time he endeavours to obtain the position of tutor in a well-to-do family; at another he strives to establish an academy for instruction in moral philosophy and ethics; at another he asks for an ecclesiastical benefice. But, if all these efforts were unsuccessful, a very long time did not elapse before he reaped the fruit of his studies. Just after he had learned that his application for the benefice was not likely to prove successful, there came to him from Genoa the offer of the Chair of Philosophy in that city. He promptly accepted it, and repaired without delay to his post some time in the year 1545.

Bonfadio went to his new labours with a light and cheerful heart. Nothing could have whispered to him that he was about to take up his abode amongst a people by whom his erudition, his honesty, his want of sympathy with every kind of corruption, would be imputed to him as the most heinous of all crimes. There was no cloud on- his brow now. In the other parts of Italy in which he had lived, he had been esteemed, honoured, and loved. The voice of envy and jealousy had never been raised against him. Enjoying at Rome, at Naples, and at Padua, the society of the most cultivated and intellectual men of the day, he might well have hoped to find some members of that class in the city still virtually governed by Andrea Doria. At all events there could be no suspicion in his mind that the very virtues which had caused him to be selected for the post to which he had been called, would prove, in the eyes of an influential portion of the Genoese society, defects so great as to necessitate his death.

We find recorded in his own letters his first impression of Genoa and its society. ‘I like Genoa,’ wrote he, after his arrival, to his friend Count Fortunate Martinengo. ‘I like Genoa, both for its position, and for all those peculiarities about it which you have seen. I have some friends, amongst them Messer Azzolino Sauli, a well-educated and refined young man. This winter I read the first of the Politica of Aristotle to an elderly audience, rather merchants than scholars. I am, then, up to a certain point happy, but am not without some annoyances. Towards the end of July I shall come to Brescia on my way to the lake.’ It is clear from this extract that he was little satisfied with the quality of his scholars. The same dissatisfaction may be traced in another of his letters. He writes: ‘The country is beautiful, the air good, the conversation agreeable; and if the intellects here were as fond of letters as they are of traffic in sea matters, I should be still better pleased.’ Still he never hesitated to declare himself quite satisfied with his lot, and ambitious of nothing beyond it.

To the duty of reading philosophy there soon became joined another. This was no less than to take up the history of the Republic at the point where it had been left by Uberto Foglietta, and to continue it. Bonfadio willingly applied himself to the task thus thrust upon him by the Republic. It was a noble undertaking. In 1528 Andrea Doria had restored to Genoa her liberty, and from that date Bonfadio started his annals. He had to write, in fact, the history of Genoa under the constitution which had been the first to secure her against the constant contests for authority amongst the great families — contests which up to that time had filled so large a part of her domestic history. The work was executed in a manner that may be pronounced perfect, whether with respect to the happy style or the accuracy of statement which characterised it. But it happened that amongst the events recorded in the twenty-two years, the story of the conspiracy of Gianluigi Fieschi occupied a very prominent place. Now all the archives of the State had been open to the inspection of Bonfadio. Either by their means, or by others to which, from his position, he was allowed to have recourse, he had become acquainted with a heap of secrets compromising many members of the aristocratic families. The reader who has accompanied me so far will probably recollect that many families belonging to the Portico Nuovo had given their adhesion to Fiesco; that even after the conspiracy had failed the Senate had actually treated with the elder surviving brother of the drowned Gianluigi; and that it was due, solely and entirely, to the personal influence of Andrea Doria, that that august body had consented to pursue ‘to the bitter end’ hostilities against the members of the family. It is very evident that the Fieschi had been supported openly by many, secretly by a considerable number, of the members of the Senate. It may even be inferred that their adherents were not to be counted in the Portico Nuovo alone.

In the Centuria No. 35, Trajano Boccalini gives the following figurative account of the appearance in Parnassus before the King of Heaven of Jacopo Bonfadio, after he had undergone the sentence pronounced against him, that of being burnt alive. ‘Hardly,’ he writes, ‘had the stoic youth been dismissed when there appeared in the hall of audience, all singed by the fire, Jacopo Bonfadio. He informed His Majesty that having been invited by the Genoese to write the history of their country, — solely because some of them had found him most resolved to write it with the dignity befitting an historian, without respect of persons, obeying only the voice of truth, — he had been terribly persecuted and accused of vice; that he thus had lost at the same time his reputation and his life. Apollo,’ pursues Boccalini, ‘contrary to the opinion of the rest, not only showed no compassion for the learned man, but informed Bonfadio in severe language that although the charge on which he had been tried might be entirely false, he did not the less deserve to be so treated by the Genoese by reason of his shameful imprudence. Because the writing of matters prejudicial to the honour of influential people during their lifetime and that of their sons, however true the matters might be, displayed rather imprudence or rashness than an uncorrupted mind and a love of truth; that a man must be a fool who should think he could preserve his life from the anger of an influential man whose reputation and perhaps even, whose honour he had attacked and soiled with his pen.’

There may possibly be some who would agree with Apollo.

-One of Malleson’s footnotes

Now, in writing the annals of that conspiracy, two courses were open to Bonfadio, — the honest and the dishonest course. He might tell the truth or he might disguise it. There was no middle way. The object of the compilation of the annals was to ensure for posterity an authentic record of the events of each year, without favour or affection for any man or any body of men. It was probably to ensure this result that the task had been entrusted to a distinguished foreigner, — though an Italian, — rather than to a born Genoese. Truth and impartiality were even more essential than a good style. Bonfadio possessed this peculiar qualification for the task, in that, whilst a distinguished writer, he had apparently no interest to conceal the truth. Obliged to speak, his inner conscience forced him to speak all he knew.

For such a man there could be but one course. Yet in Genoa — the city in which the educated people were money-making rather than intellectual — it was a course fraught with danger. The stern old man whose vigilance and caution had received so terrible a blow from Gianluigi Fiesco, and whose fiat was still supreme in Genoa, had not yet satiated his vengeance. The publication of all the secrets Bonfadio had acquired would, besides, induce the inference that he possessed others which he had not as yet divulged. The secrets of half the nobility of the city would thus be dependent on his forbearance. Yet Bonfadio did not hesitate. His Annals were found to contain such an account of the baffled conspiracy as could be acquired only by one who had acquainted himself with its most secret springs.

Then occurred one of those resolutions which most surely mark a low temperature of morality in a society. Bonfadio, it was evident, possessed certain secrets which many members of both Portici knew to be compromising to themselves. It was not as if each of those members had made a confidant of his fellow. Bonfadio, by the knowledge he had displayed in his annals, showed that he knew the secrets of each. Not one was sure that he might not at any moment be denounced. Without confiding in each other, all the secret conspirators knew instinctively that Jacopo Bonfadio was the common enemy of all.

Instinctively, too, each man simultaneously felt that Bonfadio must be got rid of. Not simply banished, for then he might tell his tale in other lands, but so dealt with that his tongue might be for ever silenced. Bonfadio, in fact, must die.

But how to accomplish his death. His life had been blameless. He was unmarried. They could not strike him through a wife. But he must be got rid of. The lie which could alone effect this must be a good one; it must have something in it of probability; something which was associated with the previous habits of the man. To unscrupulous Spirits of the baser sort the fabrication of such a lie was easy. It was produced. An infamous crime was manufactured, and Jacopo Bonfadio was Condemned to be burnt alive.

It is curious that of the process of this illustrious man no records are now to be found in the archives of Genoa. To an enquiry made on the subject by the author of the history of his life, Count Giainmaria Mazzuchelli, the following answer was returned: ‘The process of Bonfadio is not in the archives, nor are there any of his writings but the annals. I will search, in other places, but I cannot flatter myself that I shall be able to throw any light on the subject.’ Subsequently: ‘After having diligently searched in three different archives, in which it was possible something might be found, I have discovered nothing regarding Bonfadio, by which I conclude the process has either been taken away or burnt.’

Through the intercession and interest of his friends the sentence of burning was commuted into one of beheading, and this was duly carried into execution in the course of the year 1550. Bonfadio betrayed to the last all the consciousness of innocence. The following letter, the last of his on record, was written to his friend, Signor Giambattista Grimaldi, some short time before the sad event: ‘I am sorry to die, because it does not seem to me that I deserve so great a punishment; but I submit myself to the will of God. I am sorry, too, because I die ungrateful, not being able to thank so many honoured gentlemen who have toiled and laboured for me, and especially yourself. I give you, from the bottom of my heart, infinite thanks, and I consign to you and to Signor Domenico Grillo, and to Signor Cipriano Pallavicino, my nephew Bonfadino. My body will be buried in San Lorenzo; and if, from the world beyond, it shall be possible for me to convey to any friend a sign without terrifying him, I will give it. May all of you remain happy!’

Such was the end of Jacopo Bonfadio, a man who received death as the reward for exposing, in the course of duty, the crimes of the society of which he was a noble member. I have adopted the view that he was innocent of the crime attributed to him — that that crime was invented to screen delinquents from his censure — because that view is supported by the best authorities. Thus, Ghilini, in his ‘Teatro d’Uomini litterati,’ attributes the death of Bonfadio to ‘his having too freely, and perhaps more freely than became a historian, written severely of some families of Genoa.’ So, likewise, Carlo Caporali affirms that ‘Bonfadio, invited by the Genoese to write the history of their country, for speaking too freely, was, under other pretexts, condemned to the flames ;’ and in the’ Biblioteca Natiana’ it is stated that ‘Bonfadio was badly paid for his Annals, since, having spoken ill of some member of a noble family, he was accused, although innocent, of a shameful crime, and condemned to be burnt.’

The same sentiment was expressed by the celebrated poet Gianillateo Toscano, in the following lines:

Non mimis intumuit nuper Benaeus alumni.
Bonfadii, ac Musis, docte Catulle, tuis,
Bis tamen infelix: rapuit nam Roma Catullum
Bonfadium Letho das scolerate Ligur.
Historia teternum eujus, fera Genua, vivis
Immeritum sseva lege neoare potcs?
Mitius est, quod te spumanti vortice marmor
Pundit; et es scopulis durior ipsa tuis.

Trajano Boccalini, again, takes occasion to warn all writers of history, by the example of Bonfadio, against writing anything prejudicial to the honour of powerful members of a community; whilst Garuffi, in ‘Italia Academica,’ expressly asserts that ‘the capital crime of Bonfadio was his having described, with the freedom which is the duty of an historian, the conspiracy of the Fieschi.’ Finally Ottavio Rossi declares that’Bonfadio was really doomed to death for secret reasons of State, and not for the crime imputed to him.’ It is true that the historian, Mazzuchelli, summing up the various opinions which he cites, thinks it not impossible that he may have appeared guilty of having incurred the hatred of certain families, and also of the crime; but whilst he rests the evidence of his guilt of the crime solely upon some Latin verses written at the time by Bonfadio’s friend, Manuzio, who, in his turn, accepted the sentence as proof of guilt, Mazzuchelli proceeds to indicate that he may have made enemies not only by the freedom of his Annals, but by the honest freedom of his tongue, one example of which he cites. The opinion, then, of Mazzuchelli is certainly not borne out by the concurrent testimony I have cited, nor would it appear to be endorsed by later writers. Of these I will cite only one, Giunio Carbone whose work, the ‘Compendium of the History of Liguria,’ appeared in 1837.
Carbone thus sums up the case:

To write history, a mind resolute and impervious to fear is necessary. To expose nakedly the facts of a case is but a small thing; but to reveal the causes, to point to the consequences, and to assign to each actor his proper part, is the proper office of an historian. When this is done with respect to men of a past era, no danger is incurred; but, when men still living are referred to, it becomes necessary to offend either truth or the wrong-doers. For the first fault posterity will punish us; for the second, the offended wrong-doers will fabricate vengeance. It is never difficult for human malignity to paint its charges with the colour of reason. Jacopo Bonfadio had lived the greater part of his life wandering and unhappy. Nature had endowed him with a mind never satisfied with itself. After many wanderings he settled in Genoa, the life in which pleased him. To him was then allotted the duty of writing the annals of the Republic, and all the grandees of Liguria emulated with each other to do him honour. He wrote his work with great spirit and elegance, though not altogether with prudence, especially in his account of the conspiracy of the Fieschi. As an eyewitness of the event, and possibly aware of the part taken in it by certain grandees, he could neither suppress nor soften certain light allusions and certain pointed indications, which, in our days, may, indeed, have lost their significance, but at that time were as knives and spears piercing the hearts of many powerful nobles.

‘Now, those who were pricked in their own consciences, and who knew that Bonfadio was acquainted with their many secrets, terrified lest he should make still more important and damaging disclosures, tortured their ingenuity how they might rid themselves of him. Examining, then, very minutely his habits and mode of life, and finding therein no fault, not even a pretext, whereby they might convict him of a State crime, they thought they might compass his destruction by accusing him of some grave outrage against religion or morality … A process having been instituted against him, and he having been declared guilty, he was condemned to be decapitated and then burnt. The sentence was executed. But I do not believe, nor is it possible for me to believe, that he suffered so severe a penalty for a crime of that nature; nor can I conceive how the Ligurian Senate would have been so severe and ferocious in an age when Pierluigi Farnese boasted of greater atrocities, the indecent accounts of which were circulated in every country. No! the death of Bonfadio is attributable to far more potent causes — to the terror of that hypocrisy which veils the deadliest vengeance with professions of religion and of virtue, to the necessity of applying discipline to one who speaks about the most important affairs of the age in which he lives.

I cannot conclude this sketch of the life of this famous man, ‘whose writings,’ wrote Mazzuchelli, with great truth, ‘will live for ever immortal in the memory of the learned,’ without giving a few quotations from his letters and poems. It cannot but be interesting to know the opinion which such a man had formed of himself, the account which he has left of his habits and mode of life. These details, fortunately, still exist recorded in his letters to his most intimate friends. Thus, in a letter written in Genoa to his friend and patron, Signor Giovanibatista Grimaldi, he says: ‘Your Lordship having inquired about me from Messer Stefano Penello, it appears to me that I am bound to give you some information about myself. As to literature, it is true that I know less of it than I should like to know, and of the little I do know I don’t care to vaunt, for I detest arrogance, and am by nature inclined to its opposite. As to my life and habits, I would rather be accounted sincere and modest than a man of learning and letters. Above all, I love truth and honesty, nor can I change in this respect. … I am a man of few words, neither very cheerful nor melancholy, but very thoughtful, even more so than is good for me. In Rome I exhausted what I had of ambition, and I have learned to bear every inconvenience. I do not care for it when it comes, nor does it seem to me very strange when it does come, and I accommodate myself without ceremony to whatever may happen. I avoid the proud, but to .whoever shows me the smallest sign of courtesy I am the humble servant; nor do I ever insult anyone.’ Again, in a letter to a friend, dated Genoa, December 26, 1547, Bonfadio thus writes: ‘You deceive yourself if you think that I am other than I am. I am poor, alike with respect to nature, to fortune, and to virtue. Regarding the first I have not been able to increase my store, but I have lived very closely on that with which she endowed me at my birth. To the second, I have never been able to find out the road, although I have sought it in many places at the cost of great inconvenience. To the third, I do not deny that I have equally endeavoured to discover the way; but having seen that it was long, and rough, and steep, I have often been discouraged. Besides that, many times hard shocks of adverse fortune have struck me. And the syrens, still, have often sung in my ears, too open to their voices, so that I have remained at the foot of the mountain, whence only I have been able to see the summit of virtue. Yet I have had this happy fortune, that modesty having once descended from the peak I embraced her, and have since kept her with me.’

I shall conclude these extracts with one to his friend, Paolo Manuzio, written from Padua. ‘Your life,’ he writes, ‘is too much occupied and too much given to labour. Nor do I know for what end you are labouring; to enrich yourself? I do not believe it, for you do not measure riches with the crooked rule of the vulgar; and you have sufficient of the goods of fortune for your desires. Perhaps to have ecclesiastical honours? I do not believe that, because I know that you always held in higher esteem the being worthy of the honour than the honour itself; and already every honour is due to you. I see the stimulus that spurs you on, and that the desire for glory keeps you awake day and night. … Yet, although you may decrease, your labours, for which you are always striving to obtain new materials, you must not fear that the esteem of the world will decrease in the least, for your fame is already so high that it will always be recognised; Be content with that, and do not allow a love of glory to do that which may injure your health.’

I now proceed to give a few specimens of his imagination, as indicated in his lighter pieces of poetry. The first is a short extract from one of his longer odes. It may thus be rendered1: —

What men call Life, is like a meadow fair
Wherein some serpent makes his trench.rous lair:
And thus uneasy fears perturb each breast,
No heart finds happiness, no bosom rest.
‘Would as a child my life had passed away
‘Ere carking care began his cruel sway.’
Thus some. Whilst others nought but sorrow feel,
And sighs and wailings form their only meal:
And e’en if pain or death to vex forbear,
Still on their bosom lies the sleepless care,
Their pleasures finish ere they well commence,
Most brief those hours in which they.re most intense.

The next piece is addressed to his first love. The first four verses may be translated as follows: —

When the buds burst forth and blossom
In the month which heralds May,
And the scent of a thousand flowers
Is wafted from each spray,
I rise from my couch at daybreak,
And I seek my lattice and gaze,
And I list to the trills the nightingales
Pour forth as their song of praise,
And I see the glad sea peacefully
Smile its greeting to the morn,
And I feel my heart a glad captive led,
Yet I do not feel forlorn;
For I mind those days in my childhood,
When the crystal wave so dear
I stemmed, and sought from bank to rock
Delights in the water clear.
And I wrap myself in the memories
Of the past, and descend to the sea,
And I feel the soft air and all Nature
Seem, Laura, to murmur but thee!
Might it please the Fates that my heart.s desire
Should at last be granted to me,
Sweet Laura, then, I would supplicate
No sweeter boon than thee.
Then all Nature would seem more lovely
And the Graces and Loves, as a prey
Having yielded their charms, should follow
And grace thy triumphal day;
And I, who in thy absence
Feel all things dark and drear,
Should revel and bask in the light which shines
From those eyes so soft and clear.
And I, — What am I, dearest? None other than you see,
Whilst thou, in the wealth of thy beauty,
Art more than a goddess to me.
In the wealth of the youth of thy sweet spring-life
I could lie beside thee and gaze
On thy perfect form, and my lips should tell
Their tale of love and of praise.
I would tell thee what man men think me to be
Since the childhood of the past,
When I gave my heart to thy keeping, —
Oh! Love! shall I win thee at last?

I conclude with a short extract in the original from one of his Latin Carmina, on the subject of Villa Coloniola, the favourite resort for his autumn holidays: —

Nunc vivo: et vita est multo mihi carior, in me
Quum memini de quo venerit ilia loco.
Salve, o terra beata, mihi gratissima terra
Diis superis: salve dia Coloniola.
Nomen fama tuum immortalibus in monimentis
Protendat; nec te deruat ilia dies.
Haec lingua ante meis haerebit faucibus, ante
Haec dextra attractis concidet articulis,
Quam memori exanimo, et nostro de pectore migret
Saepe vocanda mihi cara Coloniola.

I should be glad to give a specimen of the clear and vigorous style of the Annals, but I refrain. It is possible I may some day be tempted to translate them into our language. I have met no Italian writings which would so well adapt themselves to the robustness and vigour of the English tongue.

For the present, I leave, and leave with regret, the name of Jacopo Bonfadio. He was not the first, and probably has not been the last, victim to the malignity of inferior natures, alarmed by the dread of the discovery of their own evil deeds. But to a noble nature his fate, sad as it was, possesses an element which reassures. It is true his enemies killed him. But, after a lapse of three hundred and thirty years, his name still lives, clothed with honour, veneration, and respect. But for those who killed him! A too kind Providence has preserved them, by the annihilation of their very names, from the execration of posterity!

* Even the year is a matter of dispute among various sources.

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1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1697, the Paisley, Renfrewshire Gallow Green played stage for the strangling and burning of six “witches.” They’re known as the Paisley witches, the Renfrewshire witches, or the Bargarran witches, and are sometimes acclaimed the last mass-executed witches in western Europe.

This book posits a more than incidental resemblance between Salem and Renfrewshire, given that the “possessed child” figure was not a usual ornament for Scottish witchcraft cases.

In a setup bearing a disturbing similarity to the Salem witch trials,* an 11-year-old brat named Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local laird, got a tongue-lashing from the family servant and then turned around and accused her a sorceress.

The psychological mechanisms at play make interesting speculation in such cases. Was she merely a spiteful little monster, or did she believe in accordance with the superstitions of her time that the servant’s curses had effect, and suffer real afflictions that ensued upon this belief? Can we see her in the end as a creature necessarily produced by her nation in its troubled hour, unmoored as it was by the political and religious dislocations of the Glorious Revolution, gnawed by famine, and hurtling towards an unwilling union with England? (The bizarre execution of an Edinburgh university student for blasphemy also unfolded in 1696-1697.)

We leave such speculations to the reader as we plunge into the onset of supernatural doings in these environs almost a year before the consequent executions — via a 1698 pamphlet titled “A True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle Strangely Molested, by Evil Spirits and their Instruments, in the West”

August 22 [1696], the Child went to Bed in good health; but so soon as she fell asleep, began to struggle and cry, Help, Help: And then suddenly got up, and did fly over the top of a Resting-bed, where she was lying (her Father, Mother, and others being in the Room, and to their great Astonishment and Admiration) with such violence, that probably her Brains had been dasht out, if a Woman, providentially standing by, and supported by a Door at her back, had not broke the force of the Childs motion, who being laid in another Bed, remained stiff and insensible as if she had been dead, for the space of half an Hour; but for Fourty eight Hours thereafter could not sleep, crying out of violent Pains thorow her whole Body, and no sooner began to sleep or turn drowsie but seemed greatly affrighted, crying still Help, Help.

These frightening spasms continued for days, contorting her body and robbing her of speech; helpless doctors bled her to no effect.

Some dayes thereafter was an alteration in her Fitts, so far, that she got speaking, during the time of them; and while she was in the fits, fell a crying, that Katharine Campbel and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side, and other parts of her Body; Which parts were in that time violently Tormented. And when the fit was over she still averred, that she had seen the same Persons doing the same things which she complained of while under the fit (it being remarkable that in the intervals she was still as well and sensible as ever) and would not believe but that others present saw them as well as she!

Katharine Campbell was servant who had chewed her out. Agnes Naismith was an old lady with a witchy reputation. In time they would headline the execution that occasions this post.

We must here pause to remark that the decision of the adults around Christian Shaw to steer this crisis in the girl’s life towards a judicial witch hunt was by no means predetermined. While capital statutes against bewitchment remained on the books, they were fading in practice; according to the invaluable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database, there had been only a single witchcraft prosecution in Scotland since 1683, and that one did not result in execution. The sudden eruption of a dormant and vanishing cosmology, with sufficient force to devour seven humans, shocks the eye.

Credit must go to Shaw for a rare commitment to the performance, as her symptoms continued intermittently for months, and accumulated a growing roster of accused supernatural tormentors. She was taken to Glasgow for treatment, and taken again; she went on regimens of prayer and fasting; at one point she began pulling debris out of mouth like a prestidigitator, in such number and variety that her doctor remarked that “Were it not for the hairs, hay, straw, and other things wholly contrary to human nature, I should not despair to reduce all the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases.”

Although modernity will doubt that they bewitched the child, the accused women, Agnes and Katharine, knew exactly what was up when they were brought to confront their accuser. They addressed their common peril with opposite strategems. Agnes, “did (tho not desired) pray for her, viz. that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send the Damsel her health,” which prayer cured Christian Shaw of continuing to accuse Agnes of muddling her (“upon the contrary, as she apprehended, defending her from the fury of the rest” of the witches) — whereas the saltier Katharine “could by no means be prevailed with to pray for the Damsel, but upon the contrary when desired by some, cursed them and all the Family of Bargarran, and in particular the Damsel and all that belonged to her, withal adding this grievous Imprecation; The Devil let her never grow better, nor any concern’d in her, be in a better condition than she was in, for what they had done to her.” I like this Katharine, but Laird Bargarran had the sheriff throw her forthwith into the dungeon; the reader may recall from our foreshadowing that Agnes’s more diplomatic approach did not ultimately serve her any better.

By January, five months after Christian’s first fits, the doctors and ministers had been defeated and the Privy Council appointed a tribunal to investigate the matter and shoo away the hags bothering Christian Shaw. The annals of their actions makes for repellent reading, even by the standards of judges. Readers with strong eyeglass prescriptions can enjoy the full pdf here, but most will probably prefer this lucid summary by Undine, a onetime Executed Today guest blogger. We also have a Victorian compilation of records related to the affair here.

The hunt swept up a 14-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, a 17-year-old girl who was made to furnish accusations that incriminated still more people besides. One can see in our credulous 1698 account the enspelled little shit begin to revel in her theatrics and the power she held over her neighbors.

February 12. Margaret Laing and her Daughter Martha Semple, being delated by the three Confessants, and accused by the Girl to have been active instruments in her Trouble, came of their own accord to Bargarran’s House, and before they came up Stairs the Girl said, she was now bound up, and could not accuse Margaret Laing to her face: And accordingly the Girl’s Mother having desired somer of those who were sitting by her to feel some parts of her Body, and they having done it, found her Body so stiff and inflexible, that there was no moving of it, and immediately again found some parts of her Body contracted and drawn hard togethe [sic], as if by Cords; after this Margaret Lang and her Daughter, having gone to the Chamber of the Girle, did in presence of the Ministers and others, desire the Damsel to come to her; for she would do her no Harm, and laying her Arms about her, spake very fairly to her, and question’d her if ever she had seen her other Daughter among her Tormentors, to which the Girle did positively reply, she had frequently seen her Daughter; but declined thorow fear to accuse herself, saying faintly No, after which Margaret and her Daughter returning into the Hall, and the Minister enquiring at her why she said No, seeing she had accus’d her before, she answered, take me contrar, upon which she was seiz’d with a grievous Fit; yet after her recovery being urg’d again by those present to tell her Mind freely, whether or not Margaret Lang was one of her Tormentors the Child thereupon Essaying to say Yes, and having half-pronounced the Word, was cast into unexpressible Anguishes; and again in the interval of the Fit, she Essay’d to express the same thing, and saying only the word Tint (that is soft) was on a sudden struck with another fit, and when the fit was over, and the Child returned to the Chamber, Margaret Lang who was sitting near the Hall door, spoke these words after her. The Lord bless thee, and ding (that is beat, or drive) the Devil out of thee. A little after which words, Margaret going down stairs, the Damsel came to the Hall and said, her Bonds were now loos’d, and that now she could accuse Margaret Lang to her Face, and declar’d the occasion of her being so Restrain’d and Bound up while Margaret was present, was her letting fall a parcel of Hair at the Hall door as she came in; being a Charm made by her for that end, which also had been the occasion of her uttering the word Tint in the former fit: And accordingly a parcel of Hair had been found at the Hall-door, after Margaret Lang had gone straight from the Hall to the Chamber, which immediately was cast into the Fire and burnt. And its remarkable, that it could be attested that there was no Hair, or any other thing else in that place before Margaret Lang came in, and the Girle being enquired, what way she knew Margaret Lang had laid the forementioned Charm upon her, replyed, something speaking distinctly to her as it were above her Head, had suggested that to her.

In the end — and posterity unfortunately lacks the original trial record — there were seven condemned to death and although their names in the surviving accounts “are not very distinctly stated” they appear to comprise our two original accused, Katharine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, the aforementioned Margaret Lang, the 14-year-old child James Lindsay and an apparent kinsman named John Lindsay, and also John Reid and Margaret Fulton. (Some accounts more mawkishly make it little James Lindsay with his 11-year-old brother Thomas, but that’s not indicated by the primary sources which repeatedly note that Thomas is “under the age of pupilarity.”)

John Reid managed to hang himself in prison and cheat the executioner. Katharine Campbell did him one better by fighting her persecutors all the way to the stake, and deservedly showering everyone in earshot with curses. The legend has it that Campbell’s malediction lurks behind any civic setback endured by Paisley down the years, such as the 1810 Paisley canal disaster. A horseshoe placed over the embittered sorceress’s grave to keep ill fortune at bay was lost in the 1960s; in 2008, a brass horseshoe plaque was installed in its place at the intersection of Maxwellton and St. George Streets — the memorial admitting the injustice done to all the Renfrewshire witches.


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

As for the witches’ accuser, Christian Shaw mirrored in her own life’s story the epochal shift that transformed witches from a legally recognized threat to a ridiculous superstition — as she grew up to become essentially the founder of Paisley’s distinctive (and still to this day important) thread industry by creating the “Bargarran Thread” .

* Coincidentally, the first execution of the Salem trials also occurred on June 10.

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1525: Jäcklein Rohrbach, for the Weinsberg Blood Easter

Add comment May 21st, 2018 Headsman

On the 21st or perhaps the 20th of May in 1525, the peasant rebel Jakob Rohrbach — more commonly known as Jäcklein (“Little Jack”) Rohrbach — was chained to a stake and burned alive as the nobility celebrated its victory in the German Peasants’ War.

Rohrbach was by history’s acclamation the most bloody-minded of the peasant revolutionaries — for Jakob perhaps had learned the lesson of the Jacquerie that rebels against the lords must vanquish or perish. (Jakob Rohrbach was literate.)

When the peasantry rose to shake Germany, Rohrbach was elected a leader in the environs of Weinsberg, in Baden-Wuerttemberg. It was here that Rohrbach’s band would author the rebellion’s most spectacular outrage, the Weinsberg Massacre, or Weinsberg Blood Easter — for on April 16, Easter Day, they overwhelmed the city and put its garrison to slaughter, collectively executing Count Ludwig von Helfenstein by forcing him to run a gantlet while peasants screamed their grievances at him.

“You thrust my brother into a dungeon,” one cried, “because he did not bare his head as you passed by.” “You harnessed us like oxen to the yoke,” shouted others; “you caused the hands of my father to be cut off because he killed a hare on his own field … Your horses, dogs, and huntsmen have trodden down my crops … You have wrung the last penny out of us.” (Will Durant)

As word of the blood rage went abroad, it not only horrified the respectable (Martin Luther turned his considerable vituperation upon the insurrection after hearing about it*) but split the rebellion itself between moderate and radical factions. We lack access to the peasant councils of war, but perhaps that was even intentional on Rohrbach’s part, to force the revolution towards its most extreme ends, much as French Jacobins would decapitate the king to cut off any hope of their moderate brethren making an accommodation.

If so, it failed in that objective. It would be the fragmented German polities that by dint of the danger made common cause and defeated the rebellion. For a special villain like Rohrbach, special treatment was reserved, yet his was only most exemplary among innumerable long-forgotten cruelties meted out. The lords returned stroke for stroke ten times over for every injury that Rohrbach and his kind had dealt them.

The total number of the peasants and their allies who fell either in fighting or at the hands of the executioners is estimated by Anselm in his Berner Chronik at a hundred and thirty thousand. It was certainly not less than a hundred thousand. For months after, the executioner was active in many of the affected districts. Spalatin says: “Of hanging and beheading there is no end”. Another writer has it: “It was all so that even a stone had been moved to pity, for the chastisement and vengeance of the conquering lords was great”. The executions within the jurisdiction of the Swabian League alone are stated at ten thousand. Truchses’s provost boasted of having hanged or beheaded twelve hundred with his own hand. More than fifty thousand fugitives were recorded. These, according to a Swabian League order, were all outlawed in such wise that any one who found them might slay them without fear of consequences.

The sentences and executions were conducted with true mediaeval levity. It is narrated in a contemporary chronicle that in one village in the Henneberg territory all the inhabitants had fled on the approach of the count and his men-at-arms save two tilers. The two were being led to execution when one appeared to weep bitterly, and his reply to interrogatories was that he bewailed the dwellings of the aristocracy thereabouts, for henceforth there would be no one to supply them with durable tiles. Thereupon his companion burst out laughing, because, said he, it had just occurred to him that he would not know where to place his hat after his head had been taken off. These mildly humorous remarks obtained for both of them a free pardon.

… Many places were annihilated for having taken part with the peasants, even when they had been compelled by force to do so. Fields in these districts were everywhere laid waste or left uncultivated. Enormous sums were exacted as indemnity. In many of the villages peasants previously well-to-do were ruined. There seemed no limit to the bleeding of the “common man,” under the pretence of compensation for damage done by the insurrection.

The condition of the families of the dead and of the fugitives was appalling. Numbers perished from starvation. The wives and children of the insurgents were in some cases forcibly driven from their homesteads and even from their native territory. In one of the pamphlets published in 1525 anent the events of that year, we read: “Houses are burned; fields and vineyards lie fallow; clothes and household goods are robbed or burned; cattle and sheep are taken away; the same as to horses and trappings. The prince, the gentleman, or the nobleman will have his rent and due. Eternal God, whither shall the widows and poor children go forth to seek it?”

-Ernest Belfrt Bax, The Peasants’ War in Germany

* Weinsberg is also famous for a different siege centuries previous, which ended in an altogether more humane fashion.

** Luther wrote a Blood Easter of his own in Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.

they are starting a rebellion, and violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs, by which they have a second time deserved death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers. Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you

a prince and lord must remember in this case that he is God’s minister and the servant of his wrath (Romans XIII), to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows, and that he sins as greatly against God, if he does not punish and protect and does not fulfil the duties of his office, as does one to whom the sword has not been committed when he commits a murder. If he can punish and does not — even though the punishment consist in the taking of life and the shedding of blood — then he is guilty of all the murder and all the evil which these fellows commit, because, by willful neglect of the divine command, he permits them to practice their wickedness, though he can prevent it, and is in duty bound to do so. Here, then, there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace.

hey may die without worry and go to the scaffold with a good conscience, who are found exercising their office of the sword. They may leave to the devil the kingdom of the world, and take in exchange the everlasting kingdom. Strange times, these, when a prince can win heaven with bloodshed, better than other men with prayer!

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1389: Fra Michele Berti, “Cristo povero crocifisso”

Add comment April 30th, 2018 Headsman

“This is a truth that resides in me, to which I cannot bear witness if I do not die.”

-Fra Michele Berti, at the stake

On this date in 1389, the Fraticelli friar Fra Michele Berti da Calci burned in Florence as a heretic.

This excommunicate movement of “Spiritual Franciscans” who insisted upon the poverty of an order that had come to enjoy its emoluments had for decades now dogged the Church with a persuasive critique and credo: “io credo in Cristo povero crocifisso,” as our man Michele Berti said to his inquisitors. “I believe in Christ, poor and crucified.”

The quote is from a remarkable surviving account, “La passione di frate Michele” — whose title explicating the saint’s similarity to ancient martyrologies reveals where its sympathies lie. It can be perused online in Italian here or here.

According to the passione, the Florentine populace joined Michele’s persecutors in urging him to reconcile and save his life, as he made his public progress across the city to his death dressed in a mantle painted with demons in a sea of fire. The friar’s steadfastness eventually turned onlookers to his side, so that as his procession neared the Prato della Giustizia, “a believer began to cry out, saying: stand firm, martyr of Christ, who will soon receive the crown.”

Awestruck after Berti went to the pyre singing Te Deum, the crowd began to murmur, and “many said he seems a saint, even his adversaries … and they could not have their fill of railing against the priests.”

In Umberto Eco’s great literary monument to the Fraticelli, The Name of the Rose, the young oblate Adso reminisces at one point of visiting Florence, and of witnessing an execution that appears to be modeled on on this very account including such details as Michael’s criticism of Pope John XXII and Thomas Aquinas, his refusal to kneel before a “heretic” bishop, and the tongue-lashing he gave to skulkcowl Franciscans en route to his death.

A heretic Fraticello, accused of crimes against religion and haled before the bishop and other ecclesiastics, was being subjected to severe inquisition at the time. And, following those who told me about it, I went to the place where the trial was taking place, for I heard the people say that this friar, Michael by name, was truly a very pious man who had preached penance and poverty, repeating the words of Saint Francis, and had been brought before the judges because of the spitefulness of certain women who, pretending to confess themselves to him, had then attributed sacrilegious notions to him; and he had indeed been seized by the bishop’s men in the house of those same women, a fact that amazed me, because a man of the church should never go to administer the sacraments in such unsuitable places; but this seemed to be a weakness of the Fraticelli, this failure to take propriety into due consideration, and perhaps there was some truth in the popular belief that held them to be of dubious morals (as it was always said of the Catharists that they were Bulgars and sodomites).

I came to the Church of San Salvatore, where the inquisition was in progress, but I could not enter, because of the great crowd outside it. However, some had hoisted themselves to the bars of the windows and, clinging there, could see and hear what was going on, and they reported it to those below. The inquisitors were reading to Brother Michael the confession he had made the day before, in which he said that Christ and his apostles “held nothing individually or in common as property,” but Michael protested that the notary had now added “many false consequences” and he shouted (this I heard from outside), “You will have to defend yourselves on the day of judgment!” But the inquisitors read the confession as they had drawn it up, and at the end they asked him whether he wanted humbly to follow the opinions of the church and all the people of the city. And I heard Michael shouting in a loud voice that he wanted to follow what he believed, namely that he “wanted to keep Christ poor and crucified, and Pope John XXII was a heretic because he said the opposite.”

A great debate ensued, in which the inquisitors, many of them Franciscans, sought to make him understand that the Scriptures had not said what he was saying, and he accused them of denying the very Rule of their order, and they assailed him, asking him whether he thought he understood Scripture better than they, who were masters. And Fra Michael, very stubborn indeed, contested them, so that they began provoking him with such assertions as “Then we want you to consider Christ a property owner and Pope John a Catholic and holy man.” And Michael, never faltering, said, “No, a heretic.” And they said they had never seen anyone so tenacious in his own wickedness. But among the crowd outside the building I heard many compare him to Christ before the Pharisees, and I realized that among the people many believed in his sanctity.

Finally the bishop’s men took him back to prison in irons. And that evening I was told that many monks, friends of the bishop, had gone to insult him and enjoin him to retract, but he answered like a man sure of his own truth. And he repeated to each of them that Christ was poor and that Saint Francis and Saint Dominic had said so as well, and that if for professing this upright opinion he had to be condemned to the stake, so much the better, because in a short time he would be able to see what the Scriptures describe, the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse and Jesus Christ and Saint Francis and the glorious martyrs. And I was told tht he said, “If we read with such fervor the doctrine of certain sainted abbots, how much greater should be our fervor and our joy in desiring to be in their midst?” And after words of this sort, the inquisitors left the prison with grim faces, crying out in indignation (and I heard them), “He has a devil in him!”

The next day we learned that the sentence had been pronounced, and I learned that among the crimes of which he was accused, it was said that he even claimed that Saint Thomas Aquinas was not a saint nor did he enjoy eternal salvation, but was, on the contrary, damned and in a state of perdition — which seemed incredible to me. And the sentence concluded that, since the accused did not wish to mend his ways, he was to be ocnducted to the usual place of execution et ibidem igne et flammis igneis accensis concremetur et comburatur, ita quod penitus moriatur et anima a corpore separetur.

Then more men of the church went to visit him and warned him of what would happen, and said: “Brother Michael, the miters and copes have already been made, and painted on them are Fraticelli accompanied by devils.” To frighten him and force him finally to retract. But Brother Michael knelt down and said, “I believe that beside the pyre there will be our father Francis, and I further believe there will be Jesus and the apostles, and the glorious martyrs Bartholomew and Anthony.” Which was a way of refusing for the last time the inquisitors’ offers.

The next morning I, too, was on the bridge before the bishop’s palace, where the inquisitors had gathered. Brother Michael, still in irons, was brought to face them. One of his faithful followers knelt before him to receive his beneiction, and this follower was seized by the men-at-arms and taken at once to prison. Afterward, the inquisitors again read the sentence to the condemned man and asked him once more whether he wished to repent. At every point where the sentence said he was a heretic Michael replied, “I am no heretic; a sinner, yes, but Catholic,” and when the text named “the most venerable and holy Pope John XXII” Michael answered, “No, a heretic.” Then the bishop ordered Michael to come and kneel before him, and Michael said no one should kneel before heretics. They forced him to his knees and he murmured, “God will pardon me.” And after he had been led out in all his priestly vestments, a ritual began, and one by one his vestments were stripped away until he remained in that little garment that the Florentines called a “cioppa.” And as is the custom when a priest is defrocked, they seared the pads of his fingers with a hot iron and they shaved his head. Then he was handed over to the captain and his men, who treated him very harshly and put him in irons, to take him back to prison, and he said to the crowd, “Per Dominum moriemur.” He was to be burned, as I found out, only the next day.

And on this day they also went to ask him whether he wished to confess himself and receive communion. And he refused, saying it was a sin to accept sacraments from one in a state of sin. Here, I believe, he was wrong, and he showed he had been corrupted by the heresy of the Patarines.

Finally it was the day of the execution, and a gonfalonier came for him, and asked him why he was so stubborn when he had only to affirm what the whole populace affirmed and accept the opinion of Holy Mother Church. But Michael, very harshly, said, “I believe in Christ poor and crucified.” And the gonfalonier went away, making a helpless gesture. Then the captain arrived with his men and took Michael into the courtyard, where the bishop’s vicar reread the confession and the sentence to him.

I did not understand then why the men of the church and of the secular arm were so violent against people who wanted to live in poverty and I said to myself, if anything, they should fear men who wish to live in wealth and take money away from others, and introduce simoniacal practices into the church. And I spoke of this with a man standing near me, for I could not keep silent any more. He smiled mockingly and said to me that a monk who practices poverty sets a bad example for the populace, for then they cannot accept monks who do not practice it. And, he added, the preaching of poverty put the wrong ideas into the heads of the people, who would consider their poverty a source of pride, and pride can lead to many proud acts. And, finally, he said that I should know that preaching poverty for monks put you on the side of the Emperor, and this did not please the Pope. Except that at this point I did not understand why Brother Michael wanted to die so horribly to please the Emperor.

And in fact some of those present were saying, “He is not a saint, he was sent by Louis to stir up discord among the citizens, and the Fraticelli are Tuscans but behind them are the Emperor’s agents.” And others said, “He is a madman, he is possessed by the Devil, swollen with pride, and he enjoys martyrdom for his wicked pride; they make these monks read too many lives of the saints, it would be better for them to take a wife!” And still others added, “No, all Christians should be like him, ready to proclaim their faith, as in the time of the pagans.” As I listened to those voices, no longer knowing what to think myself, it so happened that I looked straight at the condemned man’s face, which at times was hidden by the crowd ahead of me. And I saw the face of a man looking at something that is not of this earth, as I had sometimes seen on statues of saints in ecstatic vision. And I understood that, madman or seer as he might be, he knowingly wanted to die because he believed that in dying he would defeat his enemy, whoever it was. And I understood that his example would lead others to death. And I remain amazed by the possessors of such steadfastness only because I do not know, even today, whether what prevails in them is a proud love of the truth they believe, which leads them to death, or a proud desire for death, which leads them to proclaim their truth, whatever it may be. And I am overwhelmed with admiration and fear.

But let us go back to the execution, for now all were heading for the place where Michael would be put to death.

The captain and his men brought him out of the gate, with his little skirt on him and some of the buttons undone, and as he walked with a broad stride and a bowed head, reciting his office, he seemed one of the martyrs. And the crowd was unbelievably large and many cried, “Do not die!” and he would answer, “I want to die for Christ.” “But you are not dying for Christ,” they said to him; and he waid, “No, for the truth.” When they came to a place called the Proconsul’s Corner, one man cried to him to pray to God for them all, and he blessed the crowd.

At the Church of the Baptist they shouted to him, “Save your life!” and he answered, “Rum for your life from sin!”; at the Old Market they shouted to him, “Live, live!” and he replied, “Save yourselves from hell”; at the New Market they yelled, “Repent, repent,” and he replied, “Repent of your usury.” And on reaching Santa Croce, he saw the monks of his order on the steps, and he reproached them because they did not follow the Rule of Saint Francis. And some of them shrugged, but others pulled the cowls over their faces to cover them, in shame.

And going toward the Justice Gate, many said to him, “Recant! Recant! Don’t insist on dying,” and he said, “Christ died for us.” And they said, “But you are not Christ, you must not die for us!” And he said, “But I want to die for him.” At the Field of Justice, one said to him he should do as a certain monk, his superior, had done, abjuring; but Michael answered that he would not abjure, and I saw many in the crowd agree and urge Michael to be strong: so I and many others realized those were his followers, and we moved away from them.

Finally we were outside the city and before the pyre appeared, the “hut,” as they called it there, because the wood was arranged in the form of a hut, and there a circle of armed horsemen formed, to keep people from coming too close. And there they bound Brother Michael to the stake. And again I heard someone shout to him, “But what is it you’re dying for?” And he answered, “For a truth that dwells in me, which I can proclaim only by death.”

They lit the fire. And Brother Michael, who had chanted the “Credo,” afterward chanted the “Te Deum.” He sang perhaps eight verses of it, then he bent over as if he had to sneeze, and fell to the ground, because his bonds had burned away. He was already dead: before the body is completely burned it has already died from the great heat, which makes the heart explode, and from the smoke that fills the chest.

Then the whole hut blazed up, like a torch, and there was a great glow, and if it had not been for the poor charred body of Michael, still glimpsed among the glowing coals, I would have said I was standing before the burning bush. And I was close enough to have a view (I recalled as I climbed the steps of the library) that made some words rise spontaneously to my lips, about ecstatic rapture; I had read them in the books of Saint Hildegard: “The flame consists of a splendid clarity, of an unusual vigor, and of an igneous ardor, but possesses the splendid clarity that it may illuminate and the igneous ardor that it may burn.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Italy,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1533: The witch of Schiltach

Add comment April 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1345: Giovanni Martinozzi, missionary Franciscan

Add comment April 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1345, Giovanni Martinozzi died for the faith in Cairo.

Martinozzi was a Franciscan who hailed from one of the prominent families of Siena. Like the famous founder of his order, Martinozzi undertook to convert the Saracens: part of a mmissionary ovement of Franciscans abroad from Europe which had been encouraged by the papacy as a means to discharge the troublesome ferment of the Franciscan movement. (As a reference point, Martinozzi would have died in the generation following the events of The Name of the Rose.)

Where Francis found the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil mild and welcomings, Martinozzi attained from the Mamluks the laurels of “missionary martyrdom” that had eluded the master.

After re-converting a Genoese merchant who had apostatized to Islam, Martinozzi was tortured and on April 15, 1345, immolated along with the inconstant entrepreneur.

According to S. Maureen Burke (“The ‘Martyrdom of the Franciscans’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti”, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 65 Bd., H. 4 (2002)), a fresco of Beato Martinozzi’s martyrdom once adorned the Basilica of San Francesco in Siena; the fresco either does not survive or has eluded my online peregrinations. Giotto’s thematically topical 1320s Ordeal by Fire before the Sultan of Egypt will have to serve: it alludes to an episode (perhaps apocryphal) during Saint Francis’s travels in Egypt a century before.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,God,History,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Torture

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1423: William Taylor, Lollard

Add comment March 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1423 the Lollard theologian William Taylor was burned at Smithfield.

We have only fleeting glimpses of this excommunicate priest but the Oxford master made a scintillating entrance to the historical record by preaching a Wycliffite sermon for Advent of 1406 — which stirred a hornet’s nest and saw him excommunicated by the Lollard-quashing Archbishop Thomas Arundel. This denunciation of clerical privilege survived to our digital age as a single, damaged manuscript, and was published in 1993.

Certainly we great cause to weep if we behold the nobility, glory and cleanness of the church in Christ’s time and his apostles … for in that time the people fervently loved God and his law, and were diligent in the keeping thereof, and dreaded the hideous sins of usury, simony, whoredom, forswearing, manslaughter, and the unmeasurable filthiness of lechery …

So wonderful is our church in comparison to the time here before … shiningly arrayed and delicately fed with poor men’s goods, it lifts its voice in gladness — and great weeping. And so the voice of him that makes mirth and the voice of the weeping of the people being melded together. But the voice of the weepers, taking heed to their own wretchedness bodily and ghostly, desiring for to be relieved from bodily discomfort and to be lightened in soul by the word of God, bewail their own discomfort and others’ both. But that voice is so thin and so low that it may not be heard among the voice of those that make joy, the which, not reckoning the health of their own soul neither of others entrusted to their care, say in effect in the words of Zachary, “Blessed be God we are made rich!” and live as delicately and recklessly as though they despaired of the life to come.

We have scant evidence of him in the succeeding generation, but references in his 1420s legal difficulties to his ongoing excommunication make plain that Taylor did not reconcile: instead, he seems to have retreated to the fringes of the high church’s writ, preaching in his native Worcestershire and availing the protection of sympathetic elites during Lollardy’s apex years.

Taylor was finally run to ground in 1420 when he was forced to do penance to resolve his excommunication, and then once again made to abjure his heresies in 1421 — an occasion that might easily have been construed as his second offense and resulted in his execution.

His submissions entirely lacked sincerity, however, and each time returned to his subversive doctrines. His last arrest in February 1423 saw him “brachio seculari traditus fuerat, ac igni combustus in Smythfeld, secundo die Martii, A.D. MCCCCXXII,* et regis Henrici sexti primo,” as described in Fasciculi Zizaniorum (see “Sententia lata contra Willelmum taylor Wycclevistam” on p. 412) on a host of charges that confirm his unreconstructed Lollardy: for denouncing clerical alms; for calling on the devout to pray to God alone, sans intercessors; for insisting that “in no way does Christ wish priests of the church to rule” in the sense of any secular authority. (Translation per Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion.)

* 1423 by present reckoning, or 1422/23 as one often sees it rendered: England at the time marked the New Year on March 25.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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