Posts filed under 'Heresy'

1639: The auto de fe of Lima, Peru

Add comment January 23rd, 2017 Headsman

Lima, Peru on this date in 1639 celebrated a huge auto de fe featuring 72 prisoners. Of these, 12 were executed at the stake, one of whom had the consolation of being already dead by his own hand. (He was punished in effigy.)

Their crime, per the Inquisition, was Judaizing — but we might better consider it today in the vein of terrorism, an idee fixe crawling from a swamp of public insecurities both real and projected: race, religion, geopolitics, and crass opportunism all vying for precedence under the Inquisitor’s cowl.

This post will speak of “Jews” but it’s important to remember that the Spanish empire at this point officially had no Jews: it had forced its Jewish population into exile or conversion. That latter set, Jews who had converted to Christianity under that very Catholic realm’s pressure, thereafter became suspected down the generations of sustaining their Hebraic rites in secret, sapping the Church from within while looking for the odd opportunity to sacrifice a Christian child.

It is uncertain in the end in what proportions these forced converts and their descendants did maintain Jewish devotions versus absorbing themselves into Christianity. But by whatever opinion, these are our “Jews”, conflating as the word often does both faith and race; the terms “New Christians” or “conversos” or “crypto-Jews” are also widely used in the literature and all refer to the same universe of suspected and former (at least somewhere up the family tree) Jews who presented themselves publicly as Christians.

No matter the loyalty of individual converso, the suspicion each was born under placed them in an obvious practical difficulty, and it was compounded in the 17th century as Jewry, that eternal bugbear, also came to stand in for a host of other worries dogging the Spanish state.

To begin with, many Jews had in their day fled from Spanish conversion to Portugal, but had recently become re-absorbed when the Spanish crown added Portugal as an unwilling bride to its imperial conquests in 1580. So, the Portuguese, and the tensions thereto, became equated with the Jew in the Spanish imagination.*

In the New World, the already onion-layered specter of the secret Jew further aligned with the menaces of an unknown frontier, where unfamiliar opportunities abounded and dangers too.**

Spain’s rival on the Caribbean coast was its very own disobedient former possession, the Netherlands, and the latter offered Jews a liberal grant toleration. Spanish conversos’ loyalty to their own crown, already doubted on principle, was doubly suspect for the proximity of rival settlements with unconcealed synagogues — no mere paranoid fantasy, as Jews on Spanish soil were prominent among the collaborators who aided Dutch incursions in the 17th century.

Jews also came to be credited more generally with a scary affinity for the subject populations of conquered Indians and imported African slaves — their pagan magicks, their unusual tongues, and their frightful potential for revolt. And of course, there was all that odious money-handling.

“For the past six to eight years, a great number of Portuguese [read: Jews] have entered the kingdom of Peru and there were a great number already there,” Don Leon de Alcayaga wrote of Lima in 1636. “They came to rule over all commerce, which from the brocade to the sackcloth, and from the diamond to the cony, all run through their hands. The Castilian without a Portuguese partner could expect no success in trade.”

Commerce is cutthroat, and the evident power of Jews among the colonies’ emerging mercantile elites — and not just in Lima, but in Cartagena, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere — seems to have co-evolved with appeals from New World Castilians for the Inquisition’s scrutiny of this potentially disloyal element. Strictly out of piety and patriotism, you understand.

Juan de Manozca became Archbishop of Mexico in 1643.

The arrival from Cartagena of Inquisitor Juan de Manozca, who had prosecuted crypto-Jews in that city as well as native “witches”, set the scene for one of the Spanish colonies’ bloodiest purges.

In 1635, a great wave of arrests seized upwards of 100 of these “Portuguese” for La Complidad Grande, a supposed grand conspiracy among the heretics whose contours are little described in the documentation that survives for us. Was the “conspiracy” essentially Judaism itself? Or did Inquisitors perceive a more daring and tangible plot?

“Apropos of the famous auto de fe of the Portuguese, Pelliza y Tovar, the famous chronicler of Aragon, says that on the day the Spanish authorities took possession of the letters and correspondence of the resident Portuguese they found keys and letters in code and they discovered that the synagogues of America were in intimate relations with the Jews of Holland.”† Manozca apparently communicated to the mother country that the Hebrews were stockpiling munitions.

They were bound ultimately for the auto this day — years afterwards — via the Inquisition’s cumbersome judicial machinery. The two most famous of them mark the entire futile spectrum of choices available to the New Christian whom the Old Christian was sufficiently motivated to destroy:

  • Francisco Maldonado da Silva, a Jewish physician who had been imprisoned since 1627 for returning to Judaism, and been completely unapologetic about it, even evangelizing other prisoners held near him. “This is the doing of the Lord God of Israel, so that I may now look upon Him face to face,” he said at the stake.
  • Manuel Bautista Perez, a powerful merchant reputed to be the wealthiest man in Lima — his fortune built on mining, shipping, and the slave trade.‡ Perez hailed from a New Christian family but unlike da Silva he insisted on his fidelity to the Church and refused to admit any heresy. Indeed, he had always been conspicuous in his devotions, and (his words) “never let it be known, either to persons from his household or outside it, that he was a New Christian … because he always tried to be taken for an Old Christian.”

This purge devastated not only New Spain’s Jewish populace but her economy too; with many of the wealthiest magnates clapped in irons from 1635 and their assets suddenly demobilized, other operators be they ever so devout immediately faced an epidemic of financial reversals and bankruptcies.

* Even though a Portuguese Inquisition also existed, predating the 1580 union of the two realms.

** See Irene Silverblatt, “New Christians and New World Fears in Seventeenth-Century Peru,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, July 2000, who notes that

The colony’s take on the Jewish menace, then, elaborated a familiar but divergent set of charges: New Christians had usurped trade and merchandising to the detriment of Castilians; New Christians, with international ties, were not loyal to the Spanish empire; New Christians — merchants and traitors — aligned themselves with potentially subversive groups within the Colony (namely, indios and negros) …

† The comment is that of Peruvian historian Ricardo Palma, quoted by Seymour Liebman in “The Great Conspiracy in Peru,” The Americas, October 1971.

‡ For a detailed exposition of Perez’s career in slaving, see From Capture to Sale: The Portuguese Slave Trade to Spanish South America in the Early Seveacnteenth Century.

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831: St. Euthymius of Sardis, iconophile

Add comment December 26th, 2016 Headsman

This is the martyrdom date in 831 for the iconodule saint Euthymius of Sardis.

Euthymius was just a child when Byzantium’s century-long internal conflict over the image-veneration wrote St. Stephen the Younger into the pages of this here blog way back in 764.

By the time Euthymius attained the bishopric of Sardis in the 780s, the Empress Irene was putting an end to her predecessors’ anti-icon campaigns, and Euthymius took part in the Second Council of Nicaea that made the new policy official.

Posterity has a difficulty measuring by way of scanty and partisan sources the true state of sentiments surrounding icons during this period but it’s a sure thing that for an empire besieged both west and east, religious questions connected inextricably to geopolitical ones. Irene’s shift towards embracing what iconoclasts saw as graven images spanned about a quarter-century which also coincided with humiliating reverses for Constantinople. Irene’s son was thrashed by the Bulgars to whom her treasury was then obliged to submit tribute; then Irene had that very son deposed and blinded. Irene was toppled in her turn by her finance minister but Emperor Nikephoros too was trounced in battle and his skull wound up as the Bulgar Khan’s ceremonial goblet.

Small wonder that when Leo the Armenian took power in 814 he reflected that

all the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors in the imperial mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

For a prelate like Euthymius, this meant a return to the opposition benches. He’s reported to have been arrested and exiled twice in the ensuing years before finally being scourged to death in 824 at the behest of Leo’s successor; however, scholarship has better associated this event with the more vigorous anti-icon persecutions of Theophilus after 829. In 831, Arab forces devastated Cappadocia and also captured Panormos in Byzantine Sicily. In light of these reverses Theophilos discovered that an anti-iconoclast manifesto predicting the emperor’s imminent death had been circulated — so again the link between prestige abroad, sedition within, and those damned icons. Theophilus attributed the pamphlet to a pro-icon bishop named Methodius, who was a friend of Euthymius, and had both men arrested.

Imprisoned on the island of St. Andrew, near Constantinople in the Sea of Marmara, the two men were questioned about their associates by the postal logothete — probably Arsaber, the brother of [anti-icon future patriarch] John the Grammarian — who was accompanied by the chartulary of the inkpot Theoctistus. Euthymius seems to have mocked Theoctistus and would name only one of his visitors: Theoctista, the mother-in-law of both the logothete and the emperor!* Theophilus had both Euthymius and Methodius beaten soundly. While Methodius, who was just over 40, could endure it, the 77-year-old Euthymius died from his injuries on December 26 and became an iconophile martyr. The empress Theodora was reportedly so upset at Euthymius’s death that she told Theophilus that God would desert him for what he had done. (Source)

The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episode 103.

* Theoctista was an actual iconophile. Her house in Constantinople later became the Monastery of Gastria — and post-1453, a mosque.

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1531: John Tewkesbury, Thomas More’s unwilling guest

Add comment December 20th, 2016 Headsman

The honor posterity pays to Sir Thomas More‘s valor for his own eventual martyrdom has always been attenuated by More’s own keenness to visit that martyrdom on others. Six men were put to death as Protestant heretics during the Catholic More’s 30 months as Lord Chancellor and several of them — including John Tewkesbury, who burned at Smithfield five days before the sad Christmas of 1531 — were even held and tortured by More himself, at his personal estate.

More, famous for subjecting his own flesh to the hairshirt, was not ashamed to have his porter’s house outfitted as a personal torture chamber complete with his own set of stocks. When another wrongthinker, George Constantine, managed to break out of More’s cage and flee to the continent, the future saint joked in the Apology how humanely that showed Constantine was treated, that he proved “strong enough to break the stocks, nor waxen so lame of his legs with lying but that he was light enough to leap the walls.” LOL!

Others like Tewkesbury were not so robust after More got through with them.

This leather merchant had found his way to reform ideas after coming into possession of a contraband Tyndale English Bible, and was also found in possession of Tyndale’s subversive Parable of the Wicked Mammon.

“If Paul were now alive, and would defend his own learning, he should be tried through fire; not through fire of the judgment of scripture, (for that light men now utterly refuse,) but by the pope’s law, and with fire of fagots,” Tyndale thunders in Wicked Mammon.

Tewkesbury failed his first trial by fagot: after repelling the personal interrogation of Bishop Cuthberg Tunstall,* Tewkesbury

was sent from the Lollards’ tower to my lord chancellor’s, called sir Thomas More, to Chelsea, with all his articles; to see whether he might accuse others. There he lay in the porter’s lodge, hand, foot, and head in the stocks, six days without release: then was he carried to Jesu’s tree, in his [More’s] privy garden, where he was whipped, and also twisted in the brows with small ropes, so that the blood started out of his eyes … after this, he was sent to be racked in the Tower, till he was almost lame, and there he promised to recant. (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Recanting entailed public penitence meant to underscore the consequences of backsliding: carrying to St. Paul’s Cross a fagot of the sort that would be lit under the feet of a repeat heretic.


John Tewkesbury carrying his fagot in penance. Illustration from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

It seems, however, that Tewkesbury’s courage, once sapped by More’s persecution, was soon reinvigorated by the same. Foxe claims that he took heart from the example of Richard Bayfield, arrested at Easter for smuggling Tyndale Bibles into England from the Low Countries and returned to his heresies, fagot or no.

And here More’s vigorous escapee George Constantine enters the narrative in earnest, for before Constantine slipped More’s shackles the Lord Chancellor wrung from him the names of several Protestants, including Tewkesbury’s. Our repeat heretic was again imprisoned at More’s servants’ quarters where he received his sentence —

Imprimis, That he confessed that he was baptized, and intended to keep the catholic faith.

Secondly, That he affirmeth, that the abjuration oath and subscription that he made before Cuthbert, late bishop of London, was done by compulsion.

Thirdly, That he had the books of the Obedience of a Christian Man, and of The Wicked Mammon, in his custody, and hath read them since his abjuration.

Fourthly, That he affirmeth that he suffered the two faggots that were embroidered on his sleeve, to be taken from him, for that he deserved not to wear them.

Fifthly, He saith, that faith only justifieth, which lacketh not charity.

Sixthly, He saith, that Christ is a sufficient Mediator for us, and therefore no prayer is to be made unto saints. Whereupon they laid unto him this verse of the anthem: ‘Hail Queen our advocate,’ &c.; to which he answered, that he knew none other advocate but Christ alone.

Seventhly, He affirmeth that there is no purgatory after this life, but that Christ our Saviour is a sufficient purgation for us.

Eighthly, He affirmeth, that the souls of the faithful, departing this life, rest with Christ.

Ninthly, He affirmeth, that a priest, by receiving of orders, receiveth more grace, if his faith be increased; or else not.

Tenthly, and last of all, he believeth that the sacrament of the flesh and blood of Christ is not the very body of Christ, in flesh and blood, as it was born of the Virgin Mary.

Whereupon the bishop’s chancellor asked the said Tewkesbury, if he could show any cause why he should not be taken for a heretic, falling into his heresy again, and receive the punishment of a heretic. Whereunto he answered that he had wrong before, and if he be condemned now, he reckoneth that he hath wrong again.

“For which thynges and dyvers other horryble heresyes, he was delyvered at laste unto the secular handes and burned, as there was never wretche I wene better worthy,” More concluded with a satisfied dusting of hands. (Source)

* Tunstall submitted to Henry VIII’s authority over the Church of England and navigated the frightening Tudor years keeping his head down in preference to having it lopped off — although when he died in 1559 at age 85, it was while in prison for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy to Queen Elizabeth.

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1544: Maria von Beckum and her sister-in-law Ursula

Add comment November 13th, 2016 Headsman

From the Martyrs’ Mirror catalogue of Anabaptists

In the year 1544, there was a sister in the Lord, named Maria van Beckum, whom her mother had driven from home on account of her faith. This having become known in the Bishopric of Utrecht, and reported to the Stadtholder, he sent one Goossen van Raesveldt with many servants, to apprehend this maiden at her brother’s, John van Beckum, whither she had fled: She was compelled to rise from her bed, and accompany them; and when she saw the great number of people who had come on her account, she asked Ursula, her brother’s wife, whether she would go with her and keep her company.

The latter answered, “If John van Beckum is satisfied, I will gladly go with you, and we will rejoice together in the Lord.” When Maria put this request to her brother, he consented, and Ursula went with her. Here love was stronger than death, and firmer than the grave. Cant. 8:6.

Her mother and sister had come from Friesland to see her; but this could not move her, she took leave of them, for she chose to suffer affliction, rather than to have worldly joy; hence she went with her sister Maria. They were together brought to Deventer. There blind leaders came to them, who with subtlety sought to win them to human institutions. But they answered, “We hold to the Word of God, and do not regard the dictates of the pope, nor the errors of the whole world.” Friar Grouwel also sought to teach them much, but was not able to prove his assertions by the Scriptures.

Now as he could not overcome them, he said “The devil speaks through your mouth, away with them to the fire.”

They greatly rejoiced that they were worthy to suffer for the name of Christ, and to help bear His reproach. Acts 5:41.

They were then brought to the house at Delden; where many efforts were made to cause them to apostatize, yet all in vain. A commissary came from the court of Burgundy, who greatly extolled the mass and all the institutions of the pope; but he could not prevail against the Scriptures which they adduced.

He then asked them whether they were rebaptized. They replied, “We have been baptized once according to the command of Christ and the practice of the apostles; for there is but one true baptism, and he who receives it, has put on Christ, and leads an unblamable life through the Holy Ghost; in the answer of a good conscience.” Eph. 4:5; Gal. 3:27; I Pet. 3:21.

He also asked them, whether they believed that Christ was wholly present in the sacrament. This they considered a blind question, and said, “God will have no likeness or image, neither in heaven nor on earth (Exodus 20:4); for He says through the prophet: ‘I, even I am the Lord; and beside me there is no Saviour.’ Isa. 43:11. But as regards the Supper, we find that Christ left it as a memorial of His death, with bread and wine; as often as we commemorate it, we are to show forth His death till He come.” I Cor. 11:26.

Now as Maria and Ursula regarded all the institutions of the pope as heresy, they were brought into open court at Delden, on the thirteenth of November, before the children of Pilate and Caiaphas, where they were sentenced to death, in which they rejoiced, praising God. When they were led to the stake, many of the people, seeing their steadfastness, wept. But they sang for joy, and said, “Weep not, on account of what is inflicted upon us.”

“We do not suffer,” said Maria, “as witches or other criminals, but because we adhere to Christ, and will not be separated from God; hence be converted, and it shall be well with you forever.” [See Paul Friedland on the implications of this behavior by Protestant martyrs -ed.]

When the time of suffering drew nigh, Maria said, “Dear sister; heaven is opened for us; for what we now suffer for a little while, we shall forever be happy with our bridegroom.” They then gave each other the kiss of peace.

Thereupon they prayed together to God; that He would forgive the judges their sins, since they knew not what they were doing; and that as the world was sunk in blindness, God would have compassion on them, and receive their souls into His eternal kingdom: They first took Maria; who entreated the authorities not to shed any more innocent blood. Then she fervently prayed to God, and also prayed for those who put her to death; whereupon she joyfully arose, and went with such great gladness to the stake, that it cannot be told, saying, “To Thee, O Christ, I have given myself; I know that I shall live with Thee forever. Therefore, O God of heaven, into Thy hands do I commend my spirit.”

The executioner swore because the chain did not suit him; but she said, “Friend, consider what you are doing; my body is not worthy that you should blaspheme Christ on account of it; repent, lest you burn for it in hell.” The preacher, a teacher at Delden, turned Ursula around, but she turned back again, and urgently said, “Let me behold the end of my sister, for I also desire to receive the glory into which she shall enter.”

After Maria was burned, they asked Ursula, whether she would not yet apostatize. “No,” said she, “not for death; I will not thus forsake the eternal riches.” They would also honor her with the sword, but she said, “My flesh is not too good to be burned for the name of Christ.”

To one of her relatives she said, “Bid John van Beckum good night, and tell him to serve God, to whom I am now about to be offered.” When she came to the wood, she clasped her hands, and said, “Our Father which art in heaven.” “Yea,” said the priest, “there you will find Him.” “Because I seek Him there,” she said, “I must die this temporal death. If I should confess Him in the bread, I might live longer.”

When she stepped upon the wood, her foot slipped. “I think I am falling off,” she said. “Stop,” cried the tyrant; “she means to apostatize.” “No,” said she, “the block slips from under me; I will not faint in the Word of God, but constantly adhere to Christ.” Thus both remained steadfast unto the end, and sealed the Word of God with their death, in great patience and boldness, leaving us a good example.

A subsequent entry in the Mirror reveals that Maria at her execution called on believers to witness that “this stake at which I am to be burned [will] grow green, by which you may know that it is the truth for which we here suffer and die” — a prophecy that proved to be accurate.

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1555: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Oxford martyrs

1 comment October 16th, 2016 Headsman

The Anglican Church memorializes the feast of the Oxford Martyrs on October 16 — which also happens to be the date in 1555 that the first and second of those Reformation prelates went to the stake in that city.

The Oxford Martyrs are three in all, a proper trilogy;* the last in chronology if not in precedence was the Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who sanctified King Henry’s putting aside his first wife, and was burned at the pleasure of that scorned Catholic’s daughter in 1556. By that time he outlived by seven months the men whose execution we mark here, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a woodcut illustration of Latimer’s and Ridley’s martyrdom in John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs.

Given a different set of breaks and perhaps a Y chromosome in the royal offspring, Latimer might easily have been martyred a generation prior under a King Henry who stuck to his papist “defender of the faith” credentials. Latimer was a rising reformer in the late 1520s whose subversive preaching had already got him slapped down by Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey’s fall and Henry’s departure from the Roman communion arrived just in time to ramp Latimer from prospective heresiarch to the master pulpit rhetorician of a new order. (He’s particularly remembered for some metaphorical sermons about playing cards.) In 1535, Latimer became Bishop of Worcester in which capacity he did not disdain the office of exhorting Catholic martyrs themselves on the foot of the pyre. Even in Henry’s last years, when militant Protestants could be put to death as readily as recusant Catholics, Latimer courted principled danger by refusing to sign on to Henry’s “six articles” asserting Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. Latimer resigned his bishopric and went to the Tower of London rather than endorse them.

Nicholas Ridley at this period was a reformist priest in Cranmer’s more cautious orbit, who advanced him rank by rank — and with no dungeon interim — to the Bishop of London and Westminster.** Ridley had the honor of being a primary antagonist to the radical John Hooper in the “vestments controversy”, Ridley defending the status quo of clergy bedizened with suspiciously Romish priestly attire despite the poverty of Christ.

Ridley basically won this dispute in the short term, but had scant leisure to celebrate before the sickly young king’s death set the realm up for a contested succession. Under his gilded robes Bishop Ridley spent the brief ascendancy of Lady Jane Grey thundering against the bastard rival who intended to — and very soon did — supplant her.

Tried together in your basic case of victor’s justice, Ridley and Latimer were burned with Cranmer brought out as a witness in an attempt to intimidate him. Cranmer’s vacillating recantations before his own execution do him little credit, but considering how the Ridley died it would require a hard heart not to empathize. Protestant martyrologist John Foxe made purple prose or a very black scene:

Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Dr. Ridley’s feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

And so the fire being given unto them, when Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him. he cried with a wonderful loud voice, In manus teas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum: Domine recipe spiritum meum. And after, repeated this latter part often in English, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit;” Master Latimer crying as vehemently on the other side, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” who received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stroked his face with his hands, and as it were bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth) with very little pain or none. And thus much concerning the end of this old and blessed servant of God, Master Latimer, for whose laborious travails, fruitful life, and constant death, the whole realm hath cause to give great thanks to Almighty God.

But Master Ridley, by reason of the evil making of the fire unto him, because the wooden faggots were laid about the gorse, and over-high built, the fire burned first beneath, being kept down by the wood; which when he felt, he desired them for Christ’s sake to let the fire come unto him. Which when his brother-in-law heard, but not well understood, intending to rid him out of his pain, (for the which cause he gave attendance,) as one in such sorrow not well advised what he did, heaped faggots upon him, so that he clean covered him, which made the fire more vehement beneath, that it burned clean all his nether parts, before it once touched the upper; and that made him leap up and down under the faggots, and often desire them to let the fire come unto him, saying, “I cannot burn.” Which indeed appeared well; for, after his legs were consumed by reason of his struggling through the pain, (whereof he had no release, but only his contentation in God,) he showed that side toward us clean, shirt and all untouched with flame. Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call unto God still, having in his mouth, “Lord, have mercy upon me,” intermingling his cry, “Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.” In which pangs he laboured till one of the standers-by with his bill pulled off the faggots above, and where he saw the fire flame up, he wrested himself unto that side. And when the flame touched the gunpowder, he was seen to stir no more, but burned on the other side, falling down at Master Latimer’s feet; which, some said, happened by reason that the chain loosed; others said, that he fell over the chain by reason of the poise of his body, and the weakness of the nether limbs.

* There’s a just-so story backed by little to no concrete evidence that the three Oxford Martyrs are metaphorically represented as the three blind mice (pursued by a female antagonist!) in the nursery rhyme.

** Barstool trivia: Ridley is the only person who has ever held this title.

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1568: Leonor de Cisneros, chastised wife

Add comment September 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1568, Leonor de Cisneros was burned as a heretic in Valladolid — nine years late, by her reckoning.

Leonor de Cisneros (English Wikipedia entry | a token Spanish Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed German) and her much older husband Antonio Herrezuelo* were among the first converts to the Lutheran circle in Valladolid funded by Don Carlos de Seso. The Inquisition got its hands on these wrongthinkers in the late 1550s and the result was an auto de fe on October 8, 1559 at which King Philip personally witnessed the Christlike suffering of Don Carlos and 12 of his adherents.

However, while 13 died, dozens of others succumbed to the Inquisition’s pressure to recant, and live. Leonor de Cisneros was one of them.

The monstrous spectacle of the auto de fe featured an elaborate symbolic language encoded for the spectators in the ritual sanbenitos in which the accused were made to parade, such as the example pictured at right.** Different patterns denoted which heretics were bound for the stake, and which had reconciled to a wary Church … and it is said that when Antonio, en route to his pyre draped in illustrations of hellfire to represent his fatal obduracy, beheld his wife in the colors of a penitent, he savagely reproached her cowardice.

Obviously shaken, Leonor returned to her prison with a prayer in her soul and a flea in her ear. Soon enough she had relapsed into her heresy, and this time no punishment or exhortation could move her — knowing as she well did that in her stubbornness she solicited her martyrdom.

* Leonor was born in the mid-1530s, so would have married and converted to Protestantism around the age of 18. Antonio was born about 1513.

** Source: this public-domain volume on the notorious Inquisitor Torquemada.

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1553: Giovanni Mollio, Italian reformer

Add comment September 5th, 2016 Headsman

Franciscan reformer and theologian Giovanni Mollio was burned in Rome as a heretic on this date in 1553.

We have a tricky job to get a fix on Protestants in Italy during the 16th century, but it’s still peculiar that Mollio enjoys a lengthy entry on the German Wikipedia page and none whatsoever on its Italian sister.

A professor most recently at Bologna, Mollio appears to have taken interest in reforming ideas from his earliest appointments in the 1520s at Brescia and Milan — which makes the fact that he survived so long in the environs of Catholicism’s Caput Mundi a remarkable circumstance in itself. He spurned friends’ entreaties to flee into exile in the 1530s and instead obeyed a summons to Rome to justify the dangerous doctrines he espoused, like justification by good works and not venerating holy images.

“I am ready and willing to suffer not only torment and torture, but also for my Lord Jesus Christ’s sake to be burnt alive,” he declared on that occasion. Fortunately for Mollio, Pope Paul III was at this point only beginning to feel out the Vatican’s response to Luther and Calvin, and the Counter-Reformation had not yet begun in earnest; Mollio was gave an erudite defense to much curial chin-stroking, was admonished on some points, and booted from the Bolognese faculty. He retired to Naples where he joined the circles of heretical elites orbiting Juan de Valdes, whose number would in time contribute several martyrs.

Valdes was more a humanist interested in reforming the Church than a schismatic looking to break for it but the space for such distinctions was rapidly narrowing. Valdes died (no martyrdom) in 1541, and tolerance for his friends’ subversive salons did not long outlive him.

By 1543 Mollio really did go on the run. But he never made it out of Italy, which would probably have been the necessary condition for dying in bed at an advanced age.

Florence clapped him in its castle dungeon for four years until influential friends finally got him released to the custody of a Ravenna abbot; once that sanctuary lapsed he was detained by the papal legate for a time, although again released and watchfully permitted to continue teaching and preaching.

This outsized toleration came to an abrupt end with the death of Pope Paul III in 1549. Paul’s successor Julius III meant to be the hammer of the heretics, and soon had Mollio brought in chains to Rome. He could not be moved to recant during many months’ imprisonment.

On September 5, 1553, Mollio, a Perugian named Giovanni Teodori (also known as Tisserano), and a number of others accused of heresy faced public trial by the Inquisition in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Only Mollio and Teodori refused to recant.

Permitted to defend himself, Mollio scalded the cardinals seated to judge him — and in Italian, so that everyone present would understand it.

As for you, cardinals and bishops, if I were satisfied that you justly obtained that power which you assume to yourselves, and that you had risen to your eminence by virtuous deeds, and not by blind ambition and the arts of profligacy, I would not say a word to you.

But since I see and know on the best grounds, that you have set moderation, and honesty, and honour, and virtue at defiance, I am constrained to treat you without ceremony, and to declare that your power is not from God but the devil.

If it were apostolical, as you would make the poor world believe, then your doctrine and life would resemble those of the apostles. When I perceive the filth and falsehood and profaneness with which it is overspread, what can I think or say of your church, but that it is a receptacle of thieves and a den of robbers?

What is your doctrine but a dream, — a lie forged by hypocrites?

Your very countenances prolaim that your belly is your god. Your great object is to seize and amass wealth by every species of injustice and cruelty. You thirst without ceasing for the blood of the saints.

Can you be the successors of the holy apostles, and vicars of Jesus Christ — you who despise Christ and his word, who act a if you did not believe that there is a God in heaven, who persecute to the death his faithful ministers, make his commandments of no effect, and tyrannize over the consciences of his saints?

Wherefore I appeal from your sentence, and summon you, O cruel tyrants and murderers, to answer before the judgment seat of Christ at the last day, where your pompous titles and gorgeous trappings will not dazzle, nor your guards and torturing apparatus terrify us. And in testimony of this, take back that which you have given me!

And so saying, Mollio flung across the flagstones the penitential candle that he had been made to bear with the rest of the accused.

The furious judges ordered Mollio and Teodori too put to immediate death, and they were promptly dragged from the church to the Campo de’ Fiori and consumed at the stake.

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1546: Etienne Dolet, no longer anything at all

Add comment August 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1546, which was his 37th birthday, the French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in Paris over a few little words.

Dolet (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a young polymath with a pugilistic streak both literary and literal. While a law student at Toulouse, he won both a stint in prison and the patronage of King Francis I.

Dolet might have rated the latter a sturdier shield than it proved to be in practice, for his satires — so irreverent as to be heretical in a time when heresy really mattered — landed him back in the clink in Lyons from 1542 to 1544, charged with atheism.

Dolet’s real concern was language: he was a prolific translator of books into French (including some of his own work in Latin), and he produced a lengthy commentary on classical Latin and, in 1540, Europe’s first vernacular treatise on translation.

But for a smart guy he could be a little dumb.

Having pulled strings with the bishop to weasel out of his dungeon, Dolet made tracks for Italy … but then cockily returned to Lyons where he was once again arrested as a heretic. He didn’t get a second chance to learn his lesson.

Dolet’s condemnation turned on a philistine misapprehension of the humanist art of translation.

“While translating, you must not be enslaved to the extent of rendering word for word,” he had counseled in his treatise. “Concentrate on the meaning and handle things so that the intention of the author is expressed, while heedfully maintaining the propriety of both languages.” This is nearly a banality for the modern art of translation, but at the time pitted him against a long Christian tradition that prized textual fidelity over literary elegance.

Rendering a complex bit of Plato into French, Dolet reworked the passage into his target language thus:

Since it is certain that death is not at all among the living: and as for the dead, they no longer are: therefore, death touches them even less. And hence death can do nothing to you, for you are not yet ready to die, and when you have died, death will also not be able to do anything, since you will no longer be anything at all.

If you’re going to be executed over a block of text, that’s a pretty good block.

It’s the anything at all (we added the emphasis) that got Dolet in this instance: Plato had not literally said that, and Dolet’s hostile interlocutors decided to read this flourish of artistry and emphasis as proof of a sly atheist denying the immortality of the soul. No less an authority than the Sorbonne theological faculty signed off on this reading. (Calvin also denounced Dolet; he’s sometimes regarded as a freethinker martyr, which is a more generous spin than “clever asshole.”)

Dolet’s surname chances to double as a declension of the apt Latin verb “to hurt”; en route to the stake, the impious polyglot is said to have exploited the overlap in one final — shall we say dolorous? — witticism:

Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet
Dolet himself does not suffer, but the pious crowd grieves

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1535: Jacob van Campen, Amsterdam Anabaptist

Add comment July 10th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1535, the Amsterdam Anabaptist leader Jacob van Campen* was mutilated, beheaded, and consigned to flames.

He’s an oddly little-known figure considering his stature in the movement — an anomaly the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online attributes to van Campen’s radical affiliations during the time when Anabaptists’ rebellion at Muenster sent the movement into the wilderness. But in Amsterdam in 1535, the cloth shearer was a leader of some 3,000 adherents to the new heresy.

There had been a price on his head since at least May of 1534, so absent a Joris-esque disappearance his capture was probably just a matter of time.

Once in his enemies’ power, van Campen’s person was used to stage a particularly elaborate execution spectacle. According to Drama, Performance and Debate: Theatre and Public Opinion in the Early Modern Period, van Campen

was sentenced to be publicly exposed on a scaffold on the Dam Square wearing a tin mitre with an imprint of the city’s coat of arms. After having been exposed as a mock bishop for one hour or more, his tongue, which he had used to deceive people, was cut out, and his right hand, which he had used to re-baptise was chopped off. He was decapitated and burnt. His head with mitre and his hand were exhibited on the Haarlemmerpoort.


Seated on a platform, the scorned Jacob van Campen endures his tortures while the flame that will soon consume his remains awaits him. Via the Rijksmuseum.

* Not to be confused with the Dutch painter Jacob van Campen.

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1555: John Bradford, in the grace of God

Add comment July 1st, 2016 Headsman

The Protestant martyr John Bradford, burned for his faith on this date in 1555, is the popularly reputed source of the idiom “There but for the grace of God go I” — a sentiment admirably fashioned for reckoning the scaffold.

Those who know their own hearts, will be ready to acknowledge, that the seeds of the worst and most aggravated wickedness which have been practised by other men, lie hid therein, (Matt. xv. 19,) and are only restrained from bursting forth by God’s grace. The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (Source)

It was certainly apt for Bradford himself, who got religion as a student in the 1540s, left off law studies for theology, and was ordained an Anglican deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley just in time for the wheel of fortune to spin back to Catholicism.

Clapped in prison within the first weeks of Queen Mary‘s attempted Catholic restoration, Bradford for a time shared lodgings in the Tower with both Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.

Alas, be he ever so pious, our holy martyr’s temporal legacy — his authorship of the aphorism attributed him — remains impossible to substantiate. The remark is not known to have appeared in print until well over two centuries after Bradford’s cold ashes melted into the Smithfield market, and it was thereafter attributed in the 19th century to a variety of other figures as well as to Bradford. (The rivals on no better authority than Bradford could claim, it must be said.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, puts the remark in the mouth of 17th century divine Richard Baxter. (“I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)

But the mysterious provenance is only fitting, since that grace expired soon enough for John Bradford — as it does for all other flesh besides.

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