Posts filed under 'Habsburg Realm'

1706: Matthias Kraus, Bavarian rebel

Add comment March 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1706, Bavarian butcher Matthias Kraus was beheaded and quartered for an anti-Austrian rebellion.

This commoner was the victim at several orders’ remove of distant imperial politics; as such, he will enter this story only as a coda. Instead, we begin in the 1690s, in Spain, with the approaching death of the childless Spanish king Charles II.

The question of who would succeed Charles presented European diplomats the stickiest of wickets: there were rival claims that augured civil war, which was bad enough, but such a war’s potential winners could themselves be scions of the French Bourbons or the Austrian Habsburgs … which meant that Spain’s world empire could become conjoined with that of another great European power and unbalance everything.

Now, it just so happened that the Elector of Bavaria Maximilian II Emanuel had a ball in this game — because his marriage to a Habsburg princess had produced a kid who could plausibly receive the throne, Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria. (The mom died in 1692, but had she been alive, she would have stood to inherit Charles II’s throne.)

For a while this whelp looked like the answer the continent’s schemers were searching for, since neither the state of Bavaria nor his father’s House of Wittelsbach was already a great power — and thus, they could be elevated without creating a new hegemon. But in 1699, months after the infirm Charles had designated the little boy “my legitimate successor in all my kingdoms, states and dominions,” Joseph Ferdinand too dropped dead.

The boy was only seven years old — but he had lived long enough to whet his father’s appetite for a more substantial patrimony. When Charles II finally died in 1700 with the inheritance situation still unresolved, Max Emanuel entered the resulting continental war — the War of Spanish Succession — allying himself with France with the intent of supplanting the Habsburg dynasty on the Austrian throne.

This was a bold gambit to be sure but in the war’s earliest years it looked like it might really work. The Elector of Bavaria parlayed his strong position on the Danube (and ample French support) into a menacing thrust into Austria that threatened to capture Vienna. For the Wittelsbachs, this would mean promotion to a higher plane of dynastic inbreeding; for France, it would mean a lethal blow to the rival Austrian-English-Dutch “Grand Alliance”.

But things went pear-shaped in 1704.

Marlborough mounted a famous march to Austria’s rescue and trounced the Bourbons and Bavarians at the Battle of Blenheim, completely reversing the tide of events. Bavaria now came under Austrian occupation, as Max Emanuel hightailed it to the Low Countries.

All this statecraft brings us as a postscript the unhappy fate of our butcher, Herr Kraus.

The Austrian occupation of Bavaria — complete with punishing wartime levies — triggered in 1705 a peasants’ revolt grandly titled the Bavarian People’s Uprising. Matthias Kraus was a leader in this rising.


Matthias Kraus in Kelheim (Via)

Like the Wittelsbach pretension writ small, Kraus was intrepid but doomed. Having seized the town of Kelheim with a force of 200 or so, he held it for just five days. Austrian forces appearing at the gate negotiated for a peaceful surrender of the city, but as soon as they got the gates open they ran amok in a general massacre.

Kraus himself, interrogated under torture in Ingolstadt, was returned to Kelheim for public execution — his body’s quarters to be mounted around the city as a warning.


Detail view (click for a full image) of an Austrian leaflet publicizing the fate of the rebellious Kraus.

His martyrdom at the hands of a foreign occupation has stood Kraus in good stead in posterity. There is a Matthias-Kraus-Gasse in Kelheim, as well as a fountain memorial put up to celebrate the 1905 bicentennial of his his fleeting moment of heroism.

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1810: Andreas Hofer, Tyrolean patriot

Add comment February 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1810, Tyrolean hero Andreas Hofer was shot in Mantua.

Andreas Hofer monument at Bergisel, where Hofer fought four battles in 1809. (cc) image by Mathias Bigge.

Hofer (English Wikipedia entry | German) was the heir to his father’s Sandhof Inn in tiny St. Leonhard — a village today that’s just over the Italian border but was in Hofer’s time part of a Tyrol undivided by nation-state borders.

This county took pride in its ancient affiliation to the House of Habsburg, who had once even made its imperial headquarters in Tyrolean Innsbruck. When in the aftermath of crushing Austria at Austerlitz the rampant Corsican transferred Tyrol to the overlordship of his ally the King of Bavaria, he did not transfer their affections: indeed, when Bavaria imposed upon its new prize the Bavarian constitution, along with added levies of taxation and military conscription, she sowed the dragon’s teeth.

Hofer emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-Bavarian party in the Tyrol’s south, and joined an 1809 delegation to Vienna to secure Habsburg support for an internal rising.

The Tyrolean Rebellion broke out in March 1809 with direct coordination from Austria — which declared war on April 9, and attacked France on several fronts hoping to regain Tyrol and various other baubles of Germanic patrimony lately lost to Napoleon. Unfortunately for the irregulars in the south Tyrol, who under Hofer and others won several early skirmishes, the French once more handed Austria a decisive defeat at Wagram July 5-6 of that year, knocking Vienna out of the war almost as speedily as she had entered it.

The consequences of Wagram were far-reaching: still more choice provinces (Salzburg, West Galicia, Trieste, Croatia) stripped away from an empire stumbling into second-ratehood. Not yet numbered among them, one could readily discern the imminent fate of our party — as did the English editorialist who cried, “O, the brave and loyal, but, we fear, lost Tyrolese!”

By this time the self-described “Imperial Commandant”, Hofer’s successful engagements could not disguise an increasingly untenable position. The militiamen who had so brightly embarked on national liberation that spring withered up and blew away in the ill autumn wind. Hofer himself hid from his enemies in one of the panoramic mountain refuges that still decorate his homeland’s inviting hiking-grounds — but the price on his head could reach him even there, and a countryman betrayed his humble hut to the French. He was surprised there and removed to Mantua for a condemnation that was allegedly came ordered straight from Napoleon.

Hofer’s martyrdom has lodged firmly in Tyrolean lore. A plaque in the town of Menan marks the spot where he was kept overnight en route to his fate in Mantua. A folk song that emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, Zu Mantua in Banden, celebrates Hofer’s sacrifice and is now the official Tyrolean anthem. (“To Mantua in chains / Loyal Hofer was led / From Mantua to Death / The enemy had him sped …”)

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1661: Maeyken de Smet, Olsene witch

Add comment February 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1661, 62-year-old Maeyken de Smet was strangled and burned in Olsene

Implicated a sorceress by the last “witch” they tortured during the witch trials of Olsene-Dentergem in the early 1660s, Maeyken had little likelihood of resisting her own bout with enhanced interrogation and duly settled upon a vast register of infernally aided mischief plus 23 more humans to accuse.

On the advice of five witchcraft lawyers, Maeyken De Smet was sentenced to burning at the stake and the confiscation of all of her property. Because she had concluded a written contract with the devil, which she had signed with her own blood; had renounced God, Our Lady and all of the saints; had had sex with the devil several times; had attended several meetings of witches and their devils; had bewitched people and cows with a grey powder; and had contaminated flax with flee-beetles and trees with pernicious insects, she was strangled at the stake on a scaffold on the gallows-field and then burnt to ashes. All of her goods were confiscated. The trial had lasted eighteen days and had cost 301 pounds, 8 Schellings and 10 groats. (Six Centuries of Criminal Law: History of Criminal Law in the Southern Netherlands and Belgium)

The hecatomb this situation would seem to portend did not quite come to pass, as many of the other accused mounted vigorous defenses — often successfully exploiting judicial mechanisms to tie up the juggernaut long enough that they could get out of its way. (One even successfully used a hunger strike to avoid execution.) This particular witch hunt fizzled out by the end of 1662.

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1550: Four Anabaptist martyrs at Lier

Add comment January 31st, 2016 Headsman

The Martyrs Mirror hagiography of Reformation martyrs offers us these four stalwart subjects of the Habsburgs’ Low Countries patrimony:

On the last of January, 1550, there were offered up for the faith, at Lier, in Brabant, four pious Christians, named Govert, Gillis, Mariken and Anneken, who, as sheep for the slaughter, had been apprehended without violence. When they were brought before the council, and questioned concerning their faith, they made a frank and unfeigned confession of it. The bailiff then said, “You stand here to defend yourselves?”

Govert replied, “As regards my faith, I have freely confessed it, and shall turn to no other; though it cost my life, I will adhere to it.”

Forthwith the imperial edict* was read to them, and the bailiff asked them whether they understood its contents.

Govert said, “God has commanded us through Christ, as is recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Mark, that all who believe and are baptized shall be saved, and that those who do not believe shall be damned; but the emperor, in his blind judgment, has commanded that whoever is baptized upon his faith, shall be put to death without mercy. These two commands militate against each other; one of the two we must forsake; but everyone ought to know that we must keep the command of God; for though Satan teaches that we are heretics, yet we do not act contrary to the Word of God.”

When they were led to the tribunal, Govert said to the priests, “Take off your long robes, put on sack cloth, put ashes on your heads, and repent, like those of Nineveh.”

In the court the bailiff asked him whether he desired no favor.

He replied, “I will not ask for your favor; for what I cannot do without, the most high God will give me.”

The bailiff said also to Anneken, “Do you not desire a favor, before sentence is passed upon you?

She answered, “I shall ask favor of God, my refuge.”

Mariken, an old woman of seventy-five years, was asked whether she would confess her sins to the priest.

She replied, “I am sorry that I ever confessed my sins to the mortal ears of the priests.”

Seeing some brethren, Govert turned his face and joyfully comforted them, saying among other things, “I pray God, that you may be thus imprisoned for His glory, as I now am.”

The bailiff very fiercely said, “Be still, for your preaching is of no account here.”, “My lord bailiff,” said he,”I speak only five or six words, which God has given me to speak, does this give you so much pain?” And when the people murmured on this account, he said, “This has been witnessed from the time of righteous Abel, that the righteous have suffered reproach; hence be not astonished.” The two servants that stood by him said, “You must not speak; the bailiff will not have it; hence be still.”

Immediately God closed his mouth, which grieved many. Gillis was not questioned, and he said nothing at all; but they were led back to prison, where they rejoiced together, and sang: Saligh is den man, en goet geheeten; and also the forty-first psalm. The bailiff then came into prison, and asked Govert, whether he had considered the matter; to which be replied, “Unless you repent, the punishment of God shall come upon you.” The bailiff looked out of the window, and said, “Will God damn all this multitude of people?”

Govert replied, “I have spoken the Word of God to you; but I hope there are still people here who fear God?”

The bailiff then turned to Anneken, and asked her what she had to say to it.

She replied, “Lord bailiff, twice I have been greatly honored in this city, namely, when I was married, and when my husband became emperor; but I never had a joy that did not perish, as I now have.”

On his way to death, Govert delivered an excellent admonition, reproving the wicked railing, and said, “Be it known to you, that we do not die for theft, murder or heresy, but because we seek an inheritance with God, and live according to His Word.”

The executioner commanded him silence, but he said, “Leave God be with me for a little while; repent, for your life is short.”

A brother then said, “God will strengthen you.” “Oh, yes,” said he, “the power of His Spirit is not weakening in me.”

The monk attempted to speak to Mariken, but Govert said, “Get you hence, deceiver, to your own people; for we have no need of you.”

Entering the ring, Govert said to the gild-brothers, “How you stand here with sticks and staves? Thus stood the Jews when they brought Christ to death; if we had been afraid of this, we would have fled in time.”

They then knelt down together, and prayed; whereupon they kissed each other. Anneken immediately commenced to sing, “In thee, O Lord; do I put my trust.” The servants told her to be still; but Govert said, “No, sister, sing on,” and helped her sing. Enraged at this, the bailiff called to him a servant, and whispered something in his ear. The latter went to the assistant of the executioner, who, upon receiving the order, immediately put a gag on Govert; but the latter held his teeth so firmly closed, that the gag did not hinder him much, and he laughingly said, “I could easily sing with the gag on; but Paul says: “Sing in your heart to God.”

The executioner, in order to put her to shame, made Anneken stand in her bare chemise. A servant asked Gillis whether he did not see some of his people. Gillis said, “Do you know of nothing else to torment us with?” “What does he say?” asked Govert. “He inquires for our fellow brethren,” replied Gillis. Govert said, “Though I could count twenty, I would not mention a single one. You think that by killing us you can suppress the Word of God; but of those that hear and see this, hundreds shall yet come forth.” Standing at the stake, he said, “Amend your ways and repent; for after this there will be no more time for repentance.” A servant who had a bottle of wine, asked them whether they wished to drink. Govert said, “We have no desire for your insipid wine; for our Father shall give us new wine in His eternal kingdom.” When it was thought that the old woman had been strangled at the stake, she began to sing a hymn in honor of her Bridegroom, which when Anneken heard it, she, from ardent love, sang with her. When they all stood at their stakes, each with a strap around the neck, they smiled at and nodded to one another, thus affectionately saluting and comforting each other, and commending their souls into the hands of God, they fell asleep in the Lord, and were burned.

* A 1535 edict against Anabaptists, issued in the aftermath of the Muenster rebellion.

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1849: Zsigmond Perenyi, by the Hangman of Arad

1 comment October 24th, 2015 Headsman

In the weeks following his defeat of Hungary’s 1848-49 revolution, the Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau consolidated his victory with enough cruelty to merit the title “Hangman of Arad.” On this date in 1849, he advanced Zsigmond Perényi, of late the speaker of revolutionary Hungary’s House of Magnates, to the ranks of Magyar martyrs.

A career politician and judge, Perenyi (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Hungarian) was a stately 74 years of age when the barricades went up. He was a baron, but a member of the reform-minded faction of that class who in the 19th century came more and more to see themselves in a national, Hungarian context. This historical thrust would lead, 18 years after the events of this post, to the official arrangement of an Austro-Hungarian Empire, the promotion of Hungary to titular imperial partnership but never to a fully satisfactory settlement of the tensions between Hungarian patriotic aspiration and Habsburg imperial prerogatives.

Perenyi signed the April 14, 1849 Hungarian Declaration of Independence; he and others who had set their hand to this treasonable document and played a role in the national government — they were just the sort of people to invite the attention of the hangman of Arad.

“Many government commissioners who had supported Kossuth were summarily court-martialled and led to the gallows,” Alan Walker notes in Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848-1861, Volume 2.

Baron Jeszenak, lord-lieutenant of the county of Nyitra; Szacsvay, the young secretary of the Diet; and Csernus of the treasury board all swung from the end of a rope. Baron Zsigmond Perenyi, of the court of justice, listened carefully to the charges against him and replied: “I have to complain that the accusation is incomplete. I request to add that I was the first to press the resolution that the House of Habsburg-Lorraine should be declared to have forfeited the throne of Hungary.”


By Hungary’s own Franz Liszt.

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1573: Maeykens Wens, Antwerp Anabaptist

Add comment October 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1573, Antwerp burned a clutch of Anabaptists, including the martr Maeykens Wens.

Thereupon on the next day, which was the 6th of October, this pious and God-fearing heroine of Jesus Christ, as also her other fellow believers, who in like manner had been condemned, were with their tongues screwed fast, like innocent sheep brought forward, and after each was tied to a stake in the market place, were robbed of life and body by a dreadful and horrible fire, and in a short time were burned to ashes. The oldest son of this aforementioned martyr, called Adrian Wens, about fifteen yars old, upon the day on which his dear mother was sacrificed, could not stay away from the place of execution, so he took his youngest brother, called Hans Matthias Wens, about three years old, on his arm, and stood on a bench not far from the burning-stake to witness his mother’s death. But when she was brought to the stake he fainted, fell down, and lay unconscious until his mother and the others were burned. Afterward, when the people had gone away and he came to himself, he went to the place where his mother was burnt, and hunted in the ashes until he found the screw with which her tongue had been screwed fast, and he kept it for a memento. There are now, 1659, still many descendants of this pious martyr living well known to us, who, after her name, are called Maeyken Wens.

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1756: Veronika Zeritschin, the last witch executed in Germany

Add comment April 2nd, 2015 Headsman

When did Europe stop executing witches?

Early modern Europe’s witch hunt era wound down in the 18th century, but the precise milestone dates are surprisingly tricky to pin down. The superstition outlived the judicial machinery, and some of the last reputed “witches” — like Anna Göldi and Barbara Zdunk — don’t seem to have been formally charged with sorcery.

The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the theonset of rationalism.

The last witch execution that can be documented on in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.

There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.

As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.


Salvator Rosa, Witches at their Incantations (c. 1646). “Rosa has a secret to tell us: how the romantic imagination feeds on terrors and beliefs that were once all too real.”

* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:

What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)

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1531: Sikke Freriks, Menno Simons inspiration

Add comment March 20th, 2015 Headsman

Dutch artisan Sikke Freriks, beheaded on this date in 1531 in Leeuwarden‘s market, was the first Anabaptist put to death in that Friesland city.

While a minor milestone in the crowded history of Reformation martyrdoms, Freriks had a noteworthy posthumous effect: word of his heresy — adherence to adult, rather than infant, baptism — came to the ears of a Catholic priest, who later wrote that a man’s dying for this illicit doctrine led him to investigate it further.

To his amazement, the priest found no scriptural support for the established church’s practice of baptizing infants before they developed the maturity and volition to embrace Christ from the will of their own hearts. Christians are “cheated” by the loss of that opportunity of freely giving oneself in baptism, he later wrote.

This man, Menno Simons, would follow his discomfiting scrutiny of holy writ all the way out of the priesthood and into that same forbidden sect. His preeminence in the Anabaptist movement after its disastrous Münster rebellion — and particularly his pacifistic orientation — eventually ennobled him as the founder as well as the namesake of the Mennonites, a term that in Menno Simons’s own lifetime became all but synonymous for Dutch Anabaptism.

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1476: Israel, the last execution of the Trent blood libel trial

Add comment January 19th, 2015 Headsman

We have covered in these pages the horrific blood libel trial that sent most of the Jews of Trent to execution for the supposed ritual murder of the child Simon of Trent.

The moral panic (and torture-aided interrogation) that broke out when Trent’s Jews were suspected of having killed a Christian child led to a batch of executions in June 1475. But that was only the first act of a drama that would reach all the way to the courts of popes and emperors in the subsequent months … a conflict that would not end even when the last “murderer”, Israel, was broken on the wheel on January 19, 1476.

Trent lay at the southern fringe of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire,* literally halfway from Vienna to Rome … and Trent’s ambitious prince-bishop Johannes Hinderbach was likewise beholden to both those poles of authority.

The sitting pope, Sixtus IV, was pretty sympathetic to Jews in general and very definitely not okay with Hinderbach’s theater of torture and execution. Sixtus was certainly also feeling plenty of pushback from other Jewish communities in Europe to make sure Trent wouldn’t be a precedent for similar freakouts in the future, and from Christian elites who didn’t want muddleheaded fanatics running around.

In Trent, “the Jews” meant literally three households — a tiny handful of people. By contrast, in cosmopolitan, humanist Rome, Jews were prominent among the intelligentsia and their presence taken for granted. Sixtus had Jewish “advisors and physicians in the papal court. They were teachers of music, theater, and science. Rome was a center of Hebrew literature and publishing … Sixtus IV, like most of his predecessors, took his role as a defender of Jews from violence more or less for granted.”**

Sixtus ordered the proceedings halted “because many and important men began to murmur,” and instituted an apostolic commission to investigate.

But Hinderbach and the Trentini refused to cooperate (Italian link) with the investigation. Hinderbach, for his part, was all-in on the Simonino story: just like today, nobody on the hook for a wrongful execution is going to advance his career by acknowledging that fact.

Resentfully, Hinderbach put his unwelcome papal visitor Battista Dei Guidici up in a crappy room, and “many people, moved more by furor than reason, temerity than devotion, threatened to kill the commissioner in the streets of the city, if he did not confirm the miracles and the asserted martyrdom” of little Simon. If anyone in Trent thought otherwise, he did not dare make it known to the closely-watched investigator.

Trent still had Jews in prison at this point, but Hinderbach resolutely prevented the pope’s agent from interviewing with them. “It was to be feared,” Hinderbach said, “that if he talked to them, he or his men could give some sign to the Jews, who would be rendered more obstinate, since they were always saying, ‘A man will come to free us.'”

Book CoverThese quotes are via R. Po-Chia Hsia’s Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, which is likewise our guide for the tense diplomatic battle ensuing over the autumn of 1475.

After having bribed a servant to deliver word to the imprisoned Jewish women that they had an advocate, Dei Guidici relocated to nearby Venetian territory — “where innocent people are not killed, where Christians do not plunder Jews, as it was in Trent” — and papers started flying.

Dei Guidici appealed to — and eventually ordered — Hinderbach to release the remaining Jews in his custody, while the pope sent out directives quashing any preaching on Simon’s “martyrdom.” Italian Jews poured into Dei Guidici’s offices appealing for their fellows and attesting that they could not travel through Trent for fear of mob violence.† A verse from a Veronese rabbi dating to late 1475 curses the nearby city: “Hills of Trent, may you not have rain or dew / Seven times may you fall and not rise.”

Hinderbach, for his part, sent his own envoys to German cities that had persecuted Jews for ritual murder in the past to get his own paper trail establishing that, yes, the Hebrew liked a good drink of Christian blood. More significantly, as a prince-bishop, Hinderbach also sent his own appeals up the Holy Roman Empire’s secular chain of command, objecting to the ecclesiastical meddling.

Hinderbach’s only concession to his apostolic scold was to release the children he had in custody. In October 1475, his political machinations with the Habsburgs yielded authorization from the powerful Tirolean Archduke Sigismund to resume judicial proceedings against “the Jewish men and women you have in prison” and “render justice as it should be, and let the death sentences be carried out.”

Interrogations for six Jewish men still in custody resumed on October 25, again with the aid of the horrible strappado to confirm and elaborate upon the already-determined official story of Simon’s martyrdom.

Denial — or even confessing, but guessing the wrong detail to “admit” — was not an option, as this October 26 interrogation record indicates.

He was asked whether he saw the murdered boy.

JOAFF [one of the Jewish households’ servants]: In the ditch.

PODESTA: Think again.

JOAFF: In the antechamber of the synagogue.

PODESTA: Anywhere else?

JOAFF: No.

He was ordered stripped, tied by the rope, and hoisted up.

JOAFF: Let me down, I’ll speak the truth.

PODESTA: Speak it on the ropes.

JOAFF: I have never done anything evil.

He was hoisted up and dropped.

This continues until Joaff has been dropped enough times to agree that he saw Simon’s body on Saturday night, on a bench in the synagogue. They knew that was the truth because it confirmed what they already wanted to hear.

This would be the end of Trent’s Jewish men in January 1476.

Israel, a 23-year-old copyist, was the last to die, and his fate is particularly poignant.

He had half-escaped the pall of death by accepting baptism the previous spring, and lived freely during the following months under the name Wolfgang. Dei Guidici interviewed him, one of the few productive sessions the pope’s man was able to arrange in Trent, and learned thereby of the details of Hinderbach’s interrogations.

Once Dei Guidici withdrew to Venetian soil, Jews of that principality would begin reaching out to “Wolfgang” in their efforts to communicate with the remaining imprisoned Jews.

This skullduggery came came apart when the persecution fired back up in October, and Israel was re-arrested, and put again and repeatedly to the rope. He was a man bound to be crushed by the legal machinery arrayed against him, but it was not only that. As Israel was well-traveled, he was tortured for information about ritual murders in other German cities; his forced denunciation of 14 named Jews in Regensburg initiated a blood-libel proceeding in that city that was only aborted by intervention from the Emperor himself.

And while Israel struggled to portray himself as a faithful convert and appeal to little Simon for an exculpatory miracle that never came, he at least once threw aside the mask to give his tormenters a piece of his mind.

PODESTA: What did he think of the Christian faith?

ISRAEL: He wants to say the truth. He does not believe in anything of the Christian faith … It is a joke to say that God came down from heaven to earth, walked around and lived among men. He believes only in God and nothing more. He believes also that the Jewish faith is right and holy.

PODESTA: Does he believe that it is right, according to Jewish law, that Jews kill Christian children and drink and eat their blood as he himself had said.

ISAREL: He believes firmly that it is right that Jews kill Christian children and eat their blood. He wants to have Christian blood at Easter, even now that he is baptized he wants to die a Jew.

Four other Jews from Trent died by hanging earlier in January 1476. The last one put to death was Israel on January 19 — “thief, eater and drinker of Christian blood, poisoner, blasphemer, traitor, and an enemy of Christ and Godly majesty.”

Even his death did not finally put a stop to the affair, for the women of the Jewish community were still in prison, and still being tortured as late as March. They would eventually accept baptism as the price of their release.

Meanwhile, Hinderbach and Dei Guidici carried their scrap to the curia. Hinderbach’s dogged advocacy of his burgeoning cult of Simon — and the odd ad hominem against his foe here and there — won some allies against Dei Guidici’s protests against “the peril which would be incumbent on the Christian religion, on account of the dealings in Trent, and the lies that would reach the ignorant.”

In the end, the Church decided it on political grounds. It could not encourage more Trents; neither could it invite the scandal of disavowing the one that had already taken place. It upheld Hinderbach’s conduct while also reiterating standing prohibitions against blood-libel trials or oppressing the Jews.

Hinderbach very naturally took this as vindication and spent the balance of his life propagating the Simonino cult. Artwork throughout northern Italy, some of it still visible in situ today in its original public monuments and chapel frescoes, attested to his success.


The Martyrdom of Simonino, by Gandolfino d’Asti.


The Martyrdom of Saint Simonio, from the Trento school of Nicklaus Weckmann. (Via)

Indeed, the city of Trent itself‡ still has a street-viewable bas-relief depiction of Simonino’s ritual murder, with the Latin inscription:

In the dungeons of these buildings, where once a synagogue stood, and now a shrine, the blessed martyr Simon of Trent, in his 29th month of life, was killed with excruciating pain by the Jews in the deep of the night of April 10, 1475 A.D.

The Simon of Trent cult — never the face of Christianity that the institutional church really wanted to feature — was only officially suppressed in the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council.

* Trent’s position on the frontier of the Italian and German worlds is also the reason the next century’s major anti-Reformation Council of Trent was held there.

** Sixtus wasn’t all good news for Jews. More from political necessity than affirmative desire, he also authorized the Spanish Inquisition and appointed Torquemada.

† During this time, Dei Guidici also managed to extract a Trent resident named Anzelino Austoch. Under Dei Guidici’s torture, Austoch accused the man named der Schweizer, “the Swiss” — the very man who had suggested that the Jewish homes be searched for Simon’s body — of committing the murder. Dei Guidici clearly believed that either the Schweizer, or Austoch, or both, had actually killed Simon and intentionally framed the city’s Jews.

‡ Trent does not, of course, still avow the legitimacy of these proceedings; the city has elsewhere put up plaques apologizing for it.

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1568: Eighty-four Valenciennes iconoclasts

Add comment January 4th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1568 saw the mass execution of 84 people in Valenciennes for participating in the Low Countries’ Calvinist movement against Catholicism’s longstanding use of images and icons to project its cosmology.

In his In Praise of Folly, the humanist Erasmus — a Dutchman, mark — jibed at those who

attribute strange virtues to the shrines and images of saints and martyrs, and so would make their credulous proselytes believe, that if they pay their devotion to St. Christopher in the morning, they shall be guarded and secured the day following from all dangers and misfortunes: if soldiers, when they first take arms, shall come and mumble over such a set prayer before the picture of St. Barbara, they shall return safe from all engagements: or if any pray to Erasmus on such particular holidays, with the ceremony of wax candles, and other fopperies, he shall in a short time be rewarded with a plentiful increase of wealth and riches.* The Christians have now their gigantic St. George, as well as the pagans had their Hercules; they paint the saint on horseback, and drawing the horse in splendid trappings, very gloriously accoutred, they scarce refrain in a literal sense from worshipping the very beast.

Those words were published just a few years before Martin Luther nailed his earthshaking theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Erasmus’s critique of the Catholic Church never extended so far as leaving its fold, but for observers who bent more towards revolution than reform, the adoration of these graven images could easily read as simple idolatry just this side of Golden Calf territory — and in this they harkened back to a venerable strain of iconoclasm within Christianity.

This was far from Luther’s own chief concern, but many other preachers and proselytizers thundered against the statues and paintings that stood in for the divine — and arguably, came to be venerated as if they were the divine. “[These] images are not to be endured, for all that God has forbidden, there can be no compromise,” said the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli, under whose leadership icons were pulled down in Zurich churches as early as 1523.

Iconoclastic effusions followed elsewhere in Europe, tracking the spread of the various Protestant strains. John Calvin, himself driven to refuge in Switzerland, took a similar anti-icon line. It was Calvin’s theology that inspired the French Huguenots, and Huguenot iconoclastic demonstrations began occurring in the north and east of France from about 1560.

They soon spread to the neighboring Reformation-minded Habsburg possessions.

The so-called Beeldenstorm, or “Iconoclastic Fury”, broke in the town of Steenvorde near the southwestern fringe of the Low Countries. (In fact, it’s in France in the present day, as is Valenciennes, the site of our titular execution.) On St. Lawrence’s Day of 1566 — August 10 — a Calvinist mob invaded a church dedicated to that saint and stripped it of its idolatrous garnishes.

From Steenvorde, the storm raced north, gathering strength. Within days, it had deluged cities large and small throughout the Low Countries: formerly retiring heretics now bold and impious enough to assail the Catholicism’s sacred emblems. They did not only pull down icons in churches — but in rectories, hospitals, universities. “We have had this night past a marvelous stir,” the Welsh cloth-merchant Richard Clough wrote on August 21 from Antwerp, the continent’s commercial capital. “All the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of thing left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed.”

In France, Catholic enragees mobilized in response, here repulsing an iconoclast raid and there sparking a street brawl. But in the Low Countries the iconoclasts faced much scantier resistance; even the authorities practically stood down — either enervated, or sympathetic.

This storm naturally shocked faithful Catholics. Rioters “defaced the painted images, not only of Our Lady but of all others in the town. They tore the curtains, dashed in pieces the carved work of brass and stone, brake the altars, spoilt the clothes and corporesses, wrested the irons, conveyed away or brake the chalices and vestiments, pulled up the brass of the gravestones … trod [the altar] under their feet and (horrible it is to say!) shed their stinking piss upon it,” an expatriate English theologian lamented from Louvian.


Frans Hogenberg‘s etching “The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566″ depicts iconoclasts attacking the Cathedral of Our Lady at Antwerp.

According to Carlos Eire there were some 400 iconoclast incidents in Flanders alone over the summer and fall of 1566.

Every prince in Europe was put to the test by the Reformation movements of the 16th century. Few answered with less finesse than Philip II, the fervently Catholic King of Spain who counted the Low Countries among his vast patrimony and viewed altar-pissing in Catholic churches as lese-majeste stacked upon sacrilege.

The iconoclastic disturbances led Philip to dispatch his best general, the Duke of Alba (or Alva) to suppress these rebellious subjects (and eventually, to lose his glasses). He replaced Philip’s half-sister Margaret of Parma in both position and approach: in vain did Margaret warn her successor against destroying the loyalty of these provinces with excess rigor. Alba’s mission was to handle the Low Countries roughly, and he did not fail to do it.


Simon Frisius‘s engraving of the Council of Troubles.

Setting up a drumhead tribunal known as the “Council of Troubles” — very soon popularly denoted the “Council of Blood” — the Iron Duke began wreaking havoc on enemies actual, perceived, potential, and in more than a few cases, not at all.

Through all these months the frightful cruelties of the blood-judges were continued. Every day the executions took a wider sweep. “I would have every man feel that any day his house may fall about his ears,” wrote Alva to the king. Of this benevolent wish he made a fact. Men of all creeds and of none felt equally insecure. The Romanists themselves, the most sturdy and devoted of them, shuddered and rubbed their necks, to be sure that their heads still rested upon their shoulders as they glanced towards Egmont‘s prison at Ghent. “The fury of the persecution spreads such horror throughout the nation,” said Orange at the time, “that thousands, and among them some of the principal papists, have fled the country where tyranny is direct against all.”

The blood-judges flooded the land with citations; but so certainly did conviction follow an appearance at their bar, that few responded, while such as did were not were condemned to exile and to suffer the confiscation of their estates for contumacy; or if caught, they were beheaded without trial. Those who, strong in innocence, ventured to brave an examination, were inevitably doomed.

Maybe the most outrageously illustrative case was a man named Peter De Witt** in Amsterdam. His crime was persuading a rioter not to shoot a magistrate — this being held to imply a level of esteem among the amok heretics incompatible with correct devotion to God and King.

In batches of forty, fifty, and even a hundred, men, women and children were led out to indiscriminate death. On one occasion, ninety-five miscellaneous individuals, collected from various parts of Flanders, were butchered in company. At another time forty-six of the citizens of Malines were decapitated. On the 4th of January, 1568, eighty-four persons, charged with participating in the tumults, were executed together in the public square at Valenciennes.

The (helpfully dated) bloodletting we mark with this date’s post was itself no more representative of the Council of Troubles than any other, collectively amounting to uncounted thousands whose martyrdom — to creed, country, or both — would stir the Dutch Revolt and, eventually, the independence of the Netherlands from Spain.

* A wry reference to the writer’s namesake saint: Erasmus the humanist was perpetually short of cash, and at one point forced into monastic vows by his penury. (Erasmus the saint is not actually the patron of anything related to wealth.)

** No kinship that I’m aware of with the Dutch Republic’s leader a century later, Johan de Witt.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Netherlands,Public Executions,Spain

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