Posts filed under 'Early Middle Ages'
March 6th, 2016
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.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Caliphate,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Iraq,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Religious Figures,Soldiers
Tags: amorium, christianity, iconoclasm, islam, march 6, samarra, theophilos
December 5th, 2015
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.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Uncertain Dates,Women
Tags: 999, adultery, elisabeth of vendome, fulk iii, politics
November 28th, 2015
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 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.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Bludgeoned,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Torture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates
Tags: 764, christianity, constantine v, constantinople, icon, iconoclasm, leo iii, november 28, religion, st. stephen
July 16th, 2015
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.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Murder,Norway,Power,Treason,Uncertain Dates
Tags: 995, bluetooth, haakon jarl, haakon sigurdsson, harald bluetooth, olaf i, st. vladimir the great, technology, tormod kark, vikings
April 23rd, 2015
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.
On this day..
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
Tags: 1290, 1290s, alv erlingsson
February 15th, 2015
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
Possibly related executions:
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
Tags: 904, leo v, marozia, pornocracy, rome, sergius iii
July 15th, 2014
On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.
The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.
The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.
Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.
The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.
The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.
His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.
One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.
In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.
Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.
The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.
One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.
In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:
“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”
Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.
Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.
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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,China,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Sex,Strangled,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women
Tags: 756, an lushan, bai juyi, femme fatale, july 15, literature, love, opera, poetry, song of everlasting sorrow, xi'an, xuanzong, yang guifei
December 28th, 2013
The first documented executions of heretics in medieval Europe occurred on this date in 1022 in Orleans, when 13 or so were burned at Orleans.
The French king at this time was Robert II, known to history as “Robert the Pious” because he was so violent with the sub-orthodox.* In addition to this date’s burnings, he’s noted for inciting anti-Jewish persecutions that in some places drove local Jewry to drown themselves fleeing pogroms.
For those within Christianity, starting now, Robert’s Piety meant much tighter scrutiny of potentially deviant doctrines.
Now, these were not the first-ever Christian-on-Christian heresy executions in the West. But so far as is known they marked a revival of the practice after some six centuries of disuse — dating back to the Roman Empire when rival strains of early Christianity fought things out. That was ancient history, and not only literally; by this point in the Middle Ages, “heresy” was not nearly so dangerous a charge among Christian disputants as it would come to be after 1022.
The period’s chronicles paint the early eleventh century as a time of rising heresies, or rather rising fear of heresies. It’s an idea that would have a blazingly bright future.
What’s remarkable is that this tradition was resuscitated not for the exemplary punishment an itinerant band of outsiders or some marginal, radical sect, but for canons of the Orleans Cathedral — “certain clerks, raised from childhood in holy religion and educated as deeply in sacred as in profane letters … Some were priests, some deacons, some sub-deacons. The chief among them were Stephen and Lisois.” Their positions situate them as elite, establishment characters.
The “heresy” in question has in the past been speculatively associated with the gnostic Bogomils on the strength of one account that describes them as “Manicheans”. It hints at a tantalizing underground history of fugitive Bulgarian mystics. Unfortunately the author of that account was an epic swindler, and was not a firsthand witness to the trial. Besides, thanks to St. Augustine, “Manicheaism” was the medieval byword for heresy of any sort. There’s no concrete reason to ascribe Manicheaism to those burnt this day.
According to R.I. Moore‘s engaging The War On Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe** (from which all quotes in this post derive), it was precisely because of their high ranks that the Orleans “heretics” were targeted — and so far from being the purveyors of some devilish doctrine, they were basically the victims of a political purge for which “heresy” was the stalking-horse.
Moore’s argument, in fine, is that King Robert, who was the scion of the new and uncertain Capetian dynasty, was in a tight spot vis-a-vis his powerful neighbors. He had previously married one Bertha, the mother of one of the Count of Blois; Robert, however, put her aside in favor of Constance, kin to the Count of Anjou. However, he had flip-flopped a couple of times between these two spouses, and the domestic relations mirrored the king’s political maneuvering opposite Blois, Anjou, and Normandy, where the trial was held. Richard II, Duke of Normandy,† was a Blois ally; it was Richard’s uncle who claimed to have busted the heresy by infiltrating the group.
The heresy charge, Moore argues, “was a manoeuvre by the supporters of the Blois faction, still hoping for the restoration of Bertha, against those of Constance and her Angevin connections.” They were able to attack Constance’s circle via her spiritual (and temporal) allies, and they were able to force the deposition of the Constance-friendly Archbishop of Orleans in favor of their own candidate.
It was a move very dangerous to the king. He was able to counter it only by dissociating himself from his former favourites at a hastily summoned trial. As Paul of St Père described it, ‘The king and Queen Constance had come to Orléans, as Harfast had asked, with a number of bishops, and at his suggestion the whole wicked gang was arrested by royal officials at the house where they met, and brought before the king and queen and an assembly of clerks and bishops at the church of Ste Croix.’
It was, Moore says, “like a kangaroo court.” Stephen had been Queen Constance’s own confessor; one later chronicler, exaggerating events he did not witness, claimed that Constance actually struck out Stephen’s eye with her staff as the condemned were hauled out of their home church for the stakes.
We have no way to know if the representation of the prelates’ beliefs that comes down to us bears any relationship to their real thoughts. If so, the grounds upon which this “wicked gang” were targeted does indeed read like heresy: denying the Virgin birth, the Resurrection, the efficacy of baptism, and transubstantiation. Certainly a rap sheet like that would be enough to get a body burned in the heretic-hunting centuries to come.
Moore speculates that these “heretics” were basically neoplatonists who had some off-script ideas or experiences and got demagogued by Bertha’s people on that basis. The disdainfully condescending supposed riposte of the condemned certainly sounds calculated to put their persecutors in their place.
You may tell all this to those who are learned in earthly things, who believe the fabrications which men have written on the skins of animals. We believe in the law written within us by the Holy Spirit, and hold everything else, except what we have learned from God, the maker of all things, empty, unnecessary and remote from divinity. Therefore bring an end to your speeches and do with us what you will. Now we see our king reigning in heaven. He will raise us to his right hand in triumph and give us eternal joy.
Being heretics, of course, they didn’t get to drop the mic with their noble defiance ringing from the page.
when the flames began to burn them savagely they cried out as loudly as they could from the middle of the fire that they had been terribly deceived by the trickery of the devil, that the views they had recently held of God and Lord of All were bad, and that as punishment for their blasphemy against Him they would endure much torment in this world and more in that to come. Many of those standing near by heard this, and moved by pity and humanity, approached, seeking to pluck them from the furnace even when half roasted. But they could do nothing, for the avenging flames consumed them, and reduced them straight away to dust.
For more on the primary(ish) sources that document this event and their various problem points, see this pdf.
* Notwithstanding his piety, Robert had actually been excommunicated for his marriage to Bertha, who was his cousin.
** Of interest in the same vein, Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250.
† More about Richard II, Duke of Normandy, in this podcast episode from Lars Brownworth’s Norman Centuries. You might be familiar with his grandson, William the Conqueror.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Mass Executions,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures
Tags: 1020s, 1022, december 28, orleans
April 29th, 2013
On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.
In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.
Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.
Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.
He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.
Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.
But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.
Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.
Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.
This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.
Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.
* Here’s an attempted family tree (pdf). They would evolve into the Crescenzi.
** Gibbon speculated that this period of female domination of the papacy might have lived on in popular memory as the medieval legend of Pope Joan.
† But not executed, more’s the pity for me.
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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions
Tags: 990s, 998, april 29, crescentius the younger, otto iii, pope gregory v, pope john xvi, rome
December 25th, 2012
On Christmas 1017, England’s King Cnut had the ealdorman Eadric Streona summarily axed.
While legend has it that Eadric Streona (“Grasping Eadric” or “Eadric the Acquisitor”) irritated the monarch by beating him in a game of chess, Middle Ages chroniclers attributed his fate to the just deserts of inveterate treachery.
A couple centuries of Viking raids and conquests had just culminated with the Northmen’s outright capture of the English throne, fifty years before the better-remembered Norman invasion.
Notwithstanding his best efforts at resistance, the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the Unready had been briefly driven into exile by Cnut’s father, Sweyn Forkbeard, and his house then decisively dispossessed by Cnut at the Battle of Assandun. (All kings had cooler names in the Anglo-Saxon period.)
Eadric figured into this period in the timeworn role of duplicitous nobleman. The BBC named him the worst Briton of the 11th century.
Though not of the highest pedigree himself, “his smooth tongue gained him wealth and high rank, and gifted with a subtle genius and persuasive eloquence he surpassed all his contemporaries in malice and perfidy, as well as in pride and cruelty.” (Florence of Worcester, whose chronicle dates to a century later.) Eadric maneuvered himself into a union with Aethelred’s daughter, but he didn’t exactly follow Corleone rules where the family was concerned.*
Plenty of lords were playing both sides of the Anglo-Saxon/Danish conflict, but Eadric did it as well as anyone. He was an exponent of the policy of appeasing the Northmen with the Danegeld tribute, rather than resisting by arms. (Eadric might have been helping himself to a rake of the Danegeld that passed through his own hands.) He’s slated with, on one occasion, dissuading Aethelred from falling upon a crippled Danish force that might have been destroyed.
His nemesis on the policy front was Aethelred’s combative son and heir Edmund Ironside. (Seriously: cooler names.)
Anyway, in 1015, when Aethelred and Cnut were pressing rival claims at arms, Eadric “seduced forty ships from the king, and they went over to Cnut.” Early the next year, he defected back.
By this time, Aethelred had died and Eadric’s old rival Edmund Ironside inherited leadership. What terms these two old foes came to when Eadric returned are a matter of speculation, but it can be no surprise that Eadric switched sides back to Cnut yet again at Assandun. Some chronicles like to attribute the whole fall of England to this backstab, but it’s more than likely the guy just recognized the balance of forces (the English got routed) and tacked to the wind.
And Eadric sure could tack. He even helpfully cleared out his and Cnut’s mutual rival Edmund Ironside, allowing Cnut to claim all the lands he’d just recently agreed to leave to Edmund. The most flinch-inducingly scabrous version of the assassination story goes that Eadric’s guys shot Edmund up the backside from a privy-hole. Guess that side wasn’t so iron.
But Eadric’s belief that he’d ingratiated himself with Cnut was as sorely mistaken as Edmund Ironside’s confidence in the loo. Kings tend to look askance upon traitors, and not a few usurpers have been known to extend that opprobrium to the very people who betrayed their predecessors. Cnut valued loyalty, and it was pretty clear he couldn’t rely upon Eadric in that department.
After tolerating this underhanded underling for a decent year or so,
[a]t the Lord’s Nativity, when [Cnut] was in London, he gave orders for the perfidious ealdorman Eadric to be killed in the palace, because he feared to be at some time deceived by his treachery, as his former lords Ethelred and Edmund had frequently been deceived; and he ordered his body to be thrown over the wall of the city and left unburied.
-Florence of Worcester (via)
The rich English-history podcast environment has various offerings touching this period, including …
* It needs to be said that Eadric is known through the testimony of hostile chronicles; given the dearth of primary documentation, his reputation lies at their mercy. One 20th century historian remarked that he takes on a bogeyman character in the texts, an all-purpose villain “to whom unknown crimes may be safely attributed.”
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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Early Middle Ages,England,Execution,History,Infamous,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Public Executions,Summary Executions
Tags: 1010s, 1017, aethelred the unready, battle of assandun, canute the great, december 25, eadric streona, ethelred the unready, sweyn i, vikings