1546: Etienne Dolet, no longer anything at all

Add comment August 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1546, which was his 37th birthday, the French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in Paris over a few little words.

Dolet (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a young polymath with a pugilistic streak both literary and literal. While a law student at Toulouse, he won both a stint in prison and the patronage of King Francis I.

Dolet might have rated the latter a sturdier shield than it proved to be in practice, for his satires — so irreverent as to be heretical in a time when heresy really mattered — landed him back in the clink in Lyons from 1542 to 1544, charged with atheism.

Dolet’s real concern was language: he was a prolific translator of books into French (including some of his own work in Latin), and he produced a lengthy commentary on classical Latin and, in 1540, Europe’s first vernacular treatise on translation.

But for a smart guy he could be a little dumb.

Having pulled strings with the bishop to weasel out of his dungeon, Dolet made tracks for Italy … but then cockily returned to Lyons where he was once again arrested as a heretic. He didn’t get a second chance to learn his lesson.

Dolet’s condemnation turned on a philistine misapprehension of the humanist art of translation.

“While translating, you must not be enslaved to the extent of rendering word for word,” he had counseled in his treatise. “Concentrate on the meaning and handle things so that the intention of the author is expressed, while heedfully maintaining the propriety of both languages.” This is nearly a banality for the modern art of translation, but at the time pitted him against a long Christian tradition that prized textual fidelity over literary elegance.

Rendering a complex bit of Plato into French, Dolet reworked the passage into his target language thus:

Since it is certain that death is not at all among the living: and as for the dead, they no longer are: therefore, death touches them even less. And hence death can do nothing to you, for you are not yet ready to die, and when you have died, death will also not be able to do anything, since you will no longer be anything at all.

If you’re going to be executed over a block of text, that’s a pretty good block.

It’s the anything at all (we added the emphasis) that got Dolet in this instance: Plato had not literally said that, and Dolet’s hostile interlocutors decided to read this flourish of artistry and emphasis as proof of a sly atheist denying the immortality of the soul. No less an authority than the Sorbonne theological faculty signed off on this reading. (Calvin also denounced Dolet; he’s sometimes regarded as a freethinker martyr, which is a more generous spin than “clever asshole.”)

Dolet’s surname chances to double as a declension of the apt Latin verb “to hurt”; en route to the stake, the impious polyglot is said to have exploited the overlap in one final — shall we say dolorous? — witticism:

Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet
Dolet himself does not suffer, but the pious crowd grieves

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Freethinkers,Gallows Humor,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Public Executions

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1938: Branislaw Tarashkyevich, Belarusian linguist

Add comment November 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1938, linguist and politician Branislaw Tarashkyevich was shot at the Kommunarka execution range outside Moscow: another victim of Stalin’s purges.

Tarashkyevch (English Wikipedia page | Russian | Belarusian) is best remembered today for “Taraskevica”.


Tarashkyevich, and his grammar.

That’s the familiar name for Tarashkyevich’s 1918 grammar (Belarusian link) that standardized the tongue, or rather the collection of related “Belarusian” dialects.

Its creator also happened to be a political leftist; he served briefly in the parliament of Poland (which then controlled West Belarus), then became a leader of the Belarus Peasant and Worker Masses, a communist movement. Tarashkyevich was arrested in 1928 and subsequently exchanged for a Belarusian journalist whom the Soviets had imprisoned.

His career as a Soviet appartchik in Moscow was short-lived, however, before those guys clapped him in prison, too, with the outcome typical to that frightening time and place.

A like deletion was supposed to befall taraskevica when the Stalin-era Belarus SSR ordered a standardization with grammar and orthography that more closely resembled Russian; this version (“narkomawka”) still remains the official “Belarusian” to this day.

However, the taraskevica variant has established a stubborn foothold among users who consider it more authentic than its Russified rival.*

* See Curt Woolhiser, “Communities of Practice and Linguistic Divergence: Belarusophone Students as Agents ofLinguistic Change,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1/4 (2007).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1759: Eugene Aram, philologist

Add comment August 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1759, Eugene Aram was hanged at York for murder.

Aram was the son of a gardener, but taught himself Latin and Greek and made himself a respected schoolteacher.

Aram had a special gift for languages, and began research on a never-completed comparative lexicology of the Celtic tongue — correctly intuiting, if not the identity of the distant common mother tongue, the concept of what is now understood as the common progenitor of the related Indo-European languages.

the ancient Celtae, by the numberless vestigaes left behind them, in Gaul, Britain, Greece, and all the western parts of Europe, appear to have been, if not the aborigines, at least their successors, and masters, in Gaul, Britain, and the west; — that their language, however obsolete, however mutilated, is at this day discernible in all those places which that victorious people conquered and retained: — that it has extended itself far and wide, visibly appearing in the ancient Greek, Latin, and English, of all which it included a very considerable part; and, indeed, it still unquestionably, forms a most important ingredient in all the languages of Europe. (Source at archive.org | Google books)

His might have been an illustrious name in linguistic history. Instead …

In 1745, when Aram was already 40 and teaching in Knaresborough, a strange event occurred: a friend of Aram’s named Daniel Clark made the rounds of local merchants “buying” (on credit) a variety of portable valuables … and then promptly disappeared. Aram was suspected of some part in this sketchy affair and detained using the expedient of an outstanding debt pending investigation that would yield a more satisfactory charge.

Aram, however, paid off his arrears in cash. Since no real grounds existed to hold him, he walked away, and immediately left Knaresborough.

There the matter rested for 13 years, time that Aram spent immersed in his language work.

Justice delayed was not to be denied, however. Finally, in 1758, the accidental discovery of a body in Knaresborough rekindled interest in the case (even though the body turned out not to be Clark’s). Thirteen years on, the matter unlocked with amazing ease; Aram’s wife (left behind in Knaresborough when our man blew town) had her suspicions, which led to a mutual friend of Aram’s and the victim, who gave authorities the correct location of Clark’s theretofore undiscovered body. (Namely, St. Robert’s cave.) Upon that considerable credibility the mutual friend (Houseman by name) accused Aram of the murder. Since the wife was also prepared to swear she had heard all these men, and Clark among them, conspiring shadily together, Aram was in the stew.

As a proper Enlightenment man, learner of languages, inquirer of science, writer of poetry, and author of dark and vengeful deeds, Aram didn’t bother with a barrister but defended himself, and very ably in the judgment of his observers.

“His defense was an ingenious plea of the general fallibility of circumstantial evidence,” records this encyclopedia. But he had to stick to generalities because (as he admitted after conviction) he was actually quite guilty, and Aram “seemed really more carried away by the abstract philosophy of his argument, than impressed by the terrible relation it bore to his fate.” The lengthy Newgate calendar entry on his case preserves some of these sorties.

He would eventually ascribe his own motive not to greed of gold but suspicion of cuckoldry. Houseman, who was probably just as involved (and probably in his part for greed) appears to have escaped the noose.

Aram became a potent literary reference for his countrymen as a partially sympathetic, Janus-faced creature: the thoughtful scholar encumbered by his guilty conscience, or one whose potential gift to all mankind is undone by his injury to one man.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a novel about Aram. In Thomas Hood‘s poem “The Dream of Eugene Aram”, the titular killer is tormented by the recollection of what he has done.

“Oh God! that horrid, horrid dream
Besets me now awake!
Again — again, with dizzy brain,
The human life I take:
And my red right hand grows raging hot,
Like Cranmer‘s at the stake.

“And still no peace for the restless clay,
Will wave or mould allow;
The horrid thing pursues my soul —
It stands before me now!”
The fearful Boy looked up, and saw
Huge drops upon his brow.

That very night while gentle sleep
The urchin’s eyelids kissed,
Two stern-faced men set out from Lynn,*
Through the cold and heavy mist;
And Eugene Aram walked between,
With gyves upon his wrist.

Wodehouse, Orwell, W.G. Wills all also dropped Eugene Aram literary references in their day.

* The town in Norfolk where Aram was hanging his hat when he was finally arrested.

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1415: Jan Hus, reformer of religion and language

4 comments July 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake at Konstanz for heresy.

This statue of Jan Hus in Prague’s Old Town is a tourist magnet. image (cc) autumnal fire

Hus might be the most consequential pre-Lutheran Christian religious reformer, and the Hussite faith he founded still persists to this day.

In his own time, Hus expounded a reformist theology inspired by John Wycliffe, and putting Holy Writ into the vernacular was essential to his program. His religious movement found common cause with a Bohemian political interest in exploiting western Christendom’s clown carful of rival popes to stake out greater national independence.

He eventually met his martyrdom by agreeing to come to the Council of Konstanz (Constance) under a guarantee of safe conduct, where prelates were going to sort out their rival popes and do the periodic Church reform thing.

Instead, Hus was seized and imprisoned — you don’t have to keep promises to heretics, see; it’s all a part of this noble era’s expediently plastic sense of honor — and tried and condemned and implored to recant and finally burned alive.*

But the disobedient movements Hus had kindled in life were not so easily reduced to ash.

In the aftermath of the great ecclesiastic’s execution, a significant conflict erupted in Bohemia. For a generation or so of the Hussite Wars, the man’s followers repelled Catholic incursions before they too finally succumbed.

Even then, it wasn’t over (and still isn’t). Though it wasn’t all specifically about the guy named Jan Hus — these things never are — the Catholic powers that be were still fighting and propagandizing against Hus centuries later, into the Counter-Reformation.

Today, the statue of Jan Hus that everyone flocks to see in Prague’s Old Town Square is flanked by a Catholic church on one side … and a Catholic church that’s become a Hussite church on another.


Since all of the above and a great deal more about Hus and Hussites is readily available at the search engine of your choice, we thought — after the above introduction — to redirect our conversation to a dimension of Jan Hus less widely recognized: his foundational role in the development of the modern written Czech language, and especially its use of diacritics. Hus is generally credited as the creator of the haček or caron.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for helping ferret out this excerpt, from the chapter on Czech by Robert Auty in The Slavic Literary Languages: Formation and Development, ed. Alexander M. Schenker and Edward Stankiewicz, Yale: 1980.

The religious reform movement associated with the name of Jan Hus (1371-1415) had important consequences for the Czech literary language. Knowledge of the Bible was an important element in the reform program of Hus and his followers: the Bible was to be made available to the people in their own language and priests had to be able to expound it in a clear and straightforward manner … The establishment and continuous polishing and revision of the scriptural text played a great part in the development of the written Czech vernacular. Moreover the Czech translation profoundly influenced the earliest Polish versions of the Bible.

Hus’s own views on the language emerge not only from his practice but also from various theoretical utteranes on the subject. It has been shown that in morphology and vocabulary he tried to modernize the language in accordance with the development of natural speech. In phonology however he took up a more conservative position … Hus was also critical of another element of contemporary Prague speech, the proliferation of Germanisms in the vocabulary. In this he took up a position similar to that of many of his countrymen four or five centuries later and castigated those who said handtuch (Ger. Handtuch) for ubrusec ‘towel,’ šorc (Ger. Schurz) for zástěrka ‘apron,’ trepky (Ger. Treppen) for chódy ‘steps,’ knedlík (Ger. Knödel) for šiška ‘dumpling’ and the like. It is interesting to note that many of the Germanisms to which Hus objected have in fact disappeared from the language; yet others have resisted; knedlík, for example, has become fully domesticated.


A Czech knedlík by any other name would still taste as chutný. (cc) image from Michal Sänger.

It is in all probability to Hus that we must ascribe the establishment of the orthography of modern Czech, for this is essentially based on the diacritic system expounded in the treatise known as De orthographia bohemica. Written at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the tract, though it cannot with absolute certainty be ascribed to Hus, is nevertheless held by the great majority of scholars to be his work. …

The revolutionary innovation advocated in De orthographia bohemica was the introduction of the diacritic system, that is to say the extension of the repertory of graphemes by the user of superscript marks. For the consonants the principle adopted was to use the unmarked Latin letters for sounds which (in the contemporary pronunciation) were identical in Latin and Czech, but to indicate specifically Czech sounds by means of a superscript dot over the letter concerned. Thus … č, š, ž, ř … [which] indicated not palatal articulation but non-Latin-ness. …

It seems most probably that he was influenced by the Hebrew practice of indicating by a dot (dageš) variant phonetic realizations of the same grapheme. We know that Hus learned some Hebrew, and this would seem the most obvious source of this orthographic device. …

The diacritic orthography was not immediately accepted, despite the fact that a handful of early fifteenth-century manuscripts employed it. It gained ground in the later fifteenth and especially in the sixteenth century and became adopted as the standard. With the advent of printing in the late fifteenth century the Gothic (black-letter) form of the Latin alphabet was used for Czech books as it was for German. When the forms of the letters were standardized Hus’s lozenge-shaped dot was changed to the ‘hook’ (haček) which lives on as the reversed circumflex of the present-day Czech alphabet. The indication of vowel length, originally similar to a comma, was systematized as an acute accent (referred to in Czech as &#269árka) …

By the time the Hussite wars ended in the 1430’s the Czech language was in use in most spheres of national life. It was established as a medium of administrative and legal documents, and it was increasingly used for learned and technical writings … When we consider that the relative uniformity of the phonological and morphological structure of the language remained unimpaired, and that its orthography was in the process of consolidation, we can establish the mid-fifteenth century as the period of origin of the Czech literary language as a normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom.

Czechs and their normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom get a public holiday and all the hačeks they can drink in Jan Hus’s honor today.

* Just to make sure everyone got the point, this same council ordered the remains of the long-deceased Wycliffe exhumed and posthumously “executed”.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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