1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms

Add comment September 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1306, Scottish patriot Simon Fraser was drawn and quartered in London.

This Norman-descended lord was one of the side-switching nobles during the wars of William Wallace, but after completing the full circuit from Wallace to Edward I and back again, he unexpectedly decided to lash himself to St. Andrew‘s cross for good.

Perhaps he could tell where the wind was blowing, and not just for his historical reputation: Fraser’s former ally, “Red” Comyn, went down the other fork in the road, submitting himself to an irresistible English invasion the better to devote his energies to his longshot horse in the confusing Scottish regnal derby.

Comyn’s reward was to be personally daggered to death at the altar of Greyfriars Church by Robert the Bruce.


The murder of John Comyn.

But no amount of royal sacrilege could arrest the popular fad for cutting a deal, and as celebrated in this History of the Frasers,

Every man of influence in the Kingdom, except Sir Simon Fraser, Sir William Wallace, and the band of patriots who comprised the garrison of Stirling, followed the example of Cumming [Comyn] … The patriots were proclaimed outlaws and their estates forfeited, and they ultimately sacrificed their noble lives in the undying service of their country. The redoubted Sir William Wallace continued most deservedly to be the idol of his countrymen for the glorious part which he took in establishing the independence of his fatherland, but “if to him be due the glory of being the first to awaken Scotland from her ignominious slumber, his efforts were nobly seconded by Sir Simon Fraser, who alone of the aristocracy was disposed to view with envy the merit which called his hero to command.”

Fraser outlived Wallace by a year, persisting in the field “bold as Caesar” which supposedly led a couple of Scottish knights imprisoned in the Tower to cockily wager their heads that the English would never corral him.*

Fraser suffered the torment of being hanged and cut down still alive for beheading, the spectacle of a double death (with the disemboweling part mercifully saved for posthumous application). His head was set on a spike on London Bridge beside Wallace’s, and his mangled trunk hung in chains under guard lest any soul sensitive to Scotch nationalism or mephitis should undertake to cut it down.

For all that he’s not even the most famous Simon Fraser to be executed by the English.

* Edward collected his prize; you can read all about it as an aside in this ballad on the execution of Fraser.

Sire Herbert of Morham, feyr knyht ant bold,
For the love of Frysel ys lyf wes ysold.
A wajour he made, so hit wes ytold,
Ys heued of to smhyte yef me him brohte in hold,
Wat so bytyde.
Sory wes he thenne,
Tho he myhte him kenne
Thourh the toun ryde.

Thenne seide ys scwyer a word anon-ryht:
“Sire, we beth dede; ne helpeth hit no wyht!”
(Thomas de Boys the scwyer wes to nome.)
“Nou Ychot oure wajour turneth ous to grome,
So Y bate!”
Y do ou to wyte,
Here heued was ofsmyte
Byfore the Tour gate.

Sir Herbert of Morham, a fair and bold knight,
For the love of Fraser his life was sold.
A wager he made, as it was told,
To have his head cut off if they captured Fraser,
Whatever betide.
Sorry was he then,
When he might see him
Ride through the town.

Then his squire spoke a word immediately:
“Sir, we’re dead; there’s no creature to help us!”
(Thomas de Bois was the squire’s name.)
“Now I know that our wager brings us to harm,
So my courage ends!”
I give you to know,
Their heads were cut off
Before the Tower gate.

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1302: Audun Hugleiksson, Norwegian nobleman

Add comment December 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1302, Norwegian nobleman Audun Hugleiksson was hanged at Nordnes in Bergen.

Hugleiksson (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Norwegian) was one of the great lords of the realm in the late 13th century; as he had studied law in Paris and Bologna, he became a key figure in the monumental legal reform that gives Magnus the Lawmender his nickname.

Our man enjoyed a somewhat less exalted nickname than his patron: “Hestakorn”, which refers to either oats fed to horses or a special tax being levied in the period. Either variant suggests an intriguing backstory which is unfortunately lost to posterity. (Sources for this period tend regrettably sketchy, as we shall see.)

At any rate, horse-oats was at the Lawmender’s elbow as Norwegian and Icelandic laws were collected, organized, and rewritten from 1269 to 1281 — “the wisest legal mind in the land,” by contemporaries’ reckoning. He’s thought to have brought continental European legal traditions heavily to bear on the new codes.

Magnus died in 1280, leaving power to a 12-year-old son, Erik … but Hugleiksson continued as a leading man of the guardians’ council and, once Erik attained his majority, a close advisor to son as to father. He was trusted as an envoy to England to hammer out the arrangements for the ill-starred dynastic marriage of the princess Margaret.

As a monument to his prestige, Hestakorn threw up a stone castle, Hegrenes — a very rare indulgence for even the greatest lords.

But when King Erik died in 1299, Hugleiksson fell dramatically foul of his successor, Haakon V. Before the year was out, the onetime magnate had been clapped in prison; on December 2, 1302, he was put to death not with a blade, the traditional deference to his rank, but with hemp — as if he were a common thief. The date of the execution comes from the Icelandic Annals; likewise the dishonorable method.

Clearly the regime change made his fall possible. But what operatic catastrophe of high statecraft and low morals brought him to such destruction? Was he found to go in for political perfidy, peculation, pederasty, or poison? Was he rolled up by a witch-sniffer, or emulate Macbeth in his Glamis? Did his other portfolio as the taxman rub someone the wrong way? Reader, your imagination must suffice — for those inconstant sources ever so keen on where and how are not so hot on why.

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1307: Murcod Ballagh, beheaded

Add comment April 1st, 2015 Headsman

“In the yeare 1307 the first of Aprill,” Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland records, “Murcod Ballagh was beheaded neere to Merton by sir David Caunton knight.”

First published in 1577, this document — heavily mined by Shakespeare for his histories — is silent as to the further particulars of the beheading. But the accompanying image depicting the execution surprisingly presents a guillotine-like device being employed for the task.

As John Wilson Croker’s History of the Guillotine observes, this one illustration 270 years after the fact scarcely suffices to establish that a guillotine precursor really was in use in Ireland in the first years of the 14th century. Were that the case, this might be the earliest quote-unquote “documented” execution by a beheading-machine.

(Executions in Halifax, Scotland, can be sourced as early as the 1280s, but it is not known if the famed Halifax Gibbet was in use at that early date.)

But it does at least establish the authors’ awareness of such technology — perhaps by familiarity with the Scottish Maiden, or perhaps by having caught wind of similar gadgets in France and Italy.

“This mode of execution was common on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Croker concludes with a bit of overstatement. “And yet had passed into such entire desuetude and oblivion as to have appeared as a perfect novelty when proposed by Dr. Guillotin.”

“This is certainly a striking illustration of the proverb that there is nothing new under the sun.”

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1306: Nigel de Brus, brother of the King

Add comment September 18th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in September of 1306 — sometime after the mid-September English capture of Kildrummy CastleNigel de Brus was drawn and quartered at the border town of Berwick.


The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.

As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.

Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.

None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.

All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.

With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.

Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.

(The Great Cause is covered in this episode of the History of England podcast.)

Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.

We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.

In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.


19th century illustration of John Comyn’s murder. Since we’re citing the handy History of England podcast, here’s the relevant episode.

In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.

Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after imbruing his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.

One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.

But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.

* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.

** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”

† A “False Margaret” posing as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.

‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.

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1301: False Margaret, Norwegian pretender

Add comment July 20th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

This is the feast date for the early Christian martyr Saint Margaret the Virgin of Antioch (only one of many saints named Margaret).

Margaret might in principle be of interest to this site as the patroness of the falsely accused, and one of the saints who spoke to Joan of Arc, but her star has fallen quite a bit since its medieval heyday on the celestial all-star team; considering the doubtful historicity of this bog-standard Diocletian martyr, the Catholic Church has dropped some of her celebrations.

So instead we’ll turn to a namesake of Margaret’s — well, namesake once removed.

We don’t know the date or even the season in 1301 when the so-called False Margaret and her husband were executed for fraud and treason: he by beheading, and she by burning at the stake.

The pair had made an audacious grab for the Norwegian throne the previous year. The story was told in detail in a nineteenth-century Icelandic history.

The False Margaret (whose true name has been lost to history, as has that of her husband) claimed to be Princess Margaret, known as the Maid of Norway, who was supposed to have died a decade before. How she got the idea to do this is a mystery. It seems unlikely that she came up with the plan on her own, but if she didn’t, then who set her up?

The actual Maid of Norway was the daughter of Eric II of Norway and a mom also named Margaret, this Margaret the daughter of Alexander III of Scotland. Said couple’s marriage treaty specified that if Alexander died without sons, and his daughter had children by Eric, those children would succeed to the throne of Scotland.

This is precisely what happened: Alexander died in 1286 without a legitimate son to succeed him, leaving his kingdom to the three-year-old Norwegian princess.

Technically speaking, the Maid of Norway was Queen of Scots from 1286 until her death. But since she was never crowned and never set foot on Scottish soil, some lists of Scottish monarchs do not include her name. She remained in Norway for the next several years and a selected group of guardians tried to maintain control of the country for her.

On, for the laughter, harps he pressed,
The feast’s right royal quarter; —
But west the ship fared, ever west
With Eric’s little daughter

-From “King Haakon’s Banquet Hall”, by Henrik Ibsen (pdf link)

Eric set about arranging a marriage for his daughter, eventually settling on the future Edward II of England, who was then Prince of Wales. Margaret set off for Scotland in 1290, with the plan that the English wedding would be arranged once she arrived.

Alas, the Maid of Norway never saw Scotland.

In September or October of 1290, en route, she died suddenly somewhere in the vicinity of the Orkney Islands, which were then Norwegian territory. She was only seven years old.

Her death set off a crisis in Scotland as more than a dozen heirs competed for the vacant throne, and this eventually lead to the Wars of Scottish Independence.

But did little Margaret really die?

In 1300, a woman arrived in Bergen, Norway on a German ship, claiming to be the lost princess. She said she had not died but had in fact been “sold” by one of her female attendants and sent to Germany, and had married there. By this time, Eric II had died without male issue and his brother, Haakon V, had become King of Norway.

In spite of the fact that (a) the Maid of Norway’s body had been returned to Norway and was identified by her father and (b) the False Margaret appeared to be about 40 years old when the Maid would have been 17, the False Margaret’s claims drew considerable popular support.

Why? A theory was put forth by the 19th-century Scottish historian John Hill Burton:

The announcement of so portentous an event [meaning the Maid’s death], through indistinct rumors, naturally caused men to talk and doubt. There was none of the solemn detail that might be expected to attend on a royal death, even though less heavily laden with a perplexing future. We are not told of any who were present, of the disease or its progress, of the spot where she died, or the place where she was buried. The time of death is only inferred … The whole affair has left on Scandinavian history a shadow of doubt, in the possibility that the child might have been spirited away by some one of those so deeply interested in her disappearance, and consequently, that it may be an open question whether the royal line of the Alexanders really came to an end…

It should be emphasized that there is no evidence of any conspiracy surrounding the Maid’s death and no evidence of her survival past 1290. Her own father, who had no apparent reason to lie, viewed the body and identified it as his daughter.

But people will talk, and believe what they want, and so the False Margaret found support for her wild story.

Ironically, even if she had been the real Maid of Norway, the False Margaret was not a serious rival to her uncle Haakon; her sex would have prevented her from ruling. But, as the Norwegian historian Peter Andreas Munch noted,

Her pretensions … might, nevertheless, have been extremely distasteful to him, and probably not altogether free from danger in the future, if, as was not at all unlikely, they should be made use of by the party of nobles who were discontented with his absolute government. This party would willingly have thrust him from the throne … but before they could hope to do so they must have a pretender to the crown of the old royal stock to set up opposition to him. [ … ] And for this purpose there would have been none more suitable than Margaret, if she could be conjured from the dead again.

This woman had to be dealt with. There was no getting around it.

Since the False Margaret and her husband were not executed until 1301, a year after their arrival in Norway, it seems likely that there must have been some official investigation into her claims. If so, the records of this have been lost. What seditious nobles might have hoped to gain through her has likewise slipped into a speculative fog. But False Margaret was clearly a matter of highest statecraft at the time: the executions were delayed until King Haakon could personally come to Bergen to see them carried out.

Embarrassingly, the False Margaret’s cause did not die with her. Her supporters actually erected a church to our friend Saint Margaret near the place of her execution. (The church is no longer extant.)

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1300: Gerard Segarelli, Apostolic Brethren founder

2 comments July 18th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1300 saw the execution in Parma, Italy of Gerard Segarelli, the founder of the order of the Apostolic Brethren who are perhaps better known for Segarelli’s apocalyptic successor, Fra Dolcino.

Despite the tendency of his follower to eclipse his star, Segarelli was himself a formidable religious reformer in a time flowering with expressions of popular piety that regularly confounded the prelates.

Joined as Dolcino and Segarelli are in this fascinating period, Executed Today aptly welcomes back Dr. Jerry Pierce to talk Segarelli. He’s already shed some light on Dolcino in these pages.

Dr. Pierce is completing a forthcoming book on the Apostles.

You view Segarelli as a very different sort of character from Dolcino.

One of the big issues in studying Segarelli is that he’s always tied to Dolcino. I mean, Segarelli does die a heretic, but he’s always tied to the biggest heresy. He actually founds his order in 1260 and he’s not executed until 1300, so that’s 40 years.

Doctrinally, the reason Segarelli didn’t have any issues for so long is that as far as we can tell, he never had an anti-clerical agenda. Unlike Dolcino, he doesn’t go around calling the Church the “Whore of Babylon”.

Even at the end?

No. Basically, the reason he’s executed is that he refuses to renounce his movement, it’s not that he has any doctrinal errors or anything like that.

He’s basically like a Franciscan, just 50 years later. It’s this popular, penitential movement. They have tons of support throughout central Italy, support from the lay people who provide them with shelter and food. They’re basically doing the stuff that Francis and the early Franciscans did, wandering around exhibiting the ascetic lifestyle. And it’s okay for lay people to do this at this point. Everybody does this.

Why does everybody do this? This century has an explosion of penitential religious mass movements.

Personally, I think it has to do with economics — you have the growth of cities, growth of money economy. These are urban movements. Segarelli’s in Parma, the flagellants are in Parma and other cities.

It has to do with living in this world of growing wealth, growing towns, hearing this message of poverty preached from the pulpit and then they look around and say, “wait a minute.”

Different individuals come to this conclusion — Francis, Peter Waldo, Segarelli — I don’t think they had an idea about founding a movement. They were just trying to do something to preserve their souls.

And these other groups like the Franciscans also face an internal tension between the spirit of ascetic poverty and the institutional Church.

Even before Segarelli, the guy who’s the head of the Franciscans in one letter that he wrote said, “people wandering in Italy would rather run into robbers on the road than two begging Franciscans because at least they know the robbers’ intentions.”

A lot of authors say that Segarelli is an offshoot of the poor spiritual Franciscans. But he has no connection. He tried to join the Franciscan order, but the poor order founded by St. Francis says, “yeah, you don’t have the right pedigree to be a Franciscan,” which really goes to show how institutionalized and closed the Franciscans had already become.

Most of the stuff we have about Segarelli for his first 20 years or so is from a rival Franciscan named Salimbene who’s mad that he’s making such headway. He actually says that he can’t believe that his fellow citizens are giving more to Segarelli and his Apostles than they ever did to the Franciscans. And that colors how they talk about them: in his eyes, Segarelli is a rustic from the country.

Did Segarelli preach at all?

He goes around telling people to do penance, and the Franciscan chronicler makes fun of him because he doesn’t say the Latin version, he uses the vernacular: penitenziagite instead of the Latin penitentiam agite.

Most of it was by example. You don’t have access, really, to a Bible as a lay person; this was a way for people to sort of experience the religious life without becoming a nun or a monk.

So for these first decades of his career, if he’s attracting all this criticism, why is he still tolerated?

Because he’s not really a threat. It’s a good way to channel lay piety without it becoming a threat or anything.

Bear in mind, this is after the Waldensians, after the Crusade against the Albigensians — and both of those groups talked about poverty. This gives Church figures a pretty good idea that, hey, maybe we should be accepting of these movements.

The Bishop of Parma accepted Segarelli. There was apparently a group of Apostolic sisters who did the same thing, and the Bishop of Parma sort of wrote a document saying that you get a partial indulgence for giving to them.

Given this institutional semi-support, why wasn’t Segarelli’s movement also corrupted?

There are other leaders than Segarelli, and some do have this issue. One guy is the brother of the podesta of Bologna, a pretty wealthy dude. He takes over this movement and he’s basically using people’s donations to buy horses and ride around in nice clothes. There’s a huge civil war within the Apostles. At one point Segarelli himself gets kidnapped by rival members.

It’s not until the 1280s that they start really running into problems with respect to the Catholic hierarchy, and the problem is because of the general proliferation of the lay movements. Two different popes lay out guidelines saying unestablished religious orders need to join established orders or just disband. But then you see people in the Apostolic movement ignoring that, moving into actually preaching things, which is potentially heretical, and they start attacking the Franciscans, the Friars Minor, by referring to themselves as the Friars Minimi, “the least.” The Franciscans are pretty powerful and they start going against the Apostles.

But Segarelli himself stays clear of this?

Segarelli himself doesn’t really take a leadership role even though he’s the founder. He’s sort of hands-off.

You can argue that he has some issues because he won’t follow authority when they tell him to disband. But it was after the group had been around for so long, it’d be like telling the Franciscans 40 years on, “sorry.” Early in the movement, the Apostles had actually gone to different members of the hurch hierarhy asking for a rule under which they could operate. So they’re not trying to be insurrectionaries.

How does it all break down for the Apostles, then?

It’d be too easy to say that it’s just greedy Franciscans. I think the other part is you have people who are getting into the movement, people like Dolcino, who have other agenda. And the Church is worried that they’re unregulated and without control you get improper doctrine being preached.

When it comes to it, Segarelli just refuses to disband. The Apostles had really grown beyond his personal control anyway. But at one point he escapes from the bishop’s palace where he’s sort of under house arrest and resumes his preaching, and they’re like, “all right, enough.”

What do we know about Segarelli’s relationship with Dolcino?

We think that Dolcino may have joined the order around 1290, but it’s all hearsay. Dolcino talks some about Segarelli.

What’s Segarelli’s long-term legacy?

It’s not heresy to be associated with Segarelli after he’s executed. We have Inquisitional trial records for several years after Segarelli in places like Bologna and other areas. There’s even some evidence that there were followers in France and Germany.

As time goes on, there’s a lot of people in Italy itself like Dolcino who appropriate the movement, so you have modern writers who talk about Segarelli and Dolcino as proto-Communists, or Segarelli as the real Franciscans. Some of them have an axe to grind against the institutional Church.

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1307: Fra Dolcino, Apostle

7 comments June 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1307, radical preacher Fra Dolcino was gruesomely put to death in a daylong public torture at the Piedmontese town of Vercelli.

Dolcino was the millenarian successor of Gerard Segarelli, whose itinerant commune of impoverished penitents — Apostles, they called themselves, to the chagrin of the Church hierarchy — had attracted followers for near half a century before the powers that be smashed it.

The shade of the burned firebrand (and the corporeality of his refugee onetime followers) haunt the murderous monastery of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Here, the paternal Franciscan unraveling the novel’s mystery explains Fra Dolcino’s illicit movement to his naive protege.

We were talking about those excluded from the flock of sheep. For centuries, as pope and emperor tore each other apart in their quarrels over power, the excluded went on living on the fringe, like lepers … all of them were ready to hear, or to produce, every sermon that, harking back to the word of Christ, would condemn the behavior of the dogs and shepherds and would promise their punishment one day. The powerful always realized this. The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics, whatever their doctrine …

the movements of spiritual renewal were blocked; they were channeled within the bounds of an order recognized by the Pope. But what circulated underneath was not channeled. It flowed, on the one hand, into the movements of the flagellants, who endanger no one, or into the armed bands like Fra Dolcino’s …

From the cinematic adaptation of The Name of the Rose. The monk’s semi-coherent summons to “penitenziagite” is significant because it marks him as a former adherent of the penance-focused movement. An Italian metal band called Dolcinian had a song (and album) of that exact title.

But were they really an “armed band”?

Executed Today is pleased to mark this portentous anniversary in conversation with historian Dr. Jerry Pierce, currently working on a book about the outlaw movement.

ET: Who were the Dolcinians?

JP: A lot of people get kind of caught up in the Dolcino part. It’s not about him until the very end.

The group itself originated in 1260, and it lasted 40-some years before it ran into any trouble. Their whole goal when they start is essentially, live a life of poverty like the original Apostles. And apparently that’s a problem for people later.

That’s really all it was about. It’s communal living, it’s not owning things at all, including houses. By 1260, they were better Franciscans than the Franciscans were.

And the Franciscans had a big presence in the city of Parma, where this thing got started, so they were slightly peeved.

So it’s a challenge to the Franciscans?

It’s not trying to show up the Franciscans, but it becomes a challenge.

The “Apostles” wander around, they beg for their food, they tell people to do penance.

The early Franciscans started off the same way, all about poverty, but once they became established, the order became all about money.

And the Apostles are not the only ones mounting this challenge.

Right. Waldensians in France predate the Franciscans by about 30 years or so.* You just have a guy in France who’s a businessman who hears a reading of the gospel saying to give up your possessions and follow Christ. And that’s what he does. He even pays someone to translate the Bible into vernacular French, which is a big no-no.

His group and Segarelli’s group are not an issue as long as they don’t say anything about the doctrine. So long as they don’t say anything about the Trinity or the Eucharist, they’re just calling people to penance — they’re okay.

But the reason these groups come along is that in that period, around 1150 — Europe is experiencing a big economic change. The haves are on the side of the church. This is the core of all of them, and it’s the core of the Dolcino philosophy as well — the church is preaching poverty, but it’s living wealthy.

So they were doing something within the practice of the Church’s community for decades. How did they get so dangerously on the outs?

The bishop of Parma actually patronizes the Apostles and grants indulgences to people who give money to them. They’re not just some kooky group that’s out there even though the main writings about them are by their opponents.**

But what happens is they become really, really popular, and people start following them, and the Franciscans get the hierarchy involved.

There’s nothing doctrinal about them until Dolcino that becomes heresy.

And what specifically is that?

You take Segarelli’s stuff about poverty and radical egalitarianism, and you have Dolcino either witness or know about the execution of Segarelli, and that sort of crystallizes for him that members of the Church are forces of evil.

Basically, Dolcino says that if they would kill this guy for preaching nothing other than poverty, which is their own message, then there’s something wrong.

Because of the persecution — Segarelli’s execution, the Inquisition moving in and questioning people — that kind of pressure is what spurs Dolcino to take off to the northern mountains. That’s sort of the catalyst for him to become apocalyptic.

But even suppressing that takes the Church years.

The chronology is muddy because we only have about three sources, but we think he joined the order before Segarelli was executed. And between 1300 and 1302 or 1303, he’s off in the northeast of Italy near Trento.

He’s from Valsesia, a river valley in the Piedmont, and he eventually returns with a bunch of followers across the mountains — between Novara and Vercelli. It’s an important area because the bishops of the two cities have been fighting each other for access to the valleys, and fighting the local feudal lords, the Biandrate.

This family that’s been controlling the region, they’ve been extending their influence far up the river valley and the farther you go up the valley, the more independent the people are up there; they hate people who encroach on their autonomy and they’ve recently rebelled and kicked them out.

Essentially, Dolcino enters this sovereign territory, and he’s saying to the inhabitants, the wealthy church and the people who live down on the plain are wicked and they’re going to assault you, and sure enough …

And that’s the rebellion that takes place, it’s these farmers and families who live up there against the Crusader army.

A Crusade?

The Pope† allowed a papal indulgence for people going on Crusade up there. They essentially recruit a mercenary army.

The irony of it is that the things that Dolcino and his followers are accused of is raiding people’s houses and stealing all their stuff, and raiding churches and stealing all the gold. Well, guess who actually did that? And all the mercenaries needed to say when they plundered was, “uh, yeah, Dolcino did that.”

You have these non-Valsesian Crusaders and mercenaries who sort of move into these territories and basically get beat by the locals several times.

We know there was this final pitched battle. The Dolcinians flee to a mountaintop awaiting the End Times. Essentially what the Crusader army did was they starved them into submission, basically just blockaded the whole area, and then overran a bunch of starving women and children.

“On that day more than a thousand of the heretics perished in the flames, or in the river, or by the sword, in the cruellest of deaths. Thus they who made sport of God the Eternal Father and of the Catholic faith came, on the day of the Last Supper, through hunger, steel, fire, pestilence, and all wretchedness, to shame and disgraceful death, as they deserved.” (Source)

Dolcino also had a female opposite number, and the sect preached egalitarianism. Did they have an egalitarian gender politics as well?

The woman, Margaret or Margherita, it’s hard to tell exactly who she is — there’s all this embellishment. She’s sometimes called the “wife” of Dolcino, or sources call her the “mistress”, which makes it sound seedier. But we don’t actually know if they were involved or not involved. She was a former nun, and we know a little bit about her family, but there’s just not much about her.†

As to gender generally, the sources will say, these Apostles believed that nobody should own any property so they shared all their things and even their women.

So you’re meant to think that they just pass them around, but that wasn’t the case at all; there weren’t orgies and such. In this case, they did stress radical egalitarianism.

This is actually the ideology of the Christians in the first century: they also say, the world we live in is wrong, and it’s about to end — one of the things about the world they live in is, it’s patriarchal, and they come up with radical egalitarianism because there’s not supposed to be any distinctions in heaven and they’re looking forward to that.

We don’t exactly know if, in the end, it was the Dolcinians themselves fighting or the inhabitants of the area who protected them. But whoever it was, the [anti-Dolcino] sources on the battles also say, basically, “oh my God, the women are wearing pants and fighting next to the men.”

What’s the legacy of this whole movement?

In its own time, there were remnants of the Order of the Apostles still in Parma and the area for the next 20 or 30 years. It’s not heresy to be part of the group per se. There are references to sort of straggler parts of the group in France, in Spain, for the next 100 to 200 years, but it’s really hard to tell.

We do know they spread out pretty far. At one point under Segarelli they sent people to Jerusalem.

The people who live in Valsesia still today totally revere Dolcino. You can go on Dolcino hiking tours!

And there’s been this long history of appropriating his meaning.

“Thou, who perchance
Shalt shortly view the sun, this warning thou
Bear to Dolcino: bid him, if he wish not
Here soon to follow me, that with good store
Of food he arm him, lest impris’ning snows
Yield him a victim to Novara’s power,
No easy conquest else.”

-Mohammed, in Dante’s Inferno (He sounds prophetic, but Dante wrote after Dolcino’s death, with the action set while the heresiarch was still alive.)

In 1407, members of the Church went out and built a church consecrated to the fight aganist the heretics near the site where the Dolcinians were wiped out, and the local populace was outraged.

In 1907, Dolcino was appropriated by the Italian socialists. There was a workers’ group that planted a big red flag, and then they built a monument to him, with a plaque on it with the lines from Dante‘s Inferno.

There’s pictures of this monument, with tons of people up on the mountainside and they’re all dressed in their best.

And the monument lasted until the mid-1920s when the fascists blew it up with pro-fascist clerics. It was rebuilt in 1974, and you can see the old Catholic church from it — two opposing claims on Fra Dolcino.

Obviously you’re pretty sympathetic to this movement. What do you think we ought to make of them?

I think for me the key to understanding the whole order is not just to say, “well, everyone understands it wrong.” There’s a sort of willful wrongness to it, that whenever you put apocalypticism in it, it immediately puts people in the crazy category.

But in this period, when people talked about the end of the world, it didn’t necessarily mean they were nuts.

And then the other thing is, they’re not as violent and threatening as they appear on first read. I’m not even sure that they ever lifted a finger against the Crusaders, they may have just fled. Which in a sense means that they hold true to their values to the end.

More reading: A Historical Memoir of Fra Dolcino and His Times -ed.

* The Waldensians hung around into the Protestant Reformation, and still exist today.

** e.g., about Segarelli, by a Franciscan — who calls them something that translates loosely to “ribald bumpkins”.

Pope Clement V: he would prove more effective crushing the Templars.

‡ Margaret was also executed — allegedly turning down several smitten suitors’ offers to marry her if she would abjure. (Margaret was rich.) Although she’s most picturesquely shown burnt to death in front of Fra Dolcino during or before the latter’s torture, the sources seem to be unreliable as to whether she was in fact also executed on June 1, or on some other date.

On this day..

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