Purim

2 comments February 24th, 2013 Headsman

February 24, 2013 is the Jewish festival of Purim. (Actually, it began at sundown last night.)

This holiday, corresponding to 14 Adar of the Hebrew calendar, falls on different dates of the Gregorian calendar (most often in March). It commemorates a bloody story from the Book of Esther. (The quotes in this post are from this translation of Esther.)

The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.


The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.

If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.

Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.

Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”

13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.

In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:

“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.

The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”

And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.

Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.

“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.

By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.

Haman and his gallows have consequently stood as a potent literary device ever since: for perfidious council; for violent anti-Semitism; for unusually spectacular punishment (to be hung “as high as Haman”); for the concept of getting one’s comeuppance or being hoisted by one’s own petard.

At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.


“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.

Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.

The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar

So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.

And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”

And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”

So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.

Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.


This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.

Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.

Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.

Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)

That part of the narrative has unsurprisingly invited highly prejudicial interpretations, especially among hostile Christian interlocutors (pdf).

American pastor Washington Gladden called the first Purim “a fiendish outbreak of fanatical cruelty.”

The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.

The Nazis promoted the Jews-as-mass-murderers version, too; there’s even an instance where the Zdunska Wola ghetto was required to provide ten Jews to hang for the ten hanged sons of Haman. The frothing anti-Semitic propagandist Julius Streicher, being positioned on the trap for execution after the Nuremberg trials, reportedly bellowed “Purim Fest 1946!” to the witnesses.

Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”

Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.

* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Crucifixion,Cycle of Violence,Disfavored Minorities,Fictional,Gruesome Methods,Infamous,Iran,Jews,Mass Executions,Myths,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1315: Enguerrand de Marigny, on Montfaucon

8 comments April 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1315, an obscure petty noble who had become the king’s right-hand man was hanged by his rivals a few months after his royal sponsor expired.

Late in the epoch-making reign of King Philip the Fair — under whose rule the papacy was hijacked to Avignon and the Templars were crushedEnguerrand de Marigny was the man loyally keeping the books.

Since Philip was a stubbornly spendthrift fellow, that meant Marigny’s chief pursuit was the creative extraction of new revenues, through fresh taxes and the debasement of coinage. His public esteem suffered commensurately, little aided by the fact that his duties made him fabulously wealthy and the most powerful man in the country, give or take a king.

Said monarch was vigorous in that age-old pastime of the feudal monarchy, centralization of the power scattered among the nobility, further to which end he was happy to promote a competent administrator of scanty lineage and dependable loyalty.

Aggrieved lords, like the grasping Charles de Valois, were ready with their grudges against the unpopular minister when Philip shuffled off in November 1314. When charges of financial impropriety didn’t stick, they cooked up an allegation of sorcery — just then coming into vogue as a trump card in the game of judicial homicide.

Enguerrand hung two years upon the monumentally terrifying Montfaucon Gibbet (the link is to the structure’s French Wikipedia page), but everyone felt just terrible about it later. (the link is French, again) An actual inquiry — they skipped that step when they strung him up — exonerated the luckless minister, allowing his heirs to retrieve his body and a chunk of his fortune from the sympathetic king; Charles was so pursued by guilt that on his deathbed, he sent out a fat dispensation of alms with the request that recipients pray for both Enguerrand de Marigny and himself.

It worked … at least for Marigny’s reputation.

None can tell, after this lapse of time, whether this remorse proceeded from weakness of mind or sincerity of heart, and which of the two personages was really guilty; but, ages afterwards, such is the effect of blind, popular clamor and unrighteous judicial proceedings, that the condemned lives in history as a victim and all but a guileless being. (Source)

It was no hard feelings from Enguerrand’s little brother, Jean. The family influence had landed him a bishopric, and he held the job until his death in 1350, even repelling an English siege of Beauvais during the Hundred Years’ War.

A European Haman?

Enguerrand de Marigny comes in for a passing notice as T.H. White affectionately surveys the Middle Ages in The Once and Future King:

What an amazing time the age of chivalry was! Everybody was essentially himself — was riotously busy fulfilling the vagaries of human nature … [a] coruscating mixture of oddities who reckoned that they possessed the things called souls as well as bodies, and who fulfilled them in the most surprising ways.

[Y]ou might have seen Enguerrand de Marigny, who built the enormous gallows at Mountfalcon, [sic] himself rotting and clanking on the same gallows, because he had been found guilty of Black Magic.*

That Marigny erected the gallows on which he hung is an oft-repeated claim, an instance of a whole subgenre of moralistic folklore in which death-dealing inventors are hoisted on their own petard. These stories are not always dependable — contra rumor, for instance, Dr. Guillotin was not guillotined — and today’s protagonist may not have a firm hold on this small consolation, either.

Here is Victor Hugo’s rendering of the structure’s history in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Montfauçon was, as Sauval says, “the most ancient and the most superb gibbet in the kingdom.” …

Let the reader picture to himself, crowning a limestone hillock, an oblong mass of masonry fifteen feet in height, thirty wide, forty long, with a gate, an external railing and a platform; on this platform sixteen enormous pillars of rough hewn stone, thirty feet in height, arranged in a colonnade round three of the four sides of the mass which support them, bound together at their summits by heavy beams, whence hung chains at intervals; on all these chains, skeletons; in the vicinity, on the plain, a stone cross and two gibbets of secondary importance, which seemed to have sprung up as shoots around the central gallows; above all this, in the sky, a perpetual flock of crows; that was Montfauçon.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the formidable gibbet which dated from 1328, was already very much dilapidated; the beams were wormeaten, the chains rusted, the pillars green with mould; the layers of hewn stone were all cracked at their joints, and grass was growing on that platform which no feet touched. The monument made a horrible profile against the sky; especially at night when there was a little moonlight on those white skulls, or when the breeze of evening brushed the chains and the skeletons, and swayed all these in the darkness. The presence of this gibbet sufficed to render gloomy all the surrounding places.

The mass of masonry which served as foundation to the odious edifice was hollow. A huge cellar had been constructed there, closed by an old iron grating, which was out of order, into which were cast not only the human remains, which were taken from the chains of Montfauçon, but also the bodies of all the unfortunates executed on the other permanent gibbets of Paris. To that deep charnel-house, where so many human remains and so many crimes have rotted in company, many great ones of this world, many innocent people, have contributed their bones, from Enguerrand de Marigni, the first victim, and a just man, to Admiral de Coligni, who was its last, and who was also a just man.

Hugo — who, let us admit, is not to be depended upon for history — has elevated Marigny to the very first victim of the Montfaucon gallows, but the reader will also notice that the same passage dates the edifice’s construction thirteen years after Marigny’s own execution.

Helpless Historiography

Montfaucon the execution site had a rich history. There seem to have been at least two separate gallows sites (the link is French) on the hill, and its vintage as an execution space dates back to the 13th century. (more French)

About this point, this blog runs against the limits of its writer’s access to primary documentation and werewithal to pursue it. Sources seem mightily confused on the embryonic era of Montfaucon; at least two other ministers — Pierre de La Brosse, a confidante of the previous king, and Pierre Remy, another royal treasurer hanged a generation after Marigny — also have their own claim to have been hanged on the structure they erected.

It may be that this was actually true of Remy, a less dramatically captivating figure with an official portfolio similar to Marigny’s, and the two simply became conflated in legend. Something certainly seems to have been built during his time, and it may have been the stone replacement for the original gallows.

The suggestion of someone who researched it more thoroughly than I have (another French page, but worth the visit if only for the pictorial schematics) is that the landmark structure may have predated all these men.** Brosse and Marigny, in this conception, may simply have worked various repairs upon it that became magnified in the retelling, while the gallows Remy set up might have been those on the secondary location, erected as a stopgap during a more thorough reconstruction of the permanent site, and/or reserved for more vulgar elements than ministers of the crown.

* Readers may appreciate an annotation of other references White makes in his fantasy classic.

** We find repeated claims that the alleged “sorceror” Marigny engaged for his capital crime was hanged below him, which would support that notion; I have been unable to identify the provenance of this detail, however.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,The Worm Turns,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

April 2014
M T W T F S S
« Mar    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
282930  

Archives

Categories




Recently Commented

  • JCF: Memory eternal…
  • Kevin M. Sullivan: Hi Diana, I always answer questions....
  • Diana: Kevin, If you, or Rebecca Morris, or any other...
  • JCF: The same lame-@ss finger-pointing since...
  • Kevin M Sullivan: I’m with you , KYGB: this story...

Accolades