Feast Day of St. Barlaam

Add comment November 19th, 2017 Headsman

November 19 is the feast date of Diocletian martyr Saint Barlaam of Antioch.*

A Cappadocian peasant, Barlaam defeated through righteous willpower a Roman judge’s diabolical attempt to go easy on him.

Barlaam was doing the old refusal to pay homage to the pagan gods thing and the judge’s plan was a masterpiece of practical jurisprudence: he had the refusenik stationed before the censer, with the offering in his hand. Then hot coals were plopped into the hand, in the expectation that Barlaam would flinch at the pain and involuntarily drop the herb, coals, and all into the fire — and everyone go home with his own honor satisfied.

But Barlaam had for honor “hardened brass, more than iron in mightiness, firmer than a statue” and instead withstood the coal until either it burned out, or his hand did, refusing to permit fire to touch incense under the eyes of the old gods. That earned him his martyrdom from an exasperated magistrate and, let us say, an extremely specific patronage of stoicism under prolonged hand torture, making him the forerunner of figures as diverse as Thomas Cranmer and Paul Muad’dib.

Here’s a laudatio in Latin for our holy militant from John Chrysostom who notes that the expected flinch-and-drop reaction wouldn’t have even counted as a sin.

* Not to be confused with the Russian hermit and painter Barlaam of Khutyn, nor with Barlaam and Josaphat, legendary India Christians who were adopted from Buddhist mythology.

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1417: Catherine Saube, retroactive Anabaptist?

Add comment October 2nd, 2017 Thieleman Janszoon van Braght

(Thanks to 17th century Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janszoon van Braght for the guest post. It was originally an entry in his Anabaptist martyrology Martyrs Mirror, but although this doctrine did not emerge until the 1520s, van Braght was keen to deploy his hagiographies to connect his movement to a longer tradition of pre-Lutheran dissidents, and thus claims post facto for proto-anabaptism such figures as Waldensians, Albigensians, and Gerard Segarelli. -ed.)

CATHARINE OF THOU, IN LORRAINE, BURNT FOR THE FAITH, AT MONTPELLIER, IN FRANCE, A. D. 1417

On the second of October, about two o’clock in the afternoon, it occurred at Montpellier, in France, that a certain sentence of death was pronounced, and executed the same day, upon an upright and God-fearing woman of Thou, in Lorraine, named Catharine Saube, who, loving the Lord her Saviour more than her own life, steadfastly fought through death, and, pressing her way through the strait gate into the spacious mansions of heaven, left flesh and blood on the post, in the burning flames, on the place of execution, at Montpellier.

The history of Catharine Saube is, as old writers testify, faithfully extracted from the town-book of Montpellier, commonly called Talamus; which word, Chassanion thinks, has been corrupted by passing from one language into the other; and that by the Jews, who at that time resided in great numbers in France, especially at Montpellier, it was called Talmud, which among the Hebrews or Jews, signifies a very large book or roll containing many and various things. Hence it may very easily have been the case, that the French, after the manner of the Jewish Maranes, who lived among them, erroneously called the word Talmud, Talamus, meaning to designate thereby the large book containing the civil records of the burgomasters of Montpellier. From this town-book the following acts were faithfully translated, from the ancient language of Montpellier into the French tongue, by a trustworthy person of Languedoc, and in English [the phrase was “in our Dutch” as van Braght published it -ed.] read as follows, “On the 15th day of November, A. D. 1416, after mass had been read in the parish church of St. Fermin, at Montpellier, Catharine Saube, a native of Thou, Lorraine, came into that church, to present herself. About fifteen or sixteen days previously, she had asked the lords and burgomasters of that city, for permission to be shut in with the other recluses in the nunnery on the Lates road.

The aforesaid lords and burgomasters, and all manner of tradespeople, together with over 1500 townspeople, men as well as women, came to the church, in this general procession. Said burgomasters, as patrons, that is, fathers and protectors of the recluse nuns, conducted said Catharine, as a bride, to the abovementioned cloister, where they let her remain, shut up in a cell, after which they all returned home together.

See, these are the identical words of the extract or copy taken from the town-book; we let the reader judge, as to what was her reason in applying for admittance into the nunnery. Certainly, some did not presume so badly, who have maintained, that experiencing in her heart the beginnings of true godliness proceeding from an ardent faith, she was impelled by a holy desire to reveal to the other recluse nuns the true knowledge of Christ Jesus; finding herself sufficiently gifted by the Lord, to do this. This is very probable; since credible witnesses have declared that in said book Talamus it was also recorded, that some time after the death of Catharine Saube, the whole convent in which said Catharine had been confined was burnt, together with all the nuns; doubtless on account of their religion.

The same public records state, that the year following, A. D. 1417, on the second of October, about two o’clock in the afternoon, when M. Raymond Cabasse, D.D., of the order of Jacobine or Dominican monks, vicar of the inquisitor, sat in the judgment seat, under the chapter which is beside the portal of the city hall at Montpellier, in the presence of the Bishop of Maguelonne, the Lieutenant governor, the four orders, yea, of all the people, who filled the whole city hall square, he declared by definite sentence, that the aforesaid Catharine Saube, of Thou, in Lorraine, who, at her request, had been put into the cloister of the recluses, was a heretic, and that she had disseminated, taught and believed divers damnable heresies against the Catholic faith, namely, “That the Catholic (or true) church is composed only of men and women who follow and observe the life of the apostles.” Again, “That it is better to die, than to anger, or sin against God.” Again, “That she did not worship the host or wafer consecrated by the priest; because she did not believe that the body of Christ was present in it.” Again, “That it is not necessary to confess one’s self to the priest; because it is sufficient to confess one’s sins to God; and that it counts just as much to confess one’s sins to a discreet, pious layman, as to any chaplain or priest.” Again, “That there will be no purgatory after this life.”

Said town-book Talamus contained also four other articles with which Catharine was charged, or at least which she professed; from which it can be inferred that she rejected not only many papal institutions, but among these also infant baptism. The extract from the aforesaid town-book, concerning these four articles, reads literally as follows

  1. That there never has been a true pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest, after the election of the pope (or bishop) ceased to be done through miracles of faith or verity.
  2. “That wicked priests or chaplains neither can nor may consecrate the body of Christ, though they pronounce the sacramental words over it.
  3. “That the baptism which is administered by wicked priests, is of no avail to salvation.
  4. “That infants which die after baptism, before they have faith, are not saved; for they do not believe but through the faith of their godfathers, godmothers, parents, or friends.”

These are the last four articles found in the town-book of Montpellier; from which it certainly is clearly evident, how very bold, ardent, and penetrating the faith of this woman was; so that she did not stop short of attacking even the pope, the priests, and the superstitions practiced by them, and convincing them with God’s truth. For, when she says, in the first article, that “there never has been a true pope,” etc., what else did she indicate, than that there never has been a true pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest in the Roman church, seeing the election of the pope was never done through miracles of faith or verity?

Secondly, when she says, that, “Wicked priests or chaplains neither can nor may,” what else does she mean to say than that wicked priests, who are not holy themselves, need not imagine at all (which is nevertheless believed in popery), that by uttering a few words they can consecrate a piece of bread, yea, transform it into their God and Saviour? which, Catharine had declared before, could not even be done by priests of upright life; for therefore she would not, as she said, worship the wafer consecrated by the priest, because she did not believe that the body of Christ was present in it.

Thirdly, when she says, that https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+16%3A16&version=KJV”The baptism which is administered by wicked priests is,” etc., what else does this indicate than that the shameful life of the priests destroys the ministry itself, and that as little as the words which they pronounce over the host, tend to consecrate it, just as little tends the baptism practiced by them to salvation?

Fourthly, when she says, that “Infants which die after baptism,” etc., what is this but to say that infant baptism is not necessary to salvation, yea, conduces in no wise to it? because infants themselves do not believe, only their godfathers, godmothers, parents or friends, in their stead; but that to be saved, one must believe himself, and be baptized upon this belief, as the Lord says, Mark 16:16; for the faith of another cannot help any one in the world, and consequently, cannot help infants to salvation.

Now; when this pious heroine of God would in no wise depart from her faith, sentence of death was finally pronounced upon her; and having been led to the place of execution, she was burnt, at Montpellier, in the afternoon of October 2, 1417.

Concerning her sentence and death, the town book of Montpellier contains the following words, as translated from the original into the Dutch (now into the English), “Having pronounced this sentence upon her, the vicar of the inquisitor, M. Ray mond, delivered her into the hands of the bailiff, who was provost or criminal judge of the city. The people entreated him much in her behalf, that he would deal mercifully with her; but he executed the sentence the same day, causing her to be brought to the place of execution, and there burnt as a heretic, according to law.”

These are the words of the aforesaid Talamus, or town book, which also contains this further addition, “That the bishop of Maguelonne, after singing a common mass, also preached a sermon before the members of the council, concerning Catharine Saube, against many who said that the sentence of death had unjustly been passed upon her; and rebuked the indignation of those who spoke against this sentence, with very vehement and severe words.”

This is briefly the extract concerning the martyrdom of this God-fearing woman, by which many ignorant, plain people were prompted in their hearts to examine the truth a little nearer, and to apprehend the light of the Gospel in the midst of these dark times, which God blessed, as shall be seen hereafter.

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1815: St. Peter the Aleut, the martyr of San Francisco

Add comment September 24th, 2017 Headsman

September 24 is the feast date in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Peter the Aleut.

As one might infer from his sobriquet, Peter the Aleut* — Chukagnak, to call him by the name of his birth — was a North American indigene whose canonization story features cultural collision all the way down.

Originally from Kodiak Island, Peter’s soul was won for Christ via the Russian Empire’s eastward expansion across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

Come the early 19th century the Russian-American Company that was Moscow’s chartered vehicle in the colonization game had pressed south seeking more favorable climes** with a fort in northern California supplying a network of outposts that stretched far south as Bodega Bay,† near the present-day San Francisco area.

Russia’s southerly excursions would collide with Spanish exploration pressing north: in their intersection lies the context for Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom.

The story in a nutshell is that a party of Alaskan natives in California under Russian colors was caught out hunting seals or otters by Spanish soldiers who took them captive. Peter and another Alaskan native convert called Ivan Kiglay were eventually left imprisoned together in a Spanish mission and ordered to convert to Catholicism on pain of death. When they refused, Peter was indeed slain — horribly tortured to death by having his extremities cut away while living, before finally being disemboweled.

Ivan Kiglay is the eyewitness source of this information, spared from sharing Peter’s chalice for unclear reasons. The blog OrthodoxHistory.org has done yeoman coverage of this controversial event or “event” and its overview post “Is the St. Peter the Aleut Story True?” is well worth exploring.‡ In 2011, the same site posted a rare English translation of the original Russian-language Ivan Kiglay deposition, excerpted (lightly tidied) below:

Missioners and the leader of the named above mission (whose name he does not remember) made a request to all the Kodiak dwellers to convert to the Catholic religion, to which they replied that they have already converted to a Christian religion on Kodiak, and they do not want to convert to any other religion. In a short time, Tarasov and other Kodiak dwellers [i.e., all the other Alaskans] were transferred to Saint Barbara. Though he (Kiglay Ivan) and wounded Chukagnak, were left in the mentioned mission, were kept with Indian criminals in the prison for several days, without food and water.

[One night] the chief of the mission brought the order to convert but they did not comply, despite the critical situation that they faced. On the sunrise of the next day a religious clerk came to the prison, accompanied by betrayed Indians, and called them out of the prison; Indians surrounded them, and by order started to cut (chop) Chukagnak’s fingers by articulations, from both hands and [after that] arms, and in the end cut his stomach (abdomen), by that time, he was already dead. That should have happened also to Kiglay, but at that time to the priest was brought a paper (he does not know from where and from whom). After reading that, [the priest] ordered to bury the body of the dead Chukagnak from Kasguiatskovo in the same place, and he [Kiglay] was sent back to prison.

Ivan Kiglay himself only delivered this information in 1819, four years after the alleged events, because he had ultimately to escape from a period of Spanish enslavement. In 1820 the Russian-American Company official Symeon Ivanovich Yanovsky forwarded the same report to a monastery in the motherland along with his endorsement of Ivan’s credibility (“He is not the type who could think up things”).

Unless you’re cocking an eyebrow at the convenient and mysterious last-second reprieve, there’s no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of the original deposition or of Yanovsky as interlocutor. However, there’s also no apparent corroboration of the incident known from Catholic records and the forced conversion backed by such an outlandish murder seems at odds with Spanish behavior on this particular frontier. A much later sentimental embroidery by Yanovsky from 1865 blurs the Peter story into outright hagiography. The documentary trail is so thin and questionable that everything about Peter the Aleut down to his actual existence has been hotly debated since.

Russia’s probes of California came to naught, of course — and Spain’s too for that matter, considering the Mexican War of Independence already in progress in this decade. All this land, and Alaska too, were marked for a different empire rising on the far side of the continent … and Russia’s Alaskan evangels would not in the end extend the Third Rome into the New World, but instead form the germ of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, St. Peter the Aleut is honored by Orthodox communities throughout the United States as the “martyr of San Francisco” (although this proximity for the martyrdom is also uncertain).


Shrine to Peter the Aleut in Kodiak, Alaska. (cc) image by Jesuit anthropologist Raymond Bucko, SJ.

* The descriptor “Aleut” was applied indiscriminately here, but by now it has the blessing of tradition. A more discriminating ethnography would reckon Peter and his Kodiak origins not an Aleut (from the Aleutian Islands) but an Alutiiq.

** Apart from the events narrated in this post, the Russian-American Company also dropped a fortress on Hawaii and even attempted an ill-considered takeover.

† Arriving there long before Alfred Hitchcock.

Our grim site does not pretend an opinion on whether and how religions ought to enshrine their saints … but for those curious about how St. Peter’s questionable historicity plays vis-a-vis his canonization, OrthodoxHistory.org has you covered.

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1795: Sayat-Nova

1 comment September 22nd, 2017 Headsman

The Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”) was martyred on this date in 1795 by the invading Qajar army.

Poet, singer, and legendary wielder of the kamancheh in the court of the Georgian king,* Sayat-Nova was also an ordained priest in the Armenian Church.

This last point would figure crucially upon the invasion of the Qajar Shah seized the Caucasus in a 1795 bloodbath:** trapped in a monastery, Sayat-Nova faced the ritual Islamic offer of conversion or death. He chose immortality.

His legendary name and likeness adorn many public places in Armenia (not to mention an Armenian cognac), as well as places touched by the Armenian diaspora like a Boston dance company.

YouTube searches on the man’s name yield a rich trove of songs and movies about the man, but the best commemoration for these pages is surely his own music.

* Until he got ejected for scandalously falling in love with the king’s sister and became a wandering bard. Poets!

** The Shah was assassinated two years later, and the Qajars lost their grip on the Caucasus as a result.

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1569: Gaspard de Coligny, in effigy

Add comment September 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1569, the intrepid Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny was hanged in Paris and gibbeted at Montfaucon. Luckily for him, Coligny as these events unfolded was miles away from the executioner, at the head of a large armed host.

One of the towering figures of France’s bloody Wars of Religion, Coligny (English Wikipedia entry | French) hailed from one of the most illustrious families of the realm; his father was a Marshal of France; as a young man at court in the 1540s he had been fast friends with the Duke of Guise, the staunch Catholic who was eventually the target of the botched Huguenot kidnapping in 1560 that set spark to tinder for sectarian civil war.

An admired battlefield commander, Coligny’s conversion to Protestant put a high card in the Huguenot party’s hand, one whom Catholic ultras increasingly yearned to eliminate.

Coligny frustrated that aspiration over and over. Just in 1569, he had escaped from a Catholic battlefield victory that saw the capture and murder of Protestant France’s other great leader; then, he routed the Catholics at La Roche-l’Abeille; and, just days before the events in this post, repelled the Siege of Poitiers.

With sectarian hatred running high that season in Paris — and the dwindling treasury in need of the capital infusions only forfeiture can supply — the Parlement summoned Coligny to a trial it knew he would not attend, and there condemned him a traitor in absentia.

The sentence was declared, barbarously ignoring every principle of justice. It denounced him as an outlaw. It forbade him “all defence against the charges and conclusions.” It branded him as a traitor, a conspirator, the disturber of peace, the violator of treaties, the author of rebellion and the like hard names. “Therefore, the said Coligny is deprived of all honours, estates and dignities, and sentenced to be strangled upon the Place de Greve, either in person or effigy, and his body to be hung upon a gibbet at Montfaucon. His arms and effigies to be dragged at the tail of a horse through the towns and fauxbourgs, and then to be broken and destroyed by the public executioner, in token of everlasting infamy. His feudal possessions to revert to the crown, and all his property to be confiscated to the king. His children are declared ignoble villains, plebeians, detestable, infamous, incapable of holding estates, offices and goods in this kingdom … No one shall give to the said Coligny shelter, aid, comfort, food, water, fuel or fire.” And, lastly, a reward of fifty thousand crowns was put upon his head. This was offered to “any person who should deliver the admiral, live or dead, into the hands of justice, with a full pardon if he was concerned in the rebellion.”

This sentence of Tuesday the thirteenth of September was enforced immediately. Nor was the violence confined to Coligny’s escutcheons for a troop was dispatched to the Coligny estates to sack his mansion, root up his vineyard, and put the adjoining town to the torch “so effectually that hardly a trace of it was left.”

Coligny himself fought on … but the ridiculous sentence foreshadowed his real fate, right down to the horrible gibbet.


The gibbet of Montfaucon, from the Grandes Chronique de France by Jean Fouquet (c. 1460).

With both Catholics and Huguenots gathered in Paris for the tense celebration of an intersectarian royal wedding, a Catholic assassin unsuccessfully attempted the life of Coligny on August 22, 1572 — placing the entire city on edge. Fearing the prospect of the now-vigilant Huguenots achieving either escape or revenge, Catholics unleashed on the night of August 23-24 a general massacre of Protestants that will blacken the feast of St. Bartholomew to the ends of recorded history. The injured Coligny was this butchery’s first and signal casualty, as we find from the historian Jacques Auguste de Thou, a witness to events as a young man in Paris —

The duke of Guise, who was put in full command of the enterprise, summoned by night several captains of the Catholic Swiss mercenaries from the five little cantons, and some commanders of French companies, and told them that it was the will of the king that, according to God’s will, they should take vengeance on the band of rebels while they had the beasts in the toils. Victory was easy and the booty great and to be obtained without danger. The signal to commence the massacre should be given by the bell of the palace, and the marks by which they should recognize each other in the darkness were a bit of white linen tied around the left arm and a white cross on the hat.

Meanwhile Coligny awoke and recognized from the noise that a riot was taking place. Nevertheless he remained assured of the king’s good will, being persuaded thereof either by his credulity or by Teligny, his son-in-law: he believed the populace had been stirred up by the Guises, and that quiet would be restored as soon as it was seen that soldiers of the guard, under the command of Cosseins, had been detailed to protect him and guard his property.

But when he perceived that the noise increased and that some one had fired an arquebus in the courtyard of his dwelling, then at length, conjecturing what it might be, but too late, he arose from his bed and having put on his dressing gown he said his prayers, leaning against the wall. Labonne held the key of the house, and when Cosseins commanded him, in the king’s name, to open the door he obeyed at once without fear and apprehending nothing. But scarcely had Cosseins entered when Labonne, who stood in his way, was killed with a dagger thrust. The Swiss who were in the courtyard, when they saw this, fled into the house and closed the door, piling against it tables and all the furniture they could find. It was in the first scrimmage that a Swiss was killed with a ball from an arquebus fired by one of Cosseins’ people. But finally the conspirators broke through the door and mounted the stairway, Cosseins, Attin, Corberan de Cordillac, Seigneur de Sarlabous, first captains of the regiment of the guards, Achilles Petrucci of Siena, all armed with cuirasses, and Besme the German, who had been brought up as a page in the house of Guise; for the duke of Guise was lodged at court, together with the great nobles and others who accompanied him.

After Coligny had said his prayers with Merlin the minister, he said, without any appearance of alarm, to those who were present (and almost all were surgeons, for few of them were of his retinue): “I see clearly that which they seek, and I am ready steadfastly to suffer that death which I have never feared and which for a long time past I have pictured to myself. I consider myself happy in feeling the approach of death and in being ready to die in God, by whose grace I hope for the life everlasting. I have no further need of human succor. Go then from this place, my friends, as quickly as you may, for fear lest you shall be involved in my misfortune, and that some day your wives shall curse me as the author of your loss. For me it is enough that God is here, to whose goodness I commend my soul, which is so soon to issue from my body.” After these words they ascended to an upper room, whence they sought safety in flight here and there over the roofs.

Meanwhile the conspirators, having burst through the door of the chamber, entered, and when Besme, sword in hand, had demanded of Coligny, who stood near the door, “Are you Coligny?” Coligny replied, “Yes, I am he,” with fearless countenance. “But you, young man, respect these white hairs. What is it you would do? You cannot shorten by many days this life of mine.” As he spoke, Besme gave him a sword thrust through the body, and having withdrawn his sword, another thrust in the mouth, by which his face was disfigured. So Coligny fell, killed with many thrusts. Others have written that Coligny in dying pronounced as though in anger these words: “Would that I might at least die at the hands of a soldier and not of a valet.” But Attin, one of the murderers, has reported as I have written, and added that he never saw any one less afraid in so great a peril, nor die more steadfastly.

Then the duke of Guise inquired of Besme from the courtyard if the thing were done, and when Besme answered him that it was, the duke replied that the Chevalier d’Angouleme was unable to believe it unless he saw it; and at the same time that he made the inquiry they threw the body through the window into the courtyard, disfigured as it was with blood. When the Chevalier d’Angouleme, who could scarcely believe his eyes, had wiped away with a cloth the blood which overran the face and finally had recognized him, some say that he spurned the body with his foot. However this may be, when he left the house with his followers he said: “Cheer up, my friends! Let us do thoroughly that which we have begun. The king commands it.” He frequently repeated these words, and as soon as they had caused the bell of the palace clock to ring, on every side arose the cry, “To arms!” and the people ran to the house of Coligny. After his body had been treated to all sorts of insults, they threw it into a neighboring stable, and finally cut off his head, which they sent to Rome. They also shamefully mutilated him, and dragged his body through the streets to the bank of the Seine, a thing which he had formerly almost prophesied, although he did not think of anything like this.

As some children were in the act of throwing the body into the river, it was dragged out and placed upon the gibbet of Montfaucon, where it hung by the feet in chains of iron; and then they built a fire beneath, by which he was burned without being consumed; so that he was, so to speak, tortured with all the elements, since he was killed upon the earth, thrown into the water, placed upon the fire, and finally put to hang in the air. After he had served for several days as a spectacle to gratify the hate of many and arouse the just indignation of many others, who reckoned that this fury of the people would cost the king and France many a sorrowful day, Francois de Montmorency, who was nearly related to the dead man, and still more his friend, and who moreover had escaped the danger in time, had him taken by night from the gibbet by trusty men and carried to Chantilly, where he was buried in the chapel.


Print by Flemish-German artist Frans Hogenberg depicts on the lower left the assassination attempt on Coligny of August 22, 1573, and on the right the next night’s bedroom attack upon the wounded man, with the murderers spilling his body out the window. (Click for a larger image)

(Belatedly) part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1622: Charles Spinola, martyr in Japan

Add comment September 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1622, Jesuit Charles Spinola was martyred in Nagasaki.

He was the son of both Spanish noble stock and the spirit of missionary martyrdom that swelled in Europe’s Age of Discovery. As a young man, Spinola thrilled to reports of evangelists suffering for the faith in the New World, for “to die for the faith, to shed his blood for Jesus Christ, seemed to him supreme happiness. Thenceforward all his thoughts tended to the means of attaining this end.” Indeed, his very decision to enter the Jesuit order was “impelled by his ardor for martyrdom.”*

And he would need the ardor, because merely to attain the scene of this hoped-for Calvary in distant Japan would require a Homeric six-year odyssey featuring a shipwreck, a pestilence, a stint in an English prison, nearly drowning in the Caribbean, nearly dying of fever in Goa, and outmaneuvering the attempted interpositions of his powerful family who aspired to a more comfortable and proximate appointment for their kin.

Finally alighting in Nagasaki in 1602, Spinola enjoyed or endured (as the mathematically disposed reader will infer) a twenty-year chase for the palm of martyrdom. He passed most of those years in the small and unglamorous labors of religious and managerial constancy necessary to tend the growing flame of Christianity in Japan.

Around 1612 Japan’s tenuous toleration of Christian proselytizing began taking a turn very much for the worse. The only recently coalesced state had long feared that the Catholic priests dispatched by Spain and Portugal portended the imperial domination visited elsewhere in Asia. Were these Christians, now perhaps two million strong, being prepared as a fifth column?

Spinola went underground, going by the foreshadowing alias “Joseph of the Cross”, a haunt of the shadows who was obliged to conceal himself from daylight because his foreign features were instantly recognizable. With the help of Nagasaki’s ample Christian community he eluded capture for an amazingly long time.

For nearly two years and a half I have devoted myself to encourage and support the Christians of this country, not without great difficulty. Having no home, I pass secretly from house to house, to hear confessions and celebrate our holy mysteries by night. Most of my time I spend in utter solitude, deprived of all human converse and consolation, having only that which God gives to those who suffer for his love … However I am tolerably well, and, though destitute of almost everything and taking but one scanty meal a day, I do not fall away. Does not this prove that “man liveth not by bread alone?”

-Letter of Spinola dated March 20, 1617

He wouldn’t be caught for almost two more years yet after that letter, in December 1618 — whereupon, “seeing that he was discovered, he raised his eyes and hands towards heaven, and in a burst of unutterable joy, humbly thanked God.” God was still going to make Charles Spinola wait another four years for martyrdom, time mostly spent in the “tedium” (Spinola’s word) of prison with some other Christians, on a diet of meager rice portions and regular penitential self-flagellation.

Spinola burned when the time finally came with twenty-one other holy martyrs … plus three Japanese converts who attempted to apostatize to escape the flame, but were put to the stake just the same.

* These quotes, and a good deal of this post’s narrative, come from the public domain hagiography Life of the Blessed Charles Spinola, of the Society of Jesus.

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Feast Day of Pope Pontian and Antipope Hippolytus

1 comment August 13th, 2017 Headsman

August 13 is the shared feast date* of third century saint and antipope — two adjectives rarely held in common — Hippolytus of Rome, and the official pope to whom he reconciled in the end, Pontian.

His legend, including his feast date, has been muddled with another ancient martyr of the same name, and even with the mythological son of Theseus — from which also derives the etymologically apt fancy that St. Hippolytus met his end by the straining of horses.**


The central panel (click for the full image) of the St. Hippolyte Triptych, from the Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium. (via the blog of Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast) Attributed to Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes, this image was commissioned by a courtier of Charles the Bold, Hippolyte de Berthoz — who also underwrote other depictions of his namesake’s martyrdom.

But Hippolytus the theologian and cleric was no fable.

Zealous after the correct doctrine in an age of heretical pitfalls like modalism and alogianism, Hippolytus clashed with Pope Zephyrinus and his successor Callixtus over their leniency — not only for heterodoxy but also for sinful conduct like adultery.

This timeless horn-locking between purists and pragmatists led Hippolytus to take his flock out of the Roman communion in opposition to Callixtus, and apparently to maintain himself as antipope for the best part of a generation — the very first recorded antipope, in fact.

Ironically it was the schismatic’s perspicacious quill that would bear to posterity much of our understanding of Christianity in the early third century. Apostolic Tradition, whose attribution to Hippolytus is contested, is a rare source on the early liturgy; Refutation of All Heresies helpfully catalogues dozens of beliefs disfavored of its author among pagan and Christian sects. He wrote a chronicle of the world since its creation, a compendium of ecclesiastical law, and numerous Biblical commentaries.

While world-shaping controversies gripped the sacerdotal space, the temporal world spiraled toward Rome’s Third Century Crisis, a periodization commonly dated to the rise of the cruel barracks-emperor Maximinus in the very year of our rival pontiffs’ martyrdoms, 235.

Maximinus’s years in the purple were short and sanguinary, harbinger of many like decades to come. “Italy and the whole empire were infested with innumerable spies and informers,” Gibbon wrote.

On the slightest accusation, the first of the Roman nobles, who had governed provinces, commanded armies, and been adorned with the consular and triumphal ornaments, were chained on the public carriages, and hurried away to the emperor’s presence. Confiscation, exile, or simple death, were esteemed uncommon instances of his lenity. Some of the unfortunate sufferers he ordered to be sewed up in the hides of slaughtered animals, others to be exposed to wild beasts, others again to be beaten to death with clubs.

Both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested at Maximinus’s order, which was scarcely an act of pagan reverence on the latter’s part since he was also noted for stripping the traditional temples of valuables that could be melted into currency.

Banished to Sardinia for rough handling that was tantamount to a death sentence, the two men reconciled before attaining the crown of martyrdom.

Numerous cities in France (and one in Quebec) are named for St. Hippolytus.

* It’s the feast date in the Roman church. The Orthodox world honors Hippolytus on January 30.

** He’s the patron saint of horses, too.

† A reading of On Christ and the Antichrist is available free from Librivox.

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Feast Day of Rufinus and Valerius

Add comment June 14th, 2017 Headsman

Rufinus and Valerius, Roman tax collectors who converted to Christianity and were martyred at Soissons during the Diocletian persecution in 287, are honored by the Roman martyrology on this date.

They’re saints of a lesser firmament, although Rufinus has a spot of archaeological distinction as the intercessor honored on the Darenth Bowl, a beautiful fifth-century glass artifact that somehow survived to us intact. (Note, however, that there are 11 saints Rufinus.)

They figure indirectly in one of the martyrology’s recurrent themes, the Saul-like conversion of Roman persecutors to the Christian faith: Rufinus and Valerius were held to have been martyred by the Roman prefect Rictius Varus,* who presents as a recurrent tormenter of Christians and in the martyrology arrives to dispatch our taxmen straightaway after doing the same to future Shakespeare monologue superstars Crispin and Crispinian.

In fact, Rictius Varus figures in no fewer than nine late third century martyrologies, compassing 20+ champions of the faith … the last of whom was the great Saint Lucy who is said to have induced Varus to embrace the same persecution and suffer martyrdom right along with her.

* Sometimes rendered Rictiovarus or Rixiovarus. He is no relation to the Varus from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest: that (in)famous man‘s cognomen was not Varus, but Quinctilius.

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Feast Day of St. Barnabas

1 comment June 11th, 2017 Headsman

June 11 is the feast date of St. Barnabas, St. Paul‘s New Testament wingman.

A Cypriot Jew named Joseph, “Barnabas” (“Son of Encouragement”) was so christened in the fourth chapter of the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles because upon his conversion he sold his land for a donative to the Galileans.

After that, Barnabas reappears throughout Acts as one of the most important of the early Christian missionaries, usually joining St. Paul — whom Barnabas himself introduced to the Christians after Paul got religion — as emissary to the non-Jews, for which purpose the Holy Spirit itself demanded him by name. (Acts 13:2: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”)

They’re frequently paired thereafter in the narrative although it’s invariably Saint Paul’s honeyed tongue that does the confounding before the companions flee this city or that ahead of a furious mob.* Evidently the Holy Spirit’s labor policies could have used some updating: Barnabas also features in a whinge by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 against the excess sacrifices the Jesus sect is exacting from its most successful envoys, who get no wages and no sex and (so it seems) have to hustle side jobs to keep up their proselytizing.

Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [St. Peter]? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? … whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Barnabas eventually parted ways with Paul, proceeding to Cyprus with the mysterious John Mark (possibly Mark the evangelist, author of the Gospel, or possibly a different guy) where hagiography holds that Jews angered by his preaching fell on Barnabas and stoned him to death, perhaps around the year 61.

Although obviously a consequential figure in early Christianity, Barnabas’s many Biblical appearances do not capture his voice. The apocrypha preserves at least two tracts** further animating this important character: the Epistle of Barnabas dating to the late first century or early second century; and, the Acts of Barnabas, a 5th century creation which purports to arise from the hand of John Mark and describes a martyrdom by fire, not stone:

And Barjesus, having arrived after two days, after not a few Jews had been instructed, was enraged, and brought together all the multitude of the Jews; and they having laid hold of Barnabas, wished to hand him over to Hypatius, the governor of Salamis. And having bound him to take him away to the governor, and a pious Jebusite, a kinsman of Nero, having count to Cyprus, the Jews, learning this, took Barnabas by night, and bound him with a rope by the neck; and having dragged him to the hippodrome from the synagogue, and having gone out of the city, standing round him, they burned him with fire, so that even his bones became dust. And straightway that night, having taken his dust, they cast it into a cloth; and having se cured it with lead. they intended to throw it into the sea. But I, finding an opportunity in the night, and being able along with Timon and Rhodon to carry it, we came to a certain place, and having found a cave, put it down there, where the nation of the Jebusites formerly dwelt. And having found a secret place in it, we put it away, with the documents which he had received from Matthew. And it was the fourth hour of the night of the second of the week.

Because June 11 formerly fell on/near Midsummer, ere the Gregorian reforms skipped the calendar 10-11 days forward, St. Barnabas’s Day has a festive agrarian history commemorated by the proverb, “Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright, the longest day and the shortest night.” The saint is also the patron of Cyprus, and may be invoked to protect against hailstorms or in service of peacemaking. Numerous schools, churches, and monasteries around the world bear his name.

* There’s a comic touch to their preaching travails, too: in one exciting episode (Acts 14), Paul (of course) heals a cripple while the dynamic duo preaches in Lystra, leading excited witnesses to take them for Hermes and Zeus and start sacrificing to them.


No tips, please: Paul and Barnabas refusing the sacrifices of Lystrans in this detail (click for the full image) of a 1650 painting by Nicolaes Berchem.

** Beyond the Epistle and the Acts, there is also a very much later Gospel of Barnabas.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Cyprus,Disfavored Minorities,God,History,Lynching,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Stoned,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1996: Yevgeny Rodionov, Chechen War martyr and folk saint

Add comment May 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1996 — his 19th birthday — Russian hostage Yevgeny Rodionov was beheaded by his captors outside a village in Chechnya.

The young conscript was seized by guerrillas/terrorists/rebels along with three other comrades* during the horrible Chechen War.

Whatever ransom was demanded, the young man’s family could not pay it and in the end the the kidnappers sawed off his head. Searching for his remains at great personal peril his mother met a Chechen who claimed to be Yevgeny’s executioner, and was told by him that “your son had a choice to stay alive. He could have converted to Islam, but he did not agree to take his cross off.”

If it was meant as a taunt it backfired, for the story was later picked up by Russian media and, championed by his mother, the Rodionov has become elevated into a contemporary folk saint — icons and all.

From the standpoint of the Orthodox hierarchy, Rodionov’s cult is thoroughly unofficial, but when it comes to popular devotion people often vote with their feet. Rodionov’s martyrdom expresses themes of great importance to some Russians: the growing cultural currency of Orthodoxy after the fall of the irreligious Soviet Union; a muscular resistance to Islamic terrorism;** an intercessor for common people ground up in the tectonic shifts that have reshaped Russia.

Thy martyr, Yevgeny, O Lord, in his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from thee, our God, for having thy strength he has brought down his torturers, has defeated the powerless insolence of demons. Through his prayers save our souls.

* The other three — Andrey Trusov, Igor Yakovlev and Alexander Zheleznov — were all likewise murdered by their kidnappers.

** Although the war that he died in ended for Moscow in humiliating futility, Rodionov only became widely visible in the early 2000s amid an upswing of Russian patriotism following the outrages of the Moscow apartment bombings. (And, a more successful re-run of Chechen hostilities.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Hostages,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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