1389: Fra Michele Berti, “Cristo povero crocifisso”

Add comment April 30th, 2018 Headsman

“This is a truth that resides in me, to which I cannot bear witness if I do not die.”

-Fra Michele Berti, at the stake

On this date in 1389, the Fraticelli friar Fra Michele Berti da Calci burned in Florence as a heretic.

This excommunicate movement of “Spiritual Franciscans” who insisted upon the poverty of an order that had come to enjoy its emoluments had for decades now dogged the Church with a persuasive critique and credo: “io credo in Cristo povero crocifisso,” as our man Michele Berti said to his inquisitors. “I believe in Christ, poor and crucified.”

The quote is from a remarkable surviving account, “La passione di frate Michele” — whose title explicating the saint’s similarity to ancient martyrologies reveals where its sympathies lie. It can be perused online in Italian here or here.

According to the passione, the Florentine populace joined Michele’s persecutors in urging him to reconcile and save his life, as he made his public progress across the city to his death dressed in a mantle painted with demons in a sea of fire. The friar’s steadfastness eventually turned onlookers to his side, so that as his procession neared the Prato della Giustizia, “a believer began to cry out, saying: stand firm, martyr of Christ, who will soon receive the crown.”

Awestruck after Berti went to the pyre singing Te Deum, the crowd began to murmur, and “many said he seems a saint, even his adversaries … and they could not have their fill of railing against the priests.”

In Umberto Eco’s great literary monument to the Fraticelli, The Name of the Rose, the young oblate Adso reminisces at one point of visiting Florence, and of witnessing an execution that appears to be modeled on on this very account including such details as Michael’s criticism of Pope John XXII and Thomas Aquinas, his refusal to kneel before a “heretic” bishop, and the tongue-lashing he gave to skulkcowl Franciscans en route to his death.

A heretic Fraticello, accused of crimes against religion and haled before the bishop and other ecclesiastics, was being subjected to severe inquisition at the time. And, following those who told me about it, I went to the place where the trial was taking place, for I heard the people say that this friar, Michael by name, was truly a very pious man who had preached penance and poverty, repeating the words of Saint Francis, and had been brought before the judges because of the spitefulness of certain women who, pretending to confess themselves to him, had then attributed sacrilegious notions to him; and he had indeed been seized by the bishop’s men in the house of those same women, a fact that amazed me, because a man of the church should never go to administer the sacraments in such unsuitable places; but this seemed to be a weakness of the Fraticelli, this failure to take propriety into due consideration, and perhaps there was some truth in the popular belief that held them to be of dubious morals (as it was always said of the Catharists that they were Bulgars and sodomites).

I came to the Church of San Salvatore, where the inquisition was in progress, but I could not enter, because of the great crowd outside it. However, some had hoisted themselves to the bars of the windows and, clinging there, could see and hear what was going on, and they reported it to those below. The inquisitors were reading to Brother Michael the confession he had made the day before, in which he said that Christ and his apostles “held nothing individually or in common as property,” but Michael protested that the notary had now added “many false consequences” and he shouted (this I heard from outside), “You will have to defend yourselves on the day of judgment!” But the inquisitors read the confession as they had drawn it up, and at the end they asked him whether he wanted humbly to follow the opinions of the church and all the people of the city. And I heard Michael shouting in a loud voice that he wanted to follow what he believed, namely that he “wanted to keep Christ poor and crucified, and Pope John XXII was a heretic because he said the opposite.”

A great debate ensued, in which the inquisitors, many of them Franciscans, sought to make him understand that the Scriptures had not said what he was saying, and he accused them of denying the very Rule of their order, and they assailed him, asking him whether he thought he understood Scripture better than they, who were masters. And Fra Michael, very stubborn indeed, contested them, so that they began provoking him with such assertions as “Then we want you to consider Christ a property owner and Pope John a Catholic and holy man.” And Michael, never faltering, said, “No, a heretic.” And they said they had never seen anyone so tenacious in his own wickedness. But among the crowd outside the building I heard many compare him to Christ before the Pharisees, and I realized that among the people many believed in his sanctity.

Finally the bishop’s men took him back to prison in irons. And that evening I was told that many monks, friends of the bishop, had gone to insult him and enjoin him to retract, but he answered like a man sure of his own truth. And he repeated to each of them that Christ was poor and that Saint Francis and Saint Dominic had said so as well, and that if for professing this upright opinion he had to be condemned to the stake, so much the better, because in a short time he would be able to see what the Scriptures describe, the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse and Jesus Christ and Saint Francis and the glorious martyrs. And I was told tht he said, “If we read with such fervor the doctrine of certain sainted abbots, how much greater should be our fervor and our joy in desiring to be in their midst?” And after words of this sort, the inquisitors left the prison with grim faces, crying out in indignation (and I heard them), “He has a devil in him!”

The next day we learned that the sentence had been pronounced, and I learned that among the crimes of which he was accused, it was said that he even claimed that Saint Thomas Aquinas was not a saint nor did he enjoy eternal salvation, but was, on the contrary, damned and in a state of perdition — which seemed incredible to me. And the sentence concluded that, since the accused did not wish to mend his ways, he was to be ocnducted to the usual place of execution et ibidem igne et flammis igneis accensis concremetur et comburatur, ita quod penitus moriatur et anima a corpore separetur.

Then more men of the church went to visit him and warned him of what would happen, and said: “Brother Michael, the miters and copes have already been made, and painted on them are Fraticelli accompanied by devils.” To frighten him and force him finally to retract. But Brother Michael knelt down and said, “I believe that beside the pyre there will be our father Francis, and I further believe there will be Jesus and the apostles, and the glorious martyrs Bartholomew and Anthony.” Which was a way of refusing for the last time the inquisitors’ offers.

The next morning I, too, was on the bridge before the bishop’s palace, where the inquisitors had gathered. Brother Michael, still in irons, was brought to face them. One of his faithful followers knelt before him to receive his beneiction, and this follower was seized by the men-at-arms and taken at once to prison. Afterward, the inquisitors again read the sentence to the condemned man and asked him once more whether he wished to repent. At every point where the sentence said he was a heretic Michael replied, “I am no heretic; a sinner, yes, but Catholic,” and when the text named “the most venerable and holy Pope John XXII” Michael answered, “No, a heretic.” Then the bishop ordered Michael to come and kneel before him, and Michael said no one should kneel before heretics. They forced him to his knees and he murmured, “God will pardon me.” And after he had been led out in all his priestly vestments, a ritual began, and one by one his vestments were stripped away until he remained in that little garment that the Florentines called a “cioppa.” And as is the custom when a priest is defrocked, they seared the pads of his fingers with a hot iron and they shaved his head. Then he was handed over to the captain and his men, who treated him very harshly and put him in irons, to take him back to prison, and he said to the crowd, “Per Dominum moriemur.” He was to be burned, as I found out, only the next day.

And on this day they also went to ask him whether he wished to confess himself and receive communion. And he refused, saying it was a sin to accept sacraments from one in a state of sin. Here, I believe, he was wrong, and he showed he had been corrupted by the heresy of the Patarines.

Finally it was the day of the execution, and a gonfalonier came for him, and asked him why he was so stubborn when he had only to affirm what the whole populace affirmed and accept the opinion of Holy Mother Church. But Michael, very harshly, said, “I believe in Christ poor and crucified.” And the gonfalonier went away, making a helpless gesture. Then the captain arrived with his men and took Michael into the courtyard, where the bishop’s vicar reread the confession and the sentence to him.

I did not understand then why the men of the church and of the secular arm were so violent against people who wanted to live in poverty and I said to myself, if anything, they should fear men who wish to live in wealth and take money away from others, and introduce simoniacal practices into the church. And I spoke of this with a man standing near me, for I could not keep silent any more. He smiled mockingly and said to me that a monk who practices poverty sets a bad example for the populace, for then they cannot accept monks who do not practice it. And, he added, the preaching of poverty put the wrong ideas into the heads of the people, who would consider their poverty a source of pride, and pride can lead to many proud acts. And, finally, he said that I should know that preaching poverty for monks put you on the side of the Emperor, and this did not please the Pope. Except that at this point I did not understand why Brother Michael wanted to die so horribly to please the Emperor.

And in fact some of those present were saying, “He is not a saint, he was sent by Louis to stir up discord among the citizens, and the Fraticelli are Tuscans but behind them are the Emperor’s agents.” And others said, “He is a madman, he is possessed by the Devil, swollen with pride, and he enjoys martyrdom for his wicked pride; they make these monks read too many lives of the saints, it would be better for them to take a wife!” And still others added, “No, all Christians should be like him, ready to proclaim their faith, as in the time of the pagans.” As I listened to those voices, no longer knowing what to think myself, it so happened that I looked straight at the condemned man’s face, which at times was hidden by the crowd ahead of me. And I saw the face of a man looking at something that is not of this earth, as I had sometimes seen on statues of saints in ecstatic vision. And I understood that, madman or seer as he might be, he knowingly wanted to die because he believed that in dying he would defeat his enemy, whoever it was. And I understood that his example would lead others to death. And I remain amazed by the possessors of such steadfastness only because I do not know, even today, whether what prevails in them is a proud love of the truth they believe, which leads them to death, or a proud desire for death, which leads them to proclaim their truth, whatever it may be. And I am overwhelmed with admiration and fear.

But let us go back to the execution, for now all were heading for the place where Michael would be put to death.

The captain and his men brought him out of the gate, with his little skirt on him and some of the buttons undone, and as he walked with a broad stride and a bowed head, reciting his office, he seemed one of the martyrs. And the crowd was unbelievably large and many cried, “Do not die!” and he would answer, “I want to die for Christ.” “But you are not dying for Christ,” they said to him; and he waid, “No, for the truth.” When they came to a place called the Proconsul’s Corner, one man cried to him to pray to God for them all, and he blessed the crowd.

At the Church of the Baptist they shouted to him, “Save your life!” and he answered, “Rum for your life from sin!”; at the Old Market they shouted to him, “Live, live!” and he replied, “Save yourselves from hell”; at the New Market they yelled, “Repent, repent,” and he replied, “Repent of your usury.” And on reaching Santa Croce, he saw the monks of his order on the steps, and he reproached them because they did not follow the Rule of Saint Francis. And some of them shrugged, but others pulled the cowls over their faces to cover them, in shame.

And going toward the Justice Gate, many said to him, “Recant! Recant! Don’t insist on dying,” and he said, “Christ died for us.” And they said, “But you are not Christ, you must not die for us!” And he said, “But I want to die for him.” At the Field of Justice, one said to him he should do as a certain monk, his superior, had done, abjuring; but Michael answered that he would not abjure, and I saw many in the crowd agree and urge Michael to be strong: so I and many others realized those were his followers, and we moved away from them.

Finally we were outside the city and before the pyre appeared, the “hut,” as they called it there, because the wood was arranged in the form of a hut, and there a circle of armed horsemen formed, to keep people from coming too close. And there they bound Brother Michael to the stake. And again I heard someone shout to him, “But what is it you’re dying for?” And he answered, “For a truth that dwells in me, which I can proclaim only by death.”

They lit the fire. And Brother Michael, who had chanted the “Credo,” afterward chanted the “Te Deum.” He sang perhaps eight verses of it, then he bent over as if he had to sneeze, and fell to the ground, because his bonds had burned away. He was already dead: before the body is completely burned it has already died from the great heat, which makes the heart explode, and from the smoke that fills the chest.

Then the whole hut blazed up, like a torch, and there was a great glow, and if it had not been for the poor charred body of Michael, still glimpsed among the glowing coals, I would have said I was standing before the burning bush. And I was close enough to have a view (I recalled as I climbed the steps of the library) that made some words rise spontaneously to my lips, about ecstatic rapture; I had read them in the books of Saint Hildegard: “The flame consists of a splendid clarity, of an unusual vigor, and of an igneous ardor, but possesses the splendid clarity that it may illuminate and the igneous ardor that it may burn.”

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1345: Giovanni Martinozzi, missionary Franciscan

Add comment April 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1345, Giovanni Martinozzi died for the faith in Cairo.

Martinozzi was a Franciscan who hailed from one of the prominent families of Siena. Like the famous founder of his order, Martinozzi undertook to convert the Saracens: part of a mmissionary ovement of Franciscans abroad from Europe which had been encouraged by the papacy as a means to discharge the troublesome ferment of the Franciscan movement. (As a reference point, Martinozzi would have died in the generation following the events of The Name of the Rose.)

Where Francis found the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil mild and welcomings, Martinozzi attained from the Mamluks the laurels of “missionary martyrdom” that had eluded the master.

After re-converting a Genoese merchant who had apostatized to Islam, Martinozzi was tortured and on April 15, 1345, immolated along with the inconstant entrepreneur.

According to S. Maureen Burke (“The ‘Martyrdom of the Franciscans’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti”, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 65 Bd., H. 4 (2002)), a fresco of Beato Martinozzi’s martyrdom once adorned the Basilica of San Francesco in Siena; the fresco either does not survive or has eluded my online peregrinations. Giotto’s thematically topical 1320s Ordeal by Fire before the Sultan of Egypt will have to serve: it alludes to an episode (perhaps apocryphal) during Saint Francis’s travels in Egypt a century before.

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1318: Four Fraticelli friars

4 comments May 7th, 2012 Headsman

[Spiritual Franciscans record] the names of the condemned and the days or calends on which they suffered like martyrs.

-Inquisitor Bernard Gui (the gui from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose)

On this date in 1318, four Franciscans — Jean Barrani, Deodat Michel, Guillem Sainton, and Pons Rocha — were burned at the stake in Marseilles.

This illustration of the martyred friars also adorns the cover of the book So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke: The Beguin Heretics of Languedoc … which tells the story of what happened next.

These Fraticelli were part of the great and multi-headed 13th-14th century movement towards spiritual poverty — movements like the Apostolic Brethren, of Fra Dolcino fame.

The worldly wealth of the Church, as Eco’s narrator explains it,

generated movements of men bent on a poorer life, in protest against the corrupt priests … [the Fraticelli] claimed that Christ and the apostles had owned no property, individually or in common; and the Pope condemned this idea as heretical. An amazing position, because there is no evident reason why a pope should consider perverse the notion that Christ was poor.

Distinct from Dolcino et al (who were outside any official institutional order) but mutually sympathetic with their like, the Fraticelli were “Spiritual” Franciscans who rejected the more worldly accoutrement that even their humble order had taken on.

“Hardly a handful [of Franciscans] can be found who will abstain from luxuries, wearing cheap, patched tunics, and going without shoes, like the first brethren and the blessed Francis,” complained the ascetic Ubertino of Casale in 1311. “It seems as if all the spiritual offices of the order were rated at a price.”

In the hands of a more supple pope, this popular energy might have helped the Church, but John XXII — who held his court at Avignon in the care and feeding of the French crown — rejected his predecessors’ attempts at brokering compromises and just cracked down.

“Great is poverty,” said the papal bull ordering an end to the disputation. (Quoted here.) “But greater is blamelessness, and perfect obedience is the greatest good.”

And you have to enforce perfect blamelessness.

It began in the Avignon papacy’s Provencal back yard: southern France, which had felt the papal whip before, had proven very fertile soil for the Fraticelli, with its own similar Beguin movements among the laity.

Soon after Pope John ascended the seat of St. Peter, 25 obdurate Spiritual Franciscans were summoned to Avignon to answer to the Inquisition; 21 of them succumbed to the menacing proceedings and produced their “obedient” recantations, leaving the four stern enough to persevere unto the stake.

Many more, too many to track from the era’s sketchy documentation, followed them in the ensuing years.

The fires kindled at Marseilles were a signal for the extermination of the Spiritualists throughout Provence. We hear of burnings at Narbonne, Montpelier, Toulouse, Lunel, Lodvfere, Carcassonne, Cabestaing, Beziers, Montreal. Mosheim tells us of a band of a hundred and thirteen Spirituals sacrificed at Carcassonne from 1318 to 1350. Wadding tells us that the Franciscan inquisitors alone burned one hundred and fourteen of the zealots in a single year (1323). And Angelo compares the indiscriminate frenzy of the persecutors to the fierceness of rabid dogs and wolves. The works of Olivi were condemned at the Pentecostal chapter of 1319 at Marseilles, and even the bones of many saints who had died uncondemned (though suspected), were cast out of their tombs. The result of the fierce persecutions was to stamp out the Spirituals in Provence.

Beguini combusti or “burned Beguins” (doc link) inspired their synoptic brethren, and strains of the persecuted movement persisted for many years.**

John XXII reaped the hatred of the put-upon Franciscans. According to Bernard McGinn’s study of reputed “papal antichrists”† John was “the pope who bears the distinction of being the most popular candidate for the role of Papal Antichrist in medieval history.”


Image of Pope John XXII as the Antichrist. 15th century image from the Vaticinia de Summis Pontificibus, adapted from a c. 1340 illustration of the apocalyptic pro-Spiritual text as described in The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages.

* Theologically, it was a dispute over whether Christ and the Apostles owned anything, singly or jointly. Politically, it pitted the Holy See against the Holy Roman Emperor, the classic Guelph-Ghibelline contest. (A few years on, there would be a Spiritual Franciscan appointed as antipope by the emperor.)

** William of Ockham — the Occam’s Razor guy — had to flee to imperial protection because, although not a radical Fraticello, he merely considered well-founded the doctrine that Christ and company didn’t own anything.

† In “Angel Pope and Papal Antichrist”, Church History (Jun., 1978)

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1300: Gerard Segarelli, Apostolic Brethren founder

2 comments July 18th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1300 saw the execution in Parma, Italy of Gerard Segarelli, the founder of the order of the Apostolic Brethren who are perhaps better known for Segarelli’s apocalyptic successor, Fra Dolcino.

Despite the tendency of his follower to eclipse his star, Segarelli was himself a formidable religious reformer in a time flowering with expressions of popular piety that regularly confounded the prelates.

Joined as Dolcino and Segarelli are in this fascinating period, Executed Today aptly welcomes back Dr. Jerry Pierce to talk Segarelli. He’s already shed some light on Dolcino in these pages.

Dr. Pierce is completing a forthcoming book on the Apostles.

You view Segarelli as a very different sort of character from Dolcino.

One of the big issues in studying Segarelli is that he’s always tied to Dolcino. I mean, Segarelli does die a heretic, but he’s always tied to the biggest heresy. He actually founds his order in 1260 and he’s not executed until 1300, so that’s 40 years.

Doctrinally, the reason Segarelli didn’t have any issues for so long is that as far as we can tell, he never had an anti-clerical agenda. Unlike Dolcino, he doesn’t go around calling the Church the “Whore of Babylon”.

Even at the end?

No. Basically, the reason he’s executed is that he refuses to renounce his movement, it’s not that he has any doctrinal errors or anything like that.

He’s basically like a Franciscan, just 50 years later. It’s this popular, penitential movement. They have tons of support throughout central Italy, support from the lay people who provide them with shelter and food. They’re basically doing the stuff that Francis and the early Franciscans did, wandering around exhibiting the ascetic lifestyle. And it’s okay for lay people to do this at this point. Everybody does this.

Why does everybody do this? This century has an explosion of penitential religious mass movements.

Personally, I think it has to do with economics — you have the growth of cities, growth of money economy. These are urban movements. Segarelli’s in Parma, the flagellants are in Parma and other cities.

It has to do with living in this world of growing wealth, growing towns, hearing this message of poverty preached from the pulpit and then they look around and say, “wait a minute.”

Different individuals come to this conclusion — Francis, Peter Waldo, Segarelli — I don’t think they had an idea about founding a movement. They were just trying to do something to preserve their souls.

And these other groups like the Franciscans also face an internal tension between the spirit of ascetic poverty and the institutional Church.

Even before Segarelli, the guy who’s the head of the Franciscans in one letter that he wrote said, “people wandering in Italy would rather run into robbers on the road than two begging Franciscans because at least they know the robbers’ intentions.”

A lot of authors say that Segarelli is an offshoot of the poor spiritual Franciscans. But he has no connection. He tried to join the Franciscan order, but the poor order founded by St. Francis says, “yeah, you don’t have the right pedigree to be a Franciscan,” which really goes to show how institutionalized and closed the Franciscans had already become.

Most of the stuff we have about Segarelli for his first 20 years or so is from a rival Franciscan named Salimbene who’s mad that he’s making such headway. He actually says that he can’t believe that his fellow citizens are giving more to Segarelli and his Apostles than they ever did to the Franciscans. And that colors how they talk about them: in his eyes, Segarelli is a rustic from the country.

Did Segarelli preach at all?

He goes around telling people to do penance, and the Franciscan chronicler makes fun of him because he doesn’t say the Latin version, he uses the vernacular: penitenziagite instead of the Latin penitentiam agite.

Most of it was by example. You don’t have access, really, to a Bible as a lay person; this was a way for people to sort of experience the religious life without becoming a nun or a monk.

So for these first decades of his career, if he’s attracting all this criticism, why is he still tolerated?

Because he’s not really a threat. It’s a good way to channel lay piety without it becoming a threat or anything.

Bear in mind, this is after the Waldensians, after the Crusade against the Albigensians — and both of those groups talked about poverty. This gives Church figures a pretty good idea that, hey, maybe we should be accepting of these movements.

The Bishop of Parma accepted Segarelli. There was apparently a group of Apostolic sisters who did the same thing, and the Bishop of Parma sort of wrote a document saying that you get a partial indulgence for giving to them.

Given this institutional semi-support, why wasn’t Segarelli’s movement also corrupted?

There are other leaders than Segarelli, and some do have this issue. One guy is the brother of the podesta of Bologna, a pretty wealthy dude. He takes over this movement and he’s basically using people’s donations to buy horses and ride around in nice clothes. There’s a huge civil war within the Apostles. At one point Segarelli himself gets kidnapped by rival members.

It’s not until the 1280s that they start really running into problems with respect to the Catholic hierarchy, and the problem is because of the general proliferation of the lay movements. Two different popes lay out guidelines saying unestablished religious orders need to join established orders or just disband. But then you see people in the Apostolic movement ignoring that, moving into actually preaching things, which is potentially heretical, and they start attacking the Franciscans, the Friars Minor, by referring to themselves as the Friars Minimi, “the least.” The Franciscans are pretty powerful and they start going against the Apostles.

But Segarelli himself stays clear of this?

Segarelli himself doesn’t really take a leadership role even though he’s the founder. He’s sort of hands-off.

You can argue that he has some issues because he won’t follow authority when they tell him to disband. But it was after the group had been around for so long, it’d be like telling the Franciscans 40 years on, “sorry.” Early in the movement, the Apostles had actually gone to different members of the hurch hierarhy asking for a rule under which they could operate. So they’re not trying to be insurrectionaries.

How does it all break down for the Apostles, then?

It’d be too easy to say that it’s just greedy Franciscans. I think the other part is you have people who are getting into the movement, people like Dolcino, who have other agenda. And the Church is worried that they’re unregulated and without control you get improper doctrine being preached.

When it comes to it, Segarelli just refuses to disband. The Apostles had really grown beyond his personal control anyway. But at one point he escapes from the bishop’s palace where he’s sort of under house arrest and resumes his preaching, and they’re like, “all right, enough.”

What do we know about Segarelli’s relationship with Dolcino?

We think that Dolcino may have joined the order around 1290, but it’s all hearsay. Dolcino talks some about Segarelli.

What’s Segarelli’s long-term legacy?

It’s not heresy to be associated with Segarelli after he’s executed. We have Inquisitional trial records for several years after Segarelli in places like Bologna and other areas. There’s even some evidence that there were followers in France and Germany.

As time goes on, there’s a lot of people in Italy itself like Dolcino who appropriate the movement, so you have modern writers who talk about Segarelli and Dolcino as proto-Communists, or Segarelli as the real Franciscans. Some of them have an axe to grind against the institutional Church.

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1307: Fra Dolcino, Apostle

7 comments June 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1307, radical preacher Fra Dolcino was gruesomely put to death in a daylong public torture at the Piedmontese town of Vercelli.

Dolcino was the millenarian successor of Gerard Segarelli, whose itinerant commune of impoverished penitents — Apostles, they called themselves, to the chagrin of the Church hierarchy — had attracted followers for near half a century before the powers that be smashed it.

The shade of the burned firebrand (and the corporeality of his refugee onetime followers) haunt the murderous monastery of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Here, the paternal Franciscan unraveling the novel’s mystery explains Fra Dolcino’s illicit movement to his naive protege.

We were talking about those excluded from the flock of sheep. For centuries, as pope and emperor tore each other apart in their quarrels over power, the excluded went on living on the fringe, like lepers … all of them were ready to hear, or to produce, every sermon that, harking back to the word of Christ, would condemn the behavior of the dogs and shepherds and would promise their punishment one day. The powerful always realized this. The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics, whatever their doctrine …

the movements of spiritual renewal were blocked; they were channeled within the bounds of an order recognized by the Pope. But what circulated underneath was not channeled. It flowed, on the one hand, into the movements of the flagellants, who endanger no one, or into the armed bands like Fra Dolcino’s …

From the cinematic adaptation of The Name of the Rose. The monk’s semi-coherent summons to “penitenziagite” is significant because it marks him as a former adherent of the penance-focused movement. An Italian metal band called Dolcinian had a song (and album) of that exact title.

But were they really an “armed band”?

Executed Today is pleased to mark this portentous anniversary in conversation with historian Dr. Jerry Pierce, currently working on a book about the outlaw movement.

ET: Who were the Dolcinians?

JP: A lot of people get kind of caught up in the Dolcino part. It’s not about him until the very end.

The group itself originated in 1260, and it lasted 40-some years before it ran into any trouble. Their whole goal when they start is essentially, live a life of poverty like the original Apostles. And apparently that’s a problem for people later.

That’s really all it was about. It’s communal living, it’s not owning things at all, including houses. By 1260, they were better Franciscans than the Franciscans were.

And the Franciscans had a big presence in the city of Parma, where this thing got started, so they were slightly peeved.

So it’s a challenge to the Franciscans?

It’s not trying to show up the Franciscans, but it becomes a challenge.

The “Apostles” wander around, they beg for their food, they tell people to do penance.

The early Franciscans started off the same way, all about poverty, but once they became established, the order became all about money.

And the Apostles are not the only ones mounting this challenge.

Right. Waldensians in France predate the Franciscans by about 30 years or so.* You just have a guy in France who’s a businessman who hears a reading of the gospel saying to give up your possessions and follow Christ. And that’s what he does. He even pays someone to translate the Bible into vernacular French, which is a big no-no.

His group and Segarelli’s group are not an issue as long as they don’t say anything about the doctrine. So long as they don’t say anything about the Trinity or the Eucharist, they’re just calling people to penance — they’re okay.

But the reason these groups come along is that in that period, around 1150 — Europe is experiencing a big economic change. The haves are on the side of the church. This is the core of all of them, and it’s the core of the Dolcino philosophy as well — the church is preaching poverty, but it’s living wealthy.

So they were doing something within the practice of the Church’s community for decades. How did they get so dangerously on the outs?

The bishop of Parma actually patronizes the Apostles and grants indulgences to people who give money to them. They’re not just some kooky group that’s out there even though the main writings about them are by their opponents.**

But what happens is they become really, really popular, and people start following them, and the Franciscans get the hierarchy involved.

There’s nothing doctrinal about them until Dolcino that becomes heresy.

And what specifically is that?

You take Segarelli’s stuff about poverty and radical egalitarianism, and you have Dolcino either witness or know about the execution of Segarelli, and that sort of crystallizes for him that members of the Church are forces of evil.

Basically, Dolcino says that if they would kill this guy for preaching nothing other than poverty, which is their own message, then there’s something wrong.

Because of the persecution — Segarelli’s execution, the Inquisition moving in and questioning people — that kind of pressure is what spurs Dolcino to take off to the northern mountains. That’s sort of the catalyst for him to become apocalyptic.

But even suppressing that takes the Church years.

The chronology is muddy because we only have about three sources, but we think he joined the order before Segarelli was executed. And between 1300 and 1302 or 1303, he’s off in the northeast of Italy near Trento.

He’s from Valsesia, a river valley in the Piedmont, and he eventually returns with a bunch of followers across the mountains — between Novara and Vercelli. It’s an important area because the bishops of the two cities have been fighting each other for access to the valleys, and fighting the local feudal lords, the Biandrate.

This family that’s been controlling the region, they’ve been extending their influence far up the river valley and the farther you go up the valley, the more independent the people are up there; they hate people who encroach on their autonomy and they’ve recently rebelled and kicked them out.

Essentially, Dolcino enters this sovereign territory, and he’s saying to the inhabitants, the wealthy church and the people who live down on the plain are wicked and they’re going to assault you, and sure enough …

And that’s the rebellion that takes place, it’s these farmers and families who live up there against the Crusader army.

A Crusade?

The Pope† allowed a papal indulgence for people going on Crusade up there. They essentially recruit a mercenary army.

The irony of it is that the things that Dolcino and his followers are accused of is raiding people’s houses and stealing all their stuff, and raiding churches and stealing all the gold. Well, guess who actually did that? And all the mercenaries needed to say when they plundered was, “uh, yeah, Dolcino did that.”

You have these non-Valsesian Crusaders and mercenaries who sort of move into these territories and basically get beat by the locals several times.

We know there was this final pitched battle. The Dolcinians flee to a mountaintop awaiting the End Times. Essentially what the Crusader army did was they starved them into submission, basically just blockaded the whole area, and then overran a bunch of starving women and children.

“On that day more than a thousand of the heretics perished in the flames, or in the river, or by the sword, in the cruellest of deaths. Thus they who made sport of God the Eternal Father and of the Catholic faith came, on the day of the Last Supper, through hunger, steel, fire, pestilence, and all wretchedness, to shame and disgraceful death, as they deserved.” (Source)

Dolcino also had a female opposite number, and the sect preached egalitarianism. Did they have an egalitarian gender politics as well?

The woman, Margaret or Margherita, it’s hard to tell exactly who she is — there’s all this embellishment. She’s sometimes called the “wife” of Dolcino, or sources call her the “mistress”, which makes it sound seedier. But we don’t actually know if they were involved or not involved. She was a former nun, and we know a little bit about her family, but there’s just not much about her.†

As to gender generally, the sources will say, these Apostles believed that nobody should own any property so they shared all their things and even their women.

So you’re meant to think that they just pass them around, but that wasn’t the case at all; there weren’t orgies and such. In this case, they did stress radical egalitarianism.

This is actually the ideology of the Christians in the first century: they also say, the world we live in is wrong, and it’s about to end — one of the things about the world they live in is, it’s patriarchal, and they come up with radical egalitarianism because there’s not supposed to be any distinctions in heaven and they’re looking forward to that.

We don’t exactly know if, in the end, it was the Dolcinians themselves fighting or the inhabitants of the area who protected them. But whoever it was, the [anti-Dolcino] sources on the battles also say, basically, “oh my God, the women are wearing pants and fighting next to the men.”

What’s the legacy of this whole movement?

In its own time, there were remnants of the Order of the Apostles still in Parma and the area for the next 20 or 30 years. It’s not heresy to be part of the group per se. There are references to sort of straggler parts of the group in France, in Spain, for the next 100 to 200 years, but it’s really hard to tell.

We do know they spread out pretty far. At one point under Segarelli they sent people to Jerusalem.

The people who live in Valsesia still today totally revere Dolcino. You can go on Dolcino hiking tours!

And there’s been this long history of appropriating his meaning.

“Thou, who perchance
Shalt shortly view the sun, this warning thou
Bear to Dolcino: bid him, if he wish not
Here soon to follow me, that with good store
Of food he arm him, lest impris’ning snows
Yield him a victim to Novara’s power,
No easy conquest else.”

-Mohammed, in Dante’s Inferno (He sounds prophetic, but Dante wrote after Dolcino’s death, with the action set while the heresiarch was still alive.)

In 1407, members of the Church went out and built a church consecrated to the fight aganist the heretics near the site where the Dolcinians were wiped out, and the local populace was outraged.

In 1907, Dolcino was appropriated by the Italian socialists. There was a workers’ group that planted a big red flag, and then they built a monument to him, with a plaque on it with the lines from Dante‘s Inferno.

There’s pictures of this monument, with tons of people up on the mountainside and they’re all dressed in their best.

And the monument lasted until the mid-1920s when the fascists blew it up with pro-fascist clerics. It was rebuilt in 1974, and you can see the old Catholic church from it — two opposing claims on Fra Dolcino.

Obviously you’re pretty sympathetic to this movement. What do you think we ought to make of them?

I think for me the key to understanding the whole order is not just to say, “well, everyone understands it wrong.” There’s a sort of willful wrongness to it, that whenever you put apocalypticism in it, it immediately puts people in the crazy category.

But in this period, when people talked about the end of the world, it didn’t necessarily mean they were nuts.

And then the other thing is, they’re not as violent and threatening as they appear on first read. I’m not even sure that they ever lifted a finger against the Crusaders, they may have just fled. Which in a sense means that they hold true to their values to the end.

More reading: A Historical Memoir of Fra Dolcino and His Times -ed.

* The Waldensians hung around into the Protestant Reformation, and still exist today.

** e.g., about Segarelli, by a Franciscan — who calls them something that translates loosely to “ribald bumpkins”.

Pope Clement V: he would prove more effective crushing the Templars.

‡ Margaret was also executed — allegedly turning down several smitten suitors’ offers to marry her if she would abjure. (Margaret was rich.) Although she’s most picturesquely shown burnt to death in front of Fra Dolcino during or before the latter’s torture, the sources seem to be unreliable as to whether she was in fact also executed on June 1, or on some other date.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,God,Gruesome Methods,Heresy,History,Interviews,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Pelf,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Torture,Women

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1578: Five sodomite monks, by Calvinist Ghent

8 comments June 28th, 2009 Headsman

On June 28, 1578, five Catholic monks were burnt to death in Ghent for homosexuality.

The five holy men being prepared for execution, in this drawing by Franz Hogenberg. (Click for larger view.)

At our scene in the Spanish-controlled Low Countries, the revolt that would become known as the Eighty Years’ War and secure Dutch independence still had about 70 of those years to run.

Stadtholder William of Orange, aka William the Silent, has his hands full with the Habsburg forces determined to crush their disobedient subjects.

Half civil war, half proto-nationalist revolution, this conflict overlaid disputes over both political and religious authority, complicated by a catastrophic Spanish bankruptcy.

Of this compelling history much beyond our scope, the piece of most moment for our unfortunate monks was a grudging agreement to chill out the sectional suppression as part of a temporary truce between the warring sides. Said “slackening of persecution inspired Reformed public worship and attempts to topple the Catholic stewpot.” (Source)

Late in 1577, a political coup in the commercial powerhouse of Ghent did just that, part of a mini-Renaissance of Calvinist city-republics that Spanish arms would truncate in the 1580’s. But here in the 1570’s, the newly elevated slate of Calvinists implemented a “Reform” agenda that included aggressive moves against Catholic authority.

On 18-22 May [1578], the Reformed launched an attack on the four mendicant monasteries. Their churches were purified and made ready for Reformed worship. On 1 June the first public preaching was organized in the Dominican and Carmelite churches. (Source, a pdf)

Rumors of homosexuality in the religious orders swept the overheated city (assuming they were not put about intentionally), and this day opened a summer’s terror that saw 14 monks burned (pdf) for the love that dare not speak its name.

Kenneth Borris translates the inscription on the Franz Hogenberg image linked above thus:

“five monks are being burned in Flanders, in the city of Ghent. Four are Franciscans (Minnenbruder*) and the fifth Augustinian. Also three have been quickly flogged with switches on the market square as they deserve, because of their outrageous sexual offenses (unzuchtt) that greatly offended the authorities. That is why the four mendicant orders have now been driven out of Ghent.”

William the Silent, made of more statesmanlike stuff than these zealots, would actually enter Ghent himself the next year to disarm the ruling clique, realizing that firebrands were driving Catholic cities back into Spanish arms.

But he could not contain the schism. Spain ultimately kept the Catholic-leaning territories that today comprise Luxembourg and Belgium (including Ghent), while the Protestant Netherlands fought onward to independence.

* “Minnenbroder,” Borris explains, “may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting ‘brothers in lust’ as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with ‘godlessness,’ as was common.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Belgium,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Homosexuals,Mass Executions,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,Spain

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