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.
Schiemer abandoned a Franciscan monastery, preferring to set his table with honest labor as a tailor, and to succor his soul with that that new heresy minting martyrs in northern Europe.
In 1527, Schiemer was both a vigorous missionary and an eloquent proponent of the pacificism for which the sect would eventually become known. In Schiemer’s time, before the catastrophe of Münster’s Anabaptist theocracy, this was quite naturally a hot dispute among the persecuted adherents trying to determine how to make their way in a world where they were considered heretical even by the other heretics: turn the other cheek, or come like Christ with a sword?
Schiemer’s answer was for the true Christian to give himself to the ordeal of Christ’s cross.
[The Holy Spirit] teaches no one, however, unless he despaired of all human comforting and wisdom first. He does not comfort or strengthen anyone unless he feels a horror and turns away from all comforting and power of man. This is why the Lord says, “Do not be called masters.” But this master, Christ, does not accept anyone as His pupil or disciple, unless he renounces and hates everything that he has, and follows Him and carries his cross daily. In doing this, one has to trust in the Lord’s comforting and keep still, as the Scriptures say in many passages, particularly in the Psalms, the Prophets, most of all in Isaiah and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
The strength of all Christians consists in keeping still, by not forsaking the words of the Lord so quickly, by not losing courage so soon, but by being patient, waiting for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of the greatest desolation and misery. This is true weakness of which the Scriptures speak, in particular Paul when he says, “For when I am weak I am strong.”
He also says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” That is what Christ means when He says, “A little while and you will see me no more, again a little while and you will see me.” And when the apostles asked Him what He meant by this, He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn in to joy … Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.
It is often suspected that Schiemer’s execution on January 14 might have inspired the Rattenberg grandee Pilgram Marpeck to convert — for he was dismissed from a post as a mining magistrate on January 28, and thereafter became an influential, itinerant Anabaptist “wandering citizen of heaven” crisscrossing southern Germany.
Autos were also enacted for benefit of the subjects in the hinterlands of Spain’s global empire — especially since lapsed Jewish conversos, who were one of the principal interests of the Spanish Inquisition, were known to seek safety in the periphery.
All three were the playthings of Inquisitor Cristóval Sánchez Calderón — whose prosecutor’s office, then as now, enjoyed a wide scope for mischief.
According to the public domain The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies, one distant predecessor in the post had “aroused indignation” with his “arbitrary and scandalous conduct”: planting spies in the palace, and brazenly taking concubines. According to a report submitted to Toledo, this bygone inquisitor
was in the habit of walking the streets at night dressed as a cavalier, brawling and fighting, and on one Holy Thursday he supped with a number of strumpets … He was involved in perpetual contests with the [viceregal] judges and royal officials, whom he treated without ceremony or justice, interfering with their functions, of which a number of cases were given which, if not exaggerated, show that the land was at the mercy of the inquisitorial officials, who murdered, robbed and took women at their pleasure, and any who complained were fined or kept chained in prison.
But Inquisitors liked to keep busy with the pleasures of destroying the flesh, too.
Francisco de Ulloa, a Jesuit mystic “of little education but of high spiritual gifts,” had gained a small following who revered him as a saint by the time he died in 1709. For the Inquisition he looked like a possible exponent of heretical quietism, whose founder had been forcibly shushed by the Inquisition in the late 17th century. A half-mad expelled Jesuit named Juan Francisco Velazco was caught up in the same charge, and although he died in prison in 1719 the legal machinery proceeded against both he and Ulloa just the same — albeit without any great hurry.
Meanwhile, in 1726, a beautiful (multiple sources of the time dwell on this characteristic) noblewoman named Ana de Castro was turned in by a lover as a possible Judaizer. Her case along with those of the late Jesuit heretics languished for a decade for unclear reasons,* but when Calderon (who only became Inquisitor in 1730) turned his attention to her, she was tortured on three different occasions — treatment that her sex ought to have exempted her from.
Apparently (pdf) one basis of the case against her was her continued recourse to Jewish rituals learned in her childhood, whose observance she thought was immaterial to Christianity — things like Jewish mourning practices. But if the subsequent reports of the skeptical chief Peruvian inquisitor Mateo de Amusquibar are to be believed, Calderon was determined to send her to the stake in order to gratify his auto with a live human sacrifice. (Absent Castro, the auto’s apex sentences would have been mere floggings of various misbelievers and polygamists.)
In doing so, Calderon ignored an explicit directive straight from the mother country not to execute her; he may even have ignored Castro’s own attempt to claim the sanctuary of penitence — something her situation should have allowed her.
Amusquibar reported that the day before the auto she sought two audiences; no record was made of what occurred, but there could be no doubt that she confessed more than enough to entitle her to reconciliation; even if she did not entirely satisfy the evidence, what more could be expected of a poor woman in such agitation of mind…?
Amusquiar … states that there was no record that she was notified of the sentence; that the book of votes id not contain such a sentence and that, even if there was one, it was invalid in consequence of the absence of the Ordinary; moreover that, in spite of her confessions, no new consulta de fe was summoned to consider them. Altogether, if Amusquibar is to be believed, it was a cold-blooded judicial murder contrived, like the burning of Ulloa in effigy, for the purpose of rendering more impressive the spectacle of the auto de fe.
If the execution of the “Fourteen of Meaux” falls far short of the massacre of the Vaudois as regards the number of its victims, its strictly judicial character makes it more instructive as an example of the treatment of heretics.
In the year 1546 the Reformers of Meaux organised themselves into a Church after the pattern of that set up by the French refugees at Strassburg eight years before. They chose as their first pastor, a wool-carder, named Pierre Leclerc, a brother of the man who was burnt at Metz.
Their number increased under his ministry, and the matter soon came to the ear of the authorities. On September 8 a sudden descent was made on the congregation, and sixty persons were arrested and sent to Paris to be tried by the Parliament. Their greatest crime was that they had celebrated the Holy Communion.
On October 4 sentence was pronounced. Fourteen were sentenced to be tortured and burned, five to be flogged and banished; ten, all women, were set free, while the remainder were to undergo graduated forms of penance. The sentences were carried out at Meaux on October 7.*
Etienne Mangin, in whose house the services had always been held, and Leclerc, were carried to the stake on hurdles, the rest on tumbrils. They had all previously undergone what was known as “extraordinary” torture, and all had refused to reveal the names of other Reformers at Meaux. At the stake six yielded so far as to confess to a priest, thereby escaping the penalty of having their tongues cut out; the others who remained firm suffered this additional barbarity, which it was the custom to inflict on those who died impenitent. The congregation at Meaux was thus broken up, but the survivors carried the evangelical seeds to other towns in France.
The “Fourteen of Meaux” were not the only victims of the year 1546. Five others had already been burned at Paris, including the scholar and printer Etienne Dolet. Others were burned in the provinces. The next year, 1547, opened with fresh executions; and on January 14 the mutilation of a statue of the Virgin was expiated by a solemn procession at Paris.
Such was the policy which Francis I began definitely to adopt towards Protestantism after the affair of the placards, and which he put into active execution during the last seven years of his life. How far was it successful? As we have seen, it drove a large number of persons into exile; and these consisted chiefly of the better-born and better-educated among the Reformers.
It intimidated many into outward conformity with the Church. It prevented all public exercise of the Reformed religion, and all open propaganda. Religious meetings were held by night or in cellars; doctrines were spread by secret house-to-house teaching, or by treatises concealed amongst the wares of pretended pedlars.
On the other hand the frequent executions helped to spread the evil they were meant to repress. The firm courage with which the victims faced death did as much as the purity of their lives to convert others to their faith. Moreover, the influence of the exiles reacted on their old homes. From Geneva to the other Swiss centres of Protestantism missionaries came to evangelise France.
* There are some sources that aver Oct. 6, and it appears that the primary documents are not explicit on the exact date of execution. This Proceedings of the Huguenot Society collects a great deal of information about the Fourteen of Meaux and settles on Thursday, Oct. 7 (see fn 54, page 101 and fn 64, page 103) — in part because the Parlement also demanded that the heretical house be razed, with Catholic services to be held there every Thursday.
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.
On this date in 1567, four Anabaptists were burned at Antwerp as heretics.
Their sect furnishes many martyrs for these pages. That Christian Langedul, Cornelis Claess, Mattheus de Vick, and Hans Symons were sniffed out and clapped in prison for their faith is no surprise for the time and place they lived, and that they withstood torture and went joyfully to the stake is the script demanded for historical remembrance.
Letters in the hands of three of these men (all save Mattheus de Vick) were retained by their comrades and eventually published in the Martyrs Mirror chronicle of Protestant (especially Anabaptist) martyrs during the Reformation.
Hans Symons and Cornelis Claess wrote words of exhortation to faithfulness and steadfastness. Christian Langedul’s letter, however, catches our eye for its very direct exposition of the nature of the torture that he and the others were put to. In a letter to his wife, Langedul doesn’t sugar-coat his situation in the least — and she must have known full well what their arrest would entail. Centuries later, it’s a discomfiting first-person account of what a man suffers on and after the rack.
we were all examined today before the margrave, and of us six we four freely confessed our faith, for it had to be; either the soul or the body had to be sacrificed; the Lord had to be either forsaken or confessed. Thus, Hans Symons, Cornelis the shoemaker, and Mattheus, confessed as also, I unworthy one, and I hope to keep it to the praise of the Lord, but not through my own power or merit, but by the power and grace of God; for through weakness we are made strong, this I must confess. Eph. 1:19; II Cor. 12:9.
Hence be of good cheer in the Lord, and do the best with the children, of whom I dare not think, for they lie heavily on my heart.
When the margrave examined me today, concerning my faith he asked me about nothing but baptism, and I held out against him as long as I could, by saying that I knew but one baptism according to the Gospel and Christ’s own command and injunction; but his constant question was, “Say yes or no, whether you are satisfied with the baptism you received in your infancy, or whether you have received another?”
I replied that I knew nothing to say about infant baptism; but this did not suffice, I had to confess that I had received another, and thus I confessed it, the Lord be praised, and I have not regretted it yet, and I hope that I shall not regret it unto the end, for it is the truth.
Know, my beloved wife, that yesterday about three o’clock I had written you a letter, which I now send you. I could not send it then, for soon afterwards the margrave came here to torture us; hence I was not able to send the letter, for then all four of us were one after another severely tortured, so that we have now but little inclination to write; however, we cannot forbear, we must write to you.
Cornelis the shoemaker was the first; then came Hans Symons, with whom also the captain went down into the torture chamber. Then thought I, “We shall have a hard time of it; to satisfy him.” My turn came next — you may think how I felt. When I came to the rack, where were the lords, the order was, “Strip yourself, or tell where you live.” I looked distressed, as may be imagined. I then said, “Will you ask me nothing further then?” They were silent.
Then thought I, “I see well enough what it means, it would not exempt me from the torture,” hence I undressed, and fully resigned myself to the Lord: to die. Then they racked me dreadfully, twisting off two cords, I believe, on my thighs and shins; they stretched me out, and poured much water into my body and my nose, and also on my heart. Then they released me, and asked, “Will you not yet tell it?” They entreated me, and again they spoke harshly to me; but I did not open my mouth, so firmly had God closed it.
Then they said, “Go at him again, and this with a vengeance.” This they also did, and cried, “Go on, go on, stretch him another foot.” Then thought I, “You can only kill me.” And thus stretched out, with cords twisted around my head, chin, thighs, and shins, they left me lie, and said, “Tell, tell.” … Again I was asked, “Will you not tell it?” I did not open my mouth. Then they said, “Tell us where you live; your wife and children, at all events, are all gone away.” In short, I said not a word.”What a dreadful thing,” they said. Thus the Lord kept my lips, so that I did not open them; and they released me, when they had long tried to make me speak.
Thereupon two of them, the executioner and his assistant, bore me from the rack. Think how they dealt with us, and how we felt, and still feel. Then they half carried, half dragged me from the torture chamber up into the jailer’s room, where was a good fire of oak wood. There they, once or twice, gave me some Rhenish wine to drink, which revived me in a measure. And when I had warmed myself somewhat, they again half dragged me up over the porter’s room. There they had such commiseration for me; they gave me wine again; they gave me spices, and of everything you had sent me, all of which rendered me very good service. They had wine brought and helped me to bed. But the sheets were very coarse, and greatly hurt my shins and thighs; however, soon afterwards the sheets and pillow you sent me arrived, and there were also two or three pocket handkerchiefs. They then covered me with the sheets, which came very convenient to me, as did also the spices. Had the sheets not come, I know not how I should have passed the night; but so I slept tolerably well. But I am hardly able to stand yet, and the lower part of my legs is as though they were dead from racking; however, it is all well, as I trust by the grace of the Lord.
After me Mattheus was tortured; he named his house and the street in which we live, and said it was in a gate; however, I am of the opinion that there are no longer any gates in that street. Hence move away altogether, if you have not done so yet; for I think the lord will find his way there. Let therefore no one who stands in any danger go into the house. He also named R. T.’s house, and the street where F. V. St. lives. Do herein immediately the best you can. He is very sorry for it.
I wrote you yesterday that I hoped to write to you during the day, but I could not do it; Mattheus and I lay in bed until two o’clock, so greatly were we afraid, because the margrave came here to torture Cornelis again, and we feared that we should also be tortured a second time, of which we had a great dread, more than of death, for it is an excruciating pain. Cornelis was tortured and scourged to such a degree the second time, that three men had to carry him up, and they say that he could scarcely move a member, except his tongue. He sent word to us, that if they come again it is his opinion it will finish him. Thus the Margrave did not come yesterday, but we expect him today again; may the Lord help us, for it is a horrible pain.
On this date in 1430, the Breton visionary La Pierronne was handed over to the secular authorities and burnt for blasphemy.
Not much is known of La Pierronne, save that she was a companion and follower of Joan of Arc — one of several women, who all shared Joan’s confessor, an itinerant monk known as Friar Richard. (Not much is known of him, either.)
La Pierronne was captured by the English at Corbeil in the spring of 1430, along with a younger companion whose name is not known. Rumor had it that she and Joan had both taken communion multiple times the previous Christmas, which was an irregular activity but not technically an outlawed one.
Still, cavalier behavior with the Host plus a surfeit of fealty to the Maid put our seer squarely in the sights of the Grand Inquisitor Jean Graverent. It was a preview of the sort of interrogation Joan herself would soon face.*
Like Joan of Arc, La Pierronne maintained that God spoke to her — and not only spiritually but in the shape of a physical apparition. This was clear heresy in the Church’s eyes — a direct ticket to the fire in the absence of speedy abjuration.
On the third of September, both women were presented with their options in the form of a sermon presented in the presence of the stakes that would otherwise receive them. Joan herself would face this test of faith, and would fail it on her first encounter. Here, the younger woman recanted — but La Pierronne held to her visions at the cost of her life.
Two women, who about half a year before had been captured at Corbeil and brought to Paris, had a sermon preached over them in the court before Notre Dame. The elder of these was Pierronne, and she was from Bretagne speaking Breton. She asserted and maintained that dame Joan (the Maid), who fought for the Armagnacs, was a good woman, and that what she did was well done and according to God.
Also she admitted having received the precious Body of our Lord twice in one day. Also she asserted and swore that God often appeared to her in human form, and spoke to her as one friend speaks to another, and that the last time she had seen Him, He was clad in a long white robe with a crimson doublet under it; which is nothing short of blasphemy. And she would never retract this statement that she often sees God clothed in this form, for the which, on this same day, she was sentenced to be burned, and so it was done and she died on the Sunday named persisting in this assertion, but the other woman was set at liberty at the same time.
A horrible intra-Christian auto de fe in the Calabrian town Montalto marred this date in 1561.
The pre-Reformation Waldensian sect, dating back to the 12th century, managed to survive Catholic persecution in the hills and valleys of northwest Italy’s Piedmont — but not only there. Waldensians partook of the spiritual movements that emerged throughout Europe in this period challenging Church domination.
The Waldensians are named for Peter Waldo, a Lyons merchant who translated the Bible into the vernacular so that common people could better adhere to it; one of their first appellations, alluding to their creed of voluntary poverty, was “the Poor of Lyons”. Others professed like notions, and Rome viewed them as part of a common heresy — as Pope Lucius III decreed in anathematizing the whole lot in 1184:
In order to eradicate the wickedness of various heresies that have begun to manifest themselves in many countries throughout the whole world, the power of ecclesiastical discipline must be called into requisition. Therefore … [we] set ourselves against the heretics, who from various errors have received various names, and by apostolical authority, through this our constitution, have condemned all heresies by whatever name they may be called. First, the Catharists, and the Patarini, and those who falsely and fictitiously call themselves Humiliati or Poor Men of Lyons; as well as the Passaginians, Josephists, Arnoldists; all these we lay under an everlasting curse.
As heavily as these movements and their cousins, offshoots, imitators, and successors were pressed by the authorities in the subsequent years, they were never fully extirpated. The Waldensians, in the end, survived by keeping their heads down: in their defensible mountainous haven in the Piedmont, and in an offshoot community of Piedmont refugees that settled in Calabria, the rural toe of Italy’s boot where towns like Guardia Piemontese still reflect in their names the cross-regional influence.* For generations before Luther, these exiles made their way with security by obscurity, participating superficially as Catholics while privately maintaining their outlaw doctrine.
With the onset of the Protestant Reformation, these heretical enclaves could no longer be ignored and drew renewed persecution. Conversely (and this surely cemented the end of the look-the-other-way policy) reformers and Waldensians recognized common identity and common interests between the dissident communities; the Calabrian Waldenses sought and received missionaries from Calvinist Geneva.
Taking a very dim view of a hellbound heresiarch establising a toehold in its very own boot, Rome — and specifically the cardinal who would soon become the Counter-Reformation stalwart Pope Pius V — dispatched inquisitors backed by armed men to uproot these Poor of Lyons. As their targets were isolated from any store of aid or support, Rome’s agents had a wide latitude to treat them all with heedless brutality. After all, how many divisions did the Calabrian Waldensians have?
In June of 1561, after the heretics had defied an order to start attending mass daily, troops began invading the Waldensian villages. Guardia Piemontese, mentioned earlier, was assaled on June 5; one of the town’s entrances is still named Porta del Sangue, Gate of Blood, for the gore that was supposed to have flowed through it on this infamous day.
Waldensian prisoners from Guardia and elsewhere were hauled to nearby Montalto Uffugo to undergo the rough hospitality of the Inquisition. A Catholic servant to one of the lords tasked with effecting this persecution wrote with horror about watching the culmination of that Passion for 88 Waldensians on June 11.
Most illustrious sir, I have now to inform you of the dreadful justice which began to be executed on these Lutherans early this morning, being the 11th of June.
And, to tell you the truth, I can compare it to nothing but the slaughter of so many sheep. They were all shut up in one house as in a sheep-fold.
The executioner went, and bringing out one of them, covered his face with a napkin, or benda, as we call it, led him out to a field near the house, and causing him to kneel down, cut his throat with a knife. Then, taking off the bloody napkin, he went and brought out another, whom he put to death after the same manner.
In this way the whole number, amounting to eighty-eight men, were butchered. I leave you to figure to yourself the lamentable spectacle, for I can scarcely refrain from tears while I write; nor was there any person, after witnessing the execution of one, could stand to look on a second.
The meekness and patience with which they went to martyrdom and death are incredible.
Some of them at their death professed themselves of the same faith with us, but the greater part died in their cursed obstinacy. All the old met their death with cheerfulness, but the young exhibited symptoms of fear.
I still shudder while I think of the executioner with the bloody knife in his teeth, the dripping napkin in his hand, and his arms besmeared with gore, going to the house, and taking out one victim after another, just as a butcher does the sheep which he means to kill.
This was not the end of it. The Archbishop of Reggio reported deploying the hacked-up remains like Spartacus’s crucified followers, “hanged on the road from Murano to Cosenza, along 46 miles, to make a frightening spectacle to all who pass by.” (Source) Over the months to come, numerous others would go to the stake, or if “lucky” the galleys.
Whatever remnant survived was laid under heavy communal punishment: “that all should wear the yellow habitello with the red cross; that all should hear mass every day … that for twenty-five years there should be no intermarriage between [Waldensians]; that all communication with Piedmont and Geneva should cease.” One can still find in Guardia the inward-looking spioncini, peepholes, that Waldensians were forced to install on their doors for the more convenient monitoring of their behavior behind closed doors.
* The emigre Waldensians brought their tongue, Occitan, with them, and a linguistic
Here’s a Guardia Piemontese Occitan speaker describing the slaughter of the Waldensians:
“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
— His words on being chained to the stake.
Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”
The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.
An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.
So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.
But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.
When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.
Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.
On this date in 1791, the Inquisition in Rome condemned magician Alessandro Cagliostro to death — a sentence immediately commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life, which turned out to be only four more years.
Cagliostro’s rich career as European courts’ thaumaturge of choice might have been decreed by the stars right down to his pitch-perfectly sinister moniker. Is this the shadowy diabolist whom the title character of in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is meant to evoke?
In fact, his birth name was Giuseppe Balsamo.
Naughty by nature from the time of his youthful expulsion from the Order of St. John, Balsamo — the hobgoblin familiar haunting the adult prophet’s cimmerian shadows — hailed originally from a penniless Sicilian family. (Though Cagliostro claimed for himself a suitably exotic childhood in Arabia and Egypt)
What he wanted in native wealth he more than made up for in enterprise — both for self-education in sorcery, alchemy, and other forbidden arts, and for leveraging his expertise in lustrous capers.
Hopping from court to court, Cagliostro carved out a career moving forgeries of spiritual or temporal potency alongside his legitimate profession as a doctor and chemist and his growing public profile as an influential spiritualist. He broke through as a young man in the train of a cardinal in Rome, using this in to market on the side fake artifacts alleged to have been pilfered from the Vatican’s mysterious Egyptian troves, as well as to seduce a local girl named Serafina whom he married at age 18. Serafina would be his lifelong companion on his adventures.
Cagliostro turned up over the ensuing two decades in Russia, Poland, Germany, and England, where he was inducted into the Freemasons in 1776. He’s been credited with creating masonry’s Egyptian Rite, and with energetically propagating it in the 1780s;* indeed, it was his adherence to Freemasonry — and his sacrilegious boldness opening a masonic lodge in Rome under the nose of the pontiff — that led to his 1789 arrest.
His seances and magic potions made him a great favorite of the Versailles court for a number of years, until a glancing association with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace so damaging to the reputation of Marie Antoinette forced Cagliostro’s expulsion from France.
Considering his Mephistophelian** reputation, now very well known in Europe, Cagliostro’s return thereafter to the belly of papal power seems most unwise. Perhaps (as this biographer supposes) it was the influence of Serafina, homesick after so many years separated from her native haunts. Cagliostro’s next ports of call were the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo and (after an escape attempt) the lonely Fortress of San Leo — and even his end was so shrouded in mystery and conjecture that the subsequent conqueror Napoleon commissioned an official investigation to convince everyone that he’d really shuffled off the mortal coil.
Giuseppe Balsamo, attainted and convicted of many crimes, and of having incurred the censures and penalties pronounced against heretics, dogmatics, heresiarchs, and propagators of magic and superstition, has been found guilty and condemned to the said censures and penalties as decreed by the Apostolic laws of Clement XII and Benedict XIV, against all persons who in any manner whatever favour or form societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, as well as by the edict of the Council of State against all persons convicted of this crime in Rome or in any other place in the dominions of the Pope.
Notwithstanding, by special grace and favour, the sentence of death by which this crime is expiated is hereby commuted into perpetual imprisonment in a fortress, where the culprit is to be strictly guarded without any hope of pardon whatever. Furthermore, after he shall have abjured his offences as a heretic in the place of his imprisonment he shall receive absolution, and certain salutary penances will then be prescribed for him to which he is hereby ordered to submit.
Likewise, the manuscript book which has for its title Egyptian Masonry is solemnly condemned as containing rites, propositions, doctrines, and a system which being superstitious, impious, heretical, and altogether blasphemous, open a road to sedition and the destruction of the Christian religion. This book, therefore, shall be burnt by the executioner, together with all the other documents relating to this sect.
By a new Apostolic law we shall confirm and renew not only the laws of the preceding pontiffs which prohibit the societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, making particular mention of the Egyptian sect and of another vulgarly known as the Illumines, and we shall decree that the most grievous corporal punishments reserved for heretics shall be inflicted on all who shall associate, hold communion with, or protect these societies. (Source)
Nor have his grander poses entirely wanted for supporters in posterity, particularly among adherents to the still-extant Masonic rite he initiated. (Aleister Crowley also suggested that he might have been Cagliostro in a previous incarnation.)
W.R.H. Trowbridge’s 1910 biograhy Cagliostro: The Splendour and Misery of a Master of Magic is in the public domain and available free online.
** “Mephistophelian” might be the literally applicable word. When the mysterious Cagliostro’s possible identity as the exiled Sicilian swindler Balsano was first exposed, eventual Faust author Johann von Goethe happened to be in Palermo — and he took it upon himself to investigate personally by calling on Balsano’s family. (“You know my brother?” “All Europe knows him.”)