1415: Lello Capocci, schism victim

1 comment October 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Lello Capocci was beheaded at Rome’s Capitoline Hill.

Capocci in a sense was a casualty at second remove of Europe’s “Western Schism”, the awkward 40-year era (here entering its twilight) when the Catholic world divided into two and then three rival papal claimants.

The Schism’s opening up in the first place owed a little to the viperous politics of Capocci’s Rome, to which ancient capital the papacy had in 1377 been returned from its Avignon exile by the last clearly legitimate pope, who then promptly died.

Having been deprived of the papacy for the best part of a century, the Roman populace raised a violent clamor for the College of Cardinals to anoint a Roman successor. (The Avignon popes had all been Frenchmen.)

In a confused conclave echoing with the din of a riot at the doors, the cardinals settled on the Archbishop of Bari, who was not one of their number,* as a compromise candidate whom the French cardinals could live with. This man, now dignified Urban VI, was an Italian … but not a Roman; he was, indeed, a subject of Rome’s resented neighbor Naples. He also turned out upon closer examination by the cardinals who elected him blindly to be a bit of a prick, when for instance “the very next day after his coronation he gave offence to many Bishops and Prelates, who were sojourning in Rome … When, after Vespers, they paid him their respects in the great Chapel of the Vatican he called them perjurers, because they had left their churches. A fortnight later, preaching in open consistory, he condemned the morals of the Cardinals and Prelates in such harsh and unmeasured terms, that all were deeply wounded.” (Source)

Piqued at this arriviste threatening them over their simoniacal predilections, the cardinals popped over the nearby town of Anagni and expressed their buyers’ regret by electing a different guy pope. This completely irregular action was justified by the curia on the grounds that the rude Roman mob had stampeded the initial decision.

So now you’ve got two guys, Urban VI and Clement VII (the latter resuming residence at Avignon, where much of the papal bureaucracy still stood) both claiming to be pope. In the official church history, Urban rates as the legitimate pope and Clement as the illegitimate antipope but this situation had no precedent: it was the very same body that had elected each man and, despite their mutual excommunications, there was no doctrinal controversy dividing them. Small wonder that it befuddled and infuriated contemporaries.

Once commenced, the two opposing “obediences” proved nigh impossible to reconcile and initiated rival successions — Urban giving way to Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII in Rome; Clement to Benedict XIII in Avignon. In 1409, a church council tried to resolve the schism by vacating the existing papal claims and naming Alexander V pope. Unfortunately, neither the Roman nor the Avignon claimant had signed up for the plan, so this blunder forked the schism into a third obedience.

And it is this moment that brings us in roundabout fashion to our man, a very minor figure from the standpoint of posterity: the Roman noble Lello Capocci (Italian link).

Locally in the Eternal City, the Avignon pope didn’t much feature but the Roman pope and the third guy (not the short-lived Alexander but his successor John XXIII**) were simultaneously rivals of one another, and (as would-be rulers of the church) rivals of the Neapolitan crown for power in Rome.

Although the Capoccis were traditionally adherents to the papal authority in this scrum, the Schism had finally come to its endgame in 1415 when the Council of Constance successfully deposed all the claimants to St. Peter’s throne.† The papacy would stand vacant for two years, although the cardinal legate of the fugitive John XXIII still governed unsteadily from the Castel Sant’Angelo — and it appears that amidst a disordered situation Capocci treated with the nearest potential guarantors of stability. (The short-lived but frightening-for-aristocrats popular revolution of Cola di Rienzi would still have been in living memory for a few old-timers.) He had his head cut off for attempting to betray the city to Naples, which would indeed regain sway in Rome … but not until a couple of years later.

* Nothing in canon law says the pope has to be a cardinal first, or even a member of the clergy, but that’s the way it works in practice now: Urban VI is still the most recent pope to have been selected from outside the College of Cardinals. (The Young Pope will be the next.)

** The antipope John XXIII — who refused to submit to the Council of Constance and “was brought back a prisoner: the most scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest” (Gibbon) — made the regnal name “John” radioactive for centuries of subsequent popes, notwithstanding its popularity among the laity; it was thought an adventurous choice in 1958 when a newly elected pontiff — a great reformer of the church, as it would prove — made bold enough to announce himself Pope John XXIII.

† We would be remiss on a site such as this not to add that this is also the council that invited under safe conduct, and then perfidiously condemned and burned, the Bohemian reformer/heretic Jan Hus.

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1416: Jerome of Prague, the first Hussite martyr

Add comment May 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1416, the Council of Constance had Jerome of Prague burned at the stake in the town square.

This eloquent, injudicious theologian studied at Prague, Oxford, Paris, Cologne, Heidelberg … accumulating Master’s degrees along the way like a career graduate student, but repeatedly finding himself run off the premises on suspicion of heresy.

Jerome’s “heresy” was an excessively combative hostility to ecclesiastical corruption. And although Jerome was known for his rapier tongue, he didn’t always find the pen mightier than the sword: he got into a few physical scraps with his foes.

While in England, he copied out a manuscript of preacher John Wycliffe — whose radical piety (or pious radicalism) inspired the rebellious Lollard movement.

Back on the continent, Jerome fell in with Jan Hus. Ten years Jerome’s senior, Hus was and remains the first name in Bohemian religious reform, and the “Hussite” church he founded still retains his name.

After Hus unwisely accepted a guarantee of safe conduct to dispute at the Council of Constance, the more ornery Jerome slipped into town to propagandize on his mentor’s behalf. After placarding his way to trouble, he slipped back out and must have thought he’d had his cake and eaten it too … until he was caught in the Black Forest.

Jerome spent nearly a full year in a dungeon — the Council met for four years; it had a massive schism to sort out — and at one point the privations of imprisonment led him recant. He later bitterly regretted that concession to “pusillanimity of mind and fear of death,” but on a strictly doctrinal level Jerome of Prague wasn’t anti-Catholic: he just wanted the church to be less of a bunch of corrupt, overweening racketeers.

By the time he was ready to answer for himself, and his soul, he was well past any spirit of capitulation. A witness to the procedure wrote of Jerome on trial for his life:

I have never seen any one, who, in pleading, especially in a capital offence, approached nearer the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire. It was so amazing to see with what fluency of language, what force of expression, what arguments, what looks and tones of voice, with what eloquence, he answered his adversaries and finally closed his defence. It was impossible not to feel grieved, that so noble, so transcendent a genius had turned aside to heretical studies, if indeed the charges brought against him are true.

When that part of his indictment was read in which he is accused of being “a defamer of the papal dignity, an opposer of the Roman pontiff, an enemy of the cardinals, a persecutor of the prelates and clergy, and a despiser of the Christian religion,” he arose, and with outstretched hands and with lamenting tones, exclaimed: “Whither now, conscript Fathers, shall I turn myself? Whose aid can I implore? Whom supplicate, whom entreat for help? Shall I turn to you? Your minds have been fatally alienated from me by my persecutors, when they pronounced me an enemy of all mankind, even of those by whom I am to be judged. They supposed, should the accusations which they had conjured up against me, seem trivial, — you would, by your decisions, not fail to crush the common enemy and opposer of all, — such as I had been held up to view, in their false representations. If, therefore, you rely upon their words there is no longer any ground for me to hope.”

Some of them he wrung hard by the sallies of his wit; while others he overwhelmed with biting sarcasms; and from many, even in the midst of sadness, he forced frequent smiles, by the ridicule which he heaped upon their accusations.

At length, launching out in praise of John Huss who had been condemned to the fire, he pronounced him a good, just, and holy man, altogether unworthy of such a death, — adding that he was also prepared to undergo, with fortitude and constancy, any punishment whatsoever, yielding himself up to his enemies and the impudent lying witnesses, “who would, at length, have to give an account of all they had uttered, before God, whom they could not possibly deceive.” Great was the grief of all that stood around him. Thee was a universal desire among them to save so noble a personage, could his own consent be obtained. Persevering, however, in his opinions, he seemed voluntarily toseek death; and continuing his praise of John Huss, he declared that man had never conceived any hostility to the church of God; but that it was to the abuses of the clergy, and the pride, pageantry and insolence of her prelates alone he felt opposed; for, since the patrimony of the church was due, in the first place, to her poor; then to her guests; and finally to her on workshops; it seemed to that good man, a shameful thing, to have it expended upon courtezans and in banquets; for the sustenance of horses and dogs, the adornment of garments and other things unworthy of the religion of Christ.

Most exalted was the genius of which he showed himself possessed! Often was he interrupted in his discourse by various noises; and greatly vexed by those who carped at his opinions; yet he left none of them untouched, but equally avenging himself upon all, he either covered them with confusion, or else compelled them to hold their peace. A murmur arising against him, he paused for a moment; and then, having admonished the crowd, proceeded with his defence, — praying and beseeching them to suffer one to speak whom they would soon hear no more. At none of the noise and commotion around him did he tremble, or lose, for a single instant, the firmness and the intrepidity of his mind.

“You will condemn me iniquitously and unjustly,” he prophesied to his judges, “and when I am dead, I shall leave remorse in your consciences and a dagger in your hearts; and soon, within a hundred years, — you will all have to answer me, in the presence of a Judge most high and perfectly just.”

Reports differ as to the subsequent standing of all these men’s souls. But for the church as a going earthly concern, Jerome nailed it almost exactly: 101 years after he followed Jan Hus to the stake,* that long-suppressed spirit of reform irrevocably splintered papal authority.

* In the very same spot where Hus himself was burnt.

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1415: Jan Hus, reformer of religion and language

4 comments July 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake at Konstanz for heresy.

This statue of Jan Hus in Prague’s Old Town is a tourist magnet. image (cc) autumnal fire

Hus might be the most consequential pre-Lutheran Christian religious reformer, and the Hussite faith he founded still persists to this day.

In his own time, Hus expounded a reformist theology inspired by John Wycliffe, and putting Holy Writ into the vernacular was essential to his program. His religious movement found common cause with a Bohemian political interest in exploiting western Christendom’s clown carful of rival popes to stake out greater national independence.

He eventually met his martyrdom by agreeing to come to the Council of Konstanz (Constance) under a guarantee of safe conduct, where prelates were going to sort out their rival popes and do the periodic Church reform thing.

Instead, Hus was seized and imprisoned — you don’t have to keep promises to heretics, see; it’s all a part of this noble era’s expediently plastic sense of honor — and tried and condemned and implored to recant and finally burned alive.*

But the disobedient movements Hus had kindled in life were not so easily reduced to ash.

In the aftermath of the great ecclesiastic’s execution, a significant conflict erupted in Bohemia. For a generation or so of the Hussite Wars, the man’s followers repelled Catholic incursions before they too finally succumbed.

Even then, it wasn’t over (and still isn’t). Though it wasn’t all specifically about the guy named Jan Hus — these things never are — the Catholic powers that be were still fighting and propagandizing against Hus centuries later, into the Counter-Reformation.

Today, the statue of Jan Hus that everyone flocks to see in Prague’s Old Town Square is flanked by a Catholic church on one side … and a Catholic church that’s become a Hussite church on another.


Since all of the above and a great deal more about Hus and Hussites is readily available at the search engine of your choice, we thought — after the above introduction — to redirect our conversation to a dimension of Jan Hus less widely recognized: his foundational role in the development of the modern written Czech language, and especially its use of diacritics. Hus is generally credited as the creator of the haček or caron.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for helping ferret out this excerpt, from the chapter on Czech by Robert Auty in The Slavic Literary Languages: Formation and Development, ed. Alexander M. Schenker and Edward Stankiewicz, Yale: 1980.

The religious reform movement associated with the name of Jan Hus (1371-1415) had important consequences for the Czech literary language. Knowledge of the Bible was an important element in the reform program of Hus and his followers: the Bible was to be made available to the people in their own language and priests had to be able to expound it in a clear and straightforward manner … The establishment and continuous polishing and revision of the scriptural text played a great part in the development of the written Czech vernacular. Moreover the Czech translation profoundly influenced the earliest Polish versions of the Bible.

Hus’s own views on the language emerge not only from his practice but also from various theoretical utteranes on the subject. It has been shown that in morphology and vocabulary he tried to modernize the language in accordance with the development of natural speech. In phonology however he took up a more conservative position … Hus was also critical of another element of contemporary Prague speech, the proliferation of Germanisms in the vocabulary. In this he took up a position similar to that of many of his countrymen four or five centuries later and castigated those who said handtuch (Ger. Handtuch) for ubrusec ‘towel,’ šorc (Ger. Schurz) for zástěrka ‘apron,’ trepky (Ger. Treppen) for chódy ‘steps,’ knedlík (Ger. Knödel) for šiška ‘dumpling’ and the like. It is interesting to note that many of the Germanisms to which Hus objected have in fact disappeared from the language; yet others have resisted; knedlík, for example, has become fully domesticated.


A Czech knedlík by any other name would still taste as chutný. (cc) image from Michal Sänger.

It is in all probability to Hus that we must ascribe the establishment of the orthography of modern Czech, for this is essentially based on the diacritic system expounded in the treatise known as De orthographia bohemica. Written at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the tract, though it cannot with absolute certainty be ascribed to Hus, is nevertheless held by the great majority of scholars to be his work. …

The revolutionary innovation advocated in De orthographia bohemica was the introduction of the diacritic system, that is to say the extension of the repertory of graphemes by the user of superscript marks. For the consonants the principle adopted was to use the unmarked Latin letters for sounds which (in the contemporary pronunciation) were identical in Latin and Czech, but to indicate specifically Czech sounds by means of a superscript dot over the letter concerned. Thus … č, š, ž, ř … [which] indicated not palatal articulation but non-Latin-ness. …

It seems most probably that he was influenced by the Hebrew practice of indicating by a dot (dageš) variant phonetic realizations of the same grapheme. We know that Hus learned some Hebrew, and this would seem the most obvious source of this orthographic device. …

The diacritic orthography was not immediately accepted, despite the fact that a handful of early fifteenth-century manuscripts employed it. It gained ground in the later fifteenth and especially in the sixteenth century and became adopted as the standard. With the advent of printing in the late fifteenth century the Gothic (black-letter) form of the Latin alphabet was used for Czech books as it was for German. When the forms of the letters were standardized Hus’s lozenge-shaped dot was changed to the ‘hook’ (haček) which lives on as the reversed circumflex of the present-day Czech alphabet. The indication of vowel length, originally similar to a comma, was systematized as an acute accent (referred to in Czech as &#269árka) …

By the time the Hussite wars ended in the 1430’s the Czech language was in use in most spheres of national life. It was established as a medium of administrative and legal documents, and it was increasingly used for learned and technical writings … When we consider that the relative uniformity of the phonological and morphological structure of the language remained unimpaired, and that its orthography was in the process of consolidation, we can establish the mid-fifteenth century as the period of origin of the Czech literary language as a normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom.

Czechs and their normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom get a public holiday and all the hačeks they can drink in Jan Hus’s honor today.

* Just to make sure everyone got the point, this same council ordered the remains of the long-deceased Wycliffe exhumed and posthumously “executed”.

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