1761: Gabriel Malagrida, Jesuit nutter

2 comments September 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1761,* the Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida became a late casualty of the Tavora Affair and the Lisbon earthquake when he was garroted for heresy.

Malagrida (English Wikipedia entry | Portuguese) was a 72-year-old Italian with decades of missionary service to the Portuguese New World colonies under his belt.

He had, in his time, been a prominent exponent of the Jesuits missions’ policy in the Amazon, which amounted to asserting their own jurisdiction against the secular government’s attempt to order its overseas territories. (There’s more on that conflict here.)

And this only exacerbated his principal sin of being a Jesuit — an order whose diminution was eagerly sought by the rising statesman of Enlightenment Portugal, the Marquis of Pombal.

The shock of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake would deal Pombal the trump hand he needed to start reshaping both city and society to his liking.

Malagrida, meanwhile, carped that the earthquake’s causes

“are not comets, are not stars, are not vapors or exhalations,** are not phenomena, they are not natural contingencies or causes; but they are solely our intolerable sins … I do not know how a Catholic subject dares to attribute the present calamity of this tragic earthquake to causes and natural contingencies. Do not these Catholics understand this world is not a house without an owner?”

This published pamphlet merely echoed what many of the order were saying in the pulpits, and Pombal was not about to let the backwards, superstitious crowd** own the catastrophe.

Malagrida was banished from Lisbon: and, when the Tavora family was implicated in an attempt to assassinate the Portuguese king, Malagrida, their confessor, found himself clapped in prison.

Though the now-septuagenarian priest did not share the Tavoras’ grisly public butchery, he was left to molder. A couple years in a dungeon saw him go a bit strange, and supposedly he published treatises with such eccentric features as God’s personal instructions to Malagrida, and Malagrida’s fascination with St. Anne’s uterus. Catholic sources, which consider Malagrida a martyr, doubt that he ever published any such thing; if he did, it seems apparent that it was dementia rather than heresy that afflicted the old man.

But Pombal had installed his own brother as judge of the tribunal, so the matter was prearranged. The execution itself was

staged in a dramatic way, even to the point of Malagrida’s appearing on the scaffold in Jesuit habit, to impress upon the Portuguese and the world at large that an old order had come to an end and a new one was to be established … one might say that … symbolism at the cost of one human life was a relatively humane procedure in comparison with the symbolic elimination of whole classes of society in the twentieth century.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Malagrida executed at a Lisbon auto de fe. CC image from Ricardo Mealha, original provenance unknown.

Pitying the superstitious Jesuit at the stake, Enlightenment secularist Voltaire inveighed against Enlightenment secularist Pombal for conducting the execution … just part of Voltaire’s queer ideas about not killing people over their religious beliefs.

“It is all pity and horror,” Voltaire wrote in a private correspondence. “The Inquisition has found the secret to inspire compassion for the Jesuits.”

Voltaire’s appraisal in Candide (already published by this time) of a country in the grip of religious superstition unjustly stands as one of the lasting literary monuments to an event that actually rolled back clerical influence: “the sages of [Portugal] could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for … the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.” That the philosophe who penned those words waxed so immoderately outraged at the demonstrative chastisement of a man who preached precisely all that hocus-pocus — that Voltaire ascribed his execution to “the Inquisition” — plants the cherry on the irony sundae.‡

But Pombal’s expedient use of the Inquisition’s medieval machinery to make an example of Father Malagrida would not be the start of a pattern; the Pombaline reforms of the years to come brought the Inquisition sharply to heel, and it was Malagrida himself who was its last victim (pdf) in Portugal in its classical ecclesiastic form.


The house where Malagrida was born in Menaggio, Italy is marked with a plaque. Image (c) kallipyg and used with permission.

* Some sources give September 20 as the date.

** The “God is pissed” hypothesis was posited against theories of earth’s vapors promulgated by the Pombal-sponsored scientist Ribeiro Sanches.

† Anti-Jesuit sentiment was widely abroad in Europe at this time; increasingly resented as political manipulators, the Society would be suppressed by papal order in 1773, only to revive during the post-Napoleonic reaction.

‡ Malagrida was well-known to contemporaries in Europe, but that does not mean sympathy for him was universal. The British pol Lord Shelburne was satirized as “Malagrida” for his putative duplicity.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Auto de Fe,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Garrote,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Portugal,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Strangled,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1749: Maria Renata Singer, theological football

5 comments June 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1749, an aged subprioress of the Unterzell nunnery was beheaded and burnt in Wurzburg for witchcraft … and for the principle of witchcraft.

Maria Renata Singer (or Singerin — here’s her German Wikipedia page) had been a reclusive denizen of the convent for half a century.

A dying nun accused her of working black magic, and everything snowballed in the usual way: other nuns got into the act, often in the throes of exorcism. Confinement and interrogation (torture is not recorded) eventually induced her to confess to having been a witch for more than 60 years. (Details of the unfolding procedure here, in German.)

On this morning 260 years ago, her sentence — moderated from burning alive — was carried out: Singer’s head was struck off and mounted on a pole, and her body burned to ashes.


Witnesses reported seeing a vulture appear when the body was burned.

Nothing so remarkable, really, in the annals of witchcraft. Nothing except the date. Witch-burnings in 1749! Voltaire was in his fifties. Thomas Jefferson was alive. Wurzburg itself hadn’t seen witchcraft executions since the madness of the Thirty Years’ War.

But even in the Age of Enlightenment, the benighted world got its licks in. And in this instance, the case of the witch-nun of Bavaria was bulletin-board material in an unfolding public debate over witchcraft.

Scholars and theologians were burdening the mid-18th century printing presses with treatises on the legitimacy of witchcraft persecutions. Singer herself, when first confronted with the accusation, had not simply denied it: she had denied there was any such thing as a witch.

That same year of 1749, Girolamo Tartarotti‘s influential Congresso notturno delle lammie skewered witchcraft jurisprudence.

Tartarotti’s work fit into a growing critique naturally animated by the rationalist spirit of the times.

Partly through Singer’s execution, the witchsniffers’ intellectual defenders mounted their last defense.

Jesuit Georg Gaar, who had been Singer’s confessor before death, preached a sermon at her cremation “praising the wise severity of laws against these crimes, and speculating that this might be God’s warning against the men of our time who do not believe in witches, or magic, or the devil, or God. Father Gaar plainly thought himself, and told the people, that they only needed to read the evidence from Unterzell to be persuaded of the justice of the sentence and the truth about witchcraft.”

Tartarotti reprinted this sermon with a critical commentary. But some theologians (and not only Bavarians*) were ready to go to bat for the traditional superstitions.**

According to Brian Copenhaver, writing in the Journal of the History of Philosophy (January, 1979):

The rigorist Dominican Daniele Concina [Italian link -ed] argued that God permits witchcraft “for the greater confirmation of faith,” and he disposed of the skeptical sections of the Canon episcopi as a forger’s work. In a variation on Pangloss’s reasoning about noses and spectacles, Benedetto Bonelli deduced the reality of witchcraft from the existence of laws against witches.

As another critic of Tartarotti fretted, “Does not the denial of the existence of demons open the way and lead directly to the denial of the existence of God?”

Interestingly, Tartarotti accepted the reality of “magic” while denying the existence of witches, ascribing the latter’s survival as folklore to incomplete Christianization. While (see Copenhaver once again) this tack could be read as a tactical choice of moderation on Tartarotti’s part to achieve the pragmatic end of eliminating witchcraft trials, it put him in the crossfire between more rigorously rationalist intellectuals and the likes of Georg Gaar.

This angle of Tartarotti’s, especially given his simultaneous interest in the occult, has led to his work’s subsequent adoption as an antecedent to the still-popular if academically disreputable theory that underground sects of pagan practitioners really did persist in Europe, and were the true targets of witch-hunts like the one that killed Maria Renata Singer.

A lengthy 19th-century treatment of the case is available in German in a public domain Google books entry here.

* 18th century English theologian John Wesley, feeling himself pinned by the Old Testament verses about not-suffering-a-witch-to-live and all that, insisted that “giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible” and “the credit of all history, sacred and profane.”

** Conversely, a German scholar sneered at the backward prejudices of “the common rabble, especially in our beloved Bavaria.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,God,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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