1422: Jan Zelivsky, Hussite defenestrator

Add comment March 9th, 2015 Headsman

Radical Hussite Jan Želivský was beheaded on this date in 1422.


1952 memorial plaque of Zelivsky in Prague

Zelivsky (English Wikipedia entry | Czech), a priest, emerges in the 1410s as a fiery populist orator at Prague’s Church of Our Lady of the Snows.

After the treacherous capture and execution of Jan Hus, the Hussite movement split between radical and moderate factions. The firebrand Zelivsky became the chief voice of the lower-class, radical Hussites and led the dramatic Defenestration of Prague wherein a Hussite mob pitched several Catholic city ministers out the window of the Prague town hall — triggering a revolution and 15 years of war.

Over the ensuing year, Zelivsky came to dominate politics in Prague. But he had to struggle for his power against both the external threat of Hapsburg armies, and the internal rivalry of moderate Hussites — and these factions did not scruple to deploy the executioner for mastery of Prague.

Zelivsky in the summer of 1421 mounted a coup against moderate Hussites who were negotiating with the Catholic nobility, and even executed some of those movement apostates. But power was wrested away from him in the ensuing months and he was arrested by surprise at a town meeting and secretly put to death.

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1427: Johann Bantzkow, Mayor of Wismar

Add comment November 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1427, the merchant-mayor of Wismar was beheaded — the incidental casualty of a Baltic trade war.

The Hanseatic League, that vast trading cartel stretching from Europe’s Low Countries in the west to Novgorod in the east, was in its glory at the start of the 15th century. The Hanse dominated Baltic trade.

Its major rival was Denmark, which had brought most of Scandinavia together in the Kalmar Union.


Map of the Hanseatic League at its apex, circa 1400. (Via Wikipedia)

Come the 1420s, the Danish monarch was Eric of Pomerania, a handsome and headstrong king. He would come to blows with Hanse cities over the Duchy of Schleswig.

Schleswig is the “neck” of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. In the present day, the German-Danish border splits Schleswig horizontally: north Schleswig is Danish soil; south Schleswig, German.

To summarize a complicated history, the historical Duchy of Schleswig was long a bone of contention between the pre-modern precursors of those current states. Since Germany was very far from a unitary entity where we lay our scene in the 15th century, Denmark’s immediate rival for Schleswig was that territory’s southern neighbor, Holstein. Eric had fought intermittently in the 1410s and 1420s against the counts of Holstein over who controlled what and upon what terms in south Jutland.

After securing a legal ruling favorable to his claims from the Holy Roman Emperor, Eric in 1426 began enforcing his rights by force.

Holstein in turn sought aid from Hanseatic towns many of whom — wary of Denmark as a rival to its Baltic trading stranglehold — did indeed enter the fray on the side of Holstein. Hanseatic ships began raiding southern Denmark in the spring of 1427.

Wismar, a Hanse wool-trading port just a few kilometers outside of Holstein, was one of these cities. Johann Bantzkow (German link), its merchant ruler, supplied some 200 sail for the Hanseatic flotilla.

Unfortunately for the Hanse, and for Bantzkow, the Danes proved to have naval superiority and dealt a crushing defeat to the Hanseatic fleet on July 11, 1427 — then once again on July 25. A number of Wismar ships were captured in the process.

Public anger in Wismar was intense. That city had seen its own social conflicts in the generations preceding between the town’s patricians and its guilds; now popular anger over the souls lost at sea caused Bantzkow’s fellow-mayor Hinrik van Haren to be slain by the mob. Bantzkow himself was condemned judicially, and his influential family could not manage any better succor than a death by the sword instead of the horrible prospect of the breaking-wheel. Claus Jesup (German link), a leader of guilds, made himself mayor of a rearranged political order.

The prospective realignment was itself reversed in 1430, and the re-established magnates put up a Bantzkowsche Sühnekapelle (German again), or Bantzkow Penance Chapel, to atone for the unjust beheading. Regrettably, the chapel was demolished in the 19th century.

Given setbacks at sea, Holstein and its remaining Hanseatic allies focused on actual conquest in Schleswig, and with much better success. Eric was eventually forced after great expense to sue for a costly stalemate,* an affair which helped to undermine Eric’s own hold on power until he was finally deposed in 1440.

However, Eric’s success on the seas — and his urgent need for funds — led to his establishing Denmark’s Sound Dues on 1429, collecting lucrative tolls from all foreign ships sailing between the Baltic Sea and the Kattegat.** This tax would remain a pillar of the Danish state well into the 19th century, at times providing up to two-thirds of the government’s operating income.

A new Hanse was re-founded in 1980 as a cultural exchange network among the historic cities of the federation.

* Control of Schleswig-Holstein never was definitively resolved, and it re-emerged as a famously devilish diplomatic problem in the 19th century — prompting Lord Palmerston to remark that “only three people … have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort, who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

** It’s thanks to Sound Dues that Elsinore, the main tolling point, got big and rich enough for Shakespeare to set Hamlet there.

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1421: The last Viennese Jews

1 comment March 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1421, a months-long campaign to purge Vienna of her Jews culminated with over 200 burned — and the rest of the once-thriving community either driven into exile or forced to convert.

Vienna had had a Jewish presence for centuries, centered on the Judenplatz.

The religious wars unleashed between Catholics and followers of the Czech reformer Jan Hus complicated the Jewish position. While not an unblemished relationship, Hussites were generally seen to be more sympathetic to Jews, and vice versa. Fellow-victims of Catholic persecution, Hussites recast the Biblical Antichrist with Papist rather than Jewish associations. Hussites openly looked to the Torah and Jewish divines like Rabbi Avigdor Kara for inspiration.*

That’s all well and good, but Vienna was emerging as one of the principal cities of the very Catholic Habsburg empire. (It was not yet the official seat: that would come later in the 15th century.)

To the perceived Hussite-Jewish alliance one must add consideration of Duke Albert V — later the Holy Roman Emperor Albert II — and his considerable debts, no small part of them held by Vienna’s Jewish moneylenders.

On Easter 1420, Albert pumped up a rumor that Jews had desecrated the Eucharist and ordered mass-arrests and -expulsions of Jews, complete with handy asset forfeiture. This was the onset of the Wiener Gesera, the Viennese persecution — as it was remembered later by remnants of the shattered Jewish community scattered abroad.

Pogroms attacking the Jews in Vienna (and elsewhere in Austria) ensued, culminating with the dramatic three-day siege of Vienna’s Or-Saura synagogue. That ended Masada-style when 300 trapped denizens committed suicide to escape forced baptism, and the last living among them torched the building from the inside. Its blasted remains were razed to the ground by the besiegers.**

Albert at that point finished off Vienna’s Jews by sending its final hardy (or foolhardy) members — 120 men and 92 women, it says here; different figures in the same neighborhood can be had elsewhere — to the stake.

“As the waters of the River Jordan cleansed the souls of the baptized, so did the flames which rose up in the year 1421 rid the city of all injustice,” read a Latin plaque erected on the site.

Jews were not permitted to return to Austria for centuries.

* “The Hussites pioneered a uniquely Czech form of philo-Semitism … the fascination, among a persecuted, dissident group, with the Jewish people and religion,” writes Eli Valley. “The Hussites were perhaps the first religious group in Christian European history to argue against the ban on Jews in craftsmaking and farming” and “unlike Martin Luther’s similar program in the sixteenth century, the Hussite movement did not predicate its kindness to Jews on the condition that they would be baptized.”

** The synagogue’s foundations have been only recently rediscovered, as part of the excavation for a Museum Judenplatz at the site. That museum has not necessarily been welcomed by the Viennese Jewish community it’s supposed to represent.

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1428: Matteuccia di Francesco, San Bernardino casualty

1 comment March 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1428, Matteuccia di Francesco was condemned and burned as a witch in the Perugian town of Todi. It’s one of the oldest witchcraft cases in Italy for which a complete trial record survives.

Matteuccia was a local wise woman or sorceress dispensing the herbal remedies, potions, and incantations that comprised the everyday magic as experienced by popular superstition — like a homemade contraceptive (ashes of a mule’s hoof mixed into wine: drink up!) for the mistress of the local prelate.

The woman seems to have practiced this openly and (for aught we know) happily in Todi … until Bernardino of Siena holy rolled into town.

Bernardino, now considered a Catholic saint, was a mendicant Franciscan who crisscrossed Italy inveighing against Jews, sodomites, and (you guessed it) witches. Think Savonarola: like that later austere and charismatic firebrand, Bernardino even had bonfires of vanities.

The turmoil was large and the people trembled. The Church and piazza Santa Croce was full of citizens and peasants, women and men, several thousands in number. The shouting of little children and young boys was loud when friar Bernardino stopped preaching and went to the piazza with many other friars and set on fire a pile of four tables of games, several baskets of dice, more than four thousands pairs of old and new card games of great numbers, and placed and attached and hung on every side were much hair and flounces of dresses of women and other things and with a lot of wood underneath. You have never seen a more beautiful fire, and the flames spread in the air and confused the demon enemy of God, bringing glory, honor and praises to the reverence of our master Jesus Christ the highest God.*


Detail view of Sano di Pietro’s 1445 St. Bernardino Preaching in the Campo, showing the saint (brandishing his trademark prop tablets) drawing a crowd in his native Siena’s central plaza. There are many paintings, stretching to centuries after his death, on the theme of Bernardino’s, er, spellbinding sermons.

As pertains specifically to witchcraft, one might say that the import of preachers like Bernardino thundering from the pulpits in the early 15th century was to delegitimate the many Matteuccias around.

Thanks to decades of evolving thought, this formerly accepted sphere of “white magic” was now going to be understood as outright devil-worship: your classic theological zero-tolerance policy.

O you who have used the charm for broken bones, to you, and to him or her who says that she is bewitched, and who makes you believe she is — to all these I say, take heed! For the first to feel the strokes from God’s scourges will be those who have trusted in these enchantments and followed them; and next vengeance will overtake those who have not brought them to justice … When such people say that they wish to cure anyone, do you know what you should do? There is nothing better to do than cry, “To the fire! To the fire! To the fire!”

Wherever one may be, and whoever may know him or her, in any place whatsoever inside or outside the city, straightaway accuse her before the Inquisitor … every witch, every wizard, every sorcerer or sorceress, or worker of charms and spells … such enchanters, every time they have worked any charms or spells have denied God by doing so.

-San Bernardino (Source)

Inspired by our itinerant zealot, Todi tightened up witchcraft laws in 1426, and prescribed the stake and the fagot for violations.

“The church now equated the performance of common sorcery, involving only a few words or simple gestures and aimed at curing or causing illness or affecting the weather, with … a preexisting pact between the sorcerer and demons that made such magic possible,” writes Michael Bailey.** “Indeed, such sorcerers, whom in an earlier era the church had seen more as victims and dupes of demonic illusions and had hardly taken seriously, now became all the more terrible in that they were capable of commanding demonic forces with only a few simple words or signs.”

Matteuccia didn’t have long to enjoy her newfound demonic-command powers before she ran afoul of Todi’s eager witch-hunters. Her words, as filtered through her interrogators, capture the evolving theology-cum-jurisprudence around magic.

After copping to countless trifling hocuses and pocuses — philters for lovers, poultices for injuries, aid and comfort for battered women (apparently, counseling these women was one of her specialties: “adding evil to evil,” according to her persecutors) — her narrative suddenly shifts to the phantasmagorial.

Presumably under torture or the promise thereof, the corner pharmacist is suddenly reporting that she drank children’s blood and transformed into an animal to fly off to Lucifer’s convocations at Benevento. (This is also one of Italy’s first documented invocations of flying to a witches’ sabbat.) Not surprisingly, these scenes are straight out of Bernardino’s own descriptions of what witches do.

The intellectual framework of the inquisitors who pursued Matteuccia now expected to find the latter variety of supernatural diabolism as a corollary and precondition for stocking an impotence enchantment. And like inquisitors are always prone to do, they made sure to find what they were looking for.

* 1424 account of a Bernardino spectacle in Florence, quoted and translated in Nirit Ben-Aryeh’s “Jews and Judaism in the Rhetoric of Popular Preachers: The Florentine Sermons of Giovanni Dominici (1356-1419) and Bernardino da Siena (1380-1444)”, Jewish History, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2000),

** Bailey, “From Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages”, Speculum, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Oct., 2001).

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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