1630: Guglielmo Piazza and Giangiacomo Mora, colonna d’infamia

Add comment August 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1630, a ludicrous disease panic sent two innocent men to the scaffold in Milan.

Terrified as their family and neighbors dropped dead around them of a raging bubonic plague outbreak, the surviving Milanese sprouted buboes on their brains.


1630 illustration of the plague-wracked Milanese doing the bring-out-your-dead thing.

Just days before the executions marked in this post, a city official named Guglielmo Piazza was noticed by some busybodies “strolling down the street writing from an ink-horn at his belt and wiping his ink-stained fingers on the walls of a house.” They promptly reported him not for misdemeanor property damage but for spreading plague poison, whatever that would be.

Investigators to their shame gave this accusation enough credence to interrogate Piazza under torture, a decision which obviously was tantamount to the execution itself. He broke he sealed his own fate when he broke and confessed, and sealed same for a misfortunate barber named Giangiacomo Mora whom Piazza was made to accuse.

Milan was proud enough of this obvious injustice to stand up an colonna d’infamia (“column of infamy”) denouncing both “poisoners” until a storm finally knocked the lying marble down in 1788. It read,

Here, where this plot of ground extends, formerly stood the shop of the barber Giangiacomo Mora, who had conspired with Guglielmo Piazza, Commissary of the Public Health, and with others, while a frightful plague exercised its ravages, by means of deadly ointments spread on all sides, to hurl many citizens to a cruel death. For this, the Senate, having declared them both to be enemies of their country, decreed that, placed on an elevated car, their flesh should be torn with red-hot pincers, their right hands be cut off, and their bones be broken; that they should be extended on the wheel, and at the end of six hours be put to death, and burnt. Then, and that there might remain no trace of these guilty men, their possessions should be sold at public sale, their ashes thrown into the river, and to perpetuate the memory of their deed the Senate wills that the house in which the crime was projected shall be razed to the ground, shall never be rebuilt, and that in its place a column shall be erected which shall be called Infamous. Keep afar off, then, afar off, good citizens, lest this accursed ground should pollute you with its infamy.

August, 1630.

Prior to the column’s overturning, the Milanese Enlightenment intellectual Pietro Verri wrote a meditation upon it titled Sulla tortura e singolarmente sugli effetti che produsse all’occasione delle unzioni malefiche, alle quale si attribui la pestilenza che devasto Milano l’anno 1630. Italian speakers can enjoy it here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Italy,Milan,Murder,Public Executions,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1350: Tidericus the organist

Add comment July 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1350,* the plague-ravaged city of Visby burned a man remembered as Tidericus (Diderik) the organist.

The Gotland capital at this point stood at the fore of the Hanseatic league; the medieval maritime Laws of Wisbuy reflect its influence. The arrival in this year of the Black Death would begin Visby’s passage from merchant power to its present-day station as the “City of Ruins”. (The beautiful remains of its medieval grandeur make Visby a UNESCO heritage site.)

Small wonder that the city took its abrupt fall from greatness as an infernal conspiracy, the dimensions of which posterity decodes from a few surviving bits of correspondence.

In the midst of the plague, Gotland arrested nine itinerants as well-poisoners. For people struggling to cope with the sudden, inexplicable ravages of Pesta the inference of a malevolent hand ruining the water supply was a natural one; it emerges frequently during pandemics.

Tidericus the organista — either an organ-builder or an organ-player or both — is the only one of the Visby nine whose name we know; it seems that “with no prior coercion, [he] clearly admitted how he would poison all the wells in the cities of Stockholm, Vasteras and Arboga, and every lake, fresh water source, and various wells as he travelled around Sweden, everywhere poisoning away with his concoctions.” See, all they had to do was ask him.

What’s more, at the same time he [Tidericus] admitted that there are many who belong to a certain society which consisted of rich merchants and all the kinds of people who hold office all over the world, as many people know they do, and each of them goes around with silver belts, and they are all half mad or crazed in some other way. Also, they are all marked with a letter written in Greek or Hebrew. In his last moment he said “Need I say more? All Christendom has been poisoned by us villains and the Jews.”

It seems the well-poisoning mission had been funded by merchant-Jews in Germany named Aaron and Moses. A few different letters between Hanseatic cities around this time attest to a similar fear of Semitic contagion, possibly hinting at a wider panic outside the scanty lines of primary documentation. One letter from Lübeck (cited here) mentions a person named Keyenort who burned at the stake after confessing to pocketing three solidi from Jewish agents who wanted him to poison wells across northern Germany and Prussia; another from Torun has a more ambiguous reference to an apparent mass arrest of “baptized Jews”.

A few years after this organist’s coda, the Danes defeated Visby on the battlefield; Danish control would persist until the 17th century and consigned the once-proud Hanseatic port to a distinctly lesser stature. By century’s end, Visby would be the haunt of the Victual Brothers pirates.

* Citations are split between July 1 and 2; the sources are few, indirect, and barely dated so even the outline of events in this post is somewhat inferential.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanseatic League,History,Jews,Murder,Public Executions,Sweden

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1381: Simon of Sudbury and Robert Hales during Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion

5 comments June 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1381, a mob’s summary execution on Tower Hill of some nobby English lords marked the acme of that country’s most noteworthy peasant revolt.

The trigger for the revolt was an onerous poll tax levied to finance the realm’s escapades in the Hundred Years’ War, but as Barbara Tuchman notes,

the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.

Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.

Manorial lords’ traditional power over their peasants had become untenable for a labor pool depleted by the Black Death, survivors of which found themselves consequently in-demand and suddenly blessed with leverage. As one chronicler recorded,

There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.

Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.

Who Then Was The Gentleman?

It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.

Poll Position

But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.

[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …

These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.

London Calling

Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.

The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London

… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.

Simon’s severed, and incredibly well-preserved, skull has been resident in a cubby at St. Gregory’s Church of Sudbury for lo these six hundred years. It made news recently when it was retrieved for a CT scan to (among other things) reconstruct Simon’s real-life appearance.

Right, these executed-today guys.

Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.

This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”


Hey, it’s Baldrick!

In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.

Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.

Richard the Lionheart

The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.

Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant and

gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. …

when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.

(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)

Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.

Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”

* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,England,Execution,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Summary Executions

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