On this date in 1548, the Calvinist evangelist Robert de Lievre — better known by his nom de prosélytisme Seraphin d’Argences, or as Antoine Deschamps — was burned at Paris’s Place Maubert.
According to their hagiographies, the martyrs’ steadiness caused their assigned Catholic hector Francois Le Picart to lay off the browbeating and comfort them in their last pains.
This neat trick was achieved by the dread Chambre Ardente, really earning its name in this instance, which wanted the example made of this itinerant preacher to match the scope of his roving heresy. Seraphin d’Argences had even had the temerity to administer reformed Lord’s Suppers, leading the judgment against them to cite not only the obvious heresy stuff but “acts repugnant to the holy Catholic faith and the sight of the Holy Church, outraging the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.”
The show began with the minister’s collaborators, Jean Thuillier, Michel Mareschal and Jean Camus, piled into a cart for the ride to the stakes. Seraphin d’Argences trailed right behind them, drug on a sledge pulled by the tumbril.
At the Place Maubert, they all burned the same, but the heresiarch’s stake was consciously elevated above the other three — a sure nod to the developing age of spectacular capital punishment.
Following his bodily execution, Seraphin d’Argences was re-executed in effigy in various towns where he had been active: Langres, Sens, Blois, Bourges, Angers, and others all hosted ceremonial “executions” of lifelike likenesses of the lifeless schismatic.
On this date in 1476, a peasant preacher who nearly stirred a revolution was consigned to the flames in Wurzburg.
Hans Behem (or similar variations on that surname, e.g. Bohm or Boheim) is known to posterity as the Drummer of Niklashausen, for when he descended into that Tauber River town for Carnival he performed with this instrument.
His vocation — his peasant’s lot in life — was sheep-herding.
One frigid Lent night in 1476, a year when the protracted winter freeze promised gaunt months ahead for the peasantry, Hans was wrapped in his heavy cloak watching his flock when he had an unexpected visitor:
The Virgin Mary appeared to him.
Richard Wunderli’s very appealing Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen situates this queer episode in the foreign world of the early modern peasantry, when the supernatural suffused everyday life and the seasons of the year elapsed in “ritualized joy, laughter, deprivation, and seriousness.”
Carnival, just ended, was “liminal time”: time for inversion of natural orders, time for foolishness, time for liberation. If the rite confined and discharged potential social pressures, “liminal time” also held a latent threat to the ordered world of lords and bishops. What happened if sublime religious revelation burst the calendar’s boundaries and flooded ordinary time with the liminal?
[The Virgin] told him that both God and her Son were angry with mankind and were chastising all peoples with the dreadful cold and snow. People were consumed by their vanities, she said, and did not worship the Heavenly Family as was their due … Hans was ordered to go to the portal of the village church of Niklashausen, the Frauen kirche, the church dedicated to the Virgin, and there publicly he was to burn his drum and his shepherd’s pipe. Then he was to preach in Niklashausen, and the Mother of God would instruct him what to say. (Wunderli)
Thanks to this vision, 1476 would be a year out of time.
Hans apparently knew a Beghard mystic who dwelled in the hills where he pastured sheep. In the fullness of time, this anonymous man would die with the drummer; the precise nature of their association is a matter for speculation, though some would later charge (the better to derogate the illiterate boy’s supposed divine revelation) that the Beghard orchestrated the whole thing.
Nevertheless, the proximity to the Drummer of Niklashausen of an adherent of the suppressed Beghard movement underscores the link between Hans’s subsequent preaching and the centuries-old tradition of radical poverty. Elites long viewed these movements as seditious, and why not? Poverty was the material lot of most people just as it had been for Christ himself, but it was self-evidently not the lot of Christ’s vicars, who in fashionable attire bought with forced tithes and the sale of get-out-of-purgatory indulgences breezed obnoxiously past the everyday tolls and levies that crushed their flocks. Arrogant, predatory lords made out even better than that.
Sacralized poverty ever sat next door to levelling — next door to revolution.
The German abbot Johann Trithemius would complain of the “rustic, ignorant people [who] gathered together daily in Niklashausen,” and their terrifying-to-him vision “that peasants would become free and the clergy placed in servitude.”
What could peasants find more agreeable than that they had been freed from all payments of rents and tenant services, and that thereafter they would hold everything in common with the clergy and princes? Truly, what could a layman find more desirable than that he should see the clergy and priests immediately stripped of all privileges and liberties, and denied their collection of tithes, rents, and the proceeds of the holy altar?
Hans Behem preaching from a window, with his sinister adviser at his side. Detail (click for the full image) of a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle illustration. (via Wikipedia)
Hans, of course, obeyed the Virgin’s charge to him.
Just after Easter, he publicly burned his drum — his own little vanity — and began preaching in Niklashausen.
Maybe the words came from the Beghard, or from the alleged mendicant friar who was rumored to whisper to Hans. Maybe the young man had a natural gift for oratory and a few lucky breaks.
But to tens of thousands of German peasants who soon began arriving, he was a holy youth, the vessel for heaven. Hans’s prayers lifted the interminable frost, sparing at least some portion of the year’s crop. Peasants from all around the region caught wind of the supernatural event and began up and disappearing from their places without notice or excuse, leaving work half-done to join troops of their fellows making pilgrims’ tracks to Niklashausen.
There, they too were summoned to cast aside all their own vanities as well,* and into the flames went stylish clothes, sinful cards and dice.
“They cut the long points off their shoes,” wrote a disdainful chronicler Georg Widman. “And trimmed their hair, and it seemed as though a dozen carts would not suffice to haul away the hair and shoes being discarded that day, to say nothing of embroidered kerchiefs, robes, doublets.”
The drummer’s preaching veered apocalyptic. Medieval people would have believed of a course that God’s pleasure or disfavor went abroad in the world; the awful winter (only the latest in a series) and, for peasants, a generation of deteriorating material conditions and multiplying taxes, would have stood witness to the Lord’s dissatisfaction. The miracles attributed to Hans — healing the lame, the blind, and the mute; even raising a drowned child from the dead — were of a piece with his words, with the bonfires, with the favor of the Virgin Mary.
Hans’s call to renewal was not a summons to save individual souls but a charge to right the evils in the world that had laid divine afflictions upon all: “If they do not forthwith mend their lives, the whole world will be made to suffer affliction for their sins.” (Source)
“The Emperor is a miscreant, and the Pope a nonentity. It is the Emperor who gives to princes, counts, and knights authority to tax and burden the common people. Alas! for you, poor devils!” Spies in the crowds, no doubt paraphrasing prejudicially, captured for the alarmed archbishop and lords the dangerous sentiments being preached in Niklashausen to crowds swollen into the tens of thousands who might not easily be controlled.
Princes, civil and ecclesiastical, ought to possess no more than common folk, and then all would have plenty. The time would come when princes and nobles would have to labour for a day’s wage. The fish in the water, and the game upon the land, ought to be common. Tolls, road-money, servitudes, rents, taxes, and tithes to spiritual or temporal superiors were to be wholly done away with.
Most frightful of all was the open threat to slay worthless priests, that soon clerics would cover their head with their hand for fear of being caught out with a tonsure. Hans Behem’s crowds rejoiced at the prospect; a clergyman would write later that summer of the pilgrims’ “hateful song”: “O God in Heaven, on you we call / Help us seize our priests and kill them all.”**
On the night of July 12, 1476 — the eve before the Drummer was to preach a sermon for which he had asked his followers to arrive armed — 34 mounted knights burst into the farmhouse and hustled the firebrand into custody before anyone could resist.
The movement was beheaded and it fractured quickly: after a day of confusion, some of them set off on a march to nearby Wurzburg, where the Drummer languished in the Archbishop’s fortress, a position that the rabble was in no position to take by main force. Many gave up the enterprise, but dozens, maybe a hundred or more, were captured and filled Wurzburg’s dungeons to overflowing.
Almost all were ultimately released. Only three were put to trial: Hans himself, the mysterious Beghard, and a peasant who had risen up after Hans’s arrest to incite the crowd to kill the Wurzburg clergy. Hans was tortured by the the rope, hoisted into the air by his pinioned hands then dropped with all the weight of his body tearing at his shoulders. They did this to him over and over, until he said that he was a fraud, that Mary never came to him, that he never worked a miracle, that that “wandering, cunning mendicant friar contrived everything.”
Hans was burnt flesh either way: this is the fate of martyrs. It was essential that he also be discredited, though the effect was scarcely immediate.
Certainly, there were those who with imprudent faith believed that his whole affair originated in heaven … they hoped that God would preserve him from being killed; or if God allowed him to die, then He would take immediate vengeance on the courts that condemned the Youth.
Others, who were more sane, among whom were the bishop and his clergy, did not fear the vengeance of God for the death of this wicked man; rather, they earnestly, sensibly, and rationally feared that spiteful, evil spirits — who take delight in possessing superstitious people — would scheme some plot of guile and deceit at the execution. For they judged that little Hans was not a man of God but was possessed by the devil.
At last the judgment of death to little Hans was to be carried out … After he had been led to a level piece of ground, which is behind my monastery near the house of the lepers, he was seated and bound with ropes. Nearly all the citizens of the town stood by armed, waiting for him to be delivered to the fires. In the meantime, two evildoers who were with him received a sentence to have their heads cut off.
After they were beheaded, little Hans asked the magistrate: “Are you going to hurt me?” The magistrate replied: “No, but someone has prepared a bath for you” — for the Youth had not yet seen the pile of wood for the fire, or if he had seen it, he perhaps did not know what it was.
When he was tied to the stake for burning, however, he sang certain songs or verses in a high voice about Our Lady, which he had composed in the German language. Among the bystanders were many who believed that the man could not be burned because of the merit of his holiness, by which they thought he would be preserved by the Mother of God. Hence, they were afraid to stand near him. They were terrified that perhaps the fire would be scattered about by divine fury and would consume those observing the execution. Others feared that the Youth could not be burned because of the protection of demons or of some other sorcery. Therefore, the executioner — who also feared this — caused all the Youth’s hairs to be shaved, so that no evil spirit or demon would be able to hide in them.
Bound to the post, the Youth shouted his songs. But as soon as the fire was set below him and he felt the flames, he cried out three times with a weeping voice: “Ow, ow, ow.” He was then engulfed by the flames. His voice uttered nothing again. Consumed by the voracious fire, he was reduced to ashes. No miracles happened, nothing that demonstrated that Innocence had been consumed by fire. Nevertheless, so that the frivolous devotion and fear of stupid people not fashion him into a martyr, the executioner ordered that all his ashes be thrown into the river. After this was done, the gathering of the people at Niklashausen came to an end.
The “gathering” did not quite blow away with the Drummer’s ashes, not just like that.
Despite edicts from nearby cities against the practice, pilgrims continued journeying to Niklashausen over the following months: not with the number and character sufficient to threaten revolution, but more than enough to make the authorities jumpy. The Archbishop was so desperate to quash these pilgrimages that in 1477 he had the church at Niklashausen razed.
In those years and long after, chroniclers as one scorned the Drummer and his flock; Sebastian Brant’s 1494 satire Ship of Fools also singles out des sackpfeifers von Nickelshusen (the bagpiper of Niklashausen) and those who followed him.† Hans’s people, illiterate commoners, don’t have a voice in the histories.
The grievances were never really answered. It was not until 1518 that authorities finally deemed it safe enough to rebuild the Niklashausen church … but even then, Germany had not heard the last of peasant revolution.
** Wunderli notes the movement’s apparent indifference to Jews, despite its falling in the immediate wake of one of Europe’s most inflammatory blood libel cases. These peasants were not assembled for a pogrom; it was their Christian oppressors whom they hated.
† See the German version Das Narrenschiff, under “verachtung der gschrift”, “contempt of scripture”.
At some point in the first weeks of June 1155 — nobody knows the exact date, but it precedes June 18 — the Roman authorities disposed of Arnold of Brescia.
For a decade the tongue of a fragile new Roman Republic, Arnold was a student of the cutting-edge theologian (and castrated romantic) Peter Abelard. Arnold held the temporal pretensions of the Vatican invalid, a theology sublimely according with the popular revolt that from 1143 overturned Rome’s overweening princes and even slew a pope in a melee on the Capitoline.
The Senate long forsaken was re-founded by this new Republic and an equestrian order re-founded to resume to the rights of a now-growing middle rank. The slain pope’s successor became a refugee tenant of the neighboring cities, orchestrating crusades against Turks, Moors, and Wends — but dying at Tivoli in 1153 still awaiting a prince who would restore his own person to the authority of the Eternal City.
That prince, however, had just begun to stir. The Hohenstaufen king Frederick I had concluded in the months before Pope Eugenius’s death a compact to restore the pontiff, which policy dovetailed nicely with an intent to show the German power against other wayward cites in Italy. It was Frederick’s Italian subjects, and conquests, who gave this man the distinctive name by which history recalls him: Barbarossa, or “red-beard”.
All these years — or at least, from 1145, when he surfaced in the rebellious city from past years’ exile in Zurich — Arnold of Brescia’s “eloquence thundered over the seven hills.” (Gibbon)
Blending in the same discourse the texts of Livy and St. Paul, uniting the motives of Gospel, and of classic, enthusiasm, he admonished the Romans how strangely their patience and the vices of the clergy had degenerated from the primitive times of the church and the city. He exhorted them to assert the inalienable rights of men and Christians; to restore the laws and magistrates of the republic; to respect the name of the emperor: but to confine their shepherd to the spiritual government of his flock. Nor could his spiritual government escape the censure and control of the reformer; and the inferior clergy were taught by his lessons to resist the cardinals, who had usurped a despotic command over the twenty-eight regions or parishes of Rome.
The absentee pope excommunicated Arnold in 1148. It was to no effect until Barbarossa’s legions neared the city.
As King Frederick approached, Pope Adrian IV* applied a deft turn of the screw by laying Rome itself under an interdict, depriving his quarrelsome flock of both spiritual balm and pilgrim revenue and at long last forcing the heresiarch’s ejection.
Arnold was seized in Tuscany and delivered to the Roman curia for punishment; the record of when or where this occurred is lost, but it is specified in the particular that his corpse was reduced to ashes that were scattered to the Tiber — proof against the prospect of a plebeian graveside shrine.
On June 18 even as his soldiers tamed Rome’s resisting republicans, Barbarossa accepted the crown of the Holy Roman Empire from the hands of Pope Adrian in St. Peter’s Basilica.**
Though Arnold had vanished into the Tiber’s silt, the thirst of his former flock for spiritual succor beyond that which the worldly Vicar of Christ could offer did not die so easily. Succeeding movements — indeed, perhaps, one continuous movement — took up Arnold’s objection to the clergy’s worldly emoluments and his summons to plain virtue. There are the Arnoldists to start with, but a bare few years after Arnold’s death emerge Peter Waldo of the heretical Waldensians, as well as the Cathars in southern France; a generation on finds St. Francis of Assisi, giving way to 13th and 14th centuries thick with oft-suppressed popular reform currents — the Beguines, the Apostolic Brethren, even the Fraticelli who criticized other followers of the aforementioned St. Francis for having already abandoned the poverty of his order.
Later Protestants would claim all these, and Arnold too (Arnold reportedly opposed infant baptism), as their forebears, which is why we have the nice Colosseum’s-shadow picture above from Foxe’s Martyrs’ Mirror. Just how literally one should take that lineage might be a matter of debate, but there is little doubt that Arnold of Brescia’s critique maintained its potency into that era and keeps it still in the modern age — one reason that the incinerated firebrand could still make a powerful subject for a risorgimento writer like Giovannini Battista Niccolini 700 years later.
* Born Nicholas Breakspear, Adrian remains to this day the only English pope ever.
** Popes and Holy Roman Emperors were most usually rivals rather than allies in peninsular politics; indeed, the Roman Republic had issued its own summons to Frederick’s predecessor to come to its aid — and rule Rome with its support — to humble the pretensions of the papacy. Arguably, Barbarossa missed a trick by not availing that potential alliance and instead exalting the pontifex maximus in the manner of his coronation: Barbarossa probably thought so himself often enough during his running rivalry over the ensuing generation with Pope Alexander III.
His home city of Delft in 1528 had flogged him and bored his tongue for his religious scruples, but Joris maintained a strong following among the re-baptized in that city. Many of those followers had occasion to try their faith against the torturers’ tongs, and dozens of arrestees impressively concealed their leader’s whereabouts from his enemies. The man’s own mother was executed in 1539.
He could only duck in and out of Delft — once he had to slip out in a basket innocuously loaded onto a boat* — or any other city. From the 1530s, his was a life on the run in Reformation Europe, where Anabaptists were no saferfrom Protestants than they were fromCatholics.
(Sample dangerous heresy: Joris was a very early adopter of the idea that the devil was best understood as an allegorical figure, not an actual entity.)
With a literal price on his head he wandered to Strassburg, to England, back to the continent in Westphalia and Oldenburg, Strassburg again, then Antwerp, and on to Basel, Switzerland in 1544.
In Basel our hunted man was able to settle in as Brugge and live out the balance of his life, still pouring out voluminous writings in secret — a very impressive retirement considering his notoriety and his distinctive facial hair. Joris was in his fifties when he died: the years of rough living on the run had done him no favors.
Three years after his death, his son-in-law — who disagreed with Joris theologically — exposed his real identity. Basel had nothing left to do about but to visit on his bones the punishment David Joris’s living flesh escaped to the end of his days.
* From Gary Waite’s “Staying Alive: The Methods of Survival as Practiced by an Anabaptist Fugitive, David Joris” in the January 1987 Mennonite Quarterly Review.
On this date in 1624, Coimbra University theologian Antonio Homem was burned at the stake in a Lisbon auto de fe.
Homem came from a “neo-Christian” family, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Considering the compulsion, one could fairly question the piety of such “Christians”; in a great moment in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, the Spanish Inquisition fired up to probe the potential un-Christian activity of neo-Christians.
Neighboring Portugal was just a beat behind Spain in all this; Spain expelled its Jews — the ones who weren’t willing to convert — in 1492, and Portugal did so in 1497. The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1536 and, like Spain’s, took conversos as a primary focus.*
Homem was in his fifties when it became known among his colleagues that he was of New Christian stock, and this circumstance soon attracted unwanted attention — and eventually, his denunciation for allegedly leading a secret Judaic cell. Homem, it is said, “often took the part of priest”; The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity describes a Kippur ceremony from the Inquisition records.
The public, all fasting and dressed in white, used the Christian Bible (the Vulgate) to recite Latin Psalms that expressed a Jewish-Marrano sentiment (Psalms such as “When Israel came out of Egypt,” “On the rivers of Babylon,” and “From the Abyss I called you, O God”). In those ancient Jewish poems the Marranos expressed their own, specific sense of exile and yearning for redemption. A few “priests of the Law of Moses,” replicating a Catholic ceremony, dressed Homem in a long elegant garment and put “a sort of miter” on his head, decorated with golden plaque. There was an altar there, and incense, and painted images of Moses and of a Marrano martyr or saint “who had been … burned as a Jew.”
The inner life of the converso is a great riddle from our distance of time and context. It is immediately tempting to perceive religious martyrs here, people who were forced underground but still kept what they could of the faith of their fathers at risk of life and limb.
Such a reading paradoxically allies us with their persecutors, for it is by the Inquisition’s hand that we have the evidence — and this is a source whose evidence we greet very skeptically when it, for instance, charges conversos with murdering Christian children. Inquisitors all around Europe were after all involved in these very years in scaring up secret witches’ covens to incinerate, and it was not unknown for the deadly judicial apparatus to be borrowed here and there from restraining the minions of Hell in order to service business opportunities, political aspirations, or private grudges of the personal or professional variety. Try asking a present-day academic how easy they’d sleep knowing their colleagues on the tenure committee also had a few buddies in the Holy Inquisition.
Antonio Jose Saraiva’s The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536-1765** contends that most “Judaizing” Christians were just plain Christians — caught up like accused witches and warlocks could be in some specious neighborhood rumor that became a self-fulfilling accusation. “Inevitably,” says Saraiva, “a family quarrel or a commercial intrigue would lead to several series of denunciations, followed by arrests. Arrests led to trials which spiraled into new rounds of arrests and trials.” Saraiva argues that Homem’s recently-exposed Jewish heritage probably just made him a ready target when a commercial dispute of some sort led the Inquisition’s Coimbra tribunal to seize “scores of merchants engaged in the triangular commerce between Brazil, Oporto and Amsterdam.”
Whether Homem really did head a covert cult with 100-plus adherents reading Old Testament verses from the Latin Bible — or whether this was what an inquisitor goaded by Homem’s enemies supposed a secret Jew might do — he was left to rot in prison several years† after his 1619 condemnation while the Inquisition investigated dozens of his alleged adherents. These included other cathedral canons, professors and students at the university, nuns from four nearby convents, and other persons of some stature. (Homem, to his credit, refused to accuse anyone else.)
For our sins of the last years people of quality have been cross-breeding with these perverse Jews to whom I am referring. They became corrupted by their contact with them and have become Jews like they are. Just a few years ago only low-class, trashy Jews were paraded at the autos-da-fe. See what now appears for sentencing in the autos-da-fe and in this very one at which I am preaching: ecclesiastical personnel, friars, nuns, holders of master’s degrees, licentiates, doctors and professors with family connections to the nobility, people only half of New Christian origin, or a quarter, or an eighth, all confessing and convicted of Judaism. (Translated excerpt via Saraiva)
† One of the great (and eventually fatal) inefficiencies of the auto-de-fe system was its tendency to leave its future exhibits to languish for years in prisons before the prescribed spectacle could be properly arranged.
But here in the early 1480s, the terrifying powers of the Holy Office for the Propagation of Faith (the Inquisition’s business-card title) were, well … unexpected.
Don Diego Suson, one of the six put to death this date, was the wealthy patriarch of a marrano family — Jews, who had converted a century prior. The Inquisition’s whole founding spirit was the sense of characters like Torquemada that as such conversions had generally been obtained under duress, the families in question were still secretly maintaining their Semitic rites. That would make them apostates (since they were baptized and supposedly Christian), and it would implicate them in God knows what other malignancy (since they were malignant Jews).
This made it especially dicey for Suson that he was also a rabbi to an underground community of still-practicing “converted” Jews. (Spanish source) Torquemada was on to a real thing here.
Unfortunately his daughter — so the legend says — didn’t quite grasp what the Inquisitors had coming and lightly betrayed the fact to her Christian lover. In no time at all, the guys with the racks and thumbscrews had the terrible family secret in hand.
It’s said that the beautiful (of course) daughter was so riven with grief and shame for the careless destruction of her father that she shut herself up in a convent … and arranged that when she died her guilt-stricken head should be hung up at her former home.
The location of this macabre monument is still marked in Seville today; once known as the Calle de la Muerte, it is now called the Calle Susona.
In reality no advocate could be of material service to the accused, save in the most exceptional cases. The men who organized the Holy Office knew too well what they wanted to leave open any possibilities of which even the shrewdest advocate could take advantage, and it was admitted on all hands as a recognized fact that there was no method of defence save disabling the witnesses for the prosecution. It has been seen that enmity was the only source of disability in a witness, and this had to be mortal — there must have been bloodshed between the parties, or other cause sufficient to induce one to seek the life of the other. If, therefore, the case rested on witnesses of this kind, their testimony had to be rejected and the prosecution fell. As this was the only possible mode of escape, the cruelty of withholding from the prisoner the names of the adverse witnesses becomes doubly conspicuous. He was forced to grope around in the dark and blindly name such persons as he imagined might have a hand in his misfortunes. If he failed to hit upon any who appeared in the case, the evidence against him was conclusive, as far as it went. If he chanced to name some of the witnesses, he was interrogated as to the causes of enmity; the inquisitor examined into the facts of the alleged quarrel, and decided as he saw fit as to the retention or the rejection of their testimony. Conscientious jurists like Gui Foucoix and inquisitors like Eymerich warned their brethren that as the accused had so slender a chance of guessing the sources of evidence, the judge ought to investigate for himself and discard any that seemed to be the product of malice; but there were others who sought rather to deprive the poor wretch of every straw that might postpone his sinking. One device was to ask him, as though casually, at the end of his examination, whether he had any enemies who would so disregard the fear of God as to accuse him falsely, and if, thus taken unawares, he replied in the negative, he debarred himself from any subsequent defence; or the most damaging witness would be selected and the prisoner be asked if he knew him, when a denial would estop him from claiming enmity. It is easy to imagine other tricks by which shrewd and experienced inquisitors could save themselves the trouble of admitting the accused to even the nugatory form of defence to which alone he was entitled. As to allowing him to call witnesses in his favor, except to prove enmity of the accusers, it was never thought of in ordinary cases. By a legal fiction, the inquisitor was supposed to look at both sides of the case, and to take care of the defence as well as of the prosecution. If the accused failed to guess the names of enemies among the witnesses and to disable their testimony, he was condemned.
In England, under the barbarous custom of the peine forte et dure, a prisoner who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty was pressed to death, because the trial could not go on without either confession or defence. Cruel as was this expedient, it was the outcome of a manly sense of justice, which based its procedure on the rule that the worst felon should have a fair opportunity to prove his innocence. Far worse was the system of the Inquisition, which was equally resolved that its culprits should have no such easy method of escape as a refusal to plead. It had no scruples as to proceeding in such cases, and the obstinacy of the accused only simplified matters. The refusal was an act of contumacy, equivalent to disobeying a summons to appear, or it was held to be tantamount to a confession, and the obdurate prisoner was forthwith handed over to the secular arm as an impenitent heretic, fit only for the stake. The use of torture, however, rendered such cases rare.
The enviable simplicity which the inquisitorial process thus assumed in the absence of counsel and of all practical opportunities for defence can perhaps best be illustrated by one or two cases. Thus in the Inquisition of Carcassonne, June 19, 1252, P. Morret is called up and asked if he wishes to defend himself against the matters found in the instructio or indictment against him. He has nothing to allege except that he has enemies, of whom he names five. Apparently he did not happen to guess any of the witnesses, for the case proceeded by reading the evidence to him, after which he is again asked thrice if he has anything further to say. To this he replies in the negative, and the case ends by assigning January 29 for the rendering of sentence. Two years later, in 1254, at Carcassonne, a certain Bernard Pons was more lucky, for he happened to guess aright in naming his wife as an inimical witness, and we have the proceedings of the inquest held to determine whether the enmity was mortal. Three witnesses are examined, all of whom swear that she is a woman of loose character; one deposes that she had been taken in adultery by her husband; another that he had beaten her for it, and the third that he had recently heard her say that she wished her husband dead that she might marry a certain Pug Oler, and that she would willingly become a leper if that would bring it about. This would certainly seem sufficient, but Pons appears nevertheless not to have escaped. So thoroughly hopeless, indeed, was the prospect of any effort at defence, that it frequently was not even attempted, and the accused, like Arnaud Fabri at Carcassonne, August 26, 1252, when asked if he wished a copy of the evidence against him, would despairingly decline it. It was a customary formula in a sentence to state that the convict had been offered opportunity for defence and had not availed himself of it, showing how frequently this was the case.
Felix Platter is our narrator for Guillaume Dalencon’s death at the stake on this date in 1554.
This book portrays the 16th century through the remarkable Platter family.
Platter (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a 16-year-old Swiss student, and we find him on the midpoint of his family’s upward arc in the world. His father, Thomas, had as a child been put out of the house by his impoverished mother and made his way for a time as a beggar; by dint of lifelong struggle and application, he had gained a precarious foothold among the bourgeoisie of Basel. Thomas Platter but had still greater ambitions for his son.
Accordingly, the very genial Felix, who had never before traveled, set out in 1552 on the 400-mile journey to the city of Montpellier in southern France. Young Platter was an energetic diarist, and his impressions of the journey and of Montpellier were published in English as Beloved Son Felix. (That’s how Felix’s father addressed him in letters.) Though the book is out of print, it’s available online at archive.org.
One of its immediately striking features is the omnipresence of danger and death. Platter luckily left Basel just ahead of a plague outbreak, but he nearly lost his life in the frightening Jurthen forest. Taking shelter from the rain there in “a wretched inn” at a squalid hamlet called Mezieres, Platter and his companion found the place full of aggressive Savoyard peasants, and having no choice but to stay overnight they blockaded their door with a bed and kept a waking vigil all night with weapons at the ready. Three hours before dawn, they crept through the snoring mass of drunken thugs and slipped away, and a good thing it was too: the boys’ French guide told them as they set out that he had overheard the brutes plotting to murder the hapless travelers that morning.
The bandit “Long Peter”, who was then active in this forest, was eventually caught and executed on the breaking-wheel in Berne. Only in his old age did Platter learn that the brigand’s confession included a declaration that he had planned, but failed, to kill some students in Mezieres.
They had escaped by the skin of the teeth, but seemingly every page of the journal finds others who succumbed to the many paths to abrupt death the 16th century had to offer. (Not a few of them are corpses that Platter stole from their graves with fellow-students in order to anatomize.) This was, too, the age of spectacular public execution: the travelers’ road on October 18th, 1552, passed numerous “bodies of men hanging from the trees” and as darkness fell Platter gave himself a fright when he nearly rode into one. By the 20th they approached Lyons, where they beheld “several men hanging from gibbets and others exposed on wheels.” As they entered that city, they passed a Protestant “being led out to be burnt outside the gate; he was in his shirt with a truss of straw fastened on his back.”
Platter makes no further comment on this sight, but it must have touched him with pity — if not fear. Platter had been born in Basel about the same time that John Calvin, fleeing French persecution, arrived there; it was in Basel that Calvin first published his seminal theology Institutio Christianae religionis. To this faith, predominant in Swiss cities but illicit in France, Platter too subscribed. The French Wars of Religion loomed around the corner in the next decade, and Montpellier would become a Huguenot stronghold during that conflict. While Platter was there, an uneasy peace prevailed between growing ranks of Protestants and the official religion. The University of Montpellier attracted numerous Protestant students (the city lay in the heart of the Languedoc, a center of resistance to the papacy from longbefore the Reformation), and Platter’s own mentor, the brilliant doctor Guillaume Rondelet, had ambiguous religious affiliations.
Day to day, these students kept their heads down in matters religious and went about mostly unmolested. Taking a vocal stand on theological controversies here would be to embark upon a different path than Thomas Platter had in mind for his son, for heretics were among the many executions Platter recounts in his journal.
Guillaume Dalencon, the boy learned, was a former priest of Mountauban, “unfrocked on the 16th of October” when it was discovered that he had gone Protestant and brought back heretical books from Geneva. “Dressed in his priestly robes, he was brought on to a platform before the bishop” for his defrocking. “After protracted ceremonies in Latin he was divested of his chasuble and the rest, and given secular clothing. Hishead was then shaved, and two fingers were cut off his hand. After this he was delivered to the civil justice and once more thrown into prison.” The secular power took it from there.
On the 6th of January Guillaume Dalencon, unfrocked eleven weeks before, and since then held in prison, was condemned to death. In the afternoon a man carried him on his shoulders out of the town towards the monastery, to the place of execution. A pyre had already been built there. Beind the condemned man two other prisoners walked, one a cloth shearer, in his shirt, with a bale of straw fastened to his back; the other of good appearance, and well dressed. Both of them had recanted and denied the true faith. [i.e., both had recanted Protestantism under the threat of execution. -ed.] Dalencon, however, sang psalms all the way. At he pyre, he sat down on a log and himself took off his clothes as far as his shirt, and arranged them beside him tidily, as though he would be putting them on again. He exhorted the other two, who were about to apostasize, so touchingly that the sweat stood out in great drops, as big as peas, on the forehead of the man in the shirt. When the monks, formed in a curve around him, and mounted on horseback, told him that it was time to make an end, he leapt joyously on to the pyre and sat down at the foot of the stake that rose in the center of it. This stake was pierced by a hole, through which ran a cord with a running noose. The executioner put the cord round Dalencon’s neck, tied his hands across his breast, and placed near him the religious books he had brought from Geneva. Then he set fire to the pyre. The martyr remained seated, calm and resigned, with his eyes raised towards heaven. When the fire reached the books the executioner pulled on the cord and strangled him; his head dropped to his breast and he made no further movement. Little by little the body was reduced to cinders. His two companions stood at the foot of the fire, where they were made to watch his sufferings, and could feel the heat of the flame.
After the execution they were both taken to the Hotel de Ville. Near there, in front of the church of Notre-Dame, a platform had been set up, with a statue of the Virgin on it, before which they would have to recant. The crowd had to wait for them for a long time. At last only one of the two men was brought out. The cloth shearer had refused to abjure and demanded that he should be executed without mercy for having failed his beliefs. He was therefore taken back to prison. The other man, who seemed to be a man of substance, was placed on his knees before the statue of the Virgin, with a lighted candle in his hand. A clerk read out various charges, to which he had to reply. In this way he saved his life, but he was sent to the galleys and there put in chains.
On the following Tuesday, the 9th of January, it was the turn of the cloth shearer again. He was strangled and burnt as the priest had been. He showed great courage, and no less repentance for having come so near to denying his faith. It had rained on that day, and the fire would not burn. The victim, who was not completely strangled, endured great suffering. At last the monks of the neighbouring monastery brought some straw, and the executioner took it and sent for oil of terebinth from my master’s pharmacy to ignite the fire. Afterwards I reproached the assistants who had given it to him, but they advised me to hold my tongue, for the same fate could befall me also, as a heretic.
During these affairs an extraordinary phenomenon occurred. On the 6th of January, immediately after the execution of the first man, it began to thunder violently. I heard it plainly and so did many others with me; but the priests deried us and said that it was the smoke from the burning of heretics that produced that effect.
The first documented executions of heretics in medieval Europe occurred on this date in 1022 in Orleans, when 13 or so were burned at Orleans.
The French king at this time was Robert II, known to history as “Robert the Pious” because he was so violent with the sub-orthodox.* In addition to this date’s burnings, he’s noted for inciting anti-Jewish persecutions that in some places drove local Jewry to drown themselves fleeing pogroms.
For those within Christianity, starting now, Robert’s Piety meant much tighter scrutiny of potentially deviant doctrines.
Now, these were not the first-ever Christian-on-Christian heresy executions in the West. But so far as is known they marked a revival of the practice after some six centuries of disuse — dating back to the Roman Empire when rival strains of early Christianity fought things out. That was ancient history, and not only literally; by this point in the Middle Ages, “heresy” was not nearly so dangerous a charge among Christian disputants as it would come to be after 1022.
The period’s chronicles paint the early eleventh century as a time of rising heresies, or rather rising fear of heresies. It’s an idea that would have a blazingly bright future.
What’s remarkable is that this tradition was resuscitated not for the exemplary punishment an itinerant band of outsiders or some marginal, radical sect, but for canons of the Orleans Cathedral — “certain clerks, raised from childhood in holy religion and educated as deeply in sacred as in profane letters … Some were priests, some deacons, some sub-deacons. The chief among them were Stephen and Lisois.” Their positions situate them as elite, establishment characters.
The “heresy” in question has in the past been speculatively associated with the gnostic Bogomils on the strength of one account that describes them as “Manicheans”. It hints at a tantalizing underground history of fugitive Bulgarian mystics. Unfortunately the author of that account was an epic swindler, and was not a firsthand witness to the trial. Besides, thanks to St. Augustine, “Manicheaism” was the medieval byword for heresy of any sort. There’s no concrete reason to ascribe Manicheaism to those burnt this day.
According to R.I. Moore‘s engaging The War On Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe** (from which all quotes in this post derive), it was precisely because of their high ranks that the Orleans “heretics” were targeted — and so far from being the purveyors of some devilish doctrine, they were basically the victims of a political purge for which “heresy” was the stalking-horse.
Moore’s argument, in fine, is that King Robert, who was the scion of the new and uncertain Capetian dynasty, was in a tight spot vis-a-vis his powerful neighbors. He had previously married one Bertha, the mother of one of the Count of Blois; Robert, however, put her aside in favor of Constance, kin to the Count of Anjou. However, he had flip-flopped a couple of times between these two spouses, and the domestic relations mirrored the king’s political maneuvering opposite Blois, Anjou, and Normandy, where the trial was held. Richard II, Duke of Normandy,† was a Blois ally; it was Richard’s uncle who claimed to have busted the heresy by infiltrating the group.
The heresy charge, Moore argues, “was a manoeuvre by the supporters of the Blois faction, still hoping for the restoration of Bertha, against those of Constance and her Angevin connections.” They were able to attack Constance’s circle via her spiritual (and temporal) allies, and they were able to force the deposition of the Constance-friendly Archbishop of Orleans in favor of their own candidate.
It was a move very dangerous to the king. He was able to counter it only by dissociating himself from his former favourites at a hastily summoned trial. As Paul of St Père described it, ‘The king and Queen Constance had come to Orléans, as Harfast had asked, with a number of bishops, and at his suggestion the whole wicked gang was arrested by royal officials at the house where they met, and brought before the king and queen and an assembly of clerks and bishops at the church of Ste Croix.’
It was, Moore says, “like a kangaroo court.” Stephen had been Queen Constance’s own confessor; one later chronicler, exaggerating events he did not witness, claimed that Constance actually struck out Stephen’s eye with her staff as the condemned were hauled out of their home church for the stakes.
We have no way to know if the representation of the prelates’ beliefs that comes down to us bears any relationship to their real thoughts. If so, the grounds upon which this “wicked gang” were targeted does indeed read like heresy: denying the Virgin birth, the Resurrection, the efficacy of baptism, and transubstantiation. Certainly a rap sheet like that would be enough to get a body burned in the heretic-hunting centuries to come.
Moore speculates that these “heretics” were basically neoplatonists who had some off-script ideas or experiences and got demagogued by Bertha’s people on that basis. The disdainfully condescending supposed riposte of the condemned certainly sounds calculated to put their persecutors in their place.
You may tell all this to those who are learned in earthly things, who believe the fabrications which men have written on the skins of animals. We believe in the law written within us by the Holy Spirit, and hold everything else, except what we have learned from God, the maker of all things, empty, unnecessary and remote from divinity. Therefore bring an end to your speeches and do with us what you will. Now we see our king reigning in heaven. He will raise us to his right hand in triumph and give us eternal joy.
Being heretics, of course, they didn’t get to drop the mic with their noble defiance ringing from the page.
when the flames began to burn them savagely they cried out as loudly as they could from the middle of the fire that they had been terribly deceived by the trickery of the devil, that the views they had recently held of God and Lord of All were bad, and that as punishment for their blasphemy against Him they would endure much torment in this world and more in that to come. Many of those standing near by heard this, and moved by pity and humanity, approached, seeking to pluck them from the furnace even when half roasted. But they could do nothing, for the avenging flames consumed them, and reduced them straight away to dust.
For more on the primary(ish) sources that document this event and their various problem points, see this pdf.
* Notwithstanding his piety, Robert had actually been excommunicated for his marriage to Bertha, who was his cousin.
These were the casualties that marked the end of the Zhidovstvuyushchiye, a little-known late 15th century circle of “Judaizers” or “Jewish-thinking people.” We know them mostly through their enemies so the precise nature of their beliefs is hard to pin down, but they don’t look like actual converts. “There was nothing Jewish about them,” Philip Longworth contends. “‘Judaizer’ was simply a term of ideological abuse, like ‘Trotskyist’ in the 1930s.”
According to this thesis by Cambridge Slavonic lecturer Jana Howlett, the term itself dates to a Byzantine (meaning not labyrinthine, but historically related to Byzantium) typology of heresies and didn’t necessarily have any direct reference to practicing Judaism even within its own context. It just meant that they’d strayed from orthodoxy into heresy.
Be that as it may, they’re recorded to history as “the Judaizers”. Exactly what these so-called Judaizers thought and where to situate them among the various factions and interests within Russian society at the time has long been a matter of dispute among scholars of the period. (Again, see the Howlett paper for a survey of the historiography — at least, as it stood in the 1970s.)
There’s a putative Hebrew association in the form of a scholar named “Skhariya the Jew” whom Mikhail Olelkovich brought to Novgorod. “Skhariya” — or Zacharia ben Aharon ha-Cohen — translated a variety of Hebrew astronomy and philosophy texts into Russian, and seems to have contributed to a burgeoning intellectual current. We might perhaps consider this ferment in the vein of western Europe’s humanism or its abortive pre-Protestant “heretical” religious innovations, or that of the contemporaneous Orthodox conflict between “Non-Possessors” and “Possessors” — respectively, those rejecting or criticizing institutional monasticism and its enormously wealthy estates, and those defending same. Some of the Judaizers’ attributed beliefs, such as anti-trinitarianism and privileging direct study and individual interpretation of the Biblical text, hint at the coming wave of Protestantism; others, such as renouncing the divinity of Christ and immortality of the human soul, are more radical still.
These people have not left us their own voices, and even their persecutors have barely done better, so who really believed what remains at bottom conjectural.
The recently independent Novgorod had in the 1470s been taken over by the state-building Ivan III. Its new prelate Archbishop Gennady,* noted for forcing Moscow-friendly reforms onto the Novgorod clergy, thrust Judaizers into the ecclesiastical cross-hairs by declaring the discovery of the heresy and demanding church councils “not to debate them, but to burn them.” Such councils were held, with executions of Novgorod heretics following, in 1488 and 1490. Considering the city’s political situation one has to entertain the possibility that doctrinal outrages were exaggerated or concocted as pretext for punishing people whose real sin was resisting Gennady.
Even if the heretics themselves are obscure to us, one can imagine the interests here: churchmen keeping the doctrinal line, statesmen keeping their new conquest in line.
More strangely, the Judaizers charge re-emerged years later not in Novgorod but in Moscow. The facts, as usual here, are open to interpretation: were these two different circles, or were they connected? Was there anything plausibly heretical, or was it just recycling the “Trotskyism” charge?
No less a person than Metropolitan Zosimus, who coined the famous conception of Moscow as the “Third Rome” (inheriting from the second Rome, Constantinople, lately fallen into Turkish hands) was hounded out of his position as a heretic in 1494. Zosimus died before any trial, so he doesn’t get a blog entry. Not all were so fortunate.
Yet another council reconvened in 1503-04. It was headed by a very aged Ivan III with his son and heir Vasily and Zosimus’s successor Metropolitan Simon.
The Russian polity had changed in the meanwhile. Moscow fought a war against Lithuania in 1492-94, seized lands as a result, and negotiated an “eternal peace” that lasted all of six years … when Moscow went back to war and gobbled up more Lithuanian land. Lithuania had a predominantly Orthodox population living under a Catholic monarchy, and it was under the banner of defending the faithful that Ivan’s armies advanced.
Fyodor Kuritsyn had long been one of Ivan’s trusted diplomats; indeed, he had negotiated the end of hostilities with Lithuania in 1494. He was also supposed to have nursed a longstanding interest in dangerous heterodox philosophies and had been mentioned as a possible heretic in the 1490 proceedings. Ivan protected him at that time.
Fyodor disappears from the written record in about 1503; his fate is unknown. But Fyodor and his brother Ivan Volk Kuritsyn both appear to have been associated with Ivan’s daughter-in-law Elena of Moldavia. Elena was the mother of the previous official heir Dmitry — who had been surprisingly disinherited and clapped in prison in 1502 to make way for Vasily, Ivan’s son by his second wife. Elena’s fall might have exposed the Kuritsyns to political blowback, and whether it was actually “heresy”-related or not, the old heretical whiff from the previous generation’s investigations would have been there for the taking.
Hung up in cages and burnt along with Ivan Volk Kuritsyn were (at least) two other men: Ivan Maksimov, who like the Kuritsyns was associated with Elena of Moldavia; and, Dmitry Konoplev, who like the Kuritsyns was involved in the diplomatic service. There’s just enough to hear the grinding of unseen whetstones in the bowels of the Kremlin, but not quite enough to know whose knives are being sharpened. Still others were burned on the same occasion in Novgorod.
“The real reasons for the execution of Ivan Volk Kuritsyn, Ivan Maksimov and Dmitry Konoplev in 1504 cannot be ascertained,” Howlett concludes. “It can be said, however, that there is little reason to accept the view that they were executed for heresy, Judaizing or otherwise.”
Ivan III died the next year at the age of 65.
* Gennady is today an Orthodox saint notable for composing the first complete Biblical codex in Old Church Slavonic — the Gennady Bible.