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764: St. Stephen the Younger, iconodule martyr

Add comment November 28th, 2015 Headsman

This is the supposed martyrdom date, in the year 764 or perhaps 765, of St. Stephen the Younger in Constantinople at the hands of an iconoclastic emperor.

Ancient and “dark ages” history characteristically comes with all kinds of problems arisng from the paucity and prejudice of primary sources. Byzantium’s century of Iconoclastic controversy is a fine example.

In this period from approximately 726 to 842, the empire was rent by a conflict between iconophiles or iconodules — proponents of the use and adoration of religious imagery in Christian worship — and iconoclasts — who abhorred same as a form of sacrilegious idolatry.

This was deadly serious stuff in the way that only Byzantine sectarian conflict could be, but the controversy was not strictly about defining the Biblical injunction on graven images. As the excellent History of Byzantium podcast explains in its iconoclasm episode,* it likely manifests “an empire-wide reaction to the trauma of defeat” — battlefield defeat by the rising armies of Islam, and with it a shaken confidence in the favor of God. (Islam’s hard line against idolatry surely can’t be coincidental.)

But in posterity we are reduced to these muddy qualifiers because as the winning party in the dispute, iconodules wrote the history. That’s no moralistic stab: iconoclasts, too, burned the enemy’s tracts when they had the opportunity; had they prevailed in the end, they would have blurred out the background, motivations, and achievements of their rivals as readily as the iconodules did and leave those who followed to read between the lines of a partisan history. Indeed, Bissera Pentcheva’s recent Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium even contends that the legendary centrality of icons to Byzantine religiosity was an invention of the post-iconoclastic era, with events like the Marian icon’s saving Constantinople during the Avar siege of 626 backfilled to replace the original story about Marian relics working the divine intervention.

Iconoclasts plastering over an icon.

The iconoclastic era opens in the late 720s; according to the (iconodule, naturally) saint and historian Nicephorous, its immediate trigger was the devastating 726 eruption of the Greek island Thera (Santorini) — and affrighted by the apparent divine wrath, “the impious emperor Leo [III] started making pronouncements about the removal of the holy and venerable icons.” He’s alleged to have taken down a particularly revered icon of Christ on Constantinople’s Chalke Gate.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to get a firm fix on what specific anti-icon policies Leo promulgated, if indeed there were any at all. (The Greek term for “pronouncements” could be understood simply as “comments” instead of “edicts”.) It is Leo’s son Constantine V, succeeding the purple in 741, who clearly brings an overt imperial turn against icons, for “He cannot be depicted. For what is depicted in one person, and he who circumscribes that person has plainly circumscribed the divine nature which is incapable of being circumscribed.” Constantine convened an ecumenical council that ruled for his anti-icon position and set about removing images from churches.

Against this campaign was ranged the bulk of the clergy — church vs. state is another possible and difficult-to-measure dimension of the whole dispute, although Constantine’s ability to win the acquiescence of hundreds of bishops must complicate this interpretation.

The great champion of and martyr for the iconodule position in this time was St. Stephen the Younger. That’s “younger” vis-a-vis the original St. Stephen, Christianity’s protomartyr.

As befits that exalted company, this monk and hermit was credited by his adherents with a supernatural power in the iconoclasm debate.

A man blind from his birth visits the saint with suppliant outcry for relief. “If you hast faith in God,” he replies, “if thou art a worshipper of His image, thou shalt behold the light and the beauty of hidden things.” Scarcely had the words gone forth, when the blind man rejoiced in beholding light. A woman brings to him her son “grievously vexed with a devil,” and a distressing scene is described. Stephen bids a disciple to apply the sign of the Cross to the whole afflicted body. The saint calls upon God with many tears. Finally he delivers the boy safe to his mother, when the image of Christ has been adored. An infirm soldier comes with entreaty for relief. The saint bids him adore the images of Christ and His Mother, and immediately he is restored. The soldier afterwards repudiates image-worship before the Emperor, who at once promotes him to the rank of centurion. Leaving the imperial presence he would mount his horse; the horse rears, throws him to the ground, and tramples him to death. Such is the life of the younger Stephen as related with awe-struck delight in Greek and Roman martyrologies. (Source)

And so forth.

The emperor is alleged by the hagiographies to have sought Stephen’s destruction for many years, being continually frustrated even to the point where Stephen’s torturers in prison seemed unable to finish him off. “Will no one rid me of this monk?” Constantine cries, anticipating Thomas a Becket by a good four centuries. His soldiers finally clubbed to death the obdurate cleric on November 28, 764. (For a critique of Stephen’s hagiography, including a death date that proves questionable (no surprise), see this pdf.)

But not for the first time, an imperial innovation in theology failed to outlast the patronage of its sovereign. After Constantine’s death, Empress Irene** restored the iconodules to favor† — and set the stage for a great flowering of Orthodox icons in the centuries to come.

* Also see Episode 75, delving into Constantine’s iconoclasm.

** The fact that the extant remnant of the Roman Empire had no emperor — merely a woman ruler — formed part of the rationale for the western church crowning Charlemagne “Holy Roman Emperor”. This slap in the face to Constantinople could occur because a papacy long deferential to Byzantium had at last broken with the East in the mid-8th century … in part, over iconoclasm.

Emperor Leo V restored official iconoclasm in 813 for another 29-year run as imperial policy before the movement’s final defeat.

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1825: Angelo Targhini and Leonidas Montanari, carbonari

Add comment November 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1825, alleged carbonari plotters Angelo Targhini and Leonidas Montanari were guillotined by Papal executioner Mastro Titta.

This excommunicate revolutionary secret society was spending the 1820s — a decade in-between revolutions — harrying the restored crowned heads of Italy and France with assassination plots.

It was accordingly much-harried in its own turn, to the repeated profit of this grim chronicle.

The pair we feature today were casualties of all that cloak-and-dagger, specifically the latter.

The story (Italian link) goes that the Carbonari became convinced (correctly) that one of their number, a Filippo Spada, was informing against them; thereupon, our Angelo Targhini — very much the impressionable young zealot — was tasked with stabbing the turncoat to death in an alley. The victim, known familiarly as “Spontini”, survived the attack. Montanari, a physician, was one of the first on the scene but arriving policemen perceived that the “treatment” he was applying to the victim was actually deepening his wounds, and seized him as a conspirator.

Montanari admitted nothing of the kind and was accused solely on the impressions of police plus the information of another informant. But he was in no position to impeach this information because it was a secret court of the automcratic Pope Leo XII that condemned both men for treason — solicitous of neither defense nor appeals.

In his diaries, as detailed here as ever, the headsman Mastro Titta reports receiving death threats. Security on the Piazza del Popolo, “thick with people, as I never saw her,” in Titto’s words, was extremely tight — but no public disturbance or carbonari raid disturbed proceedings. That was left only to the prisoners, who declined to receive the sacrament of confession or acknowledge themselves assassins.

“All attempts to persuade them to repent came to nothing,” Titta laments. “They invariably replied only: ‘We have no account to render to anyone. Our God plumbs the fathoms of our conscience.'”

The young men are the subjects of the 1969 Luigi Magni film Nell’anno del Signore.

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1613: Matthäus Enzlin, fallen favorite

Add comment November 22nd, 2015 Headsman

German jurist Matthäus Enzlin was beheaded in Urach on this date in 1613.

Way back in 1514, a need of funds and political support to crush a popular rebellion had forced the Duke of Wurttemberg to conclude with his realm’s patrician class the Treaty of Turbingen — a sort of Magna Carta delineating for elite Wurttembergers a formal role in governance and protection of their rights.*

It was at the University of Tübingen many decades later that Enzlin (German Wikipedia link; most of the succeeding links in this post are to German pages) matriculated as a brilliant young lawyer.†

The new Duke of Wurttemberg from 1593, Friedrich I, elevated Enzlin to his Chancellor. This worldly and well-traveled** Friedrich sported a cutting-edge appreciation for the dawning Age of Absolutism and chafed at the shackles that his predecessor’s treaty had weighted him with. Whatever was a prince for, if not to rule?

Enzlin was game to do this prince’s will.

Enzlin’s legal expertise had been of service to Friedrich since the latter’s pre-Wurttemberg position as Count of Montbeliard, and Friedrich trusted him as his Kammersekretar — a sort of personal privy councilor who could advise the prince and help to work his will upon the annoying (to Friedrich) Wurttemberg polity. He became openly referred to as cor et os principis: the heart and the mouth of the prince.

This also meant that Enzlin gained the enemies of the prince who, since Friedrich was an overweening and aggressive ruler, numered not a few. For instance, according to Ronald Asch in The World of the Favourite (much of the research in this post derives from his essay), Enzlin when he fell copped a corruption charge because

Duke Friedrich had begun to channel an increasingly large share of his revenues not through the Treasury but through his privy purse. Large sums of money from this source were devoted to the purchase of manors, villages and whole lordships from the impoverished nobility living beyond the borders of the duchy or were used to provide these noblemen with loans and mortgages in the hope that they would have to cede their property to the duke, should they fail to repay the money. Enzlin was apparently the duke’s principal agent in these rather complicated and somewhat shady financial transactions, in which Jewish moneylenders and merchants were frequently employed as brokers. Thus large sums of money went through Enzlin’s hands.

Hungry for power as well as real estate, the duke was also able to attain with Enzlin’s help a modification of that obnoxious Treaty of Turbingen in 1607: this required dissolving the Diet, manipulating the election of the next one, and all kinds of arm-twisting.

It was, Asch says, “another triumph for Enzlin, who had been responsible for the negotiations” … but the triumph was mitigated by Friedrich’s death months later.

Inheriting power was a 26-year-old named Johann Friedrich who sympathized with the traditional prerogatives of his subjects (in his time, he voluntarily gave back to the Estates some of the powers his father had wrested from them). To the policy side of his Oedipal complex, add the personal: dad kept many mistresses for himself, and kept tight purse-strings for his boy. How many times must Johann Friedrich have seen or imagined Enzlin at his father’s elbow, counseling some fresh humiliation for the whelp? How many incensed Wurttemberg grandees must have whispered the picture in his ear?

The favorite was jailed within months on the corruption charges stemming from his part in the land-aggrandizement slush fund, charges that he was forced to admit under threat of torture. The ex-consigliere and his ex-duchy struck an uneasy bargain: there’d be no official charge, no death sentence, and he would stay under lock and key, disappearing like the Man in the Iron Mask.

Perhaps rating his lawyer’s wiles too highly, Enzlin broke this understanding by having his wife and children† appeal to the imperial authorities — employing the very safeguards of the Treaty of Turbingen which he had so diligently worked to abrogate. Brazenly but accurately, Enzlin pointed out that he had not been brought to trial for any charge. And he made the politically explosive argument that jailing ministers of state for the service they rendered their masters would compromise the entire authority of princes everywhere in the Holy Roman Empire.

Faced with the imminent success of the suit, Wurttemberg called his bluff and brought him immediately to trial and thence the scaffold for the peculation he had been blackmailed into admitting, enhanced now to outright treason. (This is why one should never talk to police.)

German speakers can also grab public-domain sketches of Enzlin’s career from a number of 19th century books available online, such as this and this.

* As one of Europe’s seminal constitutional contracts, the Tübinger Vertrag received 500th anniversary treatment in 2014.

** Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor was written for a 1597 Knights of the Garter investiture ceremony. Because Duke Friederich (after a 1592 visit to England) had repeatedly petitioned Queen Elizabeth for this honor, he was inducted on this occasion — but without being notified in time to attend, so that the English court “would not have to put up with him”. As a result, Merry Wives had some in-jokes for its first audience about an absent German duke. Though mostly excised from the play’s subsequent public performance versions, a few traces of them remain, such as this allusion in act 4, scene 3:

Bardolph. Sir, the Germans desire to have three of your
horses: the duke himself will be to-morrow at
court, and they are going to meet him.

Host. What duke should that be comes so secretly? I hear
not of him in the court.

† Enzlin married young and had seven children. He has a stupendous progeny down to the present day but not all have been so solicitous of the powerful as he — witness Gudrun Ensslin.

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1781: Gaspard de Besse, social bandit

Add comment October 25th, 2015 Headsman

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.

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1638: Stepan Ostryanin, Cossack hetman

Add comment October 14th, 2015 Headsman

(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.

And of course it contains some cracking execution scenes. The execution by breaking-wheel of Taras Bulba’s son might have been inspired by the Istoriya Russov‘s outraged account of that full Japanese barbarism. The excerpt below hails from this public-domain English translation.

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.

* The Istoriya Russov had a great influence on young writers in the early 19th century. The text can be read as advancing a nationalism of all the Russias, or as speaking in a more specifically Ukrainian voice. See The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires.

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1567: The Michelade of Nimes

Add comment September 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1567, Huguenots in revolt in Nimes put to death dozens of Catholics in a courtyard butchery to climax a massacre remembered as La Michelade (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French)

This name of sinister memory derives from one of the church calendar’s great autumnal feast, Michaelmas — and the sword-arm of its titular archangel would have been required to keep the peace between the rival religionists in the Languedoc.

Nimes went heavily for the Protestants, with the region’s royal governors unable to restrain the conquest of Catholic neighborhoods and churches by the predominant Huguenots through the 1560s: “the very wind which blew upon Nimes breathed heresy,” in the words of Dumas.

The years running up to our events of 1567 feature one of the numerous rancorous truces pocking France’s intractable Wars of Religion: this one is known as the “Armed Peace”, which gives you an idea where everyone’s heads were at. And in Nimes, the heresy in the wind was not such as to prevent the restoration of Catholic authorities to control of the civic institutions — to the undoubted irritation of the Huguenot grandees who endured the indignity of displacement alongside the sure knowledge of the popular weight that supported them.

This ripening conflict appropriately came to fruition via a vegetable market at a city fair on Michaelmas — September 29, 1567 — where an altercation turned into a sectarian riot and soon transformed into a municipal Protestant insurrection.

Huguenots still maintaining the preponderance of force in Nimes, they perpetrated the expected outrages during the excitement: sacking the cathedral, murdering some particularly hated Catholics. But the overall organization of the Huguenots and the organized participation of the city’s Huguenot elites suggests a good deal of advance orchestration, and perhaps coordination with the Huguenot attempt to kidnap the king just days before.

In the disturbance, Nimes’s first consul Guy Rochette — Catholic, naturally — sought refuge in the palace of Bishop Bernard d’Elbene; a Huguenot captain forced the door and arrested them, confiscating from Rochette the keys to the city. Though the bishop managed to escape, other prominent Catholics were systematically detained, too. According to Allan Tulchin’s That Men Would Praise the Lord: The Triumph of Protestantism in Nimes, 1530-1570, “[i]t seems clear that the Protestant leadership intended to conduct a general roundup of Catholic lay and clerical leadership. Protestant forces targeted at least half of the sixteen men who had served as consul between 1564 and 1567 … of the nine Catholic members of the presidial, only two did not appear among the victims.”

Captive Catholics were detained in several buildings around the city, notably in the city hall. It is not known to what extent the kill lists to cull from these unfortunates were preordained and to what extent they were improvised in the moment, but on the night of September 30, summons for specific victims went out, and Protestant squads complied by dragging them out of the city hall basement or wherever else they were held to the courtyard of the bishop’s palace. This would be the makeshift abattoir.

In the narration of Dumas,

when night came the large number of prisoners so imprudently taken began to be felt as an encumbrance by the insurgent chiefs, who therefore resolved to take advantage of the darkness to get rid of them without causing too much excitement in the city. They were therefore gathered together from the various houses in which they had been confined, and were brought to a large hall in the Hotel de Ville, capable of containing from four to five hundred persons, and which was soon full. An irregular tribunal arrogating to itself powers of life and death was formed, and a clerk was appointed to register its decrees. A list of all the prisoners was given him, a cross placed before a name indicating that its bearer was condemned to death, and, list in hand, he went from group to group calling out the names distinguished by the fatal sign. Those thus sorted out were then conducted to a spot which had been chosen beforehand as the place of execution.

This was the palace courtyard in the middle of which yawned a well twenty-four feet in circumference and fifty deep. The fanatics thus found a grave ready-digged as it were to their hand, and to save time, made use of it.

The unfortunate Catholics, led thither in groups, were either stabbed with daggers or mutilated with axes, and the bodies thrown down the well. Guy-Rochette was one of the first to be dragged up. For himself he asked neither mercy nor favour, but he begged that the life of his young brother might be spared, whose only crime was the bond of blood which united them; but the assassins, paying no heed to his prayers, struck down both man and boy and flung them into the well. The corpse of the vicar-general, who had been killed the day before, was in its turn dragged thither by a rope and added to the others. All night the massacre went on, the crimsoned water rising in the well as corpse after corpse was thrown in, till, at break of day, it overflowed, one hundred and twenty bodies being then hidden in its depths.

Dumas is indulging poetic exaggeration of the scene, and later estimations of the number of victims range well below 120 — but Tulchin quotes a leather worker who saw the courtyard on the following day and described it as “all covered with blood and the water of the well all red.” Even “merely” twenty or thirty victims slashed to death would have been a gory work.

In the days following, Huguenots would cement their control of Nimes with the systematic pillage of churches and (after a six-week siege) the capture of the city’s royal garrison. There was no general massacre after the Michelade; in the main, Catholics were forced into submission or exile instead of the grave.

But the effusion, combined with Huguenot attacks further north, helped to trigger the (very brief) “Second War” within the Wars of Religion which gave way after a short truce to the much bloodier “Third War” of 1568-1570 … whose peace would be broken by a Catholic sectarian massacre much better remembered to history than the Michelade.

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1620: Sidonia von Borcke, the sorceress

Add comment September 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1620, Sidonia von Borcke was beheaded and then immolated in Stettin (Szczecin) — one of the most notorious witch executions in German history.

The Pre-Raphaelites quite fancied the Sidonia story: this is Edward Burne-Jones‘s 1860 watercolor Sidonia von Bork.

This Pomeranian noblewoman (English Wikipedia entry | German), aging and penniless, resided from 1604 in a Lutheran Stift, a secular convent for unmarried ladies. There she busied herself and the courts of the Holy Roman Empire with numerous lawsuits against the convent’s prioresses, other women in the cloister, and inheritance disputes with members of her family.

According to Gerda Riedl’s “‘Alles von rechts wegen!’ Frühneuzeitliches Hexenprozeß-(un-)wesen am Beispiel des Falles der Sidonia von Borcke” in Hexen: Historische Faktizität und fiktive Bildlichkeit, the frayed nerves around Sidonia finally snapped at a church service where she and the sub-prioress got into an altercation and were both arrested.

It was July of 1619. Sidonia von Borcke was a cranky 71-year-old spinster with a knack for making enemies. And then the sub-prioress accused her of witchcraft.

The ordeals of the next year occupy over a thousand pages in the archives. A wandering fortune-teller named Wolde Albrechts was slated with channeling the infernal powers for Sidonia: when put to torture, that poor creature soon admitted all, complete with the obliging accusation of Sidonia.

Wolde Albrechts went to the stake on October 9, 1619. By December, 72 impressive charges were preferred against Sidonia von Borcke, by now transferred from confinement in her abbey (where she had attempted suicide) to the public prison. These included the murder by sorcery of every consequential person who had died in her vicinity in recent memory, from the previous prioress all the way up to the Duke of Pomerania, whose childless death at the tender age of 44 the previous year had thrown the political situation in Pomerania into confusion.* (Not to mention sexual contact with her loyal kitty Chim, in the latter’s guise as demonic familiar.)

Her ashes were barely cold when Sidonia passed into folklore and thence to legend, eventually to be seized and considerably embellished by Gothic poets in the 18th century. Her countryman Wilhelm Meinhold‘s Sidonia von Bork, die Klosterhexe situates her as a beautiful young woman balked of her dynastic marriages who goes on a midlife jag as a picaresque outlaw before repairing in her dotage to the abbey heavy with grievances. English translations of it were wildly popular, including one rendered by Oscar Wilde‘s mum.

* Succession started passing to the late duke’s brothers, and the Harry Potter-esque House of Griffin which had ruled Pomerania back to the 12th century was done by 1637. Their destruction juxtaposed to Sidonia’s own would help cement the latter’s immortality.

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Feast Day of Saints Cosmas and Damian

Add comment September 27th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, by Fra Angelico.

September 27 is the traditional* feast date of early Christian saints Cosmas and Damian.

Martyred in Syria during the Diocletian persecution, these Arabian brothers were reputedly physicians who did not charge their patients, even for premium services like transplanting an entire leg.

Cosmas and Damian graft an Ethiopian’s leg onto a white patient.

This has made them patron saints to doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, and dentists but decidedly not to insurers.

They were once much more widely known and revered than today, back when the mysteries of medicine and of faith intertwined with one another. The two are named in the Canon of the Mass, and multiple churches in Europe dubiously claim the honor the ancient doctors’ relics; their skulls alone reside simultaneously in Bremen, Vienna, and Madrid, while a church in Venice allegedly holds their non-cranial remains. Visitors to the Roman Forum will behold the beautifully preserved pagan Temple of Romulus, which was rededicated in 527 as the basilica of Santi Cosma de Damiano and still hosts weddings beneath its impressive Cosmas and Damian mosaic.

A reliquary for the skulls of Cosmas and Damian in St. Michael’s Church, Munich.

The saints’ day is observed in Brazil, where children on September 27 receive candies (Cosmas and Damian also count confectioners and children among their devotees). St. Anthony’s Church in Utica, New York, also hosts an annual Cosmas and Damian pilgrimage attracting thousands of people from across North America.

As two men intimate with one another who traveled and ministered together, they are sometimes speculatively ventured as early gay exemplars. (They’re traditionally accounted as brothers.)

* The Vatican’s 1969 calendar revision moved the feast to September 26, leaving September 27 to St. Vincent de Paul.

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1482: Richard Puller von Hohenburg and Anthony Mätzler

2 comments September 24th, 2015 Headsman

The Alsatian knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, Anthony Mätzler, burned for sodomy at Zurich. From illustration in Die Grosse Burgunderchronik by Diebold Schilling de Altere, c. 1483.

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1589: Franz Seuboldt, broken parricide

Add comment September 22nd, 2015 Headsman

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.

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