1476: Israel, the last execution of the Trent blood libel trial

Add comment January 19th, 2015 Headsman

We have covered in these pages the horrific blood libel trial that sent most of the Jews of Trent to execution for the supposed ritual murder of the child Simon of Trent.

The moral panic (and torture-aided interrogation) that broke out when Trent’s Jews were suspected of having killed a Christian child led to a batch of executions in June 1475. But that was only the first act of a drama that would reach all the way to the courts of popes and emperors in the subsequent months … a conflict that would not end even when the last “murderer”, Israel, was broken on the wheel on January 19, 1476.

Trent lay at the southern fringe of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire,* literally halfway from Vienna to Rome … and Trent’s ambitious prince-bishop Johannes Hinderbach was likewise beholden to both those poles of authority.

The sitting pope, Sixtus IV, was pretty sympathetic to Jews in general and very definitely not okay with Hinderbach’s theater of torture and execution. Sixtus was certainly also feeling plenty of pushback from other Jewish communities in Europe to make sure Trent wouldn’t be a precedent for similar freakouts in the future, and from Christian elites who didn’t want muddleheaded fanatics running around.

In Trent, “the Jews” meant literally three households — a tiny handful of people. By contrast, in cosmopolitan, humanist Rome, Jews were prominent among the intelligentsia and their presence taken for granted. Sixtus had Jewish “advisors and physicians in the papal court. They were teachers of music, theater, and science. Rome was a center of Hebrew literature and publishing … Sixtus IV, like most of his predecessors, took his role as a defender of Jews from violence more or less for granted.”**

Sixtus ordered the proceedings halted “because many and important men began to murmur,” and instituted an apostolic commission to investigate.

But Hinderbach and the Trentini refused to cooperate (Italian link) with the investigation. Hinderbach, for his part, was all-in on the Simonino story: just like today, nobody on the hook for a wrongful execution is going to advance his career by acknowledging that fact.

Resentfully, Hinderbach put his unwelcome papal visitor Battista Dei Guidici up in a crappy room, and “many people, moved more by furor than reason, temerity than devotion, threatened to kill the commissioner in the streets of the city, if he did not confirm the miracles and the asserted martyrdom” of little Simon. If anyone in Trent thought otherwise, he did not dare make it known to the closely-watched investigator.

Trent still had Jews in prison at this point, but Hinderbach resolutely prevented the pope’s agent from interviewing with them. “It was to be feared,” Hinderbach said, “that if he talked to them, he or his men could give some sign to the Jews, who would be rendered more obstinate, since they were always saying, ‘A man will come to free us.'”

Book CoverThese quotes are via R. Po-Chia Hsia’s Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, which is likewise our guide for the tense diplomatic battle ensuing over the autumn of 1475.

After having bribed a servant to deliver word to the imprisoned Jewish women that they had an advocate, Dei Guidici relocated to nearby Venetian territory — “where innocent people are not killed, where Christians do not plunder Jews, as it was in Trent” — and papers started flying.

Dei Guidici appealed to — and eventually ordered — Hinderbach to release the remaining Jews in his custody, while the pope sent out directives quashing any preaching on Simon’s “martyrdom.” Italian Jews poured into Dei Guidici’s offices appealing for their fellows and attesting that they could not travel through Trent for fear of mob violence.† A verse from a Veronese rabbi dating to late 1475 curses the nearby city: “Hills of Trent, may you not have rain or dew / Seven times may you fall and not rise.”

Hinderbach, for his part, sent his own envoys to German cities that had persecuted Jews for ritual murder in the past to get his own paper trail establishing that, yes, the Hebrew liked a good drink of Christian blood. More significantly, as a prince-bishop, Hinderbach also sent his own appeals up the Holy Roman Empire’s secular chain of command, objecting to the ecclesiastical meddling.

Hinderbach’s only concession to his apostolic scold was to release the children he had in custody. In October 1475, his political machinations with the Habsburgs yielded authorization from the powerful Tirolean Archduke Sigismund to resume judicial proceedings against “the Jewish men and women you have in prison” and “render justice as it should be, and let the death sentences be carried out.”

Interrogations for six Jewish men still in custody resumed on October 25, again with the aid of the horrible strappado to confirm and elaborate upon the already-determined official story of Simon’s martyrdom.

Denial — or even confessing, but guessing the wrong detail to “admit” — was not an option, as this October 26 interrogation record indicates.

He was asked whether he saw the murdered boy.

JOAFF [one of the Jewish households’ servants]: In the ditch.

PODESTA: Think again.

JOAFF: In the antechamber of the synagogue.

PODESTA: Anywhere else?

JOAFF: No.

He was ordered stripped, tied by the rope, and hoisted up.

JOAFF: Let me down, I’ll speak the truth.

PODESTA: Speak it on the ropes.

JOAFF: I have never done anything evil.

He was hoisted up and dropped.

This continues until Joaff has been dropped enough times to agree that he saw Simon’s body on Saturday night, on a bench in the synagogue. They knew that was the truth because it confirmed what they already wanted to hear.

This would be the end of Trent’s Jewish men in January 1476.

Israel, a 23-year-old copyist, was the last to die, and his fate is particularly poignant.

He had half-escaped the pall of death by accepting baptism the previous spring, and lived freely during the following months under the name Wolfgang. Dei Guidici interviewed him, one of the few productive sessions the pope’s man was able to arrange in Trent, and learned thereby of the details of Hinderbach’s interrogations.

Once Dei Guidici withdrew to Venetian soil, Jews of that principality would begin reaching out to “Wolfgang” in their efforts to communicate with the remaining imprisoned Jews.

This skullduggery came came apart when the persecution fired back up in October, and Israel was re-arrested, and put again and repeatedly to the rope. He was a man bound to be crushed by the legal machinery arrayed against him, but it was not only that. As Israel was well-traveled, he was tortured for information about ritual murders in other German cities; his forced denunciation of 14 named Jews in Regensburg initiated a blood-libel proceeding in that city that was only aborted by intervention from the Emperor himself.

And while Israel struggled to portray himself as a faithful convert and appeal to little Simon for an exculpatory miracle that never came, he at least once threw aside the mask to give his tormenters a piece of his mind.

PODESTA: What did he think of the Christian faith?

ISRAEL: He wants to say the truth. He does not believe in anything of the Christian faith … It is a joke to say that God came down from heaven to earth, walked around and lived among men. He believes only in God and nothing more. He believes also that the Jewish faith is right and holy.

PODESTA: Does he believe that it is right, according to Jewish law, that Jews kill Christian children and drink and eat their blood as he himself had said.

ISAREL: He believes firmly that it is right that Jews kill Christian children and eat their blood. He wants to have Christian blood at Easter, even now that he is baptized he wants to die a Jew.

Four other Jews from Trent died by hanging earlier in January 1476. The last one put to death was Israel on January 19 — “thief, eater and drinker of Christian blood, poisoner, blasphemer, traitor, and an enemy of Christ and Godly majesty.”

Even his death did not finally put a stop to the affair, for the women of the Jewish community were still in prison, and still being tortured as late as March. They would eventually accept baptism as the price of their release.

Meanwhile, Hinderbach and Dei Guidici carried their scrap to the curia. Hinderbach’s dogged advocacy of his burgeoning cult of Simon — and the odd ad hominem against his foe here and there — won some allies against Dei Guidici’s protests against “the peril which would be incumbent on the Christian religion, on account of the dealings in Trent, and the lies that would reach the ignorant.”

In the end, the Church decided it on political grounds. It could not encourage more Trents; neither could it invite the scandal of disavowing the one that had already taken place. It upheld Hinderbach’s conduct while also reiterating standing prohibitions against blood-libel trials or oppressing the Jews.

Hinderbach very naturally took this as vindication and spent the balance of his life propagating the Simonino cult. Artwork throughout northern Italy, some of it still visible in situ today in its original public monuments and chapel frescoes, attested to his success.


The Martyrdom of Simonino, by Gandolfino d’Asti.


The Martyrdom of Saint Simonio, from the Trento school of Nicklaus Weckmann. (Via)

Indeed, the city of Trent itself‡ still has a street-viewable bas-relief depiction of Simonino’s ritual murder, with the Latin inscription:

In the dungeons of these buildings, where once a synagogue stood, and now a shrine, the blessed martyr Simon of Trent, in his 29th month of life, was killed with excruciating pain by the Jews in the deep of the night of April 10, 1475 A.D.

The Simon of Trent cult — never the face of Christianity that the institutional church really wanted to feature — was only officially suppressed in the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council.

* Trent’s position on the frontier of the Italian and German worlds is also the reason the next century’s major anti-Reformation Council of Trent was held there.

** Sixtus wasn’t all good news for Jews. More from political necessity than affirmative desire, he also authorized the Spanish Inquisition and appointed Torquemada.

† During this time, Dei Guidici also managed to extract a Trent resident named Anzelino Austoch. Under Dei Guidici’s torture, Austoch accused the man named der Schweizer, “the Swiss” — the very man who had suggested that the Jewish homes be searched for Simon’s body — of committing the murder. Dei Guidici clearly believed that either the Schweizer, or Austoch, or both, had actually killed Simon and intentionally framed the city’s Jews.

‡ Trent does not, of course, still avow the legitimacy of these proceedings; the city has elsewhere put up plaques apologizing for it.

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1476: Hans Bohm, the Drummer of Niklashausen

1 comment July 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1476, a peasant preacher who nearly stirred a revolution was consigned to the flames in Wurzburg.

Hans Behem (or similar variations on that surname, e.g. Bohm or Boheim) is known to posterity as the Drummer of Niklashausen, for when he descended into that Tauber River town for Carnival he performed with this instrument.

His vocation — his peasant’s lot in life — was sheep-herding.

One frigid Lent night in 1476, a year when the protracted winter freeze promised gaunt months ahead for the peasantry, Hans was wrapped in his heavy cloak watching his flock when he had an unexpected visitor:

Book CoverThe Virgin Mary appeared to him.

Richard Wunderli’s very appealing Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen situates this queer episode in the foreign world of the early modern peasantry, when the supernatural suffused everyday life and the seasons of the year elapsed in “ritualized joy, laughter, deprivation, and seriousness.”

Carnival, just ended, was “liminal time”: time for inversion of natural orders, time for foolishness, time for liberation. If the rite confined and discharged potential social pressures, “liminal time” also held a latent threat to the ordered world of lords and bishops. What happened if sublime religious revelation burst the calendar’s boundaries and flooded ordinary time with the liminal?

[The Virgin] told him that both God and her Son were angry with mankind and were chastising all peoples with the dreadful cold and snow. People were consumed by their vanities, she said, and did not worship the Heavenly Family as was their due … Hans was ordered to go to the portal of the village church of Niklashausen, the Frauen kirche, the church dedicated to the Virgin, and there publicly he was to burn his drum and his shepherd’s pipe. Then he was to preach in Niklashausen, and the Mother of God would instruct him what to say. (Wunderli)

Thanks to this vision, 1476 would be a year out of time.

Hans apparently knew a Beghard mystic who dwelled in the hills where he pastured sheep. In the fullness of time, this anonymous man would die with the drummer; the precise nature of their association is a matter for speculation, though some would later charge (the better to derogate the illiterate boy’s supposed divine revelation) that the Beghard orchestrated the whole thing.

Nevertheless, the proximity to the Drummer of Niklashausen of an adherent of the suppressed Beghard movement underscores the link between Hans’s subsequent preaching and the centuries-old tradition of radical poverty. Elites long viewed these movements as seditious, and why not? Poverty was the material lot of most people just as it had been for Christ himself, but it was self-evidently not the lot of Christ’s vicars, who in fashionable attire bought with forced tithes and the sale of get-out-of-purgatory indulgences breezed obnoxiously past the everyday tolls and levies that crushed their flocks. Arrogant, predatory lords made out even better than that.

Sacralized poverty ever sat next door to levelling — next door to revolution.

The German abbot Johann Trithemius would complain of the “rustic, ignorant people [who] gathered together daily in Niklashausen,” and their terrifying-to-him vision “that peasants would become free and the clergy placed in servitude.”

What could peasants find more agreeable than that they had been freed from all payments of rents and tenant services, and that thereafter they would hold everything in common with the clergy and princes? Truly, what could a layman find more desirable than that he should see the clergy and priests immediately stripped of all privileges and liberties, and denied their collection of tithes, rents, and the proceeds of the holy altar?

Madness … or divinest sense.

Hans Behem preaching from a window, with his sinister adviser at his side. Detail (click for the full image) of a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle illustration. (via Wikipedia)

Hans, of course, obeyed the Virgin’s charge to him.

Just after Easter, he publicly burned his drum — his own little vanity — and began preaching in Niklashausen.

Maybe the words came from the Beghard, or from the alleged mendicant friar who was rumored to whisper to Hans. Maybe the young man had a natural gift for oratory and a few lucky breaks.

But to tens of thousands of German peasants who soon began arriving, he was a holy youth, the vessel for heaven. Hans’s prayers lifted the interminable frost, sparing at least some portion of the year’s crop. Peasants from all around the region caught wind of the supernatural event and began up and disappearing from their places without notice or excuse, leaving work half-done to join troops of their fellows making pilgrims’ tracks to Niklashausen.

There, they too were summoned to cast aside all their own vanities as well,* and into the flames went stylish clothes, sinful dice and cards.

“They cut the long points off their shoes,” wrote a disdainful chronicler Georg Widman. “And trimmed their hair, and it seemed as though a dozen carts would not suffice to haul away the hair and shoes being discarded that day, to say nothing of embroidered kerchiefs, robes, doublets.”

The drummer’s preaching veered apocalyptic. Medieval people would have believed of a course that God’s pleasure or disfavor went abroad in the world; the awful winter (only the latest in a series) and, for peasants, a generation of deteriorating material conditions and multiplying taxes, would have stood witness to the Lord’s dissatisfaction. The miracles attributed to Hans — healing the lame, the blind, and the mute; even raising a drowned child from the dead — were of a piece with his words, with the bonfires, with the favor of the Virgin Mary.

Hans’s call to renewal was not a summons to save individual souls but a charge to right the evils in the world that had laid divine afflictions upon all: “If they do not forthwith mend their lives, the whole world will be made to suffer affliction for their sins.” (Source)

The Emperor is a miscreant, and the Pope a nonentity. It is the Emperor who gives to princes, counts, and knights authority to tax and burden the common people. Alas! for you, poor devils!” Spies in the crowds, no doubt paraphrasing prejudicially, captured for the alarmed archbishop and lords the dangerous sentiments being preached in Niklashausen to crowds swollen into the tens of thousands who might not easily be controlled.

Princes, civil and ecclesiastical, ought to possess no more than common folk, and then all would have plenty. The time would come when princes and nobles would have to labour for a day’s wage. The fish in the water, and the game upon the land, ought to be common. Tolls, road-money, servitudes, rents, taxes, and tithes to spiritual or temporal superiors were to be wholly done away with.

Most frightful of all was the open threat to slay worthless priests, that soon clerics would cover their head with their hand for fear of being caught out with a tonsure. Hans Behem’s crowds rejoiced at the prospect; a clergyman would write later that summer of the pilgrims’ “hateful song”: “O God in Heaven, on you we call / Help us seize our priests and kill them all.”**

On the night of July 12, 1476 — the eve before the Drummer was to preach a sermon for which he had asked his followers to arrive armed — 34 mounted knights burst into the farmhouse where he was staying and hustled the firebrand into custody before anyone could resist.

The movement was beheaded and it fractured quickly: after a day of confusion, some of them set off on a march to nearby Wurzburg, where the Drummer languished in the Archbishop’s fortress, a position that the rabble was in no position to take by main force. Many gave up the enterprise, but dozens, maybe a hundred or more, were captured and filled Wurzburg’s dungeons to overflowing.

Almost all were ultimately released. Only three were put to trial: Hans himself, the mysterious Beghard, and a peasant who had risen up after Hans’s arrest to incite the crowd to kill the Wurzburg clergy. Hans was tortured by the rope, hoisted into the air by his pinioned hands then dropped with all the weight of his body tearing at his shoulders. They did this to him over and over, until he said that he was a fraud, that Mary never came to him, that he never worked a miracle, that the “wandering, cunning mendicant friar contrived everything.”

Hans was burnt flesh either way: this is the fate of martyrs. It was essential that he also be discredited, though the effect was scarcely immediate.

Certainly, there were those who with imprudent faith believed that his whole affair originated in heaven … they hoped that God would preserve him from being killed; or if God allowed him to die, then He would take immediate vengeance on the courts that condemned the Youth.

Others, who were more sane, among whom were the bishop and his clergy, did not fear the vengeance of God for the death of this wicked man; rather, they earnestly, sensibly, and rationally feared that spiteful, evil spirits — who take delight in possessing superstitious people — would scheme some plot of guile and deceit at the execution. For they judged that little Hans was not a man of God but was possessed by the devil.

At last the judgment of death to little Hans was to be carried out … After he had been led to a level piece of ground, which is behind my monastery near the house of the lepers, he was seated and bound with ropes. Nearly all the citizens of the town stood by armed, waiting for him to be delivered to the fires. In the meantime, two evildoers who were with him received a sentence to have their heads cut off.

After they were beheaded, little Hans asked the magistrate: “Are you going to hurt me?” The magistrate replied: “No, but someone has prepared a bath for you” — for the Youth had not yet seen the pile of wood for the fire, or if he had seen it, he perhaps did not know what it was.


From the Nuremberg Chronicle

When he was tied to the stake for burning, however, he sang certain songs or verses in a high voice about Our Lady, which he had composed in the German language. Among the bystanders were many who believed that the man could not be burned because of the merit of his holiness, by which they thought he would be preserved by the Mother of God. Hence, they were afraid to stand near him. They were terrified that perhaps the fire would be scattered about by divine fury and would consume those observing the execution. Others feared that the Youth could not be burned because of the protection of demons or of some other sorcery. Therefore, the executioner — who also feared this — caused all the Youth’s hairs to be shaved, so that no evil spirit or demon would be able to hide in them.

Bound to the post, the Youth shouted his songs. But as soon as the fire was set below him and he felt the flames, he cried out three times with a weeping voice: “Ow, ow, ow.” He was then engulfed by the flames. His voice uttered nothing again. Consumed by the voracious fire, he was reduced to ashes. No miracles happened, nothing that demonstrated that Innocence had been consumed by fire. Nevertheless, so that the frivolous devotion and fear of stupid people not fashion him into a martyr, the executioner ordered that all his ashes be thrown into the river. After this was done, the gathering of the people at Niklashausen came to an end.

The “gathering” did not quite blow away with the Drummer’s ashes, not just like that.

Despite edicts from nearby cities against the practice, pilgrims continued journeying to Niklashausen over the following months: not with the number and character sufficient to threaten revolution, but more than enough to make the authorities jumpy. The Archbishop was so desperate to quash these pilgrimages that in 1477 he had the church at Niklashausen razed.

In those years and long after, chroniclers as one scorned the Drummer and his flock; Sebastian Brant’s 1494 satire Ship of Fools also singles out des sackpfeifers von Nickelshusen (the bagpiper of Niklashausen) and those who followed him.† Hans’s people, illiterate commoners, don’t have a voice in the histories.

The grievances were never really answered. It was not until 1518 that authorities finally deemed it safe enough to rebuild the Niklashausen church … but even then, Germany had not heard the last of peasant revolution.

* Bonfires of the vanities were all the rage

** Wunderli notes the movement’s apparent indifference to Jews, despite its falling in the immediate wake of one of Europe’s most inflammatory blood libel cases. These peasants were not assembled for a pogrom; it was their Christian oppressors whom they hated.

† See the German version Das Narrenschiff, under “verachtung der gschrift”, “contempt of scripture”.

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1476: The Garrison of Grandson, by Charles the Bold

2 comments February 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this day in 1476, the 412-strong garrison of Grandson, Switzerland surrendered to Charles the Bold during the Burgundian Wars … and was executed en masse by hanging and drowning.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a mounted Charles the Bold under a forest of hanged men.

Charles — less generously known as “Charles the Rash” or “Charles the Terrible” — was the Duke of Burgundy, an ancient territory whose warlike inhabitants were celebrated back to The Nibelungenlied

Upon his single person the sword-strokes fell thick and fast. The wife of many a hero must later mourn for this. Higher he raised his shield, the thong he lowered; the rings of many an armor he made to drip with blood … Then men saw the warrior walk forth in full lordly wise. As the strife-weary man sprang from the house, how many added swords rang on his helmet! Those that had not seen what wonders his hand had wrought sprang towards the hero of the Burgundian land. (XXXII)

In the 15th century, the swords ringing on Burgundian helmets were those of the French and the Habsburgs, who squeezed the mighty duchy on either side.

Charles the Bold fought the expansionist Burgundian Wars as a project to strengthen his duchy’s independence. But it would have the exact opposite effect.

The Swiss had been pulled into the anti-Burgundian league, and taken the city of Grandson, inducing an irritated Charles to put it to a fearful bombardment that threatened to overrun the place in short order.

Sources vary by partisan affiliation as to whether the besieged garrison surrendered at its antagonist’s discretion (Burgundian version) or on a pledge of mercy (Swiss version). But in the actual event, no mercy at all was given. To a man, the prisoners were strung up on trees and drowned in the adjacent Lake of Neuchatel — a warning to the Swiss not to mess with Burgundy.

It was bluster that Charles’s men could not back up when their opponents fought back … and after this, who was going to surrender?

A couple days later, the Swiss relief force arrived too late to bail out the garrison. Instead, it trounced the Burgundians in battle, sending them fleeing “without looking back, helter-skelter” as Charles, “exasperated beyond measure by the stupid cowardice of his troops, rode amongst them with drawn sword, striking them furiously, in the vain effort to bring them to a standstill.”

The victorious Swiss made off with a fantastic booty from the abandoned Burgundian camp, but also recovered a more dolorous prize.

There were found sadly the honorable men still freshly hanging on the trees in front of the castle whom the tyrant had hanged. It was a wretched, pitiable sight. There were hung ten or twenty men on one bough. The trees were bent down and were completely full. There hanged a father and a son next to each other, there two brothers or other friends. And there came the honorable men who knew them; who were their friends, cousins and brothers, who found them miserably hanging. There was first anger and distress in crying and bewailing.

Charles was plenty distressed himself at his embarrassing reversal, and boldly (or rashly) regrouped, marched on the Swiss again — and had Burgundian power decisively shattered at the Battle of Murten that June. The following January, a dispirited Charles died in another losing battle, leading most of the once-imperious realm of Burgundy to settle into French hands, where it remains today.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burgundy,Drowned,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Switzerland,Wartime Executions

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