1525: Jacques de La Palice, “lapalissade”

Add comment February 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1525, a French marshal’s was executed during a crucial battle of the France-vs-Habsburg Italian War, beginning a long posthuous journey to a wordplay gag.


The Battle of Pavia, by Ruprecht Heller (1529).

The Battle of Pavia is best remembered for the fate — not lethal, but much more damaging to statecraft — of King Francis I of France, who was captured during on the field by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.* Francis spent two years in comfortable but discomfiting imperial custody until he agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Madrid ceding vast tracts of French territory (notably Burgundy) to Charles.**

For all that, Francis kept his head and eventually resumed his station. Jacques de La Palice (English Wikipedia entry | the much longer French) did not exit the Battle of Pavia nearly so well.

The lord of La Palice (or Lapalisse), grandson to a comrade of Joan of Arc, our man had spent a lifetime bearing French arms; he’d been personally knighted by King Charles VIII for his prowess at age 15 in his very first engagement.

The great bulk of his time ever since had been spent on various campaigns in Italy, where France remained more or less continuously at war against the Holy Roman Empire until 1559.

Fighting up and down the peninsula, La Palice earned the impressive rank of Grand Master of France, and it had nothing to do with his chess acumen. He’d actually retired to the pleasures of domesticity after being captured in 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs — so named for the panicked spurring a fleeing French cavalry gave to their horses — only to be recalled to his post in 1515.

Late in 1524 he was among the host accompanying King Francis’s march to recover France’s on-again, off-again transalpine beachhead of Milan. This objective the French achieved with scant resistance, but the expedition turned disastrous in a further advance to Pavia. There, 9,000 imperial troops were dug in to defend; unable to take the city by storm the French put it to siege, fatally overextending themselves.

Come the following February, the Habsburgs had cut Pavia off from Milan and the French encampment was weakened by defecting mercenaries. On the morning of February 24, the imperial forces mounted an attack on the French that turned into a comprehensive slaughter. La Palice was captured early on by the Habsburgs’ landsknecht mercenaries and executed by them at some point later on during the fight. Although his fate was a bit more premeditated, he was only one of many blue-blooded commanders who lost their lives on the field that dark day for France† — suspending French ambitions in Italy, if only for a few years.

The knight’s alleged feats are celebrated in a ballad known as “La chanson de la Palisse” (“The Song of La Palice”). Rather, there are dozens of versions of that ditty, dating from the 16th to the 18th century, of unknown original authorship but agglomerated by the French poet Bernard de la Monnoye into a humorous caper in the 18th century.

This poem presumably (though not certainly) began as a genuine praise song for the dead marshal, opening with this garment-rending stanza:

Hélas, La Palice est mort,
Il est mort devant Pavie ; 
Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort, 
Il ferait encore envie.

Alas, La Palice is dead, 
He died before Pavia; 
Alas, if he were not dead, 
He would still be envied.

Somewhere along the way fulsome became winsome — perhaps via deliberate spoof or maybe the well-known phenomenon of old-timey letter s written to look like f, transforming the verse into a comical tautology:

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il ferait encore envie (“if he was not dead he would still be envied”)

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il serait encore en vie (“if he was not dead he would still be alive”)

It’s thanks to this amusing misreading that the French tongue today enjoys the term lapalissade, meaning a laughably obvious truism — and in Monnoye’s composition the entirety of the lyrics consist of such jests; e.g.

Monsieur d’la Palisse is dead,
He died before Pavia,
A quarter of an hour before his death,
He was still alive.

He was, by a sad fate, 
wounded with a cruel hand.
It is believed, since he is dead,
that the wound was mortal.

Regretted by his soldiers,
he died worthy of envy;
And the day of his death
was the last day of his life.

He died on Friday,
the last day of his age;
If he had died on Saturday,
he would have lived more.

(That’s just an excerpt; the much longer full French verse is available at the song’s French Wikipedia page.)

* Ample unverifiable folklore attaches an event so memorable as the capture of a king; a site such as this is bound to note the one that reports that Francis might have been killed on the spot by rampaging foes but for the timely intercession of a young Spanish soldier named Pedro de Valdivia … who would go on to become the conquistador of Chile, and eventually an execution victim himself.

** Francis renounced the treaty as soon as he was released, on the accurate grounds that it was made under duress. In this betrayal of honor, he did his kingdom much the better turn than his distant predecessor John II had done when, captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, he dutifully set about extracting from his subjects the ruinous ransom and even returned voluntarily to English custody when he could not fulfill the terms of his parole.

† Another corpse at the Battle of Pavia was Richard de la Pole, Plantagenet pretender to the English throne ever since his brother had been executed back in 1513.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Habsburg Realm,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1943: Marianne Elise Kurchner condemned for a joke

Add comment June 26th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Sometime in the summer of 1943 in Nazi Germany, a young woman from Berlin named Marianne Elise Kürchner was guillotined for telling a joke.

Kürchner, who worked at an armaments factory, told the following joke to a coworker who denounced her:

Hitler and Göring are standing atop the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on Berliners’ faces. So Göring says: “Why don’t you jump?”

Not exactly a side-splitter. More like a neck-splitter: making jokes at Hitler’s expense was, in theory at least, a capital crime.

Mind you, most people who made nasty wisecracks about the Nazis faced no consequences at all. They were rarely denounced, and if they did come before a court they were usually given a warning, or at most a few months of “re-education” in Dachau.

The Nazis did occasionally use sedition as an excuse to arrest and execute people who’d gotten on their bad side for one reason or another, but ordinary Germans initially had little to fear.

However, as the tide of war began to turn against Germany, the punishments for sedition became ever more severe.

Marianne was called up before the People’s Court, whose president, Roland Freisler, was famous for both his long raving speeches berating defendants, and his death sentences. She admitted to making the joke but said she hadn’t been herself at the time, feeling bitter about the recent loss of her husband at the front.

Freisler would have none of it. In fact, he considered Marianne’s status as a war widow to be an aggravating factor. “The People’s Court,” Rudolf Herzog said of this case in his book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany, “made it a point of pride to take no account of individual suffering.” In his ruling, Friesler wrote:

As the widow of a fallen German soldier, Marianne Kürchner tried to undermine our will to manly defense and dedicated labor in the armaments sector toward victory by making malicious remarks about the Führer and the German people and by uttering the wish that we should lose the war … She has excluded herself from the racial community. Her honor has been permanently destroyed and therefore she shall be punished with death.

The People’s Court’s judgment was rendered on June 26, 1943. Marianne lost her head shortly thereafter.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,Guillotine,History,Other Voices,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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