1535: Etienne de la Forge, John Calvin’s friend

Add comment February 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1535, as a 25-year-old religious dissident named John Calvin fled Paris, the merchant who had hosted his circle’s Protestant salons was reduced to ashes in Paris.

Though France would ultimately remain Catholic, the Protestant Reformation found rich soil and enjoyed a measure of early official tolerance for reasons of statecraft.

But a sharp crackdown was provoked when Protestants engineered the placement of anti-Catholic posters in several towns during a single night in October 1534 — the so-called Affair of the Placards.

This spelled the end of the circle of dissidents who met at the Rue Saint-Martin.* Young Calvin high-tailed it out of town — a period of wandering and living incognito that would wash him up on the shores of Lake Geneva — but the owner of that Rue Saint-Martin house, Etienne de la Forge (aka Stephanus Forgeus) was denounced to the authorities.

The date for this execution comes from The Century of the Renaissance, a public domain book available free from Google. It’s also backed in the roster of execution dates from Michelet’s Histoire de France. This looks to me as if it comes from primary documentation, but Feb. 15 is sometimes also reported.

* Calvin apparently had an appointment during this period in Paris to meet a scholar he would later execute, Michael Servetus, but the tete-a-tete never came off.

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1553: Michael Servetus, but not to defend a doctrine

5 comments October 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1553, Calvinist Geneva showed it could keep up with the Inquisition by burning the theologian Michael Servetus as a heretic.

A generation or two into the Protestant Reformation, and the ministers of Rome were in full-throated I-told-you-so. The splintered religious authority had set all manner of alien doctrine afoot in the land. Adult baptism! No original sin!

Servetus believed all this queer stuff. He also believed in a unitarian — that is, not trinitarian — deity.

Catholics and Protestants both hunted him from pillar to post for heresy.

After busting out of the Inquisition’s clutches in France, Servetus fled towards Italy, but made an unaccountable stopover in John Calvin’s Geneva. He well knew that capture here would be fatal: he had had an acrimonious correspondence with Calvin. Was he seeking thrills? Martyrdom? A place in this blog?

“I will burn, but this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.”

He quaffed all those bitter cups when he was recognized hanging out at a church service and condemned to death for sundry heresies after a sensational trial heavy with theological artillery, personal vituperation, and municipal politics. Calvin, gracious in victory, requested beheading rather than burning. He was scorned as needlessly merciful.

Of course, all manner of Christian fauna were being martyred by other Christians in the 16th century. Still, the Spanish physician is an interesting dude.

His rejection of the Trinity has secured him honored consideration from various latter-day sects, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Oneness Pentecostals to general humanists to Unitarian Universalists:

Besides all that stuff, in his day-job capacity as doctor, Servetus was apparently the first European to understand pulmonary respiration. Nobody even noticed that until decades after his death.

“To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.”*

The execution of this smart, odd duck for non-violent heresy is not generally considered the highlight of Mr. Predestination’s career, but you can get some of Calvin’s side of the story in this collection of his letters. It’s worth allowing that heretics were being burned by the thousand elsewhere in Europe at this time; Servetus is noticeable in part because what was routine in England or Spain was exceptional in Geneva.

Servetus’ ashes will cry out against [Calvin] as long as the names of these two men are known in the world. -Walter Nigg

* This observation, sometimes attributed to Servetus himself, was in fact uttered by Sebastian Castellio.

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1570: Aonio Paleario, Italian religious reformer

July 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date, Antonio della Pagliara was hanged across the Tiber from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome for heresy.

The present-day view from the square where Paleario is thought to have been put to death, over the Ponte Sant’Angelo’s span across the Tiber to the Vatican’s imposing citadel.

Better known as Aonio Paleario (English Wikipedia entry | the considerably deeper Italian), the humanist scholar grew into his intellectual career just as Martin Luther’s doctrine was shaking Christendom.

Paleario’s positions were dangerously — and at length, fatally — close to Protestantism. He counted himself a humanist, a great admirer of Erasmus, who from the Low Countries managed to hold his critical positions without running afoul of the Catholic Church.

This would prove an increasingly difficult trick as the century unfolded … especially in the pope’s back yard.

Paleario’s most particular offenses were to take what amounts to the Lutheran side on the primacy of scriptural text over ecclesiastical tradition, and of salvation through Christ alone without the Church’s intermediation. (He also denied Purgatory.)

Since the Italian academic also cottoned to the Protestant-humanist critique of clerical corruption, he pitched Martin Luther and John Calvin on the notion of convening a Christendom-wide ecclesiastical council to reconcile competing sects. He seems to have wanted to reconcile the reformist current of humanism still within the Catholic tradition, and that of those critics who had broken, perhaps not yet irrevocably, with Rome.

The effort ultimately foundered. Instead, the curia-approved Council of Trent formulated a Roman Catholic doctrine that insured the permanent schism with Protestantism.

The Counter-Reformation was on. Still, with contending theologies — and contending polities — afoot in the Italian quiltwork plus his own towering reputation as the greatest orator in Italy, Paleario was able to find protectors and carry on. He taught in Siena, Lucca and Milan for more than three decades, surviving two bouts with the Inquisition before a Rome in crackdown mode finally pinned a heresy rap on him.

By that time, the septuagenarian didn’t much bother to fight it.

If your Eminences have so many credible witnesses against me, there is no need to give yourselves or me any further trouble … Judge, therefore, and condemn Aonio; satisfy my adversaries, and fulfil your office.

The office was fulfilled consuming the old man in flames, but they did extend the favor of hanging him (and apparently exposing the corpse for several days) first.

A book uncertainly attributed to Paleario, Beneficio di Criso (The Benefit of Christ’s Death) is available free at Google Books.

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