Posts filed under '15th Century'

1415: Lello Capocci, schism victim

Add comment October 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Lello Capocci was beheaded at Rome’s Capitoline Hill.

Capocci in a sense was a casualty at second remove of Europe’s “Western Schism”, the awkward 40-year era (here entering its twilight) when the Catholic world divided into two and then three rival papal claimants.

The Schism’s opening up in the first place owed a little to the viperous politics of Capocci’s Rome, to which ancient capital the papacy had in 1377 been returned from its Avignon exile by the last clearly legitimate pope, who then promptly died.

Having been deprived of the papacy for the best part of a century, the Roman populace raised a violent clamor for the College of Cardinals to anoint a Roman successor. (The Avignon popes had all been Frenchmen.)

In a confused conclave echoing with the din of a riot at the doors, the cardinals settled on the Archbishop of Bari, who was not one of their number,* as a compromise candidate whom the French cardinals could live with. This man, now dignified Urban VI, was an Italian … but not a Roman; he was, indeed, a subject of Rome’s resented neighbor Naples. He also turned out upon closer examination by the cardinals who elected him blindly to be a bit of a prick, when for instance “the very next day after his coronation he gave offence to many Bishops and Prelates, who were sojourning in Rome … When, after Vespers, they paid him their respects in the great Chapel of the Vatican he called them perjurers, because they had left their churches. A fortnight later, preaching in open consistory, he condemned the morals of the Cardinals and Prelates in such harsh and unmeasured terms, that all were deeply wounded.” (Source)

Piqued at this arriviste threatening them over their simoniacal predilections, the cardinals popped over the nearby town of Anagni and expressed their buyers’ regret by electing a different guy pope. This completely irregular action was justified by the curia on the grounds that the rude Roman mob had stampeded the initial decision.

So now you’ve got two guys, Urban VI and Clement VII (the latter resuming residence at Avignon, where much of the papal bureaucracy still stood) both claiming to be pope. In the official church history, Urban rates as the legitimate pope and Clement as the illegitimate antipope but this situation had no precedent: it was the very same body that had elected each man and, despite their mutual excommunications, there was no doctrinal controversy dividing them. Small wonder that it befuddled and infuriated contemporaries.

Once commenced, the two opposing “obediences” proved nigh impossible to reconcile and initiated rival successions — Urban giving way to Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII in Rome; Clement to Benedict XIII in Avignon. In 1409, a church council tried to resolve the schism by vacating the existing papal claims and naming Alexander V pope. Unfortunately, neither the Roman nor the Avignon claimant had signed up for the plan, so this blunder forked the schism into a third obedience.

And it is this moment that brings us in roundabout fashion to our man, a very minor figure from the standpoint of posterity: the Roman noble Lello Capocci (Italian link).

Locally in the Eternal City, the Avignon pope didn’t much feature but the Roman pope and the third guy (not the short-lived Alexander but his successor John XXIII**) were simultaneously rivals of one another, and (as would-be rulers of the church) rivals of the Neapolitan crown for power in Rome.

Although the Capoccis were traditionally adherents to the papal authority in this scrum, the Schism had finally come to its endgame in 1415 when the Council of Constance successfully deposed all the claimants to St. Peter’s throne.† The papacy would stand vacant for two years, although the cardinal legate of the fugitive John XXIII still still governed unsteadily from the Castel Sant’Angelo — and it appears that amidst a disordered situation Capocci treated with the nearest potential guarantors of stability. (The short-lived by frightening-for-aristocrats popular revolution of Cola di Rienzi would still have been in living memory for a few old-timers.) He had his head cut off for attempting to betray the city to Naples, which would indeed regain sway in Rome … but not until a couple of years later.

* Nothing in canon law says the pope has to be a cardinal first, or even a member of the clergy, but that’s the way it works in practice now: Urban VI is still the most recent pope to have been selected from outside the College of Cardinals. (The Young Pope will be the next.)

** The antipope John XXIII — who refused to submit to the Council of Constance and “was brought back a prisoner: the most scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest” (Gibbon) — made the regnal name “John” radioactive for centuries of subsequent popes, notwithstanding its popularity among the laity; it was thought an adventurous choice in 1958 when a newly elected pontiff — a great reformer of the church, as it would prove — made bold enough to announce himself Pope John XXIII.

† We would be remiss on a site such as this not to add that this is also the council that invited under safe conduct, and then perfidiously condemned and burned, the Bohemian reformer/heretic Jan Hus.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Naples,Nobility,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1417: Catherine Saube, retroactive Anabaptist?

Add comment October 2nd, 2017 Thieleman Janszoon van Braght

(Thanks to 17th century Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janszoon van Braght for the guest post. It was originally an entry in his Anabaptist martyrology Martyrs Mirror, but although this doctrine did not emerge until the 1520s, van Braght was keen to deploy his hagiographies to connect his movement to a longer tradition of pre-Lutheran dissidents, and thus claims post facto for proto-anabaptism such figures as Waldensians, Albigensians, and Gerard Segarelli. -ed.)

CATHARINE OF THOU, IN LORRAINE, BURNT FOR THE FAITH, AT MONTPELLIER, IN FRANCE, A. D. 1417

On the second of October, about two o’clock in the afternoon, it occurred at Montpellier, in France, that a certain sentence of death was pronounced, and executed the same day, upon an upright and God-fearing woman of Thou, in Lorraine, named Catharine Saube, who, loving the Lord her Saviour more than her own life, steadfastly fought through death, and, pressing her way through the strait gate into the spacious mansions of heaven, left flesh and blood on the post, in the burning flames, on the place of execution, at Montpellier.

The history of Catharine Saube is, as old writers testify, faithfully extracted from the town-book of Montpellier, commonly called Talamus; which word, Chassanion thinks, has been corrupted by passing from one language into the other; and that by the Jews, who at that time resided in great numbers in France, especially at Montpellier, it was called Talmud, which among the Hebrews or Jews, signifies a very large book or roll containing many and various things. Hence it may very easily have been the case, that the French, after the manner of the Jewish Maranes, who lived among them, erroneously called the word Talmud, Talamus, meaning to designate thereby the large book containing the civil records of the burgomasters of Montpellier. From this town-book the following acts were faithfully translated, from the ancient language of Montpellier into the French tongue, by a trustworthy person of Languedoc, and in English [the phrase was “in our Dutch” as van Braght published it -ed.] read as follows, “On the 15th day of November, A. D. 1416, after mass had been read in the parish church of St. Fermin, at Montpellier, Catharine Saube, a native of Thou, Lorraine, came into that church, to present herself. About fifteen or sixteen days previously, she had asked the lords and burgomasters of that city, for permission to be shut in with the other recluses in the nunnery on the Lates road.

The aforesaid lords and burgomasters, and all manner of tradespeople, together with over 1500 townspeople, men as well as women, came to the church, in this general procession. Said burgomasters, as patrons, that is, fathers and protectors of the recluse nuns, conducted said Catharine, as a bride, to the abovementioned cloister, where they let her remain, shut up in a cell, after which they all returned home together.

See, these are the identical words of the extract or copy taken from the town-book; we let the reader judge, as to what was her reason in applying for admittance into the nunnery. Certainly, some did not presume so badly, who have maintained, that experiencing in her heart the beginnings of true godliness proceeding from an ardent faith, she was impelled by a holy desire to reveal to the other recluse nuns the true knowledge of Christ Jesus; finding herself sufficiently gifted by the Lord, to do this. This is very probable; since credible witnesses have declared that in said book Talamus it was also recorded, that some time after the death of Catharine Saube, the whole convent in which said Catharine had been confined was burnt, together with all the nuns; doubtless on account of their religion.

The same public records state, that the year following, A. D. 1417, on the second of October, about two o’clock in the afternoon, when M. Raymond Cabasse, D.D., of the order of Jacobine or Dominican monks, vicar of the inquisitor, sat in the judgment seat, under the chapter which is beside the portal of the city hall at Montpellier, in the presence of the Bishop of Maguelonne, the Lieutenant governor, the four orders, yea, of all the people, who filled the whole city hall square, he declared by definite sentence, that the aforesaid Catharine Saube, of Thou, in Lorraine, who, at her request, had been put into the cloister of the recluses, was a heretic, and that she had disseminated, taught and believed divers damnable heresies against the Catholic faith, namely, “That the Catholic (or true) church is composed only of men and women who follow and observe the life of the apostles.” Again, “That it is better to die, than to anger, or sin against God.” Again, “That she did not worship the host or wafer consecrated by the priest; because she did not believe that the body of Christ was present in it.” Again, “That it is not necessary to confess one’s self to the priest; because it is sufficient to confess one’s sins to God; and that it counts just as much to confess one’s sins to a discreet, pious layman, as to any chaplain or priest.” Again, “That there will be no purgatory after this life.”

Said town-book Talamus contained also four other articles with which Catharine was charged, or at least which she professed; from which it can be inferred that she rejected not only many papal institutions, but among these also infant baptism. The extract from the aforesaid town-book, concerning these four articles, reads literally as follows

  1. That there never has been a true pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest, after the election of the pope (or bishop) ceased to be done through miracles of faith or verity.
  2. “That wicked priests or chaplains neither can nor may consecrate the body of Christ, though they pronounce the sacramental words over it.
  3. “That the baptism which is administered by wicked priests, is of no avail to salvation.
  4. “That infants which die after baptism, before they have faith, are not saved; for they do not believe but through the faith of their godfathers, godmothers, parents, or friends.”

These are the last four articles found in the town-book of Montpellier; from which it certainly is clearly evident, how very bold, ardent, and penetrating the faith of this woman was; so that she did not stop short of attacking even the pope, the priests, and the superstitions practiced by them, and convincing them with God’s truth. For, when she says, in the first article, that “there never has been a true pope,” etc., what else did she indicate, than that there never has been a true pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest in the Roman church, seeing the election of the pope was never done through miracles of faith or verity?

Secondly, when she says, that, “Wicked priests or chaplains neither can nor may,” what else does she mean to say than that wicked priests, who are not holy themselves, need not imagine at all (which is nevertheless believed in popery), that by uttering a few words they can consecrate a piece of bread, yea, transform it into their God and Saviour? which, Catharine had declared before, could not even be done by priests of upright life; for therefore she would not, as she said, worship the wafer consecrated by the priest, because she did not believe that the body of Christ was present in it.

Thirdly, when she says, that https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+16%3A16&version=KJV”The baptism which is administered by wicked priests is,” etc., what else does this indicate than that the shameful life of the priests destroys the ministry itself, and that as little as the words which they pronounce over the host, tend to consecrate it, just as little tends the baptism practiced by them to salvation?

Fourthly, when she says, that “Infants which die after baptism,” etc., what is this but to say that infant baptism is not necessary to salvation, yea, conduces in no wise to it? because infants themselves do not believe, only their godfathers, godmothers, parents or friends, in their stead; but that to be saved, one must believe himself, and be baptized upon this belief, as the Lord says, Mark 16:16; for the faith of another cannot help any one in the world, and consequently, cannot help infants to salvation.

Now; when this pious heroine of God would in no wise depart from her faith, sentence of death was finally pronounced upon her; and having been led to the place of execution, she was burnt, at Montpellier, in the afternoon of October 2, 1417.

Concerning her sentence and death, the town book of Montpellier contains the following words, as translated from the original into the Dutch (now into the English), “Having pronounced this sentence upon her, the vicar of the inquisitor, M. Ray mond, delivered her into the hands of the bailiff, who was provost or criminal judge of the city. The people entreated him much in her behalf, that he would deal mercifully with her; but he executed the sentence the same day, causing her to be brought to the place of execution, and there burnt as a heretic, according to law.”

These are the words of the aforesaid Talamus, or town book, which also contains this further addition, “That the bishop of Maguelonne, after singing a common mass, also preached a sermon before the members of the council, concerning Catharine Saube, against many who said that the sentence of death had unjustly been passed upon her; and rebuked the indignation of those who spoke against this sentence, with very vehement and severe words.”

This is briefly the extract concerning the martyrdom of this God-fearing woman, by which many ignorant, plain people were prompted in their hearts to examine the truth a little nearer, and to apprehend the light of the Gospel in the midst of these dark times, which God blessed, as shall be seen hereafter.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Guest Writers,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Women

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1471: Giovanna Monduro, Piedmont witch

Add comment August 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1471, Giovanna Monduro, wife of Antoniotto Marandolo, burned at the stake in her native Piedmontese village of Miagliano.

Michael Tavuzzi, whose very specific title Renaissance Inquisitors: Dominican Inquisitors and Inquisitorial Districts in Northern Italy, 1474-1527 is our main source for this post, describes the case as “representative of the witch-trials conducted by Dominicans, both conventual and observant, in northern Italy during the Renaissance” which “seem to have been procedurally very similar.”

The story begins with a trial that we don’t know about, the trial at a nearby village of a witch called Maddalena who at some point offered Giovanna’s name to her tormentor.

Said tormentor, one Giovanni Domenico da Cremona, arrived in January 1470 to the beautiful Piedmont hamlet of Salussola* bearing a frightful boon: the offer of leniency for anyone who would gift the Inquisition their comprehensive confessions, and the names into the bargain of anyone else who was up to something sub-orthodox.

More than likely Giovanna’s name was actively solicited on the basis of Maddalena’s accusation; in either event, it was certainly supplied by family and neighbors to whom the woman had a witchy reputation. After an incriminating attempt to flee, she was brought to trial in the village church on February 13, 1470.

This time was very early days yet for the great witch-hunts yet to disgrace Europe, but it is recognizably of a piece with them. Over the course of the preceding generations, jurists and scholars had painstakingly constructed the edifice to support the many stakes and scaffolds: the conflation of folk magic, superstition, and holdover pagan customs with a literal network of flying, Satan-fucking warlocks bent on the destruction of Christendom.

For many centuries, “the Church, as the civilizer of nations, disdained these old wives’ tales,” Hugh Trevor-Roper put it in The European Witch Craze. But come the antechamber of modernity, “to deny the reality of night-flying and metamorphosis would be officially declared heretical; the witches’ sabbat would become an objective fact.”

Inquisitors’ preconceptions of the menace came to structure the trials they conducted, to insinuate themselves through questioning by turns sly and violent into the mouths of their prey, whose admissions would then compound not only upon the next town over but to the confirmation of the entire diabolic schema. It’s difficult to know where were the heads of long-gone peasants and townsfolk in all this but Giovanna’s attempt to escape suggests that whatever beliefs they might have held, all knew to dread the inquisitor.

Back to Tavuzzi’s treatment of the Salussola case:

The list reproduced in the trial’s transcript of the predetermined questions that were to be put to Giovanna by Giovanni Domenico during the course of the trial is instructive, for it reveals very well indeed the conceptual baggage that an inquisitor brought to such a task at this time. The questions amount to a kind of primer of the diabolic interpretation of witchcraft and allude to almost all its essential components: the sect of the witches, repudiation of the Christian faith, the pact with the devil, sexual congress with him, abuse of the sacraments, the performance of malevolent magic. Inquisitors invariably compiled such a list of points, known as articuli or capituli inquisitionales, to guide them in their interrogations, and it is through these that their own witch-beliefs and demonology would have impinged upon the course and outcome of a witch-trial.

Woe betide she who faced such questions … for the answers were already written.

Though Giovanna met this dreadful interrogation with some steadiness, human fortitude but rarely equaled the ordeal. Interrogated twice, she denied all repeatedly, even remaining steadfast through her third session that introduced torture to the proceedings.

Days later, the Inquisitor broke her.

A fourth interrogation took place on 20 February, and at that point she began to confess: she admitted that she had indeed belonged to the sect of the witches for twenty-three years, recapitulated all the elements of the stereotype of diabolic witchcraft, including shapeshifting and transvection that are not mentioned in Giovanni Domenico’s initial list of questions, and admitted to having caused the deaths of several persons.

She started coughing up names — some local women, some residents of a nearby village, a local priest — and when in fear for flesh or soul she attempted to walk back her confessions and accusations, she was tortured afresh until she adhered to the preferred story.

For unknown reasons it was not until almost 18 months later that

on 17 August 1471, the deputy of the local feudal lord, the count of Tollengo, in whose dungeon she must have been incarcerated since the trial, emitted the sentence whereby Giovanna was to be burned at the stake in nearby Miagliano — her birthplace — and it was carried out the same day.

* A display at a museum there commemorates the event.

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1450: Jack Cade posthumously quartered

Add comment July 16th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date in 1450 the body of the rebel Jack Cade was posthumously beheaded and quartered.

He’s one of England’s first names in rebellion, and Cade’s Kentish rising indexed England’s catastrophic breakdown under the weak king Henry VI, a milepost between the waning Hundred Years’ War and the onrushing Wars of the Roses.


Panel of a 1964-1965 ceramic mural in Peckham, by Polish artist Adam Kossowski. (cc) image from Peter Gasston.

And for all of these, Cade included, Henry was the chaos-making variable.

He had just about finished squandering the entire French patrimony so gloriously won for him by the sword-arm of his doughty father Henry V, and defeated troops fleeing French advances in Normandy compounded, as they tramped up the southeast beaten and looting, the general fury at the king’s unpopular marriage to the French princess Margaret of Anjou. With shambolic governance allied to a slumping economy, corrupt taxation, and mounting public debt, things were coming unglued.

Like many kings, Henry benefited from the instinct to target overt blame away from the sovereign himself and towards the aides and counselors who surround him. One of the very most hated of those counselors was the man who had negotiated that French marriage — giving away to the French crown the hard-won provinces of Anjou and Maine as its price. William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was so near to being attainted or lynched around London that King Henry exiled him for his own safety to France. But Suffolk didn’t make there: instead, he was captured at sea and murdered.

When his body washed up in Kent, rumors seem to have anticipated a royal reprisal against that region and in favor of the late hated favorite, perhaps the trigger for the events in this post.

Nevertheless, the “rebels” did not conceive themselves engaged in a seditious enterprise; this is apparent from the manifesto of grievances it issued, with moderating tones and language echoing complaints that the Commons was raising to no avail in Parliament.

Item. The law serves of nought else in these days but for to do wrong, for nothing is spread almost but false matters by colour of the law for reward, dread and favour and so no remedy is had in the Court of Equity in any way.

Item. We say our sovereign lord may understand that his false council has lost his law, his merchandise is lost, his common people is destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, the king himself is so set that he may not pay for his meat nor drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought, for daily his traitors about him where anything should come to him by his laws, anon they take it from him.

Item. We will that all men know we blame not all the lords, nor all those that are about the king’s person, nor all gentlemen nor yeomen, nor all men of law, nor all bishops, nor all priests, but all such as may be found guilty by just and true inquiry and by the law.

Item. We will that it be known we will not rob, nor plunder, nor steal, but that these defaults be amended, and then we will go home …

The man at the forefront is a cipher: he went by the potent alias of “John Mortimer”, the surname unmistakably linking his cause to the rival royal claimants over at the the House of York, but neither the name of “Jack Cade” by which history recalls his movement nor the antecedent experiences that thrust him into leadership can be attested with any confidence.

He appears by the half-glimpses we catch of him in the period’s chronicles to be a vigorous and intelligent character. He shied away from battle with a royal army, wisely avoiding the taint of treason that would come with entering the field against the king’s own person; but, it was an organized withdrawal that left his forces capable of ambushing and destroying the detachment from that army that the king had sent to pursue them, a testament to Cade/Mortimer’s adroit command.

Panicked when the news of this reversal resulted in his own forces taking up the rebels’ call to punish traitorous lords, King Henry beat feet for the safety of Kenilworth Castle and abandoned the stage of London to this mysterious new character.

The rebel militia seized it on the third of July that year, visiting its promised popular justice in the process upon several of those “false counsellors” detested among the populace — including the Bishop of Salisbury, the Baron Saye and Sele, and the former sheriff of Kent, William Cromer; Shakespeare gives us a bloody-minded* Cade bantering with his prey Saye and Sele in Henry VI, Part 2 — “Ye shall have a hempen caudle, then, and the help of hatchet … Go, take him away, I say, and strike off his head presently; and then break into his son-in-law’s house, Sir James [sic] Cromer, and strike off his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither.”


Charles Lucy, “Lord Saye and Sele brought before Jack Cade 4th July 1450″

Peasant risings like these are made for eventual failure, but it the unusually high water mark achieved by Cade’s rebellion before receding makes another measure of the crown’s weakness. After ceding the Kentishmen the run of London for several days, it took a desperate nighttime battle on London Bridge to finally push them out.

A general amnesty went abroad to induce the rebels to disperse, but it was not for Cade — who fled to Sussex where he was taken, and mortally wounded in the process, by the new sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden. (A road called Cade Street now runs in the vicinity; there is a monument to his capture in Heathfield.) It was Cade’s good fortune to succumb to his injuries on the journey back to London but the pains of justice were inflicted upon his remains just the same.

Cade died on Sunday, July 12. The precise date for his posthumous disgrace is not certain from the sources available to us. Many writers report July 15, seemingly based on John Benet’s chronicle, which is a strong source and asserts the 15th unambiguously. I’m here guardedly preferring the 16th based on Gregory’s Chronicle, whose authors were clearly Londoners, and who narrated the progress of the week following Cade’s death with specificity.

And that day was that fals traytoure the Captayne of Kentte i-take and slayne in the Welde in the countre of Sowsex, and uppon the morowe he was brought in a carre alle nakyd, and at the Herte in Sowetheworke there the carre was made stonde stylle, the wyffe of the howse myght se hym yf hyt were the same man or no that was namyd the Captayne of Kente, for he was loggyd whythe yn hyr howse in hys pevys tyme of hys mys rewylle and rysynge. And thenne he was hadde in to the Kyngys Bynche, and there he lay from Monday at evyn [i.e., Monday, July 13] unto the Thursseday nexte folowynge at evyn [Thursday, July 16]; and whythe yn the Kynges Benche the sayde captayne was be-heddyde and quarteryde; and the same day i-d[r]awe a-pon a hyrdylle in pecys whythe the hedde by-twyne hys breste from the Kyngys Benche thoroughe owte Sowthewerke, and thenne ovyr Londyn Brygge, and thenne thoroughe London unto Newegate, and thenne hys hedde was takyn and sette uppon London Brygge.

Cade’s is the rebellion that gets the ink, but several other uprisings in the South of England followed in the months ahead … ill omen for the king who would soon experience the ruin of his reign and family.

The History of England podcast covers Jack Cade’s rebellion in Episode 161.

* It is one of Cade’s subalterns in this play who supplies posterity with the immortal quip, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

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1408: Konrad Vorlauf, Vienna Burgermeister

1 comment July 11th, 2017 Headsman

Konrad Vorlauf, late the mayor of Vienna, was beheaded on this date in 1408 with two other councillors.

The patrician Burgermeister was a casualty of the dynastic civil war between brothers Leopold IV and Ernest the Iron, which manifested in Vienna — a rising city on the brink of becoming (in 1440) the Habsburgs’ permanent residence — as a conflict between the city’s merchant oligarchs (allied to Ernest) and her artisan craftsmen (allied to Leopold).

It was a violent conflict even within city walls: in January of 1408, Vorlauf had seized five Leopold-friendly guild leaders and had them beheaded on the Hohenmarkt. (See this public-domain history of Vienna, in German)

During a subsequent truce, Vorlauf along with fellow Vienna grandees Hans Rock, Rudolf Angerfelder, Stephan Poll, Friedrich von Dorffen, Wolfhardt Schebnitzer, Niklas Untermhimmel and Niklas Flusthart went to a confabulation called by Leopold under his safe conduct, only to be seized on their return by knights allied to his cause and held to ransom.

Vienna duly paid it up but perhaps might have done better to keep the cash. Somewhere around this time Leopold imposed himself in Vienna itself, and when the artisan class caused a ruckus over new taxes, the prince was pressured to seize Vorlauf along with the aforementioned Hans Rock and another councillor named Konrad Rampersdorfer. Their beheading — in the city’s Pig Market, for added disgrace — proceeded under no color of law. The aged Rampersdorfer asserted his seniority for the privilege of dying first, saying

I have hitherto been a precursor to all others, and I have not earned the death penalty, but I have stood always for the natural rights of my prince. Therefore I offer to my fellows my own example, not to fear a righteous death, but to submit to it voluntarily.

With the childless death of Leopold a few years later Ernest became the uncontested chief of the Leopoldian line, and his martyred Viennese compatriots celebrated as municipal patriots — eventually exhumed from their graves and reburied with honor in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. They were fortuitously allied, as events would transpire, to the imperial glory conquered by Ernest’s descendants in what became the chief Habsburg dynastic line (the mighty Maximilian I was Ernest’s grandson).

Today, the place of the mayor’s execution is called Lobkowitzplatz; it’s marked by a plaque paying tribute to the men who bled there in 1408.


Commemorative plaque honoring Vorlauf and the others beheaded with him.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1464: Johann Breyde, via Schandbild

Add comment April 1st, 2017 Headsman

On April 1, 1464 mayor of Cologne Johann Breyde was chopped into quarters … with ink.

This startling image does not depict an actual flesh-and-blood execution. It is, instead, an outstanding (and conveniently for our purposes, dated) instance of an artifact from medieval Germany, the Schandbild. Such “defamatory pictures” often supplemented a Schmahbrief or “defamatory letter” — intended, as the names suggest, to impugn publicly the target over a debt, a broken promise, or some other private breach of faith.

Something like 100 of these defamations survive from late medieval and early modern Germany (approximately 1400 to 1600), many of them fantasizing about their debtors’ executions in bloodthirsty scenes that also gesture to the place that ritual, spectacle, and dishonor held on the real-life gallows. Here are a few of the more piquant examples; many more await at a wonderful Pinterest gallery here.

The purpose of defamatory letters and pictures was to bring low the reputation of their target in the eyes of a wider community — leveraging social pressure either for revenge, or to force the defamed to repair the breach.

Matthias Lentz, one of the (regrettably few) historians working on these underappreciated objects, notes* that there are even surviving contracts from Germany, Bohemia and Poland enumerating an “explicit understand about injuring a person’s reputation and bringing dishonour upon a defaulting individual … a clause called Scheltklausel that laid down the practice of publicly scolding a defaulter.” For every Schandbild or Schmähbrief there must have been a dozen other potential swindlers quietly forced by the threat of public infamy to make good their contracts.

Per Lentz, the earliest known instance of an explicit contract dates to 1379, “wherein a ducal councillor accorded a nobleman, in eventuality of the former violating the terms of the contract, the right to denounce him as a fraud by ‘posting his name on the pillory [of the councillor’s home town], or wherever he likes'” — again, linking the “mere” text to the instruments of official corporal punishment.

Nor was it uncommon for the Schmähbrief, if things got to that point, to fantasize about the debtor’s bodily suffering in brutal terms that would like invite an investigation for terroristic threats were the modern debt collection call center to deploy them in its harangue. One quoted by Lentz captioned his illustration thus:

It is customary to judge thieves and traitors according to their offences, the first is sent to the gallows, the second broken on the wheel. As I have not got power to carry out the above-mentioned acts, it is my intention to use the painter to have them painted hanging from the gallows and being tortured on the wheel.

Still, Schandbilder und Schmähbriefe meant to intimidate not physically, but socially.** It was in this capacity that the iconography of the pillory and the scaffold entered the frame: ’twas an infamy to be exposed upon them for a public crime — serving as “an indictment of those who knew the criminal … [and] a punitive stigma over his or her relatives and friends.”† Posting a slur on the repute of a prominent person — for the targets were most always people of rank, who would feel an injury to their status — taxed this same, essential, civic currency.

This is why we should let his shameful picture hang here with his coat of arms, until he has given me compensation recognized by respectable people for those unwarranted things that he and his people did … and ask all those who seek charity, who see him painted hanging, that they let him hang. (Source)

By consequence the execution imagery was strictly optional, one iconographic choice among many. From the too-few examples that survive to us it is plain that creditors delighted in their symbolic chastisement, issuing all the obloquies a grievance could devise, untethered from the confines of possible or the … sanitary.


The Schandbild frequently evinced a scatological fixation.

* Quotes form Lentz’s “Defamatory Pictures and Letters in Late Medieval Germany: The Visualisation of Disorder and Infamy” in The Medieval History Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (2000). Lentz also has several German-language journal titles on the same topic.

** Not necessarily true of their Italian cousins, pitture infamanti. These were a similar sort of thing, but were issued not privately but by the city-states themselves against absconded offenders — a sort of quasi-execution by effigy. Many of these were painted for public spaces and removed with the passage of time so we have lost exemplars, including the products of masters — the Medici, for example, commissioned Botticelli to grace Florence with pitture infamanti of the Pazzi conspirators, which were whitewashed in 1494.

A characteristic pose for these pictures, also used in Germany, had the “victim” hanging upside-down by one foot, conjoining “metaphors of inversion” (as Robert Mills puts it) to the disgrace of the gallows. This posture is commonly thought to have inspired the “Hanged Man” tarot card.


Left: a pittura infamante study by Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto; right: the “hanged man” card from a tarot pack.

*† Maria Boes, “Public Appearance and Criminal Judicial Practices in Early Modern Germany,” Social Science History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1996)

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1437: Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl

Add comment March 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1437, the Earl of Atholl finally reached the end of a three-day carnival of public tortures and lost bowels, heart, and head for assassinating the King of Scotland.

When Atholl’s grandson Robert exploited the family’s familiar proximity to the king to admit a team of assassins on the night of Feb. 20-21 1437, it ended a strange run for James I.* James had been melodramatically kidnapped by pirates at age 12 and sold to the English — who held the Scottish king** for ransom for 18 years.

By the time James returned to native soil in 1424, he had had quite enough of being some other lord’s shuttlecock and irritated Scotch magnates — who had formerly enjoyed the run of the place and therefore dragged their feet when it came to repatriating their hostage king — by his overweening grabs at land, money, and power. One prime example that would come back to haunt him in the events of this post was the 1425 destruction of the Albany Stewarts, which netted the crown the forfeiture of three earldoms. Clients of the Albany Stewarts, like Sir Robert Graham, delivered a fair fraction of the 28 stab wounds that shuffled King James off this mortal coil.

But even James’s allies had to look sharp when it came to any demesnes not nailed down.

Our principal for today’s post, Walter Stewart by name, was one of these. James’s uncle and supporter, and the son of King Robert II, Stewart/Atholl had pushed for the magnates to ransom James.

Putatively seen as the king’s ally, Atholl’s complicity in regicide made him a byword for treachery to outraged Scottish chroniclers; the apparent grab for the throne led his captors to put a “corone of papir … upon his hed, the which was all abowte depaynetid with jubettes, and for the more dispite and shame to hym was writyne with thes wordes, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR,” according to The Dethe and False Murdure of James Stewarde, Kyng of Scotys.

In a 1992 article on events† historian Michael Brown noted that what Atholl had added to his holdings through his nephew the king was the earldom of Strathearn, and it was but tentatively held: granted for Walter Stewart’s lifetime only, it would revert to the king with the septaugenarian’s death, leaving his heirs no better off than Walter’s own efforts had made them circa 30 years before.

Brown depicts the aging lord as a savvy operator who “would increasingly have despaired of keeping the earldom of Strathearn in his family … [as] a consequence of James’s general opportunism when it came to increasing the revenues of the crown.” A couple of specific adverse interventions that trimmed Atholl’s estates might have presaged — in the earl’s mind, at least — a potential royal move against his position, a move that Atholl would be best advised to check preemptively or never at all. Who could say in February of 1437 whether the Stewarts would by March or April still be royal confidantes in any position to have “left the Kynges chamburs doore opyne; and … brussed and blundird the lokes of hem, yn such wise that no man myght shute hem”?

If we’re not sure of exactly why they did it, we do know very clearly that the plot failed as a coup attempt. Both the queen and the six-year-old heir James II survived that evil night, and James’s violent deposition met not support, but horror. Within weeks the conspirators were hunted to ground. Atholl, for his part, protested his innocence of the regicide all the way to the end, a protest that neither contemporaries nor historians have much credited.

And his death declar’d that there is nothing more popular than justice, for they who were wont to detract from him whilst he was alive, now he as dead had most flagrant desires after him, insomuch that the Nobles, as soon as they heard he was murder’d, came in of their own accord from their respective countries and before a tryal was appointed they voluntarily sent out into all parts to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice.

Very many of them were taken. The principal of them was put to new and exquisite kinds of death. The rest were hang’d. The chief heads in perpetrating the wickedness were reckon’d to be Walter Earl of Athole, Robert his nephew by his son, and their kinsman Robert Graham.

The punishment of Walter (because he was the chief author and instigator of the whole plot) was divided into three days suffering. In the 1st he was put on a cart wherein a stork-like swipe [crane] or engine was erected, and by ropes let through pullies was hoisted up on high and then, the ropes being suddainly loos’d, he was let down again almost to the ground with grievous pains by reason of the luxation [stretching] of the joints of his body. Then he was set on a pillory that all might see him, and a red-hot iron crown set on his head with this inscription, that he should be called King of all Traitors. They say the cause of this punishment was that Walter had been sometimes told by some female witches (as Athole was always noted to have such) that he should be crown’d king in a mighty concourse of people. For by this means that prophecy was either fulfill’d or eluded, as indeed such kind of predictions do commonly meet with no other events. The day after, he was bound upon a hurdle and drawn at an horse-tail thro’ the greatest street in Edinburgh. The 3rd day he was laid along upon a plank in a conspicuous place and his bowels were cut out whilst he was alive, cast into the fire, and burnt before his face. Afterwards his heart was pulled out and cast into the same fire. Then his head was cut off and expos’d to the view of all, being set upon a poll in the highest place of the city. His body was divided into four quarters and sent to be hang’d up in the most noted places of the best cities of the kingdom.

After him, his nephew was brought forth to suffer, but because of his age they would not put him to so much pain; and besides, he was not the author, but only an accomplice in another man’s wicked design, as having obey’d his grandfather therein, so that he was only hang’d and quarter’d.

But Robert Graham, who did the deed with his own hand, was carried in a cart thro’ the city, and his right hand was nail’d to a gallows which was set up in the cart, and then came executioners which did continually run red-hot iron spikes into his thighs, shoulders, and those parts of his body which were most remote from the vitals, and then he was quarter’d, as the former. After this manner was the death of James vindicated.

‘Tis true, ’twas a cruel one, but ’twas reveng’d by punishments so cruel that they seem’d to exceed the very bounds of humanity. For such extreme kinds of punishment do not so much restrain the minds of the vulgar by the severity as they do make them wild to do or suffer any thing; neither do they so much deter wicked men from committing offences by their acerbity as they lessen their terror by often beholding them, especially if the spirits of the criminals be so hardened that they flinch not at their punishment. For among the unskilful vulgar a stubborn confidence is sometimes prais’d for a firm and stable constancy.

-Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582)

* James’s successors handed down the throne, father James to son James, right down into the Stuart dynasty that came to rule England as well. This makes our James I an ancestor of such scaffold worthies as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.

** James was kidnapped in March 1406. His father Robert III died in April of the same year.

† “‘That Old Serpent and Ancient of Evil Days': Walter, Earl of Atholl and the Death of James I,” The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 191/192, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. – Oct., 1992).

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1440: The Black Dinner

Add comment November 24th, 2016 Headsman

Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.

-Sir Walter Scott

On this date in 1440, 10-year-old King James II of Scotland celebrated the Black Dinner and saw two Clan Douglas rivals sent straight to the block.

Scotland in the early 15th century was a fractious kingdom that was often governed by rivalrous regency councils ruling in the stead of absent or enfeebled kings. That was the case after the 1437 assassination of King James I passed the crown to his young son.

On these councils, the clan Douglas always swung a very large claymore. Elevated to the first rank of lowland families by their early support of Robert the Bruce a century before, the Earls of Douglas had become perhaps the realm’s preeminent noblemen — the sort of overweening powers-behind-the-throne that everyone starts thinking about how to topple. No surprise, James II’s regent was this very Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas — until the latter died in 1439 and passed the title to a young heir of his own.

Only about 16 years old, the new Earl, William Douglas, wasn’t exactly a child by the standards of the time. (He already had a wife.) But he was no match for the grizzled schemers he was pitted against among James II’s other guardians, Crichton and Livingston. These two perversely connived with William’s own uncle James to be rid of the whelp before he could grow into another overmighty Earl of Douglas.

This day’s infamous meal accomplished the plot.

Caledonia’s answer to the Red Wedding — and an actual inspiration for that literary slaughter in the Game of Thrones universe* — the Black Dinner of folklore is supposed to have featured both William and his little brother David naively accepting an invitation to Edinburgh Castle for noshes with the king.** Having left their own strongholds, they were vulnerable here.

After their feast on this date, it is said — though this excessive detail was undoubtedly concocted by generations of folklore — that a severed black bull’s head was plopped onto the table, to symbolize the imminent decapitation of the Douglas alpha males.† Then the Douglas lads were subjected to a mock trial as traitors and instantly dragged outside for beheading. That devious uncle James happily inherited as the seventh Earl of Douglas.‡

* The Massacre of Glencoe, another great Scottish bloodbath, also figures in the Red Wedding’s source material. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” said Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Amen to that.

** Along with Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who was seized along with the Douglas boys but seemingly only killed a few days later.

† Still, not as terrifying as a Thanksgiving Cthurkey.

‡ While the child king was more prop than participant in the events of the Black Dinner, he would have the privilege little more than a decade later of personally stabbing to death the eighth Earl of Douglas, James’s son William.

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1441: Roger Bolingbroke, “hanged, hedyd, and quartered”

Add comment November 18th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1441, the astrologer and mathematician Robert Bolingbroke was put to death as a wizard.

Bolingbroke had the ill luck to attach to the household of the Duchess of Gloucester at a juncture where it was politically convenient to destroy her; we have previously examined this affair through the person of Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye who with Roger Bolingbroke and a third man, Thomas Southwell, produced a horoscope for the Duchess prophesying King Henry VI‘s imminent demise — which was a bit on the nose for the king when he found out about it since at that moment the Duke of Gloucester would have stood to succeed him as king.

This exercise was nothing but an occult diversion, the medieval aristocracy’s equivalent of the Ouija board, but in the hands of enemies it became a treasonable plot for regicide. It forced the Duchess’s fall, divorce, and perpetual imprisonment — but what it forced for the commoners who scried the stars on her behalf was considerably worse. In the words of the Chronicle of London, Roger Bolingbroke

was taken for werchynge of sorcery ayens the king, and he was put into the Tour; and after, he was brought into Poules, and there he std up on high on a scaffold ageyn Poulys crosse on a Sonday, and there he was arraied like as he schulde never the in his garnementys, and there was honged rounde aboughte hym alle his intrumentis whiche were taken with hym, and so shewyd among all the peple; and after he was broughte to-fore the lordys, and there he was examyned; and after broughte to the Yeldehalle, and there he was regned aforen the lordes of the kynges counseill and to-fore alle the juges of this land; and anon after, the lady of Gloucestre afornseid was mad to apere thre sondry dayes afore the kyng and alle his lordes spirituell and temperell; and there she was examyned of diverses poyntes of wicchecraft, of the whiche she knowleched that she hadde used thorugh the counseil of the wicche of Eye, the whiche was brent on the even of Symond and Jude in Smythefeld.

In this yere my lady of Gloucestre hadde confessyd here wichecraft, as it is afornseid, she was yoyned be alle the spiritualte assent to penaunce, to comen to London fro Westminster on the Monday next suynge and londe at the Temple brigge out of here barge, and there openly barehede with a keverchef on hir hede, beryng a taper of wax of ii lb. in here hond, and went so thorugh Fletstrete on here foot and hoodless unto Poules, and there she offred up here taper at the high auter; and on the Wednesday nest suenge she com fro Westminster be barge, unto the Swan in Tempse strete, and there she londyd, and wente forthe on here feet thorugh Brigge strete, Graschirche strete, to the Ledenhalle, and so on Crichirche in the wyse aforensyd; and n Fryday she londed at Quen hithe, and so forth she wente into Chepe, and so to Seynt Mighell in Cornhull, in the forme aforenseid; and at iche of the tymes the mair with the schirreves and the craftes of London were redy at the places there she sholde londe:* and after, Roger the clerk aforenseyd, on the Satirday, that is to sey the xviii day of Novembre, was brought to the Yeldehalle, with sire John Hom prest, and William Wodham squyer, the whiche sir John and William hadden there chartres at that tyme; and the clerk was dampned, and the same day was drawe fro the Tour of London to Tiborn, and there hanged, hedyd, and quartered, and the heed sett upn Londn bregge; and his oo quarter at Hereford, another at Oxenford, another at York, and the fourthe at Cambregge; and the lady put in prison, and after sent to Chestre, there to byde whill she lyvyth.

* For present-day readers, this humiliating public penitential procession reminds of Cersei’s walk of atonement on Game of Thrones; however, the actual inspiration for this scene was the affair of a later 15th century Englishwoman, Jane Shore.

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1492: 27 Jews of Sternberg, for desecrating the Eucharist

Add comment October 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1492, 27 Mecklenburg Jews were burned together outside the gates of the city of Sternberg.


Illustration of the burning of the Sternberg Jews, from Hartmann Schedel‘s Weltchronik (1493)

These unfortunate victims of the Sternberger Hostienschänderprozess we have already met via their Catholic intercessor, Father Peter Dane. Although Father Dane got away for the moment — his punishment would arrive five months hence — the scandal consisted of Dane’s alleged provision of his parish’s consecrated Host to Mecklenburg’s impious Hebrews for their profanation in occult Semitic liturgies.

Defiling the Eucharist was a recurrent substratum of the old blood libel canard: what blood more dear than the literal flesh of Christ?

Mecklenburg’s elimination of her Jewry — for those spared the stake were banished — had a tortured legacy thereafter, as one might expect. In the immediate aftermath, Sternberg became such a discomfitingly profitable pilgrims’ destination that Martin Luther denounced by name its services to Mammon. (See our previous post on Fr. Dane for the details.)

Centuries afterwards, Weimar hyperinflation put Sternberg’s pyres and the coin of the realm together again when Sternberg issued its own notes, one of them blazoned with its famous burning Jews. Picture pulling one of these out of your wallet at the corner kiosk:

Sternberg’s Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, which prospered in the pilgrimage days, has a still-extant chapel of the holy blood built in honor of (and thanks to the donatives earned by) the outraged Eucharist. Today the historic chapel holds a contemporary sculpture titled “Stigma” — a reminder of the dark day in 1492 the chapel once celebrated.

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