1653: Sakura Sogoro, righteous peasant

Add comment September 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Perhaps on this date in 1653 — it is, at any rate, the date saluted by a festival that honors him — the peasant Sakura Sogoro was crucified for protesting the oppressive taxation of his local lord.

Sogoro — familiarly known as Sogo-sama — was a village head man who dared to take his complaints about his daimyo‘s heavy hand right to the shogun himself. As punishment for this effrontery, the daimyo had the peasant executed (which punishment the sacrificial Sogoro anticipated in making his appeal) along with his wife and sons (which was an outrage).

As classically described, Sogoro from the cross damns the cruelty of the punishment and promises to revenge himself as a ghost, destroying the daimyo‘s house within three years. A century or so after his death, a shrine was erected to his memory which attracted pilgrims throughout the realm and made Sakura Sogoro “the patron saint of protest” (Anne Walthall, whom we shall hear more from later.) The tale has earned popular staging in Japanese culture from the kabuki stage to television.


The great 19th century kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji as the avenging specter of “Asakura Togo”, the Kabuki character based on Sakura Sogoro. Image from this gorgeous collection.

As one might infer from the sketchy account here, the story’s historicity is shaky despite its popularity down the centuries in Japan. According to an academic paper by Walthall,*

The archetype of the peasant martyr, a man who deliberately sacrificed himself on behalf of his community.”

More has been written about Sakura Sogoro than about any other peasant hero, but the evidence of his existence is extremely circumstantial. Written accounts of him remain fragmentary until the 1770s …

The first mention of the Sogoro legend appears in Sakura fudoki (a record of provincial lore on Sakura), compiled by a Sakura domain bureaucrat, Isobe Shogen. He recounts how an old man had told him that Sogoro’s vengeful spirit caused the downfall of a seventeenth-century lord. This emphasis on revenge after death is common to many Japanese folktales. Its constant recurrence as a theme in Japanese history reflects a widely held belief in the power of strong emotions to wreak havoc after a person has died. At this point Sogoro was hardly a martyr for the peasants — they remembered not his own deeds, if any, but what had happened to the lord.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the story gains more detail. After the death of the just lord, Hotta Masamori, his retainers take control of domanial administration, treat the peasants unjustly, and increase the land tax. To save the people, Sogoro makes a direct appeal to the shogun … becom[ing] an exemplar of righteous action, a man who placed community welfare above individual self-interest …

In narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the plot becomes still more elaborate. Sogoro is described as a man of scholarship, deeply religious, respectful of his superiors, mindful of his subordinates, esteemed by his neighbors. “He was intelligent, tactful, and did not look like he was peasant born. Everyone said he must be the descendant of a warrior” … As the savior of his village, he represented the peasants’ aspirations; as an angry spirit, he reflected their resentment of those in authority.

The most modern version of the legend omits all reference to revenge by angry spirits. Now the story depicts the courage of Sogoro and his supporters among the peasants and his heartrending renunciation of his family when he resolves to sacrifice himself for the community. He still puts his appeal directly in the hands of the shogun, even though modern historians have long argued that a meeting with the shogun was impossible for a peasant. In contrast to the “good king,” (the shogun Ietsuna) the villain, Hotta Masanobu, executes not merely Sogoro, but his four children. Even the cruelty of this command has become further elaborated. To evade the bakufu prohibition on the execution of women, officials pretend that Sogoro’s three daughters are actually sons and cut off their heads. In short, today people know only a lachrymose tale of tyranny and heroism.

English speakers can grab a couple renderings of this story in the public domain:

* Walthall, “Narratives of Peasant Uprisings in Japan,” The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1983.

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1312: Pierre Vigier de la Rouselle, Gascon

Add comment March 31st, 2012 Headsman

“It is unjust that that which is rightly judged should result in prejudice to us and bring damage to others …”

-Edward II, letter concerning the Pierre Vigier case

One is like to reckon the phenomenon of the interminable death penalty appeal a modern construct, product of the present day’s moral confusion or juridical inefficiency.

It’s been right about 700 years exactly since Pierre Vigier was hanged in the February-April neighborhood, in the year of our Lord 1312, for his impolitic sentiments on the governance of his native province. This medieval execution went with a very modern-sounding 12 years of indeteminate appeals.

Still, it is true what they say — “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In this foreign country, Gascony by name, they did the hanging first … and then did the appeals.

Our source here (virtually the only source short of plumbing the archives) is Joseph Kicklighter’s “English Bordeaux in conflict: the execution of Pierre Vigier de la Rousselle and its aftermath, 1312-24” from the Journal of Medieval History, no. 9 (1983).

And the source of all the judicial chaos was the bizarre situation of one king as a rival king’s vassal.

Gascony at this time was a sort of feudal leftover of the Angevin Empire whose Plantagenet descendants were still kings of England. This remaining Plantagenet patrimony* in southwestern France was a going source of conflict between the realms, the most recent of which had been expediently settled by making the English king also Duke of Gascony … and (with respect to Gascony) the French king his liege lord.


Seated French king Philip IV accepts the homage of his “vassal” Edward I.

The territory was worth the “submission”: ducal Gascony’s fertile land gave England a bounty in crops and wine. And the inevitable rivalry over sway in Gascony easily knocked on to the courts. As Barbara Tuchman put it in A Distant Mirror,

[t]he King of France still retained superior sovereignty under the formula of superioritas et resortum, which gave the inhabitants the right of appeal to the ultimate sovereign. Since his decisions were more than likely to go in their favor against their English overlord, and since the citizens, knowing this, exercised the right frequently, the situation was an endless source of conflict.

It was during such a conflict, when the rival factions of the Gascon capital of Bordeaux had the city in virtual anarchy as they jockeyed for power under the nominal lordship of English king Edward II, that the onetime royal castellan Pierre Vigier de la Rouselle apparently dumped on one of the new officials in conversation with a couple of informants.

The municipal government arrested Vigier and had him hanged — quickly, before Vigier’s inevitable attempted appeal to Parlement could save him.

(This all went down just a couple months before Edward II suffered a Gascon humiliation closer to home, when the Gascon nobleman Piers Gaveston, Edward’s dear friend and suspected lover, was executed by rival English lords.)**

Vigier’s aggrieved sons did pursue the appeal (it is they who provide posterity the circumstances of Pierre’s condemnation, so handle the story with care: one latter-day hypothesis is that Vigier was an outright rebel against the new appointees). Inevitably, the French backed their claim, allowing them undercut Edward’s ducal authority.


Productive relationship.

From there, the matter sank into an intractable mire of feudal Europe’s overlapping political authorities and factional rivalries. Parlement decreed some penalties. King Philip remitted some of them as a diplomatic gesture. The sons renewed their complaint. Bordeaux authorities tried to put the matter to bed by persecuting Vigier’s persecutors, only to be slapped down by an indignant King Edward. Persons were seized only to be ordered released, and estates likewise. Just as there was no single unambiguous authority to adjudicate it, there was no single wrongdoer to investigate, no single injury to repair (besides the matter of honor, there was the dead man’s property, and the fact that he was buried in unconsecrated ground), and no single arrangement of interested parties between the Vigier sons on the one side and the Plantagenet king on the other.

Edward seems to have taken particular affront at this imposition on his routine authority, and one must bear in mind that at this stage even the concept of sovereignty as we think of it today was simply not on the map. In some ways, the French appeals policy was pioneering it.

But as the suit bumped up and down or got kicked down the road by a Parlement that was probably enjoying its sport, Edward tried to dispose of it through such expedients as harassing its supporters and attempting to bankrupt the Vigiers. All this, naturally, just got rolled into the messy ol’ case.

Kicklighter:

Only time itself finally ended the appeal … in March 1324, King Charles IV announced the indefinite postponement of all ducal litigation at the Parlement of Paris becase of a mounting Anglo-French crisis which would soon lead to the brief War of Saint-Sardos. But even during the war, the court continued to deal with some aspects of the case; and the appeal was still under judgment when the Anglo-French feudal relationship was resumed with the accession of Edward III to the English throne.† It seems likely … Parlement had dropped the case by the 1330’s … in all probability, the Vigier case had lost the critical importance with which the king-duke and his officials had regarded it for so long. One might, with some justification, wonder why the appeal had ever enjoyed such attention.‡


In 1337, King Philip VI of France attempted to seize Gascony. In response, Edward III declared himself (not without at least some theoretical validity) the rightful King of France. The ensuing hostilities proved to be the opening act of the Hundred Years’ War.

“It was not the dynastic question that brought about the war,” wrote the historian T.F. Tout. “The fundamental difference between the two countries lay in the impossible position of Edward in Gascony.”

* Here’s a lovely free book about the preceding century’s backstory of English rule in Gascony.

** Potentially topical to this digressive connection: Edward’s loyal aide in Bordeaux, a gentleman by the name of Arnaud Caillau, may have been a cousin of Piers Gaveston. Edward certainly had a supportive Gascon faction that his own resentful alleged vassals were frequently keen to harass; maybe the whole Vigier intervention just struck a little too close to home.

† The reader will recall that Edward III’s route to power involved his French mother and her lover invading England and overthrowing Edward II. So there was a good deal of more interesting politics going on around this time than Pierre Vigier’s endless procedural appeal.

‡ Lest we misrepresent Kicklighter, he does go on to attempt to explain this hypothetical wonder as “a certain indication of the limited power of the English in Gascony.” I prefer my own stopping-point.

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1323: Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain, Gascon rascal

Add comment May 7th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1323, Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain, lord of Casaubon, was “stripped naked, drawn on a hurdle from the Chatelet to the gibbet, and hanged there.” (Source)

This robber-baron‘s offense had been nothing less than the years-long defiance of his every actual and potential liege — consequence of the wide scope of action available to feudal nobles before the ascendance of absolutism.

Jourdain was the younger son of a lord, but managed to inherit a good chunk of land and marry into more of it … giving him power well beyond his merely nominal aristocratic rank.

Jourdain’s stomping ground was Gascony in the southwest of France, which in this period was a contested fringe of English and French authority* and so was under little true authority at all.

An unscrupulous operator could have a field day — or in Jourdain’s case, a field decade or two.

Joseph Klicklighter, “The Nobility of English Gascony: the case of Jourdain de l’Isle” in the Journal of Medieval History 13 (1987), pp. 327-342 documents Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain’s run of rapine in the “chaos and lawlessness” of 14th century Gascony.

He would occupy lands to extract official concessions, rip off the sailors and merchants crossing his territory, play English and French power off against one other (not neglecting to drag in the Avignonese pope John XXII, who had our crooked noble’s back as his kinsman), even rape, murder, and plunder outright. When forced to fight a judicial duel that turned out inconclusively, he peevishly razed a castle of his opponent.

“For years,” Klicklighter notes, “Jourdain de l’Isle was able to … pursue his wars and crimes and to flaunt ducal [English] and French authorities alike.”

Mind, he was hardly the only Gascon noble amok, but he seems to have been the most offensively undiplomatic of the lot. When the new French King Charles IV** sent armed envoys to summon him (along with other lords) to Paris, Jourdain had the envoys beheaded.

At last someone prevailed upon our man to make the trip, and despite arriving “in grand array and with great arrogance,” the French clapped him in prison with what we can only assume was relief. The Pope’s frantic appeals on Jourdain’s behalf didn’t do him any good: in fact, our man was hanged in a garment derisively sporting the papal insignia.

Though this date’s execution put an end to one man’s depravities, the violence attributable to his contumacious native region was just getting started. Fourteen years later, the next French monarch, Philip VI, went to put an end to this foolishness by definitively reclaiming Gascony for France … and triggered the Hundred Years War.

* Formally, Gascony was an English fief of the French crown. Functionally, that meant that whenever the English seneschal issued an edict, the local lords could ignore it by appealing to Parlement.

** Charles IV was the last ruler of the House of Capet … thanks in part to the dynasty-destroying Tour de Nesle scandal.

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1549: Robert Kett, rebelling against enclosures

5 comments December 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1549, Robert Kett (sometimes “Ket” or “Kette”) was hanged over the side of Norwich Castle for an eponymous rebellion.

Reviews here and here.

Possibly England’s last medieval peasant rising, and possibly its first modern revolt, Kett’s Rebellion pitted the agrarian feudal commons against the proto-capitalist world taking shape.

A 15th century of relative prosperity for the English peasant had given way to a decades-long process (centuries-long, really) of enclosure.

Impelled by the profitable wool export business, landlords began “enclosing” formerly open arable land for pasture, thereby destroying the communal and quasi-communal agricultural models of the middle ages.

Karl Marx

For Marx, among many others, this revolution in agricultural production — and the attendant proletarianization of the former peasantry — marks the dawn of the capitalist epoch, when

great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour-market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process …

Although, therefore, the English land, after the Norman Conquest, was distributed in gigantic baronies, one of which often included some 900 of the old Anglo-Saxon lordships, it was bestrewn with small peasant properties, only here and there interspersed with great seignorial domains. Such conditions, together with the prosperity of the towns so characteristic of the 15th century, allowed of that wealth of the people which Chancellor Fortescue so eloquently paints in his “Laudes legum Angliae;” but it excluded the possibility of capitalistic wealth.

The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour-market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.” … In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry … As Thornton rightly has it, the English working-class was precipitated without any transition from its golden into its iron age. (Capital, volume I, chapters 2627)

It did not suffer its precipitation quietly.

Thomas More

Enclosures were a predominant social problem in England throughout the century, and if contemporaries could hardly descry the shape of the economic revolution taking shape, they worriedly noticed the poverty, the vagabondage, and the depopulated villages.

In Utopia, Thomas More upbraids a country where

your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots! not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes; for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners, as well as tenants, are turned out of their possessions by trick or by main force, or, being wearied out by ill usage, they are forced to sell them; by which means those miserable people, both men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, with their poor but numerous families (since country business requires many hands), are all forced to change their seats, not knowing whither to go; and they must sell, almost for nothing, their household stuff

Commissions studied enclosure; edicts forbade and reversed them; commentators denounced them — all to no effect.

Robert Kett

Robert Kett, from a larger painting (click to see it) by Samuel Wale.

Henrician England had plenty of violent social transformation on its plate, of course, and plenty of violent tools to manage it. When the philandering tyrant kicked the bucket in 1547, he left the unfolding social catastrophe to the weakened protectorate government of his sickly nine-year-old heir.

In East Anglia in the summer of 1549, a peasant riot against an enclosure caught a spark. Unexpectedly, when the mob moved to throw down the enclosures put up by Robert Kett (another small landowner), he committed himself to the peasant cause and ably steered the rebellion for six heady weeks.

Kett was the man for his time and place: proving a natural leader, he marshaled the inchoate rage of his countrymen into an orderly, disciplined force.

Kett’s peasant army marched on Norwich, and stunningly captured England’s second city, thereupon petitioning the crown upon a variety of economic grievances (the petition is available on Wikipedia).

And Kett meant business, as this fiery (perhaps slightly fatalistic) oration suggests; he well knew that he had committed his own person to glory or destruction.

Now are ye overtopped and trodden down by gentlemen, and put out of possibility ever to recover foot. Rivers of riches ran into the coffers of your landlords, while you are pair’d to the quick, and fed upon pease and oats like beasts. You are fleeced by these landlords for their private benefit, and as well kept under by the public burdens of State wherein while the richer sort favour themselves, ye are gnawn to the very bones. You tyrannous masters often implead, arrest, and cast you into prison, so that they may the more terrify and torture you in your minds, and wind our necks more surely under their arms. And then they palliate these pillories with the fair pretence of law and authority! Fine workmen, I warrant you, are this law and authority, who can do their dealings so closely that men can only discover them for your undoing. Harmless counsels are fit for tame fools; for you who have already stirred there is no hope but in adventuring boldly.

Alas, like the enclosures themselves, the matter was to be resolved against the peasantry by main force. [bits and bobs on the daily progress of skirmishes and battles in this pdf] Though the rebels actually defeated the first force sent against them, they were decisively beaten at Dussindale on Aug. 27.

“We were promised ynoughe and more then ynoughe. But the more was an hawlter.”*

Promises of clemency induced the survivors to surrender peacably; though wholesale punitive bloodletting seems not to have been imposed, the leaders, of course, had to be made an example of.

Robert Kett and his brother, William, were convicted of treason and hanged.

Smoothly leveraging his dispatch in handling the rebellion, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, overturned the national political leadership of the Lord Protector the Duke of Somerset, who was accused of having triggered the rising with an excess of sympathy for the dispossessed peasant class. (Both Somerset and Northumberland would end up on the chopping block themselves.)

* Quote from a survivor of the rebellion, cited by Diarmaid MacCulloch in “Kett’s Rebellion in Context,” Past & Present, No. 84 (Aug., 1979).

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1876: The samurai leaders of the Hagi and Akizuki rebellions

4 comments December 3rd, 2009 Headsman

Unless you’re a Jedi knight, feudal warrior castes and industrial civilization go together like sashimi and fries. So, when the Meiji Restoration made its choice for Japanese modernization, it gained the enmity of the samurai it necessarily dispossessed.

A news nishiki-e woodblock depicting the defeat of the Hagi Rebellion, with the conquering Miura Goro on horseback. (Click for a wider, three-panel image.) From here.

In many cases, said samurai were especially burned at having initially backed the restoration’s restoration of the emperor and attendant jingoistic sloganeering, only to find themselves on the outs as soon as the new government got its feet under it.

Over the 1870’s, the samurai caste was essentially abolished, and it lost its sword-toting privileges along with (come the advent of a new conscript army) its military import.

Small wonder that once-haughty military folk fought this unwelcome progress katana and wakizashi.

In 1876, the Shimpuren Rebellion helped spark sympathetic retrograde uprisings both named for their locations, Akizuki and Hagi. In all of these, the aggrieved samurai made desperate bids to reassert their lost position and reverse Japan’s westernization.

In all of these, they failed.

Leaders of both the Akizuki and Hagi Rebellions — Wikipedia gives it as two from the former (Masuda Shizukata and Imamura Hyakuhachiro) and seven from the latter (notably Maebara Issei) — were beheaded together this date in Fukuoka.

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