1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,20th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,No Formal Charge,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Prussia,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason

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1560: Arnaud du Tilh, alias Martin Guerre

8 comments September 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1560, a French peasant was hanged outside the home he had made with another man’s wife in the southwestern French village of Artigat (or Artigues).

A poignant, perplexing tale of identity and social place — and possibly even of love — the story of Martin Guerre is at once exactingly local to its time and place, and timeless in its principals’ humanity.

As told in Natalie Zemon Davis’ captivating social history The Return of Martin Guerre, the restless (or ill-tempered) young titular peasant — impotent with his wife Bertrande, tense living with his father-in-law, chafing in rural Artigat — got out of town in 1548, joined one of the soldiering companies crisscrossing Europe, and was heard of no more.

In the centuries before fingerprints, credit cards, cell phones and Facebook, Guerre just disappeared. Constrained by Catholic law not to remarry without proof of his death, Bertrande just had to wait.

Until “Martin” returned in 1556 simply by reappearing at Artigat — moved in with Bertrande — resumed the vanished man’s name and with it his place in the village. There were suspicions from the first that he wasn’t quite right … but this man had Martin’s stories, and the villagers didn’t have so much as a photograph to test him against.

Martin was accepted in Artigat for three-plus years, fathered two children with Bertrande, and managed the estate as head of household. In Davis’s telling, he appears much the better husband and father than the pre-1548 version, and this bolsters her case that Bertrande must have been complicit in the fraud that unraveled in 1560.

Property and inheritance conflicts with Martin Guerre’s uncle (now married to Bertrande’s widowed mother) brought to the courts the novel case: was this man really Martin Guerre?

The inconclusive tools for establishing identity and a deft defense by “Martin” must have made for a riveting legal drama (French link) — with villagers taking up competing sides and the man put to the test of his memory of Martin’s life, which he impressively aced. So thoroughly did the man command the role that

the gesture, deportment, air, and mode of speaking of the prisoner were cool, consistent, and steady; while those who appeared in the cause of truth were embarrassed, hesitating, confused, and on certain points contradictory in their evidence. (Source)

On the point, perhaps, of acquittal, the case was resolved like any legal potboiler should be: with the dramatic reappearance of the real Martin — for so all the conflicting witnesses quickly agreed him to be, and so confessed the imposter husband, Arnaud du Tilh (or Arnaud du Tilb), a peasant from a nearby village also nicknamed “Pansette”. A onetime army buddy of Guerre’s, the enterprising du Tilh had been mistaken for Guerre, and had pieced together enough of the absconded husband’s life that by dint of total recall and superhuman audacity, he made for his own the place in the world that Martin Guerre disdained.

The sentence of the court was that Martin Arnaud

make amende honorable in the marketplace of Artigat, in his shirt, his head and feet being bare, a halter about his neck, and holding in his hands a lighted torch; to beg pardon of God, the king, and the justice of the nation; of the said Martin Guerre, and de Rols his wife; and this being done, the said du Tilh shall be delivered into the hands of the executioner, who after making him pass through the streets, and other public places in the said town of Artigat, with a rope about his neck, at last shall bring him before the house of the said Martin Guerre, where, on a gallows set up for that purpose, he shall be hanged and strangled, and afterwards his body shall be burnt. (Source of the translation, slightly tidied up based on the French version here)

Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin Guerre with him, passed thereupon into the historical memory, for in assigning names to bodies, had the court really sorted out who was who? What does it mean to drop out of one’s society … and what rights can one expect to command upon returning? What did it mean to be Martin Guerre but to live in the house of Martin Guerre and manage the affairs of Martin Guerre? And the characters: Arnaud with his mysterious spark of bravado; Martin and his sudden and unexplained reappearance; the two of them as if cast for one another’s roles in life and crossed up by the gods.

And the mysterious Bertrande — what did she do, and what did she want?

A bit of Rorschach history, then, which accounts for the still-robust liveliness the tale enjoys four and a half centuries later. And let’s admit: a bit of wistfulness for the time you could start on a clean sheet just by changing your name. (Although illiterate 16th century peasants had achieved TSA-quality security protocols in this respect.)

Natalie Zemon Davis, whose own account has been criticized for overclaiming Bertrande’s role and motivations, also consulted as she was writing it for a Gerard Depardieu film of the same title.


visit videodetective.com for more info

The same story transplanted to the Civil War United States yielded the 1993 film Sommersby:

And if you must, you can see Martin Guerre in show tunes.

(This medley sequence has second and third parts as well.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,God,Hanged,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Rape,Scandal,Sex,Theft

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