On or around this date in 535,* the Ostrogothic queen Amalasuntha was put to death in the Italian lake island of Martana (You can also find her name rendered Amalasountha and Amalaswintha.)
The Roman-educated princess had inherited rulership of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, a successor state to the lately fallen Roman Empire, from its redoutable founder Theodoric. Technically the crown had passed to Amalasuntha’s 10-year-old kid; ruling as regent in a perilous situation, mom cultivated an alliance with the Byzantine emperor Justinian.
Her son took to boozing and carousing and died as a teenager, so Amalasuntha sought a new male imprimatur for her reign by the expedient of marrying a wealthy cousin, Theodahad. Though the nuptial deal had been for Theo to butt out of actual governance, he immediately strove to convert his power from titular to actual and became his wife’s deadliest rival — and then clapped her in prison. From the History of the Wars of Byzantine scribbler Procopius:
Theodahad, upon receiving the supreme power, began to act in all things contrary to the hopes she had entertained and to the promises he had made. And after winning the adherence of the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her — and they were both numerous and men of very high standing among the Goths — he suddenly put to death some of the connections of Amalasuntha and imprisoned her, the envoys not having as yet reached Byzantium. Now there is a certain lake in Tuscany called Vulsina, within which rises an island, exceedingly small but having a strong fortress upon it. There Theodatus confined Amalasuntha and kept her under guard.
A Roman diplomat named Peter had already been dispatched by this time from the court of Constantinople to do some routine statecraft with the Goths, and he learned of the surprise reshuffling of power when he met Theodohad’s envoys on the road.
Procopius says — or does he? — that Byzantium tried to twist the Goths’ shaggy arms in support of their matronly ally, but could not prevail against the vengeance of the deposed queen’s foes.
When the Emperor Justinian heard these things, he formed the purpose of throwing the Goths and Theodahad into confusion; accordingly he wrote a letter to Amalasuntha, stating that he was eager to give her every possible support, and at the same time he directed Peter by no means to conceal this message, but to make it known to Theodatus himself and to all the Goths. … Now when Peter arrived in Italy, it so happened that Amalasuntha had been removed from among men. For the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her came before Theodahad declaring that neither his life nor theirs was secure unless Amalasuntha should be put out of their way as quickly as possible. And as soon as he gave in to them, they went to the island and killed Amalasuntha, — an act which grieved exceedingly all the Italians and the Goths as well. For the woman had the strictest regard for every kind of virtue … Theodahad, such was his stupid folly, while still holding the slayers of Amalasuntha in honour and favour kept trying to persuade Peter and the emperor that this unholy deed had been committed by the Goths by no means with his approval, but decidedly against his will.
The “stupid folly” helped to trigger Justinian’s war against the Goths, which resulted in Byzantium’s conquest of Italy and (temporary) reunification of the empire. It also led Amalasuntha’s son-in-law Vitiges to depose and murder Theodahad in his own turn: just another turn of the wheel among backstabbing aristocrats.
Speaking of which: despite the pious good faith Procopius presents for Byzantium in his history above, his gossipy Secret History rewrites the story to attribute Amalsuntha’s fall not to the Ostrogoths’ internal political rivalries but to a catty assassination by Byzantine empress Theodora, whose low-born origin shows through here in murderous insecurity:
At the time when Amalasuntha, desiring to leave the company of the Goths, decided to transform her life and to take the road to Byzantium, as has been stated in the previous narrative, Theodora, considering that the woman was of noble birth and a queen, and very comely to look upon and exceedingly quick at contriving ways and means for whatever she wanted, but feeling suspicious of her magnificent bearing and exceptionally virile manner, and at the same time fearing the fickleness of her husband Justinian, expressed her jealousy in no trivial way, but she schemed to lie in wait for the woman even unto her death. Straightway, then, she persuaded her husband to send Peter, unaccompanied by others, to be his ambassador to Italy. And as he was setting out, the Emperor gave him such instructions as have been set forth in the appropriate passage, where, however, it was impossible for me, through fear of the Empress, to reveal the truth of what took place. She herself, however, gave him one command only, namely, to put the woman out of the world as quickly as possible, causing the man to be carried away by the hope of great rewards if he should execute her commands. So as soon as he arrived in Italy — and indeed man’s nature knows not how to proceed in a hesitant, shrinking way to a foul murder when some office, perhaps, or a large sum of money is to be hoped for — he persuaded Theodahad, by what kind of exhortation I do not know, to destroy Amalasuntha. And as a reward for this he attained the rank of Magister, and acquired great power and a hatred surpassed by none.
On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.
Olympias was famed for her snake-handlin: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.
Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.
The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.
Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:
Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.
As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.
Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.
Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.
Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.
A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.
Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.
In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …
“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.
Fortune’s fool …
“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)
“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”
It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.
The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.
He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.
Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”
This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.
Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.
So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.
Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”
Thomas P. Lewis, master of the ship Adelaide, loading guano at Elide Island, off the coast of Lower California, was killed there on the 12th ult. by Wm. Williams, colored cook off that vessel. Three other vessels happened to be there at the time, and the officers united to hold a court, taking six sailors as part of the jury, and tried Williams, convicted him of murder, and then hanged him on the island.
Elide Island is a “naked rock, one mile in circumference” off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California which for a few years in the mid-19th century was heavily exploited for its guano supplies. 28,000 tons of bird crap later, the supply was tapped out.
Jacob Bonfadius, a man otherwise not in the last place among the erudite, because of copulation with boys (a most vile and sordid thing), was beheaded in prison and publically burned. The French Dominique Phinot, a distinguished musician, was also killed in the same way for a very similar folly.
This throwaway remark by the Italian Renaissance man Cardano is our only clue to the fate — indeed, to the very biography — of the composer Dominique Phinot. Based on the volume’s publication in 1561, it is thought that Phinot suffered for his folly around 1557-1560. We don’t even know the place.
Whatever damnatio memoriae obscured him in death, Phinot (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a prominent and highly regarded musician in his working life, acclaimed an expert in polychoral motets. Some 90 exemplars, and dozens of other compositions, survive; the 17th century Italian musicologist Pietro Cerone credited Phinot’s innovations with opening the way for Palestrina.
He emerges for posterity through those compositions; the earliest surviving date to 1538 and his publication locales (and the powerful men to whom they were dedicated) suggest a man for whom patrons in northern Italy (and across the Alps in Lyons) eagerly competed in the 1540s and 1550s. It is known that Phinot was retained by the Duke of Urbino for a period.
It is surely topical to notice that our correspondent Cardano was himself widely whispered to enjoy the same folly, too: a Venetian whose deep interest in music led him to “adopt” into his wifeless** household a number of boys with musical gifts, Cardano could hardly fail to court suspicion. “The rumor was being circulated everywhere that I was using my boys for immoral purposes,” Cardano reports autobiographically of one instance where he was threatened with exposure. Cardano appears never to have been formally charged as a sodomite, but it is remarkable — and even, he admits, “foolishness” — that his brushes with danger never caused him to reconsider the boy-keeping policy.†
As a proper Renaissance man, Cardano’s interests stretched far beyond pederasty and a good tune. He was, in the backhanded compliment of Sir Thomas Browne, “a great Enquirer of Truth, but too greedy a Receiver of it” and treatised profusely on philosophy, law, geology, astronomy, pedagogy, medicine, and mathematics. The latter two fields brought him his fame, but his musings flashed intermittent prescience across disciplines. Cardano argued for the full mental capacity of the deaf, and correctly inferred that mountains had once been underwater from the presence of seashell fossils upon them. A cryptographic technique, a puzzle, and a gear mechanism all bear the Cardano name. His mathematician’s sure grasp on probability also made him a deft gambler — and he published yet another volume on this subject as a young man.
Cardano the physician’s most famous patient was the Archbishop of St. Andrews, whom Cardano in 1553 cured of a debilitating asthma that had stricken the prelate speechless and was thought untreatable by contemporaries. Thanks to Cardano, Archbishop Hamilton became spry enough to get hanged for murder in 1571.
Yet Cardano the man had a still closer acquaintance with the executioner’s office through the person of his firstborn son … a topic for another day’s post.
* Opera Omnia, vol. 2, p. 354 (Theonoston seu de tranquilitate) Translation via Clement Miller in “Jerome Cardan on Gombert, Phinot, and Carpentras,” The Musical Quarterly, July 1972. The aforementioned Gombert was another composer who got busted for same-sex contact; he caught a term in the galleys.
** Cardano’s wife Lucia died in 1546.
† For more see Guido Giglioni, “Musicus Puer. A note on Cardano’s household and the dangers of music,” Bruniana & Campanelliana, vol. 11, no. 1 (2005).
While we have many examples of martyrs attributed to Diocletian‘s persecution, Gordius belongs to the subsequent, transitional era. His purported death in 320 would have been a mere five years before the Council of Nicaea convened by the empire’s Christian ruler Constantine.
But in Gordius’s time, Constantine only ruled half the Roman world — the western half. The eastern half, where Gordius munched his insects, was in the hands of the empire’s last pagan baddie,* Licinius.
Gordius is said to have tied a knot in some games being staged in the Anatolian city of Caesarea to honor “a war-loving deity” (presumably Mars). “The whole people were collected above the hippodrome, and not a Gentile or a Jew was absent. No small portion of the Christians was mingled with them, who guarded not their lives from sin, but sat in the assemblies of vanity.”
We are quoting here from one of our primary sources on the life of Gordius, or at least of how it was understood just a few generations distant: it is a homily on the martyr delivered by St. Basil in the late fourth century — a native son of Caesarea, and then its bishop, who says of Gordius that “we are the more attached to him, inasmuch as he is our peculiar ornament … having grown up in our native soil, and attained the very height of glory.”
Per Basil, his late countryman, “mighty in soul, sublime in resolution, descended from the mountains upon the theatre” to harangue the impious spectators — and to solicit his own martyrdom.
The eyes of the whole theatre were instantaneously fixed on the unwonted prodigy. They beheld a man of aspect wild, and savage, through his long abiding in the mountains: his hair was matted, his beard bushy, his garments squallid, his whole body parched and shrivelled: he bore in his hand a staff; a wallet was suspended by his side; and beaming around him from an unknown source, a certain grace ineffable threw a charm upon the whole.
As soon as he was recognized, a loud and commingled shout was raised by all; those who were allied to him in faith, crying out for joy; and those who were enemies to the truth, exciting the judge to murder him, and before his trial, condemning him to death …
Being immediately apprehended, he was dragged before the governour, who sat in the theatre, and directed the contention of the chariots. At first, he addressed the prisoner in a gentle, and benignant tone … [Gordius] said, I am present here, by deeds to attest at once, my disregard of thine imperial mandate, and my faith in that God upon whom my hopes repose. Having heard that thou art eminent in harshness and severity, I have chosen this, as the fittest season for accomplishing my desire.
When he thus spake, his words lighted up the fury of the ruler, and drew upon himself his accumulated rage. Call the Lichtors hither. Where are the leaden weights? Where are the scourges? Let him be stretched on the wheel; let his limbs be racked: let all modes of punishment be prepared: the wild beasts; the fire; the sword; the cross; the pit …
While the tyrant thus felt, and purposed, the saint, looking unto God, was weaving round his heart, the enchantment of a holy psalm. “The Lord,” he exclaimed, “is my helper. I will not be affrighted at what man shall do unto me. I will not e affrighted at evil things, for thou art with me.” Other passages akin to these, and inspiring courage, he repeated; such as ye may imagine him to have been deeply imbued with; him, who was so far from trembling at the threatened evils, that he even provoked and challenged them. Wherefore do ye linger? he exclaimed. Wherefore do ye stand inactive? Let my body be torn: let my limbs be racked: torture them as much as ye desire: do not envy me the blessed hope I cherish; for in proportion as ye extend my sufferings, ye acquire for me a brighter retribution.
He spake: he signed himself with the symbol of the cross, and went forward to receive the blow. No fear blanched the hue of his complexion, or dimned the glory of his countenance. He seemed, not as if he were delivering himself to the Lictors, but as if consigning himself to the hands of angels; those angels, who in the moment of his liberation, wafted him to the blessed life, as once they wafted Lazarus. — But oh! who can describe the terrific shout, which arose from the assembled multitude? What thunder, pealing from the clouds, ever transmitted such a sound to earth, as then thundred from earth to heaven? This is the very stadidum in which he was enwreathed. This very day beheld that wonrous spectacle; whose impression, no time can obliterate; no familiarity can weaken; no future achievements can surpass. For as we ever behold the sun, and ever admire his brightness; even so, will the memory of the Martyr be ever blooming and efflorescent. “The just man is for an everlasting memorial;” a memorial with the inhabitants of earth, as long as the earth endureth; a memorial with the Saints in Heaven; a memorial with the all-righteous Judge; unto whom be ascribed glory, and dominion, through eternity.
Somehow a year passed before Stone was brought to trial at Canterbury as a traitor. The execution of the inevitable sentence might then have been held up to coincide with the arrival to Canterbury of Anne of Cleves, the German Protestant princess who was (ever so briefly) Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Welcome to England, honey! It’s a great scene to imagine, but obviously the story — and hence this date — smacks of propaganda.
Whatever the true date of execution was, what we do have for certain is the butcher’s bill — itemizing the operation of tearing apart a religious dissident into rigorous accounting straight from your corporate expense report.
Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, 2s. 6d.; to a labourer that digged the holes, 3d.; to four men that helped set up the gallows for drink to them, for carriage of the timber from Stablegate to Dongeon, 1s.; for a hurdle, 6d.; for a load of wood and for a horse to draw him to the Dongeon, 2s. 3d.; paid two men that set the kettle and parboiled him, 1s.; to two men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up, 1s.; for halters to hang him and Sandwich cord and for straw, 1s.; to a woman that scoured the kettle, 2d.; to him that did the execution, 3s. 8d.
Today is the feast of Saint Lucy, a Diocletian martyr and one of Christendom’s best beloved saints.
As her Wikipedia page observes, “all the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century.” Like St. Barbara she had secretly become a Christian; like St. Cecilia, she was betrothed to a mean old pagan; like St. Catherine her sacred body defied the tortures ordered by the Governor of Syracuse, until the Romans just gave up and beheaded her. (Her husband is supposed to have denounced her when he found out that the pious Lucy, with the help of an apparition of the martyred St. Agatha, had convinced her mother to give away the daughter’s ample dowry; this embrace of lonely penury probably explains how she came to be the patron saint of writers.)
Iconography often depicts St. Lucy brandishing her own eyeballs, like a Guillermo del Toro monster: this, too, is an allusion to the torments of the Romans, and the story is either the cause or the consequence of her patronage of the blind.
Lucy’s name derives from the Latin root for “light”, and her December 13 feast formerly coincided with the winter solstice; as a result, St. Lucy’s Day became a major holiday some locales — including Italy, Scandinavia, the Philippines, and Omaha, Nebraska. The English poet John Donne meditates upon the occasion in a 1627 noctural, by which time December 13 was not technically the solstice by either Julian or Gregorian calendars.
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.
Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.
The great Russian artist Ilya Repin dramatically depicted the scene.
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).
Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)
Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**
Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.
* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).
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.