The city of Vienna only has one documented execution for witchcraft to its illustrious history. It occurred on this date in 1583.
Elisabeth Plainacher (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a miller’s daughter from Mank who had lived most of her 70 or so years during the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, that social conflict so productive of witchcraft accusations.
It would factor very specifically in Elsa’s case, since she herself was a Protestant in a very Catholic place.
Elsa’s daughter Margaret died in childbirth, and Elsa took all four of the surviving children into her own care while Margaret’s widower went his own way. Three of these children would die in her care; the fourth became an epileptic in her teens, finally leading Margaret’s (Catholic) former husband to accuse his mother-in-law of bewitching everybody.
The accusation was ill-timed for the “witch”: Jesuit zealot Georg Scherer got hold of the case and put the epileptic teenager through a gantlet of exorcisms that he claimed expunged 12,652 infernal spirits. Scherer’s accounting must have been as rigorous as his faith.
“Scholars and men of understanding know that devils have neither flesh nor limbs, but are spirits, and therefore need no place or space as do our bodies,” Scherer later wrote by way of explaining the crowded tenancy. “A hundred thousand legions of spirits could all be collected together on the point of a needle.” Scherer preached, and later published, a sermon this holy combat, titled “A Christian remembrance of the most recent deliverance of a young woman who was possessed by 12,652 devils.”
This was a relentlessness which Elsa Plainacher was not formed to resist. She was a humble miller with some family drama, and then suddenly she was under torture (German link) in the imperial capital with the day’s headline pulpit-basher at her throat. She soon admitted whatever devilries her torturers demanded of her: giving the epileptic over to the devil, desecrating the Host, all that sort of thing.
On September 27, 1583, she was drug by a horse to an open field where she was burned at the stake. Her ashes were consigned to the Danube. Plainacherin even persisted (more German) in the local vernacular for a time as a dirty word.
On this date in 1290, the vaunting nobleman Zavis of Falkenstein was beheaded below the walls of Hluboka Castle.
For from this eminence ye shall discern
Better the acts and visages of all,
Than in the nether vale among them mix’d.
He, who sits high above the rest, and seems
To have neglected that he should have done,
And to the others’ song moves not his lip,
The Emperor Rodolph call, who might have heal’d
The wounds whereof fair Italy hath died,
So that by others she revives but slowly,
He, who with kindly visage comforts him,
Sway’d in that country, where the water springs,
That Moldaw’s river to the Elbe, and Elbe
Rolls to the ocean: Ottocar his name:
Who in his swaddling clothes was of more worth
Than Winceslaus his son, a bearded man,
Pamper’d with rank luxuriousness and ease.
-Dante’s ungenerous assessment of Wenceslaus in the Purgatorio
The second man to defeat him, Rudolph,* Ottokar refused to recognize, and open warfare ensued between the men — a war that Rudolph won when Ottokar was killed in battle in 1278.
The late sovereign left to his six-year-old son Wenceslaus II a reduced patronage, a betrothal to Rudolph’s daughter, and a strong domestic noble faction like to oppose the crown internally.
Zavis of Falkenstein was among the foremost of the many complications afflicting the young Wenceslaus. His Vitkovci family had been among the late Ottokar’s most potent domestic opponents,** and Claudius-like slithered right into the royal bed with Ottokar gone. Zavis paid court to the widow of his great foe, the Queen Regent Kunhunta, and married her in 1285. He was the first man in the kingdom for several years.
Wenceslaus, still a teenager, was becoming frantic at the prospect of Zavis usurping him altogether. When Kunhunta died and Zavis left town to marry again, the monarch turned the tables on his “protector”. When Zavis returned to Prague, he found himself clapped in prison. Wenceslaus then packed Zavis up for a Bohemian tour, where the hostage was brandished at belligerent Vitkovci fortresses to force their submission. Hluboka Castle, commanded by Zavis’s brother, refused to knuckle under, so the threat — and Zavis — were executed.
* Rudolph I (Formerly Count Rudolph IV) was the first Habsburg king.
** Ottokar founded the city of Ceske Budejovice to project his power into the Vitkovci’s South Bohemia stomping-grounds. The city is still going strong; from its name derives the disputed Budweiser beer brand.
During the Dutch Revolt — a proto-nationalist conflict pitting the Low Countries against the Habsburg Empire, overlaid with a religious conflict pitting Calvinist against Catholic — the Low Countries principals came to an expedient arrangement to lay off fighting with one another in order to concentrate on controlling their respective internal revolts.
As we’ve previously discussed, this truce helped set up now-unmolested local religious majorities to do some internal purging.
Whereas Calvinist Ghent went after some Catholic monks on accusations of homosexuality, Catholic Bruges (today in Belgium) … went after some not-Catholic-enough monks on accusations of homosexuality.
In [illustrator Franz] Hogenberg‘s Scenes an engraving dated May 18, 1578, shows a lengthy procession of monks being marched out of a monastery in Bruges under armed guard. The title and verses explain that two Franciscans of Calvinist leanings were whipped and then interrogated (probably on account of their Protestantism). But they revealed that many in their order were tained by sodomy (Sodomi). The other monks admitted this (under torture?), and “they were all taken prisoners and led away to the gate for their godlessness.” Presumably depicting a result of this … [is] Execution for Sodomitical Godlessness in the City of Bruges … Three monks are about to be burned in a public square while two are being beaten. Underneath, the verses state, “in well-known Bruges in Flanders three Franciscans (Minnenbroder) have been burned. Also two others were well beaten with switches and two had to be banished. For they were young and inexperienced and had been seduced by the old ones, so that they unjustly practiced sodomy (unzuchtt) upon their bodies.” Though the circumstances of the monks’ trial are as yet unclear, such sentences were carried out by secular authorities. Minnenbroder (Franciscans) may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting “brothers in lust” as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with “godlessness,” as was common.
… The investigations, convictions, and punitive displays in these monastic cases [in Bruges and in Ghent] had special topicality for inclusion because they not only afforded titillations of sexual scandal, censure, and public punishment, but also added alleged religious transgression and appealed to Protestant-Catholic rivalries of the time. Although Hogenberg’s sodomites are ecclesiastics, his engravings indicate how these public spectacles were managed, while also providing us one contemporary view of the attitudes attendant crowds displayed.
On this date in 1635,* the German aristocrat and general Hans Ulrich [von] Schaffgotsch lost his head in Regensburg.
Schaffgotsch (German Wikipedia entry: most information about him online is in German) would have appeared to have won the birthright lottery. Sure, he was no king, but being born to a hereditary Silesian baron of distinguished blue-blood lineage, and being dynastically married to a princess, put him squarely within the 1 percent’s 1 percent.**
Schaffgotsch caught one very bad break: he was born to come of age during the Thirty Years’ War.
The Schaffgotsch family had different branches going, but Hans Ulrich’s was Protestant — and this was also the predominant faith in early 17th century Silesia. (It adhered to the unsuccessfulBohemian Revolt.)
Doctrinal differences aside, Schaffgotsch had favorable terms from the Catholic emperor. He also made himself good friends with a fantastically wealthy duke named Albrecht von Wallenstein. Wallenstein was a little shaky on the religion question himself; he’d been raised Protestant and converted to Catholicism for unknown reasons.
When the Thirty Years’ War came calling again late in the 1620s, Wallenstein used his capacious wealth to field a large army in service of Ferdinand, and Schaffgotsch went right along as the generalissimo’s able adjutant. But Ferdinand, who was short on both cash and troops to call his own, soon came to fear this capable general upon whom he overmuch depended. When the opportunity arose, the sovereign abruptly relieved Wallenstein of command in 1630 — only to have to reinstate him in 1632† when his replacement got killed.
It turns out Ferdinand did have good cause for suspicion. Wallenstein was dissatisfied with the emperor’s treatment as well, and covertly treated with the Protestant league to switch sides or overthrow the emperor and rule in Bohemia. The detection of these plans in Vienna led Ferdinand to have Wallenstein judged by a secret court, then assassinated in 1634.‡
As his aide, Schaffgotsch too was soon dealt with. Unlike the dangerous Wallenstein, Schaffgotsch was a small enough target to arrest and prosecute in the conventional way — which happened in 1635. Schaffgotsch obstinately refused under torture to admit any involvement in treason, but he was condemned to death all the same.
The Silesian aristocrat might have felt hard done by, but he relieved some annoyance with an old-fashioned shopping spree. Schaffgotsch went out in style (German link) by plumping for black drapings for the scaffold, ordering a custom coffin, doing up all his servants in black mourning garb, and bribing the executioner of Regensburg to behead him seated in a chair. (The lord rooted himself so firmly in his seat that his head flew off at the sword’s stroke without his body toppling over.)
Afterwards, Schaffgotsch’s body was laid out for last respects for two days in Regensburg Blauen Krebs inn, which still exists to this day. (And has the story on its website.)
* Gregorian date. With Catholic and Protestant powers both going at it, dating gets confusing in this period; it would have been July 13 per the Julian calendar still in use by most Protestants, and this date is also sometimes attributed.
** Click here for some appealing views of Kynast (Chojnik), one of Schaffgotsch’s castles.
† Wallenstein commanded Habsburg forces at the Battle of Lutzen in November 1632, where Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus was killed.
‡ Wallenstein’s treachery and death are the topic of Schiller’s play Wallenstein.
On this date in 1421, a months-long campaign to purge Vienna of her Jews culminated with over 200 burned — and the rest of the once-thriving community either driven into exile or forced to convert.
Vienna had had a Jewish presence for centuries, centered on the Judenplatz.
The religious wars unleashed between Catholics and followers of the Czech reformer Jan Hus complicated the Jewish position. While not an unblemished relationship, Hussites were generally seen to be more sympathetic to Jews, and vice versa. Fellow-victims of Catholic persecution, Hussites recast the Biblical Antichrist with Papist rather than Jewish associations. Hussites openly looked to the Torah and Jewish divines like Rabbi Avigdor Kara for inspiration.*
That’s all well and good, but Vienna was emerging as one of the principal cities of the very Catholic Habsburg empire. (It was not yet the official seat: that would come later in the 15th century.)
To the perceived Hussite-Jewish alliance one must add consideration of Duke Albert V — later the Holy Roman Emperor Albert II — and his considerable debts, no small part of them held by Vienna’s Jewish moneylenders.
On Easter 1420, Albert pumped up a rumor that Jews had desecrated the Eucharist and ordered mass-arrests and -expulsions of Jews, complete with handy asset forfeiture. This was the onset of the Wiener Gesera, the Viennese persecution — as it was remembered later by remnants of the shattered Jewish community scattered abroad.
Pogroms attacking the Jews in Vienna (and elsewhere in Austria) ensued, culminating with the dramatic three-day siege of Vienna’s Or-Saura synagogue. That ended Masada-style when 300 trapped denizens committed suicide to escape forced baptism, and the last living among them torched the building from the inside. Its blasted remains were razed to the ground by the besiegers.**
Albert at that point finished off Vienna’s Jews by sending its final hardy (or foolhardy) members — 120 men and 92 women, it says here; different figures in the same neighborhood can be had elsewhere — to the stake.
“As the waters of the River Jordan cleansed the souls of the baptized, so did the flames which rose up in the year 1421 rid the city of all injustice,” read a Latin plaque erected on the site.
* “The Hussites pioneered a uniquely Czech form of philo-Semitism … the fascination, among a persecuted, dissident group, with the Jewish people and religion,” writes Eli Valley. “The Hussites were perhaps the first religious group in Christian European history to argue against the ban on Jews in craftsmaking and farming” and “unlike Martin Luther’s similar program in the sixteenth century, the Hussite movement did not predicate its kindness to Jews on the condition that they would be baptized.”
A humanist patrician with a soft spot for Plutarch, Burlamacchi had orchestrated a bid to break away an independent federation of Tuscan cities — Florence, Pisa, and his own city of Lucca.
The dream of the Republic and liberty lived long after Rome’s legions had ceased to tromp. It’s just that said dream got reliably tromped over whenever it threatened to materialize in reality.
These prospectively-liberated cities existed with formal independence under the aegis of the allied Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — and were locally bullied by the Medici Duke Cosmo. That made two Caesars who would not be keen on fragmented city-states coalescing into Burlamacchi’s Republic of Tourist Hotspots; for good measure, Burlamacchi threw in some religious reform and anti-clericalism that would be sure to go down poorly with the church. (Lucca was notorious in the Vatican’s eyes as a center of heterodoxy.)
Against this likely formidable opposition, our plotter counterpoised an astonishing rolling-putsch plan.
His scheme was to march a militia, under cover of “training,” out to the environs of Pisa where he would appeal to the Pisans to throw off their Florentine shackles, then march the resulting larger troop to Florence and appeal to the Florentines to kick out the Medici. Revolution accomplished, the neighboring cities — Siena, Arezzo, Lucca itself — would naturally adhere to this new confederation.* He meant, he later told his judges, to “free all of Tuscany.”
Pretty ambitious. Or optimistic. Or … bonkers.
Once the impossible dream plot was betrayed from the inside, Duke Cosmo, as the most direct target of the intended march, wanted Burlamacchi delivered to his own hands for interrogation and punishment; the elders of Lucca could not do this without making an impolitic show of submission to their neighbor.** Charles V resolved the impasse by taking Burlamacchi to the imperial seat of northern Italy, Milan, and cutting his head off there.
During Italy’s 19th century risorgimento, the Italian writer Carlo Minutoli rediscovered Burlamacchi and popularized him as a forerunner of the new Italian nationalists. (Burlamacchi had long been forgotten as an embarrassment in the intervening centuries.)
Accordingly, with the (proto-)unification of Italy, Tuscan sculptor Ulisse Cambi was commissioned to produce a monumental statue of Francesco Burlamacchi. This would-be Aratus still keeps watch on Lucca’s Piazza San Michele.
(cc) image from alphaorionis. Note that, according to The Renaissance in the Streets, Schools, and Studies (whose chapter “Fortune’s Fool” by Mary Hewlett was invaluable to this post), the historical Burlamacchi actually never carried a sword and hated bloodshed.
* The confederated city-states model was really big in the family. Burlamacchi’s teenage — at the time of the execution — son Michele later emigrated to Geneva, in the Swiss Confederation, and converted to Calvinism.
** Lucca was declining as a power at this time, and all the more insistent about jealously guarding a maximal appearance of sovereignty. The city-state’s major project in the 16th century was throwing up city-girding defensive walls meant to preserve her independence.
Detail view (click for full image) of Bassi and Livraghi being escorted to execution.
Bassi was a penniless Barnabite priest famous for his powerful oratory* and his national enthusiasms. He signed right up for Garibaldi‘s national movement in the heady liberal revolutions of 1848-49.
“Italy is here in our camp,” he would say of the Garibaldian forces readying their (ultimately unsuccessful) defense of the Roman Republic.** “Italy is Garibaldi; and so are we.”
Alas, in this engagement, Italy had a lot fewer guns than the French.
The new French ruler Napoleon III, who had himself been in youth a revolutionary carbonaro in Rome, saw foreign policy advantage in backing the exiled Papacy and overthrew the Republic.†
Garibaldi escaped to exile, but many of his subalterns did not. Bassi was captured unarmed — he didn’t even bear arms in battle — and Pius IX, once thought a fellow-traveler by the liberals, did not hesitate to hand him to the Austrians for punishment. The Habsburgs stood equally to lose from any gains of the Risorgimento, and accordingly gave Bassi a perfunctory military trial, then had him shot immediately in Bologna.
For crowning his open-hearted life with this sacrifice, Ugo Bassi instantly became, from that day to this, one of the best-honored Italian patriots.
He possessed at once the simplicity of a child, the faith of a martyr, the knowledge of a scholar, and the calm courage of a hero … If ever Italy comes to be united may God restore her the Voice of Ugo Bassi … The name of Ugo Bassi will be the watchword of the Italians on the day of vengeance!
* Anecdote associated with Bassi once he came to firing up the Bolognese for Garibaldi: a poor girl who could give nothing to the cause spontaneously chopped off her own hair and handed it to him. This is the event depicted by Bassi’s fellow-Bolognese Napoleone Angiolini, Ugo Bassi sui gradini di San Petronio.
** Topical incidental: the Roman Republic lasted only a few months, but its constitution abolished the death penalty … so it can count as the first nation to abolish capital punishment in constitutional law.
This eloquent, injudicious theologian studied at Prague, Oxford, Paris, Cologne, Heidelberg … accumulating Master’s degrees along the way like a career graduate student, but repeatedly finding himself run off the premises on suspicion of heresy.
Jerome’s “heresy” was an excessively combative hostility to ecclesiastical corruption. And although Jerome was known for his rapier tongue, he didn’t always find the pen mightier than the sword: he got into a few physical scraps with his foes.
While in England, he copied out a manuscript of preacher John Wycliffe — whose radical piety (or pious radicalism) inspired the rebellious Lollard movement.
Back on the continent, Jerome fell in with Jan Hus. Ten years Jerome’s senior, Hus was and remains the first name in Bohemian religious reform, and the “Hussite” church he founded still retains his name.
After Hus unwisely accepted a guarantee of safe conduct to dispute at the Council of Constance, the more ornery Jerome slipped into town to propagandize on his mentor’s behalf. After placarding his way to trouble, he slipped back out and must have thought he’d had his cake and eaten it too … until he was caught in the Black Forest.
Jerome spent nearly a full year in a dungeon — the Council met for four years; it had a massive schism to sort out — and at one point the privations of imprisonment led him recant. He later bitterly regretted that concession to “pusillanimity of mind and fear of death,” but on a strictly doctrinal level Jerome of Prague wasn’t anti-Catholic: he just wanted the church to be less of a bunch of corrupt, overweening racketeers.
I have never seen any one, who, in pleading, especially in a capital offence, approached nearer the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire. It was so amazing to see with what fluency of language, what force of expression, what arguments, what looks and tones of voice, with what eloquence, he answered his adversaries and finally closed his defence. It was impossible not to feel grieved, that so noble, so transcendent a genius had turned aside to heretical studies, if indeed the charges brought against him are true.
When that part of his indictment was read in which he is accused of being “a defamer of the papal dignity, an opposer of the Roman pontiff, an enemy of the cardinals, a persecutor of the prelates and clergy, and a despiser of the Christian religion,” he arose, and with outstretched hands and with lamenting tones, exclaimed: “Whither now, conscript Fathers, shall I turn myself? Whose aid can I implore? Whom supplicate, whom entreat for help? Shall I turn to you? Your minds have been fatally alienated from me by my persecutors, when they pronounced me an enemy of all mankind, even of those by whom I am to be judged. They supposed, should the accusations which they had conjured up against me, seem trivial, — you would, by your decisions, not fail to crush the common enemy and opposer of all, — such as I had been held up to view, in their false representations. If, therefore, you rely upon their words there is no longer any ground for me to hope.”
Some of them he wrung hard by the sallies of his wit; while others he overwhelmed with biting sarcasms; and from many, even in the midst of sadness, he forced frequent smiles, by the ridicule which he heaped upon their accusations.
At length, launching out in praise of John Huss who had been condemned to the fire, he pronounced him a good, just, and holy man, altogether unworthy of such a death, — adding that he was also prepared to undergo, with fortitude and constancy, any punishment whatsoever, yielding himself up to his enemies and the impudent lying witnesses, “who would, at length, have to give an account of all they had uttered, before God, whom they could not possibly deceive.” Great was the grief of all that stood around him. Thee was a universal desire among them to save so noble a personage, could his own consent be obtained. Persevering, however, in his opinions, he seemed voluntarily toseek death; and continuing his praise of John Huss, he declared that man had never conceived any hostility to the church of God; but that it was to the abuses of the clergy, and the pride, pageantry and insolence of her prelates alone he felt opposed; for, since the patrimony of the church was due, in the first place, to her poor; then to her guests; and finally to her on workshops; it seemed to that good man, a shameful thing, to have it expended upon courtezans and in banquets; for the sustenance of horses and dogs, the adornment of garments and other things unworthy of the religion of Christ.
Most exalted was the genius of which he showed himself possessed! Often was he interrupted in his discourse by various noises; and greatly vexed by those who carped at his opinions; yet he left none of them untouched, but equally avenging himself upon all, he either covered them with confusion, or else compelled them to hold their peace. A murmur arising against him, he paused for a moment; and then, having admonished the crowd, proceeded with his defence, — praying and beseeching them to suffer one to speak whom they would soon hear no more. At none of the noise and commotion around him did he tremble, or lose, for a single instant, the firmness and the intrepidity of his mind.
“You will condemn me iniquitously and unjustly,” he prophesied to his judges, “and when I am dead, I shall leave remorse in your consciences and a dagger in your hearts; and soon, within a hundred years, — you will all have to answer me, in the presence of a Judge most high and perfectly just.”
Reports differ as to the subsequent standing of all these men’s souls. But for the church as a going earthly concern, Jerome nailed it almost exactly: 101 years after he followed Jan Hus to the stake,* that long-suppressed spirit of reform irrevocably splintered papal authority.
* In the very same spot where Hus himself was burnt.
On this date in 1917, Romanian Lieutenant Emil Rebreanu was hanged for attempted desertion by the Austro-Hungarian army.
Here’s Rebreanu’s entry at the Enciclopedia Romaniei, which says in brief that he was one of 14 (!) brothers born in the part of present-day Romania that was then attached to the Kingdom of Hungary.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Rebreanu was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian forces and fought on several fronts. But his removal to the lines to fight against the independent Romanian state was a front too far: he attempted to cross the lines to the Romanians on the night of May 10-11, but was captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to hang.
However, tragedy for the sizable Rebreanu family was a boon to world literature.
One of Emil’s many brothers was author Liviu Rebreanu, one of the greats of Romanian letters.
The latter’s 1922 novel Forest of the Hanged clearly draws upon his brother’s fate: in Forest, a Romanian officer uneasily serving in the Habsburg army first condemns a Czech deserter to death as part of a tribunal, then attempts himself to desert to Romania.
On this date in 1474, Peter von Hagenbach was tried in a remarkable judicial proceeding in the Rhine city of Breisach, found guilty, and publicly beheaded by the end of the day.
This Alsatian knight in the train of Charles the Bold had been installed by that Burgundian duke as his satrap in in the Upper Rhine, in lands that Burgundy held on lease from the Habsburgs.
He made a legendary villain of himself in the early 1470s:
His regime of arbitrariness and terror extended to murder, rape, illegal taxation and wanton confiscation of pivate property, and the victim[s] of his depredations included inhabitants of neighbouring territories as well as Swiss merchants on their way to and from the Frankfurt fair … the outrages of Hagenbach, remarkable even by the standards of the late fifteenth century, greatly contributed to forging what, until then, had been considered impossible, that is, alliances against Burgundy by all her neighbours: Austria, Berne, France, and the towns and knights of the Upper Rhine, all formerly at loggerheads with one another.
After overturning Burgundian authority in the Upper Rhine, that unique alliance aired its many grievances with Hagenbach at a unique tribunal. There, the ex-knight was prosecuted before judges drawn from the several Germanic and Swiss principalities who had allied against him.
Breisach: seems like a nice place to oppress. (cc) image from Routard5.
This unusual procedure gained a special prominence in the 20th century postwar era as historical precedent for “war crimes” prosecutions. Since that time, there’s been a going debate over just what kind of precedent it really makes.
Gordon wrote a 2012 paper re-examining the Hagenbach case attempting to reconcile both the legal and historiographical perspectives on Peter von Hagenbach.
ET: You characterize the present-day understanding of the Hagenbach case as proceeding from Georg Schwarzenberger‘s recovery of the incident further to providing legitimizing precedent for the Nuremberg tribunals. Between 1474 and World War II, did anyone think of this case as one with a wider import for jurisprudence? (And if not, do we know anything about how Schwarzenberger unearthed it?)
GG: To the extent anyone did, from my research, it would have been historians, not jurists per se. Hagenbach was the object of a fair amount of historical scholarship but that had evolved over the years. In the initial period after the trial, Hagenbach was portrayed as the quintessential bogeyman. But over the centuries, historians began to view him in a different light. By 1945, a more nuanced view of Hagenbach had been established. I have not researched Schwarzenberger’s biography in great detail. So I’m not sure how his eureka moment arose. What is clear is that the Nuremberg trial caused him to focus on Hagenbach (my sense is that Hagenbach was fairly well known in Europe — his supposed mummified head was on display in an Upper Alsace museum, for example — but given the absence of anything resembling Nuremberg before Nuremberg, people tended to ignore the details of the Hagenbach legal proceedings).
And my sense is that Schwarzenberger had an agenda — he realized the case could help legitimize what many would claim to be illegitimate ex post facto law at Nuremberg. So he relied on the earlier historical accounts of the Hagenbach case (it seems he based his seminal Manchester Guardian article primarily on the account of French historian Prosper de Barante). And thus he created a fissure between legal scholars and contemporary historians.
Who tried Hagenbach, under what authority, and how were the different interested parties formally represented? Whose idea was all this? What can we tell of the public atmosphere surrounding the trial — was there bottom-up pressure to do this?
After the League of Constance (consisting of various regional polities fed up with Hagenbach) paid off his debt for him, Archduke Sigismund of Austria resumed control over the Upper Alsace territory mortgaged to Charles the Bold. And thus Sigismund made the decision to have Hagenbach tried by the international ad hoc tribunal (another inexplicable link in the chain: Hagenbach escaped lynch-mob justice on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1474 — only thanks to Breisach resident Friedrich Kappelar’s decision to arrest him and await instructions from Sigismund).
Sigismund’s decision to convene an ad hoc international tribunal was utterly remarkable for the time. And it is not clear how or why Sigismund came up with it (although historians suggest it had something to do with the prominent position Hagenbach held as representative of the Duke of Burgundy).
Numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights, sat as part of this international ad hoc tribunal.
Eight of the judges were nominated by Breisach, and two by each of the other allied Alsatian and Upper Rhenanian towns [Strasbourg, Sélestat, Colmar, Basel, Thann, Kenzingen, Neuburg am Rhein, and Freiburg im Breisgau] as well as by Berne, a member of the Swiss Confederation, and Solothurn, allied with Berne.
In fact, each sovereign represented a member of the League of Constance (Berne being the only representative of the Swiss cantons).
Thomas Schutz, the chief magistrate of Ensisheim, was designated as the tribunal’s presiding judge. The nominal trial prosecutuor was the new Alsatian bailiff chosen by Sigismund to replace Hagenbach — Hermann von Eptingen. Eptingen, for his part, chose Heinrich Iselin, one of the commissioners from Basel (one of the League of Constance’s members), to present the prosecution’s case to the court. The other representative from Basel, Hans Irmy, took on Hagenbach’s representation. At some point later in the trial, Iselin resigned because, as the evidence came in, he felt the case lacked merit (and even made a motion to withdraw the charges). He was then replaced by Hildebrand Rasp. Hagenbach also requested additional attorneys and the tribunal assigned him two attorneys — one from Colmar and one from Selestat.
The trial was held in open air before the Breisach mayor’s residence and was attended by “a multitude” of people from Breisach and surrounding towns. It appears as if it were somewhat of a circus atmosphere.
Is there a degree to which the pre-modern characteristics of the belligerents — Burgundian duchies, Swiss cantons, the Holy Roman Empire patchwork — set a contradictory precedent for the postwar world?
Let me quote my paper:
Nothing in history leading up to that moment in 1474 would have suggested the remarkable course of action taken by Sigismund. It is tempting to see that decision as an historic anomaly that would not be repeated for centuries to come. But on closer inspection, Sigismund’s choice to hold a trial before an international court fits well within the historical narrative of that era.
It was a time of religious and political disintegration. The Holy Roman Empire was fading into irrelevance and the Catholic Church was on the verge of losing its European hegemony. It was the eve of the nation-state — a unique moment when the old collective structures were dying and the new ones had yet to be born. Given the interstitial political turbulence, the time was ripe for a plural approach to law enforcement in the cosmopolitan geographic center of Europe. Hagenbach’s inter-regional depredations, which helped forge a rare pan-Germanic consensus, provided the perfect forum to experiment with international justice during that fragmented time. The Westphalian order, already on the horizon, would foreclose any such future experiments until Nazi brutality put a chink in the Westphalian armor and inspired an unprecedented transnational justice operation in the wake of a truly global war. In that sense, although on much different scales, Breisach and Nuremberg have much in common. And should the nation-state ever manage to reassert its absolute supremacy again, Breisach will undoubtedly be on the lips of future international jurists seeking, as before, to end impunity at the expense of sovereignty.
You discuss a revisionist thesis about Hagenbach that essentially says he wasn’t a monster, and even that he was a forward-thinking but star-crossed reformer. Why do you think that we can, in fact, conclude that there’s something to the claim that Hagenbach was tyrannous or criminal? What do you consider the most credible charges, and the ones that to his judges would have distinguished Hagenbach from a run-of-the-mill brutal lord or military commander?
What evidence supports the view that the good burghers of Alsace were the victims of Sir Peter’s violence? Their treatment of the wayward knight after his arrest is most revealing in this regard.
While torture may have been commonplace in ordinary criminal inquisitions of the time, the severity of torment inflicted leads one to believe it was inspired by and directed at the kind of mass, depraved criminality of which Hagenbach has traditionally been accused. Significantly, in this regard, in addition to enduring horrific torture, he was stripped of his knighthood. Degradation of knighthood was exceedingly rare in the Middle Ages and reserved only for the most extreme and infamous crimes.
And there is other evidence to suggest Hagenbach’s culpability for atrocities. Most telling perhaps is the trial record itself.
Hans Irmy, it must be remembered, mounted a valiant and spirited defense to the very end. And yet the record does not reveal his even attempting to refute the charge that Hagenbach planned to exterminate the citizens of Breisach or that he murdered the four petitioning residents of Thann. At most, he offered the rejected defense of superior orders. Nor did Irmy (or Hagenbach, for that matter), directly deny the rape charges (merely objecting that taking women in this fashion was common practice and/or he had paid for services rendered). Rape, as opposed to murder, appears to have been Hagenbach’s preferred weapon of terror and atrocity.
And there is a plausible explanation for why Hagenbach would have wanted to murder the citizens of Breisach.
Hagenbach was aware of other towns that had plotted to kill him during the previous year and, when requesting entry to create defensive fortifications in anticipation of an attack by the League of Constance, he had already been denied admittance with his troops into Thann and Ensisheim. He was only able to gain entry into Breisach because his mercenaries were already present there. Given the animosity shown him in these other towns and the previous conspiracy to kill him, Hagenbach did not want to take any chances. Killing Breisach’s citizens would have permitted him to use the town as a defensive fortification without the risk of an uprising from its citizens.
Did Hagenbach slaughter thousands of innocent civilians in concentrated liquidation campaigns? There is no evidence to suggest he did — he was not a fifteenth century proto-Nazi. But the record suggests that he terrorized the local population by murdering civilians, raping numerous women and conspiring to commit a large-scale massacre in Breisach. It should be noted that the rape charges are the most persuasive as there are numerous examples and they were never directly refuted.
And Hagenbach’s back story further validates this view of him. He was the product of a Burgundian ducal culture that was steeped in and glorified violence — the reflection of its bellicose chief, Charles the Bold (known to his enemies as Charles the Terrible). The duchy was in almost a permanent state of war with one enemy or another during Charles’s reign. Charles the Bold’s Burgundy was in the practice of laying siege to towns and routinely killing civilians who resisted — Liege, Dinant, Neuss — all were subjected to horrific violence by Burgundian troops, and Hagenbach played a leading role in the first two. And within that violent culture, Hagenbach was Charles’s fiercest, most loyal lieutenant. In that regard, Sir Peter’s steadfast reliance on superior orders at trial speaks volumes.
And it is not to be overlooked that a criminal disposition was apparent even before Hagenbach cast his lot with Charles the Bold. The reported kidnapping of Marquard Baldeck, the Swiss banker for whom Hagenbach demanded ransom, is telling in that regard. As noted previously, Hagenbach supposedly demanded ransom from Baldeck’s family and the scheme was scuttled only when Philip the Good ordered Baldeck released without any extortion payment. Hagenbach also seems to have fabricated a murder plot against Charles the Bold, which he falsely pinned on a court rival to have him eliminated.
Add to this Hagenbach’s contempt for the emerging bourgeoisie and townspeople, as well as a deep animosity toward the Swiss, and his stewardship of the Upper Rhine represented the perfect storm. By 1474, he had indeed become the scourge of the Sundgau. In this regard, it is interesting to note Burgundy expert Richard Vaughan’s insight that, in fact, it may have been Hagenbach driving policy and tactics in Charles’s Alsatian territory, not the other way around:
Many of Hagenbach’s activities were undertaken at [Charles’s] express command, though often as a result of representations made to him by Hagenbach in the first place. It is possible, for example, that Charles only agreed to sign the treaty of St. Omer on Hagenbach’s persuasion. In the duke’s letters to Hagenbach of 8 August 1470 he orders him to undertake the siege and conquest of Ortenberg castle, ‘in accordance with your memorandum (advertissement)’, which seems to imply that Charles was here acting on detailed advice to take Ortenberg sent him by Hagenbach. As to other mortgaged places, the bailiff wrote to Charles describing how he had seized possession of Landser and seeking the duke’s approval, which was given on 6 January 1474. . . . On 26 December 1470 he wrote congratulating Hagenbach on taking Ortenberg . . .”
Finally, it should be pointed out that Hagenbach may be responsible for atrocities in the region, even if he personally did not commit or order or was unaware of all of them. In particular, the Picard and Wallon mercenaries he hired toward the end of his reign had a well-known reputation for being unruly, violent and hostile toward the local Alsatian population. French historian Emile Paul Toutey, for example, describes Picard soldiers engaging in mass rape of Breisach’s women toward the very end of 1473. These troops may have acted on their own initiative but Hagenbach was their superior and, at the very least, he bore command responsibility. And this may also have contributed toward the writing of Hagenbach’s black legend.
Did the Hagenbach case, in your opinion, actually break new legal ground relative to what had occurred up through 1473? Does it have any analogues you’re aware of over the next century or two, prior to the advent of the Westphalian system?
In my opinion, nothing in the historical record up through 1473 suggests the possibility (certainly not the likelihood!) of what actually took place in 1474.
Eminent German historian Hermann Heimpel does note that the contemplated trial was consistent with other legal actions in late fifteenth century Swabia. What must have seemed entirely unprecedented, though, was the make-up of the court that would sit in judgment of Peter von Hagenbach. He was not to be tried by a local judge. Instead, numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights — would sit as part of an international ad hoc tribunal. Nothing after this, until the Versailles Treaty’s Article 227 contemplated international ad hoc tribunal trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II post-World War I (which never took place since the Dutch refused to extradite), even suggested such a procedure.
Hagenbach tried to raise a “superior orders” type of defense, claiming that Charles the Bold had ordered him to do the nasty things that were imputed to him. The dismissal of this defense does sound pretty modern, but was it mere expedience on the part of the court since it had no way to compel evidence from Charles the Bold?
That’s a great question! I don’t think so. Why? Because Hans Irmy asked for a trial continuance to contact Charles the Bold to appear before the tribunal and corroborate Hagenbach’s claims of superior orders. The tribunal flatly denied the motion for continuance. There was not even an attempt to contact the Duke of Burgundy. Like the decision to try Hagenbach before an ad hoc international tribunal, the decision to deny the motion (and flatly reject the defense) seems nothing other than ground-breaking. In short, it was an epochal precedent.
What interpretive conflicts does this case raise for you when considering it as a legal scholar, versus as a historian? How do you think people today should understand Peter von Hagenbach’s prosecution?
Again, I quote from my paper:
My piece attempts to identify and resolve certain vertical and horizontal dissonances in Hagenbach scholarship. With respect to the former, this has amounted to an exercise in historiographic and historical archeology. The recent attention lavished on the case by international criminal law (ICL) experts is informed by a cartoonish conception of the defendant — an ultra-violent, sexually depraved monster who ran amok for years along the Upper Rhine and terrorized its population. Consistent with that interpretation, the authorities who captured and tried him engaged in a righteous and visionary justice enterprise. They came out on the winning side of a Manichean struggle that gave birth to ICL and ennobled its pedigree.
Digging deeper, though, one finds a very different narrative developed initially by nineteenth century historians and embraced by most of their twentieth century confreres. They saw Hagenbach as a would-be administrative reformer whose efforts were thwarted by xenophobic subjects and a parsimonious superior. In trying to transform a fragmented archipelago of city-states into a cohesive governmental entity, Hagenbach was despised because he threatened an ingrained culture of seigneurial privilege and parochial complacency. In his efforts to redeem property put in hock by Sigismund, he likely reinforced views of Burgundy as excessively acquisitive and bent on conquest (this was exacerbated by Charles’s own efforts to accede to the imperial throne). And in levying taxes to pay for good government, Hagenbach stoked local fears of financial servitude and ruin. But in doing the Duke’s bidding, he did not have the Duke’s support. And so he was left to flounder, his undoing hastened by his admitted crass and prurient behavior. They point out that his trial, a marketplace spectacle based on torture-extracted confessions, was little more than drumhead justice. It was akin to executing Charles the Bold in effigy. Peter von Hagenbach may not have been the most adroit governor and perhaps he did manifest contempt for the rising merchant and urban classes. But, the revisionists would contend, his final deserts were not just at all.
Digging deeper still, the bottom layer of historiography consists of the journalistic rough draft and the first generations of historians that followed. It is largely consistent with the modern ICL expert view but without the larger historical perspective and legal focus. And it is more regionally tinged and archaic. This layer is at once more reliable, given its comtemporaneity or relative proximity, and less reliable, given the inherent biases of its initial chroniclers and the disproportionate influence they exerted on sixteenth through eighteenth century historians.
But my piece demonstrates that each layer is not necessarily inconsistent with the others. In fact, there are many points of convergence. And it is there that a unified, coherent narrative can be stitched together. Hagenbach was coarse and confrontational. But he was also hardworking and loyal and wanted to do right by his master. His entire career had been built on pleasing Charles the Bold. He undoubtedly meant to reform and upgrade the administration of his Alsatian fiefdom. And consequently resentment of the bailiff grew over the years as he pushed while the Alsatians pulled. Hostilities boiled over in 1473 and matters came to a head in 1474. Charles’s loyal lieutenant with a criminal past and odd sexual predilections felt increasingly boxed in and he eventually lashed out. The almost exclusive procedural focus of his defense at trial strongly supports accounts of the resulting crime spree.
It should also be noted that modern Hagenbach scholarship is characterized by a certain horizontal dissonance as well — between jurists and historians. Given the historical points of convergence just noted, however, these two schools ought to find common ground too. Certain views of the revisionist historians concerning the Hagenbach judicial proceedings are not without merit. The Breisach ad hoc tribunal may not have been a kangaroo court but it bears no resemblance to the well-oiled machine of modern international criminal justice administration. The defendant was hideously tortured for days before the trial. He was given no notice of the charges or allegations against him in advance of the hearing. He had no time to speak with a lawyer before standing in front of the judges. The proceeding itself was held on a market square in a circus atmosphere and concluded within a matter of hours. He was not able to call his most important (and only) witness to the stand – Charles the Bold. And there is no indication of a high burden of proof or that any such burden even rested with the prosecution. The Breisach Trial was certainly not the paragon of due process.
On the other hand, this was the late Middle Ages — centuries removed from our modern notions of due process. Torture was part of standard pre-trial procedure at that time. And the trial itself seems relatively fair for that era. Hagenbach was represented by a zealous advocate in Hans Irmy and he was given two additional lawyers of his choice. There is as well a flip side to the “public spectacle” aspect of his trial — transparency. Hagenbach could have been summarily condemned in front of a secretive Star Chamber but his trial was held in public (and that was consistent with local custom). He was able to confront witnesses called against him. He had twenty-eight finders of fact (compared to twelve in the modern jury system). And Charles the Bold, his sole designated witness, was not allowed to testify because the defense of superior orders was rejected ab initio. As well, the proceedings lasted from early in the morning until late at night — which could equate to two or three modern court days. There seems to have been significant deliberation among the twenty-eight judges suggesting that a consensus was cobbled together after carefully sifting through the evidence. In an age of witch-hunts, trials by ordeal, the Star Chamber, and the Inquisition, this was an exceedingly fair trial.
And in many ways it seems inappropriate to use twenty-first century ICL terminology to analyze a fifteenth century judicial proceeding. But if that terminology is used, this piece has demonstrated that the Breisach Trial has many of the hallmarks of a modern international atrocity adjudication. As a threshold matter, regardless of anything else, it is the first recorded case in history to reject the defense of superior orders. In itself, that distinction invests the trial with universal historic importance in the development of atrocity law.