1541: Claude Le Painctre, giving himself willingly to be burned

Add comment November 17th, 2018 Headsman

A French evangelical named Claude Le Painctre — on mission evangelizing back in his dangerous homeland after previously escaping to exile in Geneva — was burned at the stake in Paris on this date in 1541, after having his tongue torn out.

A Prussian-born student resident in Paris in those years, named Eustache Knobelsdorf, witnessed this execution and recorded the event in his memoir.

His striking impression of a joyous martyrdom captures not only the agonies of a 16th century heretic’s execution, but the ecstasies by which those same heretics turned the whole spectacle to evangelizing effect.

This translation of Knobelsdorf comes via
Bruce Gordon’s 2009 biography Calvin

I saw two burnt there. Their death inspired in me differing sentiments. If you had been there, you would have hoped for a less severe punishment for these poor unfortunates … The first [Claude Le Painctre] was a very young man, not yet with a beard … he was the son of a cobbler. He was brought in front of the judges and condemned to have his tongue cut out and burned straight afterward. Without changing the expression of his face, the young man presented his tongue to the executioner’s knife, sticking it out as far as he could. The executioner pulled it out even further with pincers, cut it off, and hit the sufferer several times on the tongue and threw it in the young man’s face. Then he was put into a tipcart, which was driven to the place of execution, but, to see him, one would think that he was going to a feast … When the chain had been placed around his body, I could not describe to you with what equanimity of soul and with what expression in his features he endured the cries of elation and the insults of the crowd that were directed towards him. He did not make a sound, but from time to time he spat out the blood that was filling his mouth, and he lifted his eyes to heaven, as if he was waiting for some miraculous rescue. When his head was covered in sulphur, the executioner showed him the fire with a menacing air; but the young man, without being scared, let it be known, by a movement of his body, that he was giving himself willingly to be burned.

Such spectacles had palpable effect for snowballing the evangelical project. Another onlooker in the crowd was a 21-year-old just out of university named Jean Crespin … present with some “several who had a stirring sense of truth.” We can’t draw anything so dramatic as a direct causal line to Claude Le Painctre, but sometime during Crespin’s stay in Paris in the early 1540s he converted to the reformed faith — and in this guise he would in time become a notable Protestant publisher. (Of interest to these grim annals, he Le Livre des Martyrs.)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1535: Guillaume Husson, colporteur

Add comment August 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1535, the Protestant Guillaume Husson was burned for heresy.

The year before, Protestants had outraged the capital with a placarding campaign; maybe inspired by or in league with them, Husson turned up in early 1535 in Rouen and proceeded to flood the place with heretical tracts. Husson was identified by his hotelier and turned over to authorities before he could proceed to wreak his freaky doctrines on the next city.

The spectacle of public execution at this time followed a ceremonial script, although it was one that Protestants like Husson were going to rewrite with their behavior.

In an hours-long process, the condemned was first forced to perform amende honorable before a church, begging pardon of God with a rope about his neck and a heavy candle in his hands. For some offenses, this ritual penance could comprise the entirety of the punishment; for an execution, it was just the first act.

Its effect depended, of course, on the compliance of offenders who could usually be counted on to play the only part that held out hope of social redemption and everlasting salvation.

But as a Protestant, Husson wasn’t in a very compliant mood: he owed no plea to God for distributing correct religion, and he certainly rejected the Pope’s right to demand it of him. So Husson refused to perform the amende honorable, and even refused to hold the candle.

Catholic authorities would face in the years ahead the novel challenge of stage-managing many executions of reformers, ready to welcome execution, unreconciled with the Church, as their holy martyrdom. They would need strategies to deal with these obstinates. On Aug. 30, 1535, that strategy was “more violence”: for besmirching the ceremony, Husson had his tongue punitively torn from his mouth.* (Mutilation at this point could also sometimes be a formal part of the sentence.)

Following a long procession through the city to the place of execution, Husson was said (by his fellow Protestant propagandist Jean Crespin) to have died with such great firmness — thrusting his own head into the leaping flames to dramatize his embrace of the stake, and inspiring many onlookers (per Crespin) “to want to know more closely the true God of Israel.”

* David Nicholls, “The Theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation,” Past & Present, no. 121 (Nov. 1988)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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