Four hundred years ago today, on Jan. 7 1611, three servants of the legendary “Countess of Blood” Elizabeth Bathory (Báthory Erzsébet, in the Hungarian) were tried, convicted, and immediately put to death for the noblewoman’s stupendous career of homicide.
This date’s entry is occasioned by the deaths of three subalterns — manservant Janos Ujvary, beheaded; and female attendants Ilona Jo and Dorottya Szentes, fingers ripped off and burned — but the headline attraction is their employer, who was never tried or condemned.
On one occasion, a lady’s-maid saw something wrong in [Elizabeth Bathory's] head-dress, and as a recompence for observing it, received such a severe box on the ears that the blood gushed from her nose, and spirted on to her mistress’s face. When the blood drops were washed off her face, her skin appeared much more beautiful — whiter and more transparent on the spots where the blood had been.
Elizabeth formed the resolution to bathe her face and her whole body in human blood so as to enhance her beauty.
These scrub-ups are what the Countess of Blood is best remembered for, but however striking the visual, it’s an atrocity that actually doesn’t turn up in the trial records.
But she could hardly complain of the embroidery, having given her interlocutors so much material.
Elizabeth Bathory is supposed to be responsible for over six hundred deaths, starting while her husband was away on campaign, and then carrying on into a wholesale operation after he died. When she and her servants were finally busted at Csejte Castle the end of 1610, their captors found a dead girl, a dying girl, and several others imprisoned and awaiting that fate.
Elizabeth Bathory, a sexually charged 1893 painting by Hungarian impressionist Istvan Csok depicting one of the countess’s victims being drenched in icy water for death by exposure.
So although the confessions the servants made this date to seal their own fates were undoubtedly torture-adduced, the documentary record turns out to be amazingly strong for such a fantastical spree. Hungarian King Matthias II convened a tribunal that examined 200 to 300 witnesses.
One can postulate that the woman ran afoul of a patriarchal culture affronted by her exercise of power or that she became a parable for the “unnatural” lust of a middle-aged woman … but so far as we are left to understand, Erzsebet Bathory really did lure young girls to her castle, and then inflict (pdf) a Nazi doctors’ litany of sadism on them … like jabbing them with needles to drain out their blood. She even kept a log of the victims in her own hand.
So, locals disappearing into the creepy castle, never to be seen again, or possibly to turn up pallid and dead. (Disposing of all those corpses became a logistical problem for the creepy castle.) No surprise to find it associated with the vampire legend.*
And no surprise that the tale became magnified, twisted, and reconfigured by popular culture.
In 1817, as accounts of the testimonies about the alleged murders and sadistic tortures were published for the first time, national and international headlines sensationalized the already misconceived story. From that on [sic], the literary countess took on a life of her own: the Grimm brothers wrote a short story about her, the romantic German writer, Johann Ludwig Tieck (1774 – 1853), cast her as a Gothic femme fatale, Swanhilda, in his short story Wake Not the Dead. It is alleged that Sheridan le Fanu shaped his female vampire Carmilla on Elizabeth Bathory. If we can believe some etymological explanation the compound English word blood-bath is of mid-nineteenth century origin possibly connected to the bloody countess’ rising popularity in England.
-László Kürti, “The Symbolic Construction of the Monstrous — The Elizabeth Bathory Story,” Croatian Journal Of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Jan. 2009
A few books about Erzsebet Bathory
To say nothing of the death porn (link not safe for work).
The noblewoman never faced an executioner herself, owing to her rank; she was shut up in the castle.
On this date in 1916, the Austro-Hungarian empire executed Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi for treasonous Italian nationalism.
It was the multiethnic Habsburg state that was itself dying of its constituents’ national aspirations; in little more than two years, the state entity that carried out this day’s sentences would no longer exist at all.
When the unpleasantness broke out, though, he made a break for the peninsula where he agitated* (successfully) for Italian entry into the fray against Austria-Hungary. Irredentists had long coveted Habsburg properties with a heavy Italian population, like the Adriatic port of Trieste and Battisti’s own native Trento; the war offered an opportunity to swipe those territories, notwithstanding Italy’s putative prewar alliance with the Austrians.
Although already 40 years of age when Italy entered the war, the intrepid Battisti enlisted to fight. He was captured along with an otherwise obscure subaltern, Fabio Filzi, on the Alpine slope of Monte Corno (now known as Monte Corno Battisti) repelling the Austrian Strafexpedition.**
Austria did not stand on ceremony with these men; their capture took place on July 10, their trial on July 12, and their executions at the Castello del Buon Consiglio — an ironic Calvary, for a parliamentarian — later that same day. (To complete the scene, the strangulation-hanging was botched when Battisti’s first rope broke.)
The Austrian writer Karl Kraus would observe that “they thought they were hanging Italy, but it was really Austria on the gallows.”
Battisti leaving the courtroom en route to his execution.
Battisti approaches the scaffold.
Battisti waiting at the scaffold as the sentence is read.
The Austrian army offers a prayer and salute to the shrouded body of Cesare Battisti.
* As a socialist who broke against the internationalist position and in favor of violent nationalism, Battisti was an ally of Benito Mussolini. It was Battisti, actually, who pioneered the socialist-nationalist-newspaperman act upon which Mussolini would later raise is own star, to such an extent that Battisti’s paper, Il Popolo — the apparent inspiration behind Mussolini’s own subsequent paper, Il Popolo d’Italia — gave the still-obscure future Duce some of his earliest gigs.
A martyr’s death during World War I fortuitously spares Battisti’s legacy the unpleasant association with his friend’s postwar turn towards fascism, so there are many streets and plazas named for Battisti, as well as a memorial in Trento. He’s also honored by name in the 1918 patriotic tune La Leggenda del Piave (lyrics).
So, small surprise that weeks after nicking the Duke of Alva’s glasses, Dutch rebels conquering other towns started making prisoners of Catholic clergy whose loyalties were suspiciously Habsburgish. Our day’s principals (here are their names; a batch of Franciscans taken are the largest contingent, to which various lay brothers, parish priests, and others were appended) were seized at and around Gorkum (Gorinchem).
The author of this intrepid iconoclastic incursion, William II de la Marck, was likewise the author of these Catholic martyrs’ doom once they had been removed back to Brielle. They were hanged without benefit of trial at an abandoned monastery.
Every sectarian propagandist of 16th century Europe made lurid heroes of his own side’s martyrs, and these were no exception to the pattern; we read in this Catholic source (perhaps while contemplating this devotional image) that
[i]t was on the 9th July 1572 when the execution of the pious sufferers began. On their side they had fully prepared themselves for it by confession and prayer. The executioner went so slowly to work that two hours had elapsed ere the last of the martyrs had taken his place on the gallows, and many of them still lived when morning broke. But the fury of the soldiers was not yet satisfied. They mutilated the dead bodies, cut off their noses and ears, and other limbs, and, alas, shame seems to touch the pen with which we write, bound them to their hats, and returned with these melancholy trophies in triumph into the city!
The location where this day’s unfortunates suffered became a pilgrimage destination, and they were formally enrolled in the minor leagues of Rome’s competitive hagiography circuit in the 19th century.
Solomon Molcho, a Portuguese mystic, burned at the stake on this date in 1532 for apostasy.
Solomon Molcho’s Shel Silverstein-esque stylized signature. You can see his robe in Prague, or here.
He was in Regensberg, Germany with Jewish messianic adventurer David Reubeni meeting with Emperor Charles V hoping to persuade the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire to arm Marranos (Sephardic Jews forced to adopt Christianity) against the Turkish onslaught.
Charles imprisoned them both, turning them over to the Inquisition in Mantau, Italy. Reubeni died in prison, possibly poisoned. Molcho, who chose at the stake not to return to Christianity, burned.
Molcho’s life ended in flame but started in the warm bosom of the high echelons of Portuguese society. Born Christian to Marrano parents around 1500, Molcho held the post of royal secretary in the high court of Portuguese justice.
That is, until Reubeni visited Portugal on a political mission.
Enamored with Reubeni, who claimed to be a prince descended from the tribe of Reuben, and who had gained favor with Pope Clement VII, Molcho wanted to join Reubeni in the adventurer’s travels. Reubeni refused. Molcho circumcised himself in hopes of gaining Reubeni’s favor. It was all for naught, and so Reubeni emigrated to Turkey.
Soon Molcho was wandering through the Land of Israel, a preacher who predicted the Messianic Kingdom would come in 1540. He, too, gained favor with Pope Clement VII and, after studying the Kabbalah, predicted natural disasters like a flood in Rome in 1530 and an earthquake in Portugal in 1531. After those predictions, and dabbling in strange experiments, Molcho claimed himself to be a precursor to the coming Messiah, if not the Messiah himself.
This troubled many. Now traveling with Reubeni — one a Kabbalist mystical messianic preacher, the other a peripatetic Jewish dwarf — they sermonized, and allied themselves, where they could.
But not with the emperor.
Molcho, in the provincial capital of Mantua, south of Lake Garda in the Po plain, was given one last opportunity to convert back to Catholicism. Asking instead for a martyr’s death, Molcho got it.
“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” cried William Tyndale at the stake this date in 1536 … just before he was strangled and burned.
“Translated the Bible into English,” reads Tyndale‘s epigraph; in the Protestant blossoming, this Herculean academic labor was also of itself a dangerous religious and political manifesto.
As with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, Tyndale’s English version threatened, and was intended to threaten, papal ecclesiastical authority. In undertaking the work, Tyndale defied the 1408 “Constitutions of Oxford”, an English clerical pact further to the suppression of the Lollards and kindred post-John Wycliffe heresies which expressly prohibited rendering scripture in the vernacular.
In Protestant hagiographer John Foxe‘s Book of Martyrs, a young Tyndale exasperated with a Romish divine memorably declared,
“I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.”
Tyndale would give his life to, and for, that ploughboy.
On the lam in Protestant Germany, Tyndale produced an English New Testament, and then an Old Testament, of startling poetry.
The scholar also kept a reformist voice in the day’s robust theological pamphleteering — trading fire, for instance, with Sir Thomas More.
Even when the once-staunch Catholic Henry VIII broke with Rome over Anne Boleyn, the English manhunt for Tyndale continued: Henry’s reformation did not share radical Protestant objectives like scriptural authority, and the king was not shy about enforcing his version of orthodoxy.
Tyndale was equally stubborn in defense of his life’s mission to put a Bible in the hands of the English ploughboy. Offered the king’s mercy to return and submit, Tyndale countered by offering his silence and martyrdom if Henry would but publish the Good Book in English.
I assure you, if it would stand with the King’s most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the Scripture to be put forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts, and of other Christian princes, be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his Majesty, I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, not abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this [translation] be obtained. Until that time, I will abide the asperity of all chances, whatsoever shall come, and endure my life in as many pains as it is able to bear and suffer.
Luckily for posterity, the English crown wasn’t biting, leaving Tyndale’s mellifluous rendering of Holy Writ to enter the English tongue.
And leaving Tyndale, eventually, to enter the martyrs’ ranks.
In 1536, an English bounty hunter befriended the fugitive translator and betrayed him to the authorities in Vilvoorde, near Brussels. It was the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire that did the dirty work of their rivals in the Isles.
And — the Lord works in the mysterious ways, they say — Tyndale’s dying prayer was indeed answered.
By the end of the decade, a Bible in English drawn from Tyndale’s version (revised by former Tyndale assistant Myles Coverdale under Thomas Cromwell‘s direction; prefaced by Thomas Cranmer) was by regal authority placed in every parish of the Church of England.
On this date in 1521, the day after winning the decisive battle in the Castilian War of the Communities, royalist forces beheaded its three principal leaders in Villalar.
Even while the Spanish Empire was burgeoning in the New World, its home peninsula remained a house divided.
The Iberian Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile had joined in a personal union with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century.
When the couple passed, it was not a given that their conjoined territory would become, as it did, the germ of a unified Spain.
Instead, the royal power couple’s crazy daughter was kept under lock and key while her infant son grew into the redoubtable Emperor Charles V. To exacerbate the local annoyance, Chas had continent-spanning territories, and ambitions; Spain was not his base, merely one of his provinces. (He’d grown up in Flanders. Ah, dynastic politics.)
The Emperor was only a teenager when his Castilian subjects rose against his levies, and against the paradoxical perception that the first true King of Spain was a foreign ruler.
A riot in Toledo mushroomed into a revolt, and everyone started drawing up sides. (Spanish link) Things went south when the commoner rebels started adopting an unwelcome radicalism (beyond rebelling against the king, that is), enabling the imperial rep (and future pope) Adrian of Utrecht to pull back into the royalist camp rebellious nobles increasingly fearful of expropriation at the hands of the firebrands.
The Execution of the Comuneros of Castile, by Antonio Gisbert. Segovian Juan Bravo allegedly asked to die first, so as not to witness the death of so good a knight as Padilla.
The demise of the “Caballeros Comuneros” pretty much squelched the revolt — although Padilla’s widow Maria Pacheco defended the rebel ground zero of Toledo for several months more.
The comuneros have lived on ever since as a symbol in literature and propaganda, among monarchists (for whom they are a symbol of perfidy), liberals (rather the reverse) and Castilian nationalists. Though “comuneros” was for a period an all-purpose smear against agitators in the Spanish dominions, April 23 (the date of the fateful battle) has been Castile and Leon Day, a public observance, since 1986.
This monolith in the Villalar town plaza commemorates the Comuneros. Image (c) Julio Alvarez, and used with permission.
On this date in 1536, the namesake of a major Anabaptist strain “gave a great sermon through his death” by fire at Innsbruck.
Jacob (or Jakob) Hutter, a hatmaker from the south Tirol, became the leader of a thriving Anabaptist community in Moravia where he shocked authorities with adult baptism and managed the heretics’ affairs so smoothly that the heirs of those who survived the hard years ahead still call themselves Hutterites.
Hutter pulled multiple fractured and sometimes fractious Anabaptist groups together and instilled structure that arguably saved these communities from extinction. (More about this in Hutterite Society.)
His effective evangelism only heightened the persecution of the Habsburgs, who exasperatedly reported on “more than 700 persons” executed or expelled, adding that the re-baptizers “have no horror of punishment but even report themselves; rarely is one converted nearly all only wish to die for their faith.”
Hutter himself was so pursued that he had to take his leave of his community, by that time expelled en masse and living as vagrants;* he did not long outlive his return to his native Tirol. He was captured there, hauled to Innsbruck, and tortured for three months before suffering public burning at the express directive of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.
* Hutter’s letter of remonstrance to a governor during this period makes affecting reading; this excerpt is from The Anabaptist Story:
Now we are camping on the heath, without disadvantage to any man. We do not want to wrong or harm any human being, not even our worst enemy. Our walk of life is to live in truth and righteousness of God, in peace and unity. We do not hesitate to give an account of our conduct to anyone. But whoever says that we have camped on a field with so many thousands, as if we wanted war or the like, talks like a liar and a rascal. If all the world were like us there would be no war and no injustice. We can go nowhere; may God in heaven show us where we shall go. We cannot be prohibited from the earth, for the earth is the heavenly Father’s; may He do with us what He will.
Although put down inside of two weeks, this revolt and its personification in Gubec have endured as potent national symbols in Croatia.
In the revolutionary 20th century, both left and right claimed Gubec’s standard as their own: a multiethnic company of Yugoslav volunteers fought under his name in the Spanish Civil War, as did multiple partisan units during World War II who took inspiration in his peasant class uprising. By contrast, the Ustasha conceived Gubec as
one man, who was not the exponent of any class, but … a reflection of an entire nation’s beliefs.*
Fascist and communist alike can jam to the rock opera Gubec Beg.**
* See Pavlakovic, Vjeran (2004) ‘Matija Gubec Goes to Spain: Symbols and Ideology in Croatia, 1936-1939′, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 17:4, 727 — 755.
** According to Pavlakovic, Gubec’s real given name is unknown and birth records suggest it might have been “Ambroz”. He was known as “Gubec called Beg,” using the Turkish term for a lord.
On this date in 1915, three of the Black Hand conspirators who had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo the previous June were hanged for treason and murder as the World War that assassination ignited engulfed Europe.
You could say it was too little, too late.
Ironically, the gunman who actually got the Archduke, Gavrilo Princip, was too young to receive the death penalty under Austro-Hungarian law — barely short of his 20th birthday,* a more liberal standard for capital responsibility than even present-day human rights standards require.
In fact, that was true of five of the eight student nationalists convicted; the Slavs’ barbarous oppressor accordingly punished them for murdering the heir to its throne and involving it in a ruinous war with prison sentences of no more than 20 years. Three of the underaged five (Princip included) contracted fatal tuberculosis cases in custody during World War I; the other two, Cvijetko Popovic and Vaso Cubrilovic, outlived the Habsburg Empire by decades.
Three remained, old enough to swing for turning Europe into a charnel house: Vaso’s older brother Veljko (a schoolteacher), Danilo Ilic (a newspaper editor) and Misko Jovanovic (a businessman).
But if their names aren’t familiar, and their comedy assassination plot succeeded almost in spite of themselves, these forgotten radicals still rank among the midwives of modernity for the global cataclysm unleashed by their deed, for its calamitous aftershocks of nationalism and ideology, and for the second war that succeeded the horrors of the first.
According to John S. Craig’s Peculiar Liaisons, Gavrilo Princip left his poetry scrawled on the wall of his cell.
Our ghosts will walk through Vienna
And roam through the palace
Frightening the lords
All things considered, he sold himself short.
More on the delicate European chessboard upset at Sarajevo from Margaret Anderson’s highly recommended UC-Berkeley “Rise and Fall of the Second Reich” course podcast.
* There seems to be some uncertainty as to Princip’s actual date of birth, so he might in fact have been 20 years old. The court, at any rate, took him for 19.
On this date in 1622, Anne de Chantraine was burned at the stake for witchcraft in Waret-la-Chaussee, Belgium.
Our day’s heroine answers most prominently to fictional modern interpretations — about which more in a moment — but Anne de Chantraine was a flesh-and-blood person, at least for 17 years.*
In outline form, Anne is said to have faced the usual litany of sorcerous allegations and the usual ordeals to demonstrate guilt, with the usual result: confession, execution. Here in the opening years of the Thirty Years’ War coeval with the the conflicts of the Protestant Reformation, one cannot but suspect the fearful hand of endangered authority in witch-hunts. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argued that
this recrudescence of the witch-craze in the 1560s was directly connected with the return of religious war … It can be shown from geography: every major outbreak is in the frontier-area where religious strife is not intellectual, a dissent of opinion, but social, the dissidence of a society. … Thereafter, almost every local outbreak can be related to the aggression of one religion upon the other.
Anne de Chantraine’s environs fit the theorem.
The Walloon region of Liege at this point was governed by a Catholic Prince-Bishop of Habsburg stock, just as the Holy Roman Empire was putting down the Protestant stirrings in Bohemia that would initiate Europe’s epochal war and send armies to and fro through the Low Countries. Said Prince-Bishop, name of Ferdinand of Bavaria, would win renown as a zealous persecutor of the diabolical in his realms.
Alas for Anne.
She’s a bit better documented among Francophones (see this biography in French, for instance, full of sensual details like the gorgeous red hair, a spurned lover accusing her, and the rough play of medieval torture; there’s also a brief roundup in German here), but worldwide, she’s a literary character of some consequence — most notably, perhaps, through the work of Belgian author Francoise Mallet-Joris: her 1968 Trois âges de la nuit (translated to English as simply The Witches) presents Anne de Chantraine as the focal point of one of three vignettes reimagining real historical “witches” as persons struggling for spiritual growth.
Anne, in this version, does participate in (staged, not-really-supernatural) witches’ sabbaths, plus a lesbian affair with a fellow participant. Her seekings both godly and infernal (paralleled by lifestyles both monastic and hedonistic) fall short of satisfactory; in the end, exercising magic unto her own death is a form of self-actualization among fellow people who, unable to recognize her humanity, brutalize or ignore her.
Players of the long-running video board game Atmosfear (or Nightmare) will also recognize Anne de Chantraine as a recurring witch character. The series uses recordings (VCR tapes originally; DVDs now) played during gameplay; “the witch” is featured as the central character in Atmosfear III/Nightmare III:
(In the comment thread for this video on YouTube, the French actress Frederique Fouche drops in to confirm her part as the witch. According to this French interview, the role caused her to become an emigre in Australia.)
* Some reports say she was burned at age 17, others that she was arrested at 17, which would have made her 18 or 19 at her death.