Posts filed under 'Early Middle Ages'

Feast Day of St. Cetteus

Add comment June 13th, 2017 Headsman

June 13 is the feast of St. Cetteus, patron of the Adriatic port city of Pescara.

This saint’s legends the line between just-so story and real historical events, illustrating the Church martyrology’s great strengths as a read-made memorial of Christians’ trials down the years. That in this case the suffering was less a religious persecution per se than the shame of being trod over by conquerors who installed themselves almost without opposition in the hollowed husk of Roman greatness and did as they pleased.

The Lombard incursion beginning in 568 in some ways signals the permanent sundering of east from west in the Roman world, for the Germanic invaders — a mixture of pagans and Arian heretics, no less — in time ousted Byzantium from the latter’s Italian holdings and meanwhile underscored the Roman Empire’s near-impotence in its ancestral homelands. “From Italy the emperors were incessantly tormented by tales of misery and demands of succor, which extorted the humiliating confession of their own weakness,” writes Gibbon. “The expiring dignity of Rome was only marked by the freedom and energy of her complaints: ‘If you are incapable,’ she said, ‘of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.'”

For the near term, it was a violent and unstable period; Lombard rulers assassinated and warred with one another as their hegemony devolved into a patchwork of feuding duchies, helping set the scene for the fractured medieval peninsula.

The perils of internal strife manifest in our martyr’s story; despite his eventual association with Pescara, his bishopric was inland at Amiternum and it was there, the story goes, that he was ordered drowned in 597 by a tyrannous Lombard warlord who mistakenly thought him a crony of his rival.

Tossed into the drink, the bish floated downstream to Pescara where a fisherman, recognizing the corpse’s ecclesiastical raiments without knowing exactly who wore them, buried him under the whimsical name “Peregrino”.

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Feast Day of Saint Eskil

Add comment June 12th, 2017 Headsman

June 12 is the feast date* of Saint Eskil, a martyr to the slow Christianization of Scandinavia.

Ol’ “God-kettle” was one of several missionaries known to have been dispatched in the 11th and 12th century from England to Sweden, a traffic in religious conversion across the North Sea crossroads to invert the centuries-past course of Vikingers who put so many British sanctuaries to the sack.

The Northmen realms were ripe to join Christendom but sagas touching the time describe an uneven transitional period where the new and old faiths jostled for primacy.

“Ingi was king for a long time, well-liked and a good Christian; he put down [pagan] sacrificing in Sweden and ordered all the people of the land to become Christian,” runs The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise** (available in pdf translation here), about King Inge the Elder.

But the Swedes had too strong a belief in the heathen gods and held to their ancient ways … the Swedes thought that King Ingi had infringed their rights under the ancient law of the land, when he found fault with many things that Steinkel his [Christian] father had let be; and at a certain assembly which the Swedes held with King Ingi they gave him the choice of two things, either to observe the ancient laws or else to give up his throne. Then King Ingi spoke, and said that he would not leave the true faith; whereat the Swedes cried out, and pelted him with stones, and drove him from the law-assembly.

Svein, the king’s kinsman, remained behind at that assembly, and he offered to make sacrifice for the Swedes if they would grant him the kingdom; all agreed to Svein’s offer, and he was accepted as king over all the Swedish realm. Then a horse was led forth to the assembly, hewn in pieces, and divided up for eating, and the sacrificial tree was reddened with its blood. Thereafter all the Swedes cast off the Christian faith, and sacrifices were instituted, and they drove King Ingi away; he departed into western Gautland. For three years Svein the Sacrificer was king over the Swedes.

King Ingi went with his own bodyguard and some followers, though it was only a small force … into Sweden; he rode by day and night and came upon Svein unawares in the early morning. They seized the house over their heads and set it on fire, and burnt all the company who were inside … Svein came out and was cut down. And so Ingi took the kingship of the Swedes anew, and restored the Christian faith; he ruled the realm till the day of his death.

The “Svein” referred to here is a gentleman whom the historians recall as Blot-Sweyn — “Sweyn the Sacrificer” — and this Norse answer to Julian the Apostate apparently enjoyed his interregnum authority in about the 1080s thanks to Inge’s disrespect of the old rites still honored at the ancient Temple at Uppsala.

The timeline of high statecraft is extremely sketchy, and Saint Eskil’s relationship to events doubly so. Commonly recalled as a victim of the Blot-Sweyn period, Eskil is first marked in the 1120s annals of another Anglo-Saxon monk abroad in Scandinavia, Aelnoth from Canterbury — “Eschillus of sacred memory” who succumbed evangelizing to the “barbarorum feritate.” That’s the whole of it, with nothing like a year or a regnal era to hang one’s hat upon. In the 13th century, with Christianity truly triumphant, a hagiography of Eskil greatly embroidered the martyrdom story and tied it to the land’s most notorious rearguard ruling unbeliever, featuring a cast of heathens so nonplussed at the monk’s interruption of their feast that, notwithstanding his show of divine miracles, Blood-Sweyn has him sentenced to immediate stoning.

The town of Eskilstuna bears his name (it used to just be “Tuna”).

* Though it’s been bumped to June 12 everywhere else, the feast is still marked on its original June 11 date in the diocese Strängnäs, where the saint was supposed to have attained his martyr’s crown. (Strängnäs Cathedral is supposed to mark the very spot of his fatal confrontation with the Aesir followers.)

** This saga’s narrative stretches from an outright legendary prehistory to the Middle Ages. The Ingi-Svein affair is its last episode, but its first locates a more Wagnerian milieu: “Sigrlami was the name of a king who ruled over Gardariki; his daughter was Eyfura, most beautiful of all women. This king had obtained from dwarves the sword called Tyrfing, the keenest of all blades; every time it was drawn a light shone from it like a ray of the sun. It could never be held unsheathed without being the death of a man, and it had always to be sheathed with blood still warm upon it. There was no living thing, neither man nor beast, that could live to see another day if it were wounded by Tyrfing, whether the wound were big or little …”

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831: St. Euthymius of Sardis, iconophile

Add comment December 26th, 2016 Headsman

This is the martyrdom date in 831 for the iconodule saint Euthymius of Sardis.

Euthymius was just a child when Byzantium’s century-long internal conflict over the image-veneration wrote St. Stephen the Younger into the pages of this here blog way back in 764.

By the time Euthymius attained the bishopric of Sardis in the 780s, the Empress Irene was putting an end to her predecessors’ anti-icon campaigns, and Euthymius took part in the Second Council of Nicaea that made the new policy official.

Posterity has a difficulty measuring by way of scanty and partisan sources the true state of sentiments surrounding icons during this period but it’s a sure thing that for an empire besieged both west and east, religious questions connected inextricably to geopolitical ones. Irene’s shift towards embracing what iconoclasts saw as graven images spanned about a quarter-century which also coincided with humiliating reverses for Constantinople. Irene’s son was thrashed by the Bulgars to whom her treasury was then obliged to submit tribute; then Irene had that very son deposed and blinded. Irene was toppled in her turn by her finance minister but Emperor Nikephoros too was trounced in battle and his skull wound up as the Bulgar Khan’s ceremonial goblet.

Small wonder that when Leo the Armenian took power in 814 he reflected that

all the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors in the imperial mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

For a prelate like Euthymius, this meant a return to the opposition benches. He’s reported to have been arrested and exiled twice in the ensuing years before finally being scourged to death in 824 at the behest of Leo’s successor; however, scholarship has better associated this event with the more vigorous anti-icon persecutions of Theophilus after 829. In 831, Arab forces devastated Cappadocia and also captured Panormos in Byzantine Sicily. In light of these reverses Theophilos discovered that an anti-iconoclast manifesto predicting the emperor’s imminent death had been circulated — so again the link between prestige abroad, sedition within, and those damned icons. Theophilus attributed the pamphlet to a pro-icon bishop named Methodius, who was a friend of Euthymius, and had both men arrested.

Imprisoned on the island of St. Andrew, near Constantinople in the Sea of Marmara, the two men were questioned about their associates by the postal logothete — probably Arsaber, the brother of [anti-icon future patriarch] John the Grammarian — who was accompanied by the chartulary of the inkpot Theoctistus. Euthymius seems to have mocked Theoctistus and would name only one of his visitors: Theoctista, the mother-in-law of both the logothete and the emperor!* Theophilus had both Euthymius and Methodius beaten soundly. While Methodius, who was just over 40, could endure it, the 77-year-old Euthymius died from his injuries on December 26 and became an iconophile martyr. The empress Theodora was reportedly so upset at Euthymius’s death that she told Theophilus that God would desert him for what he had done. (Source)

The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episode 103.

* Theoctista was an actual iconophile. Her house in Constantinople later became the Monastery of Gastria — and post-1453, a mosque.

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925: Feast Day of St. Pelagius

June 26th, 2016 Headsman

June 26 is the feast date and reputed martyrdom date of the legendary Cordoban Christian martyr Saint Pelagius.*

Truly a martyr for our times of interconfessional strife, Pelagius (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) is supposed to have been a Christian boy given as a hostage to the Moorish emir Abd-ar-Rahman III, one of the longest-reigning rulers of al-Andalus and a man whom historians now tend to view as a pragmatic and tolerant ruler.

That is certainly not the character in the Pelagius story: that caliph is a tyrannical lout who develops a pederastic infatuation with his young charge (13 years old when martyred) and lusts to conquer him both corporeally and spiritually.

Pelagius spurned all advances and refused inducements to apostatize until the frustrated Moor finally ordered him tortured and dismembered. The year was 925 or so.

He’s the subject of the Latin poem Passio Sancti Pelagii by the German poet Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (here it is, in Latin). Although she claimed to have obtained the account from an eyewitness to Pelagius’s martyrdom the story’s historicity is very much doubted today. Nevertheless, it has had obvious national-propaganda utility in the land venerating “St. James the Moor-slayer” and has conferred the Spanish version of his name (Pelayo) on a number locations in Spain and the former Spanish empire. Topically for our dark site, Pelagius is also the patron saint of torture victims.

* This saint has no connection to the ancient heresy of Pelagianism or the 4th-5th century British monk for whom it was named.

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845: The 42 Martyrs of Amorium

8 comments March 6th, 2016 Headsman

March 6 is the feast date of the 42 Martyrs of Amorium, the day in the year 845 when they submitted to the caliphate’s executioners in preference to conversion.

Though they were people of rank in their lifetimes, most of them are not known to posterity by name or even position. Devotionally, they govern no special sphere of intercession; iconographically, they have no special device. When depicted (itself unusual) it is simply as a gaggle of generic courtiers.*

It seems a fitting fate for mere individuals ground up between states and faiths; even so, their weedy tombs mark a fork on the path trod by Byzantium.

The 42 earned their martyrs’ crowns at the end of seven years’ imprisonment, so it is to the Byzantine war with the Abbasid Caliphate in 837-838 that we must return to unravel their story. This war was itself merely the resumption of a conflict that had been ongoing between the civilizations for two centuries since Arab conquerors emerged from the Arabian desert to found an empire.

With the connivance, encouragement, or cajoling of anti-caliphate rebel Babak Khorramdin, the young Byzantine emperor Theophilos broke four years of tense peace with destructive effect in 837, ravaging the Upper Euphrates.

“He captured and burned the fortress of Zapetra, putting to death the male population and carrying off the women and children,” John Bury wrote in A History of the Eastern Empire from the fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I. Upon his return to the mandatory official Triumph, “[t]roops of children with garlands of flowers went out to meet the Emperor as he entered the capital. In the Hippodrome he competed himself in the first race, driving a white chariot and in the costume of a Blue charioteer;** and when he was crowned as winner, the spectators greeted him with the allusive cry, ‘Welcome, incomparable champion!'” Because the one thing 200 years of engaging the Arabs in back-and-forth raids, counterattacks, and suits for peace had taught Byzantium was that victories would surely prove durable.

In truth this war was also politics by other means — domestic politics, that is.

Theophilos really did aspire to incomparable championhood of something far more important than the position of the frontier: in matters religious, he was a stringent iconoclast and he meant to win Christendom firmly over to this philosophy.

The century-old schism within the communion — pitting iconoclasts, like Theophilos, who condemned as idolatrous the veneration of religious imagery against iconophiles or iconodules who embraced it — itself likely owed much to the stunning march of Arab arms and the wound Caliphate success had inflicted on a state and faith that had formerly presumed itself hegemonic. It was certainly the case that Roman superstition† perceived in the battlefield results of imperial adherents to the rival icon’isms a going divine referendum. God says go with whichever icon policy starts beating Islam!

Well might the triumphant Theophilos preen, then — right before the fall, like the Good Book says. Gibbon charged that Theophilos “was rash and fruitless” and “from his military toils he derived only the surname of the Unfortunate.”

The caliph al-Mu’tasim counterattacked the Unfortunate ruthlessly in 838, invading Anatolia in two huge columns that converged on a major city, Amorium.‡ There, they penetrated the city’s walls and put her to the sack — slaughtering unnumbered thousands and carrying away most survivors as slaves, outrageously unmolested by the chastisement of any Byzantine army.


12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes, an edition of the chronicle written by 11th century Greek historian John Skylitzes. The volume was produced in Sicily; it’s got “Madrid” in the name because that’s where the sole surviving copy of it resides today.

Byzantium might have been fortunate on this occasion that, before he could extend his conquest, al-Mu’tasim’s domestic politics promptly recalled him to the caliphate to deal with plots against his own throne. But the raid devastated the martial credibility of Theophilos the incomparable champion, and with it the credibility of iconoclasm. Nor can there have been much fortune reckoned by the thousands of prisoners marched out of the smouldering ruins of Amorium to the new Arab capital Samarra — among whom we find this post’s titular 42 martyrs.

They were, or at least seemed, the crown jewels among the captives, meaning the ones with cash value. Constantinople and Samarra would engage in periodic negotiations over the next several years to exchange them; the Caliphate’s insistence on obtaining for their return a treasure equal to the cost it had incurred to attack Amorium in the first place put an unbridgeable gap between the sides.

The nameless and rankless commoners among them went to their nameless destinies; undoubtedly their experience was cruel and many died or were killed, but for those who endured the tribulations there was a return to hearth and home in a prisoner exchange in 841.

For the VIPs, deliverance sank into the Mesopotamian mud.

Both Theophilos and al-Mu’tasim died in 842 and sometime around there the respective empires seem to have given up trying to resolve the impasse about the Amorium ransom. A few more years on with no apparent relief forthcoming from the annoyance of maintaining these now-useless prisoners of war, someone in Samarra decided to dispose of them with the ultimatum.

Their martyrs’ glory assured their afterlife in Byzantine religious propaganda. Yes, these two Christian sects had made martyrs of one another within the empire. But iconoclasm really hinged on one crucial argument fatally undone by the 42 martyrs: victory. The pro-icon emperors from 797 to 813 had been associated with retreat and humiliation;§ one had even been killed on campaign in the Balkans leaving the Bulgar king Krum to fashion the imperial skull into a ceremonial goblet. That the iconoclast rulers of the succeeding generation had at least stabilized the situation was their ultimate scoreboard taunt. Amorium dispelled that glow of providential favor, especially when followed by the years-long abandonment of that razed city’s noble hostages to the heathen dungeon.

Little could the monk Euodios know that his iconoclasm-tweaking hagiography of these martyrs would prove a redundant step.

The late Theophilos had only an infant son, so governance after his death fell to a regency led by the empress Theodora. Despite her dead husband’s scruples, Theodora didn’t mind an icon one bit, and restored icon veneration to a favor it would never again lose for the six centuries remaining to Byzantium.

* See for example the leftmost group on the second row in this image. (Located here)

** One of the principal charioteering teams/factions that had, centuries before, nearly overthrown Justinian and Theodora.

† Among the Romans themselves for whom supernatural causation was an assumed fact on the ground, superstitio had a more attenuated meaning, contrasting with religio. That is far afield for this post; I use the term here advisedly from a post-Enlightenment cosmology.

‡ Amorium is no more today: just a ruin buried under a village. But not because of this siege.

§ Charlemagne being crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 was also a gesture of disregard for a weakened (and at that moment, female-ruled) Byzantium, which dignified itself the Roman Empire despite having long since abandoned Rome itself.

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999: Elisabeth of Vendome, by her husband Fulk Nerra

1 comment December 5th, 2015 Headsman

Sometime in December of the year 999 — the exact date is not recorded — Fulk III, Count of Anjou (allegedly) had his wife, Elisabeth of Vendôme, burned at the stake in her wedding gown.

Truly a man of his unruly age, Fulk Nerra, “the Black Count”, wore his outsized passions on his mailed sleeve.

He was a remarkable captain of the Angevin realm; we have even met him glancingly in these pages as, having married his niece to the king of France, Fulk and his allies were embroiled in the court politicking that resulted in medieval Europe’s first heresy executions.

The Angevins appear to have been on the losing end of that situation, but in a 53-year reign, Fulk gave much in disproportion to what he got and was certainly known for his ruthlessness. Rather ungenerously, Richard Erdoes in AD 1000: Living on the Brink of Apocalypse decries Fulk Nerra as a “plunderer, murderer, robber, and swearer of false oaths” who “whenever he had the slightest difference with a neighbor … rushed upon his lands, ravaging, pillaging, raping, and killing.” He aggrandized Anjou, that much is certain; fearsome in battle, Fulk gave defenders of fortresses that he intended to possess to understand that only by speedy submission could they expect to escape summary execution. He had a once-trusted advisor named Hugh of Beauvais murdered before his eyes.

And on the occasion in question here, he supposedly wrought the revenge of a wronged husband when he caught his first wife making time with a goatherd. There is very little dependable primary information here; historiography dates to the 12th century and must surely be queried for embroidery if not outright fabrication.* Elisabeth was, naturally, Fulk’s spouse by way of dynastic politics and her father Bouchard I of Vendome seems to have realigned with Anjou’s rivals the lords of Blois. (Source) Who knows but that our trite and sordid story of marital infidelity does not conceal a woman potent with ambitions of her own.

Whatever went down did so dramatically: the chronicle kept by the monks of Saint-Florent says that Elisabeth was able to gather supporters and hole up against her husband at a fortress in (apt choice) Angers. If this resembles the truth in any way, one may safely suppose that Elisabeth was far from the only victim of Fulk’s passions on this occasion. The fate of the purported goatherd probably does not even bear imagining.

However and whenever it is that Elisabeth came to her end, Fulk had another wife by 1006, and it was this second woman who bore the count his heir.

And Anjou grew and prospered for its lord’s grasping ferocity. His biographer, Bernard Bachrach, likened Fulk’s energy and ambition to that of his younger contemporary, the Duke of Normandy — the man who eventually attained the English throne as William the Conqueror. Fulk was also known as “the great builder” for the welter of castles, churches, and other buildings that he threw up to exalt (and to dominate) his growing estates.

Perhaps to relieve the burden upon his conscience such triumphant statecraft necessarily implied, he also made multiple pilgrimages to Jerusalem — difficult and dangerous journeys. It was on his return from one of those sojourns that he died in Metz in 1040; Fulk was buried in the environs of one of those many buildings he underwrote, the (still-extant) abbey of Beaulieu-les-Loches.

* See Elisabeth M.C. van Houts’s review of Bachrach in The International History Review, Aug. 1994.

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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 arising 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 (after some hiccups) 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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995: Tormod Kark

1 comment July 16th, 2015 dogboy

On an unrecorded date in 995, Norwegian slave Tormod Kark became the first person beheaded under King Olaf I of Norway.

A subsidiary character in a long and brutal struggle for supremacy in Norway and its neighbors to the east and west, Kark had betrayed his lord, the de facto Norweigan ruler Haakon Jarl (“Earl Haakon”), as Olaf Tryggvason’s army searched for him. Haakon had holed up on a farm with Kark and at least one other trusted associate, but when Kark heard of the reward for Haakon’s, he thought it more opportune to kill his lord than to wait to be found.

Kark expected cake. Instead, King Olaf I abhorred his disloyalty and delivered him death.

Olaf grew up a refugee in the court of Kiev Rus’ ruler Vladimir the Great, who, according to some early sagas, had a Norse wife. Regardless of the circumstances, Olaf’s military prowess was such that Vladimir eventually became distrustful of a potentially dangerous guest and Olaf decided to take his leave.

Making his way back to Norway, Olaf married for the first time. When his wife died, he took sail down to the Scilly Isles (south of England), where he converted to Christianity. He then moved to England (Norsemen held sway there at this time). During his time there, he caught wind of Haakon Jarl waning hold on the affections of Norwegians high and low.

Olaf jumped at the chance. He quickly formed an alliance with several local leaders and sallied forth, and practically from the time he hit the fjords, Haakon was a fugitive.

Haakon Jarl — a.k.a. Haakon Sigurdsson — was an old friend of Harald Bluetooth,* the man credited with uniting Norway and Denmark. Haakon’s father was killed by Harald Greycloak, and Bluetooth enlisted Haakon to avenge that death. (He did so, with aplomb.)

With Greycloak out of the way, Bluetooth had solidified his position as effective ruler of Norway, where he installed Haakon — now elevated to Earl Haakon — as his vassal king. Haakon Jarl had wide latitude to subjugate the lands around him. As vassal, though, Haakon was called on by Bluetooth to fight the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, who had made an alliance with Olaf’s father-in-law in an effort to overrun the still-pagan Norse.

Bluetooth et al fought them off initially, but Otto II sent a fleet around to Jutland and bested the Danes and Norwegians. As a result, Haakon, Harald, and their armies were forcibly converted to Christianity.

Unwillingly as he had adopted it, Bluetooth maintained his new Christianity; Haakon Jarl didn’t really go in for that Jesus stuff and stubbornly held to his paganism. When Bluetooth** approached Haakon about really really converting around 977, the Jarl refused to accept the Christian faith, instead taking his Norway and going home. Haakon thereafter ruled on his own for almost 20 years.

Ultimately, it may have partially been paganism that defeated the Jarl, who was never crowned king: Haakon’s enemies cited his distrust of Christianity as a motivator in the initial agitations against him. That may just be spin, too, since Olaf was so adamantly Christian that he insisted those under his rule convert.† And heavenly imprimaturs tend to be a hot commodity for usurpers.

Regardless of the cause, by 995 Haakon Jarl was beheaded by his slave, his slave was beheaded by the king, and King Olaf I sat on the throne of Norway.

And then five years later, Haakon Jarl’s sons deposed King Olaf.

Olaf summoned the people together out in the yard, and standing on the rock which was beside the swine-sty spake unto them, and the words that he uttered were that he would reward with riches and honour the man who would work mischief to Earl Hakon. This speech was heard both by the Earl and Kark. Now by them in the sty had they a light there with them, and the Earl said: ‘Why art thou so pale, yet withal as black as earth? Is it in thy heart, Kark, that thou shouldst betray me?’ ‘Nay,’ said Kark, ‘we two were born on the self-same night, and long space will there not be twixt the hour of our deaths.’ Towards evening went King Olaf away, & when it was night Kark slept, and the Earl kept watch, but Kark was troubled in his sleep. Then the Earl awakened him & asked him whereof he dreamt, and he said: ‘I was now even at Ladir, and Olaf Tryggvason placed a gold ornament about my neck.’ The Earl answered: ‘A blood-red ring will it be that Olaf Tryggvason will lay about thy neck, shouldst thou meet with him. Beware now, and betray me not, & thou shalt be treated well by me as heretofore.’ Then stay they both sleepless each watching the other, as it might be, but nigh daybreak fell the Earl asleep and was troubled at once, so troubled that he drew his heels up under him & his head likewise under him, and made as though he would rise up, calling aloud and in a fearsome way. Then grew Kark afeard & filled with horror, so it came to pass that he drew a large knife from his belt and plunged it into the throat of the Earl cutting him from ear to ear. Thus was encompassed the death of Earl Hakon. Then cut Kark off the head of the Earl and hasted him away with it, and the day following came he with it to Ladir unto King Olaf, and there told he him all that had befallen them on their flight, as hath already been set forth. Afterwards King Olaf let Kark be taken away thence, & his head be sundered from his trunk.

Thereafter to Nidarholm went King Olaf and likewise went many of the peasantry, and with them bare they the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. In those days it was the custom to use this island as a place whereon might be slain thieves & criminals, and on it stood a gallows. And the King caused that on this gallows should be exposed the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. Then went thither the whole of the host, and shouted up at them and cast stones, and said that they went to hell each in goodly company, ever one rascal with another. Thereafter did they send men up to Gaulardal, & after they had dragged thence the body of Earl Hakon did they burn it. So great strength was there now in the enmity that was borne against Earl Hakon by the folk that were of Throndhjem that no one durst breathe his name save as the ‘bad Earl,’ and for long afterwards was he called after this fashion. Nevertheless it is but justice to bear testimony of Earl Hakon that he was well worthy to be a chief, firstly by the lineage whereof he was descended, then for his wisdom and the insight with which he used the power that pertained to him, his boldness in battle, and withal his goodhap in gaining victories and slaying his foemen. Thus saith Thorleif Raudfelldarson:

Hakon! no Earl more glorious ‘neath the moon’s highway:
In strife and battle hath the warrior honour won,
Chieftains mine to Odin hast thou sent,
(Food for ravens were their corses)
Therefore wide be thy rule!’

-The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason


* Bluetooth is, indeed, the namesake of the protocol that wirelessly unites mobile devices and computers. Scandanavian companies made it, so they gave it both a historically interesting name and a historically symbolic ligature logo (representing the “H” and “B”).

** Bluetooth’s daughter, Thyra or Tyra or Thyri, eventually became a consort to King Olaf I.

† Olaf I became known for his … er … creative executions for heathens.

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Entry Filed under: Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Murder,Norway,Power,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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1290: Alv Erlingsson, the Last Viking

Add comment April 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Around the spring of 1290, bad-boy Norwegian nobleman Alv Erlingsson was broken on the wheel by a Danish sheriff.

Sometimes remembered as the “last Viking”, Erlinggson (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) wasn’t only one of the great lords of the Norse kingdom: he was a prolific pirate.

The 1280s saw Norway warring with the rising German merchant cities, the latter soon allied with Denmark.

Alv Erlingsson made his sea-dog bones in this conflict, terrorizing Hanseatic League fleets and eventually raiding the Danish coast as well. His “Viking” reputation proceeds not only from this mastery of the waves but from his willingness to direct it even against his own king and country.

Although he was a senior enough official to be dispatched as an envoy to the English king in 1286,* a falling-out with King Eric‘s brother Haakon led Erlingsson to actually attack Oslo the following year.** His marauders put it to the torch and murdered the garrison commander — after which Erlingsson was a robber baron in the fullest sense of both words.

He set up as a freebooter operating out of Riga and preying by land and sea on whomever he could lay a sword on: the Teutonic Knights fretted the “harmful wolves led by the Count of Tønsberg.” This too is a part of his Viking image: King Eric and the Hanse made peace soon enough so that everyone could resume getting rich on trade. Erlingsson didn’t, or couldn’t, make that arrangement and so made his way taking plunder from the fringes of proper civilization. From the standpoint of posterity he looks positively anachronistic.

Call it Viking or piratical, romantic or loathsome — it caught up with him quickly in 1290 when he was captured on the Danish coast. Now despite his high birth he had no clout of his own and no diplomatic protection to shield him from revenge against the devastation he had visited upon those lands.

Information on this amazing character is not as widely available as one might hope; there’s a useful biographical sketch of him by Gabriele Campbell here (already cited in this post). The same blogger also has a follow-up post unpacking the games of thrones taking place in the same milieu.

* England and Norway were on a friendly footing, and the countries were maneuvering towards terms for Norwegian-Scots Princess Margaret to come to the Scottish throne.

** Erlingsson’s successful 1287 attack on Oslo led directly to the initial construction (in the 1290s) of Akershus Fortress, to shore up that city’s defenses. This medieval castle still guards the port to this day; it also hosted the execution of Vidkun Quisling and several other condemned traitors after World War II.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Norway,Outlaws,Pirates,Public Executions,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates

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904: Pope Leo V and Antipope Christopher, at the dawn of the Pornocracy

Add comment February 15th, 2015 Headsman

Around this time in 904, Pope Sergius III allegedly had one or both of his deposed predecessors put to death in prison.

Sergius held the throne of St. Peter for seven years, which was a longer incumbency than achieved by his seven immediate predecessors combined:* they march speedily through the Vatican’s annals like so many third-century Caesars, acclaimed by one faction within Rome’s political vipers’ nest only to offer flesh for their rival factions’ fangs; most are eminently forgettable save when they are utterly insane.

So pell-mell turned the scepter from one pretender to the next that the Church has even waffled in its official histories on just who was legitimate. Officially, Leo V is considered Sergius’s immediate predecessor; in reality, Leo was deposed and imprisoned two months after his July 903 election by a fellow named Christopher who was counted as a pope on canonical papal rolls until the 20th century. Today, he’s considered an antipope who was illegitimately elected.

“Legitimacy” in this period meant little but who had the muscle make their election stick. And though Sergius was the beneficiary, the man doing the flexing in this instance was Theophylact, Count of Tusculum along with his wife Theodora. For the next century the papacy would be a bauble of the Theophylacti family, who liberally plundered its perquisites. It is this Count who is thought to have forced the murder of Pope Leo — and possibly (Anti)pope Christopher, although Hermannus Contractus says Christopher was merely exiled to a monastery.

The resulting stability (relatively speaking) was the ascent with Sergius of the so-called “pornocracy”, or “Harlot State”.** The harlots in question are the Theopylacti women in a vicious bit of historiographical branding sourced ultimately (since there are very few to choose from) to the highly partisan histories of Liutprand of Cremona.

The count’s wife, Theodora, elevated to the unprecedented rank of “senatrix”, was the first voracious woman so designated and the possibly spurious charge that it was she who steered the Count’s hand is of course meant to redound to the detriment of both. Theodora’s daughter, Marozia, is alleged to have become Pope Sergius’s concubine at age 15.

As Marozia grew into womanhood, she would succeed as the de facto ruler of Rome, and become for propagandists the principal Pornocrat: “inflamed by all the fires of Venus,” gaped Liutprand; “a shameless whore … [who] exercised power on the Roman citizenry like a man.” She married the Duke of Spoleto and later the Margrave of Tuscany and was reputed to have manipulated numerous other paramours with her charms.

“A more inquisitive age would have detected the scarlet whore of the Revelations,” mused Edward Gibbon, who speculated that Marozia’s domination of the papacy might have sparked the later legend of a female “Pope Joan”. Our age might better see a ruthless conqueror entitled to indulge a Triumph or two. She made and unmade pontiffs in her own lifetime, and no fewer than six men tracing lineage directly to Marozia were Bishop of Rome in the next century and a half:

  • Marozia’s son (by either Pope Sergius or by the Duke of Spoleto) John XI, whose election Marozia forced in 931 when John was all of 21 years old;
  • Her grandsons John XII and Benedict VII;
  • Her great-grandsons (we’re into the 11th century for these) Benedict VIII and John XIX; her great-great-grandson Benedict IX

* In fact, you have to go back to Nicholas the Great (858-867) to find a longer-serving pope than Sergius.

** Saeculum obscurum, or Dark Ages, is historiography’s less colorful term.

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Entry Filed under: Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Strangled,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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