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.”)
Dutch artisan Sikke Freriks, beheaded on this date in 1531 in Leeuwarden‘s market, was the first Anabaptist put to death in that Friesland city.
While a minor milestone in the crowded history of Reformation martyrdoms, Freriks had a noteworthy posthumous effect: word of his heresy — adherence to adult, rather than infant, baptism — came to the ears of a Catholic priest, who later wrote that a man’s dying for this illicit doctrine led him to investigate it further.
To his amazement, the priest found no scriptural support for the established church’s practice of baptizing infants before they developed the maturity and volition to embrace Christ from the will of their own hearts. Christians are “cheated” by the loss of that opportunity of freely giving oneself in baptism, he later wrote.
This man, Menno Simons, would follow his discomfiting scrutiny of holy writ all the way out of the priesthood and into that same forbidden sect. His preeminence in the Anabaptist movement after its disastrous Münster rebellion — and particularly his pacifistic orientation — eventually ennobled him as the founder as well as the namesake of the Mennonites, a term that in Menno Simons’s own lifetime became all but synonymous for Dutch Anabaptism.
Witness Wycliffe, who told them the truth;
For in good nature he greatly warned
To mend their wickedness and sinful works.
Who these sorry men damned his soul
And overall lolled him with heretics’ works!
-Piers Plowman’s Creed*
Sawtre was a follower of John Wycliffe, the Biblical translator and church reformer 16 years dead as we lay our scene.
Wycliffe anticipated much of Luther’s later critique of the Catholic Church. His call to study Scripture directly without the intercession of doctors in Rome touched a spiritual thirst; his summons to apostolic poverty for the wealthy vicars of Christ was a message with a ready audience.
Lollardy did not immediately manifest as an outlaw movement; it had many adherents among England’s elites and even the royal household. Although the papacy had declared various Wycliffe doctrines heretical in that prelate’s time, England had shown little appetite for calling an Inquisition — a step that would project papal authority into the kingdom.**
But with a ferocious ecclesiastical pushback and a change in the occupancy of the throne,† the English state gradually shifted over the course of the 1390s and 1400s towards recognizing Wycliffe’s principles as heresy — and towards treating that heresy into a capital crime. Through spectacles like Sawtre’s burning, Lollards were gradually made to understand that the price of their scruples might run all the way to martyrdom.
This was novel territory for English jurisprudence, and part of a centuries-long European transition towards treating doctrinal dispute as capital crime. There are only a bare handful of alleged quasi-precedents in English history, sketchily documented — like the unnamed apostate deacon burnt to ashes for Judaizing. It was only as late as William Sawtre that Old Blighty clearly established the practice and legal machinery for putting men and women to death for heresy.
Many Lollards capitulated as they came under pressure. This was true of our man Sawtre, a humble parish vicar. When put to questioning by the bishop in 1399, Sawtre initially recanted his unorthodox skepticism as to the transubstantiation of communion bread into Christ’s own literal body — a doctrinal mystery that would be a tougher and tougher sell to dissidents yet to come.
But upon moving from Lynn to London where he served at St. Osyth’s, Sawtre relapsed — and some stirring moved his soul to vindicate himself in the face of mortal peril.
Charged before Parliament, Sawtre now defended his heresies under close questioning by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. Arundel was even then pressuring this same Parliament for a statute, which he did indeed soon receive — one with the ominous title De Heretico Comburendo, at last elevating heresy to a death penalty offense and making the bishops themselves the decisive arbiters on the matter. It is overtly and all-but-explicitly aimed at the Lollards.
divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect, of the faith of the sacraments of the church, and the authority of the same damnably thinking and against the law of God and of the Church usurping the office of preaching, do perversely and maliciously in divers places within the said realm, under the color of dissembled holiness, preach and teach these days openly and privily divers new doctrines, and wicked heretical and erroneous opinions contrary to the same faith and blessed determinations of the Holy Church, and of such sect and wicked doctrine and opinions they make unlawful conventicles and confederacies, they hold and exercise schools, they make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people, and as such they may excite and stir them to sedition and insurrection, and make great strife and division among the people, and other enormities horrible to be heard daily do perpetrate and commit subversion of the said catholic faith and doctrine of the Holy Church …
the diocesans of the said realm cannot by their jurisdiction spiritual, without aid of the said royal majesty, sufficiently correct the said false and perverse people, nor refrain their malice, because the said false and perverse people do go from diocese to diocese and will not appear before the said diocesans…
[let] none within the said realm or any other dominions subject to his Roval Majesty, presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also [let] none from henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions, shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.
Any Lollard not so complying could be arrested on the say-so of the diocesan bishop and tried for the offending heterodoxy; if convicted, the clergy was then empowered to hand the unfortunate fellow over to the civil authorities who were obliged to carry out an execution without any further inquiry or say-so. Judge, jury, and (virtually) executioner … the same as the guy waiting for you in the confessional.
[I]f any person … do refuse duly to abjure, or by the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries, after the abjuration made by the same person be pronounced relapsed, so that according to the holy canons he ought to be left to the secular court … [then] after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others, whereby, nosuch wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions, nor their authors … be sustained or in any way suffered.
With such wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions afoot Sawtre was not suffered to live even the enactment of the law that killed him: De Heretico Comburendo was passed only on March 10, but Sawtre was eight days’ dead by that point. It’s a bit unclear how the sentence was legally effected, but it would seemingly have proceeded under canon, not civil, law.
Both the law and the execution were great victories for the Church. “The king and the archbishop hurried to burn their victim to show that they could send a heretic to the stake whenever they wished, without relying on statute” Leonard Williams Levy writes. “Parliament could neither give nor take the authority to burn a heretic. If the scepter supported the miter, canon law prevailed.”
Be that as it may, the victims of the Lollard-burning period were not nearly so numerous as the chilling language of De Heretico Comburendo might lead one to anticipate. The next Lollard to go to the stake was John Badby in 1410; two merchants were executed in 1415, and the Lollard rebel John Oldcastle was burnt “gallows and all” in 1417. Another handful suffered in the 1420s. It’s thought that about 50 people overall (Lollards and otherwise) were executed as heretics from the enactment of De Heretico Comburendo until Henry VIII broke with Rome 133 years later — an occasion that made heresy-hunting a whole different animal.
* My artless rendering from the Middle English version given in D.A. Lawton in “Lollardy and the ‘Piers Plowman’ Tradition”, The Modern Language Review, Oct. 1981.
** Despite overall caution about the authority of Rome onto Albion’s soil, the English had no overall principled rejection of Inquisitors as such: they convoked such a tribunal to deal with Joan of Arc.
† The political situation in the realm was also been a factor: the usurper Henry IV had taken the crown only in 1399 by deposing, and later murdering, King Richard II. One readily supposes Henry’s keen interest in shoring up the loyalty of the church and keeping tabs on itinerant rabble-rousers, the latter of whom appear to have disproportionately skewed towards Richard’s faction. (All those heretics in the king’s household were in Richard’s household.)
On this date in 1691, Russian Orthodox priest Sylvester Medvedev was beheaded on Red Square.
Medvedev was a protege of the great progressive clergyman, poet, and educator Symeon of Polotsk, one of the intellectual champions of the reforming faction of Orthodoxy’s Great Schism.
The Schism in question was the widespread disaffection of the faithful (now known as “Old Believers”) for changes dictated from on high whose effect was to centralize the Russian Orthodox church and to alter its services.
The Patriarch of Moscow had underaken to revise the liturgy, the prayer-books, and the church services in Russian Orthodoxy in order to bring them in line (so he said) with their proper Greek antecedents. It provoked a furious reaction by Russian traditionalists. Perhaps the most vividly symbolic flashpoint of the Schism was the simple-seeming distinction between making the sign of the cross with three fingers (as the Patriarch demanded), or with two. It was all down to what Nikon said was a mistranslation of the original Greek when the rite had first been established hundreds of years before.
That reform and others were enforced, and opposed, violently: floggings, executions, and desecrations of now-outlaw icons were met by Old Believers willing to mutilate their own hands, or kill themselves, or go to the stake rather than bend. Some 20,000 people are said to have self-immolated in resistance.
“Come, Orthodox People,” thundered Protopope and soon-to-be Old Believer martyr Avvakum Petrov. “Suffer tortures for the two-finger sign of the cross … Although I have not much understanding I am not a learned man yet I know that the Church which we have received from our Holy Fathers is pure and sacred. As it came to me, so shall I uphold my faith until the end.”
Boyarina Feodosia Morozova concurred with Avvakum Petrov (who was her confessor): in this famous painting of her by Vasily Surikov, she makes a defiant two-fingered blessing to onlookers as she the authorities drag her away.
Peter, of course, was not yet “the Great”: he was just a vulnerable kid with a potential legitimacy problem. As one consequence, his mother, Natalyz Naryshkina, was able to dictate the appointment of a very conservative patriarch when that post opened in 1690.
That man, Adrian, would be the last Moscow patriarch until the Bolshevik Revolution in large measure due to his conflicts with the grown Peter over the latter’s blasphemously western orientation.
Adrian was no Old Believer but he bitterly opposed Peter’s attempts to get Russians to dress like Europeans and shave off their beards. And given the ferocity of religious feeling when the stakes are a matter of a single finger, it will go without saying that an inveterate liberalizer like Sylvester Medvedev would have no purchase with the patriarch.
This is indeed a strange interim in Russian history; Russian’s great westernizing and secularizing autocrat has reached the throne but with him ascends, just for a moment, the staunchest conservatives ecclesiastics.
What was Medvedev up to that got the new patriarch in a twist? If you liked the three-finger thing, you’ll love this: Medvedev maintained that the transubstantiation/metousiosis of ceremonial bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was accomplished during liturgy by the Words of Institution (“Take, eat, this is my body …”), which was also the Catholic perspective — in contrast to the orthodox Orthodox position that this was achieved by the Epiclesis invoking the Holy Spirit.
His real crime might well have been to align himself politically with the lately deposed Sophia, for Medvedev inherited his mentor’s place as court poet and education paladin when Symeon of Polotsk died in 1680. Sycophantish verse like this, written in Medvedev’s unuccessful attempt to gain leadership of an academy to promulgate western learning, can’t have done him any favors in the end:
You have been given the name of wisdom,
For Sophia was named wisdom by God.
It befits you to begin the sciences,
To pursue them, most wise one!