1525: Jäcklein Rohrbach, for the Weinsberg Blood Easter

Add comment May 21st, 2018 Headsman

On the 21st or perhaps the 20th of May in 1525, the peasant rebel Jakob Rohrbach — more commonly known as Jäcklein (“Little Jack”) Rohrbach — was chained to a stake and burned alive as the nobility celebrated its victory in the German Peasants’ War.

Rohrbach was by history’s acclamation the most bloody-minded of the peasant revolutionaries — for Jakob perhaps had learned the lesson of the Jacquerie that rebels against the lords must vanquish or perish. (Jakob Rohrbach was literate.)

When the peasantry rose to shake Germany, Rohrbach was elected a leader in the environs of Weinsberg, in Baden-Wuerttemberg. It was here that Rohrbach’s band would author the rebellion’s most spectacular outrage, the Weinsberg Massacre, or Weinsberg Blood Easter — for on April 16, Easter Day, they overwhelmed the city and put its garrison to slaughter, collectively executing Count Ludwig von Helfenstein by forcing him to run a gantlet while peasants screamed their grievances at him.

“You thrust my brother into a dungeon,” one cried, “because he did not bare his head as you passed by.” “You harnessed us like oxen to the yoke,” shouted others; “you caused the hands of my father to be cut off because he killed a hare on his own field … Your horses, dogs, and huntsmen have trodden down my crops … You have wrung the last penny out of us.” (Will Durant)

As word of the blood rage went abroad, it not only horrified the respectable (Martin Luther turned his considerable vituperation upon the insurrection after hearing about it*) but split the rebellion itself between moderate and radical factions. We lack access to the peasant councils of war, but perhaps that was even intentional on Rohrbach’s part, to force the revolution towards its most extreme ends, much as French Jacobins would decapitate the king to cut off any hope of their moderate brethren making an accommodation.

If so, it failed in that objective. It would be the fragmented German polities that by dint of the danger made common cause and defeated the rebellion. For a special villain like Rohrbach, special treatment was reserved, yet his was only most exemplary among innumerable long-forgotten cruelties meted out. The lords returned stroke for stroke ten times over for every injury that Rohrbach and his kind had dealt them.

The total number of the peasants and their allies who fell either in fighting or at the hands of the executioners is estimated by Anselm in his Berner Chronik at a hundred and thirty thousand. It was certainly not less than a hundred thousand. For months after, the executioner was active in many of the affected districts. Spalatin says: “Of hanging and beheading there is no end”. Another writer has it: “It was all so that even a stone had been moved to pity, for the chastisement and vengeance of the conquering lords was great”. The executions within the jurisdiction of the Swabian League alone are stated at ten thousand. Truchses’s provost boasted of having hanged or beheaded twelve hundred with his own hand. More than fifty thousand fugitives were recorded. These, according to a Swabian League order, were all outlawed in such wise that any one who found them might slay them without fear of consequences.

The sentences and executions were conducted with true mediaeval levity. It is narrated in a contemporary chronicle that in one village in the Henneberg territory all the inhabitants had fled on the approach of the count and his men-at-arms save two tilers. The two were being led to execution when one appeared to weep bitterly, and his reply to interrogatories was that he bewailed the dwellings of the aristocracy thereabouts, for henceforth there would be no one to supply them with durable tiles. Thereupon his companion burst out laughing, because, said he, it had just occurred to him that he would not know where to place his hat after his head had been taken off. These mildly humorous remarks obtained for both of them a free pardon.

… Many places were annihilated for having taken part with the peasants, even when they had been compelled by force to do so. Fields in these districts were everywhere laid waste or left uncultivated. Enormous sums were exacted as indemnity. In many of the villages peasants previously well-to-do were ruined. There seemed no limit to the bleeding of the “common man,” under the pretence of compensation for damage done by the insurrection.

The condition of the families of the dead and of the fugitives was appalling. Numbers perished from starvation. The wives and children of the insurgents were in some cases forcibly driven from their homesteads and even from their native territory. In one of the pamphlets published in 1525 anent the events of that year, we read: “Houses are burned; fields and vineyards lie fallow; clothes and household goods are robbed or burned; cattle and sheep are taken away; the same as to horses and trappings. The prince, the gentleman, or the nobleman will have his rent and due. Eternal God, whither shall the widows and poor children go forth to seek it?”

Ernest Belfrt Bax, The Peasants’ War in Germany

* Weinsberg is also famous for a different siege centuries previous, which ended in an altogether more humane fashion.

** Luther wrote a Blood Easter of his own in Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.

they are starting a rebellion, and violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs, by which they have a second time deserved death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers. Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you

a prince and lord must remember in this case that he is God’s minister and the servant of his wrath (Romans XIII), to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows, and that he sins as greatly against God, if he does not punish and protect and does not fulfil the duties of his office, as does one to whom the sword has not been committed when he commits a murder. If he can punish and does not — even though the punishment consist in the taking of life and the shedding of blood — then he is guilty of all the murder and all the evil which these fellows commit, because, by willful neglect of the divine command, he permits them to practice their wickedness, though he can prevent it, and is in duty bound to do so. Here, then, there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace.

hey may die without worry and go to the scaffold with a good conscience, who are found exercising their office of the sword. They may leave to the devil the kingdom of the world, and take in exchange the everlasting kingdom. Strange times, these, when a prince can win heaven with bloodshed, better than other men with prayer!

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1529: Adolf Clarenbach, Lower Rhine evangelist

Add comment September 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1529, the city of Cologne burnt Protestant evangelist Adolf Clarenbach at the stake.

Clarenbach (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a humanist-trained teacher who caught the Reformation spirit when he read Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian in about 1523.

The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers, that, so soon as we perceive that anything of ours is not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed …

-Luther in the dedicatory preface* to On the Freedom of a Christian (Source)

Adolf Clarenbach in statuary on present-day Cologne’s city hall. (cc) image from Raimond Spekking

Luther’s words would kindle many a fagot in the years to come. Clarenbach got an early start assailing orthodox delicacies; he was dismissed from teaching posts and harried from city to city (German link, a handy little biography). Munster ran him out for agitating against idolatrous images of saints in 1523; Duke Johann III** personally ordered his expulsion from Jülich-Cleves-Berg; Osnabrück, Büderich and Elberfeld all gave him the boot before Cologne finally arrested him in April 1528.

Clarenbach’s condemnation would only be secured by an arduous process stretching well over a year and contested by the heretic and his friends not only in theology but in law (Clarenbach, a layperson, disputed the ecclesiastical court’s right to try him and appealed successfully to an Imperial court against Cologne, dragging out the process) and in public opinion (Clarenbach’s supporters in Cologne published defenses of him). Even the actual death sentence took half a year to enact after it was issued in March 1529 while authorities loath to conduct it negotiated with their prisoner to moderate his heresy.

He was finally put to death together with another Lutheran, Peter Fliesteden; they are among the first Protestants to die for their confession in the Lower Rhine.

Given the Lutheran movement’s strong run in Germany, it’s no surprise to find this seminal martyr honored in many places in present-day Germany — and his name ornamenting a street in his hometown, a seminary, and a primary school.

* On the Freedom of a Christian was dedicated to the sitting pope. While Luther’s dedication inveighed furiously against the Roman curia, it took the politic and preposterous rhetorical angle that the Medici Leo X was a helpless ingenue undone by his scheming court, “like Daniel in the midst of lions”: “I have always grieved that you, most excellent Leo, who were worthy of a better age, have been made Pontiff in this. For the Roman Court is not worthy of you and those like you, but of Satan himself, who in truth is more the ruler in that Babylon than you are.”

Luther signed that dedication on September 6, 1520. He had not been excommunicated at that point.

Just a few weeks later, he received the papacy’s official (and none too polite) rebuttal to Luther’s 95 theses. Luther answered this missive much less temperately, and his breach with Rome was complete by January 1521.

† Cologne at this time was under the bishopric of Hermann of Wied, a humanist with the germ of reform curiosity. Many years later, he would actually convert to Lutheranism which naturally led to his excommunication and deposition. (But not execution.)

** That’s Duke Johann of Cleves, the father of the Anne of Cleves whose unsatisfactory betrothal to Henry VIII precipitated the downfall of Thomas Cromwell.

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1493: Peter Dane, in the Sternberger Hostienschänderprozess

Add comment March 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1493, Peter Dane was burned at the stake in the Baltic city of Rostock.

Dane, the vicar of the church at the small town of Sternberg, allegedly sold consecrated communion Host to a Jew named Eleazar, who proceeded to destroy the pieces in a weird Jewish ceremony because Jews. From this imputation came the mass burning of 27 Jews at Sternberg in October 1492. (Eleazar himself, however, got away.)


Illustration of the burning of the Sternberg Jews, from Hartmann Schedel‘s Weltchronik (1493)

Those Jews not put to death were expelled from the Duchy of Mecklenburg, leading rabbis to pronounce a reciprocal ban against any of their people settling in Mecklenburg — a ban not lifted until the mid-18th century.

Dane enjoyed a more ceremonial expulsion from this mortal coil, beginning with expulsion from the clergy at the hands of the Rostock bishop. Duly relaxed to the secular authorities, Dane too died by fire.

But the story of his sacrilege did not die.

Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg‘s hot new communications technology, pamphlets and broadsides rolled off Europe’s printing presses about the Sternberger Hostienschänderprozess — and the miracles attributed to the outraged Host, like spurting blood and killing Eleazar’s wife in her tracks.*

The very Host said to have been offended by Dane and Eleazar was duly produced, blood and all, and Sternberg became a pilgrimage destination for faithful seeking the bread’s miracle-working powers. A tourist boom came with it.

Miracles were reported, both healings and resurrections; important pilgrims, including Danish royalty and a Spanish princess, came. By March 1494 the bishop of Schwerin had established a division of the pilgrim revenues: a third to the pastor at Sternberg, a third to the bishop of Schwerin, and a third to the cathedral chapter of Schwerin (with some provision for the neighboring chapter at Rostock). Initially all the revenues were to go to Sternberg for building the blood chapel, which was completed by 1496. Six priests were delegated to pray the Hours of Christ’s passion and a seventh to show to the faithful twice daily the martyred, wonder-working hosts. In a competition for revenues that is reflected in the legend itself (the host supposedly resisted a move from court to church), the duke built a chapel on the finding site, where, before 1500, more miracles were worked; finally, against the opposition of both the bishop of Schwerin and the pastor at Sternberg, he managed to extract a portion of the pilgrim income to finance a cloister of Augustinian hermits on the site in 1510. (Source)

That killjoy Martin Luther broke up the hustle.

In his seminal 1520 Address To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther specifically names Sternberg (among other locales) in the course of denouncing the pilgrimage racket:

The country chapels and churches must be destroyed, such as those to which the new pilgrimages have been set on foot: Wilsnack, Sternberg, Treves, the Grimmenthal, and now Ratisbon, and many others. Oh, what a reckoning there will be for those bishops that allow these inventions of the devil and make a profit out of them! They should be the first to stop it; they think that it is a godly, holy thing, and do not see that the devil does this to strengthen covetousness, to teach false beliefs, to weaken parish churches, to increase drunkenness and debauchery, to waste money and labour, and simply to lead the poor people by the nose.

Every man thinks only how he may get up such a pilgrimage in his own district, not caring whether the people believe and live rightly. The rulers are like the people: blind leaders of the blind.

In the case of Sternberg, and of Mecklenburg generally, rulers and people alike — so recently blind with covetousness — went hard for Luther’s reform preaching very early on.

Sternberg’s lucrative traffic in pilgrims dried up abruptly in the 1520s, though the capital improvements they funded live on … and Peter Dane’s onetime parish church still bears a few markers of its bygone fame.

* Latin readers can get a taste of it with this Google Books scan of Mons Stellarum, a humanist review of events dating to the 1510s.

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1527: Leonhard Kaiser, Lutheran

2 comments August 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1527, Lutheran evangelist Leonhard Kaiser burned for his heresy at the Bavarian (today, Austrian) city of Scharding.

Kaiser (German link) was a middle-aged vicar hailing from a comfortable Bavarian family when Luther’s reformation fired a new evangelical zeal; he relocated to Wittenberg to absorb the new doctrines and became not only Luther’s exponent, but his friend.

In 1527, however, our man returned to his native Raab to nurse his ailing father — a calculated risk but a reasonable one, since Bavaria had not been killing its heretics.

Unfortunately for Kaiser, the region had a fresh new anti-Lutheran authority, and Kaiser’s continued preaching while he was in town set him up to be made an example of. Lutheran nemesis Johann Eck personally participated in the investigation.

According to Martin Luther as Comforter: Writings on Death, Luther personally wrote Kaiser a short letter of comfort in May of 1527, exhorting him to “patiently endure with the strength of Christ” his imminent martyrdom.

The great Reformer seems to have been profoundly affected by the death of his fellow-traveler, even (says this) questioning his own ministry relative to the sacrifice of flesh made by Leonard Kaiser. “I daily expect the death of a heretic,” Luther had written a friend a few years before … yet those martyrs’ laurels were not for him.

Instead, Luther did his proselytizing with his pen, and he found in Leonhard Kaiser a powerful subject indeed.

Luther took an early martyr’s hagiography written by Michael Stifel and greatly expanded it into a tribute, Concerning Leonhard Kaiser, Burned in Bavaria For the Sake of the Gospel that remained continuously in print in the 16th century. In that volume (I have not found a public link to it available online) Luther uses the burned man’s suggestive name: Leonard, “Lion-Hearted”, and Kaiser, “King”, to exalt the martyr’s courage and ultimate triumph.

It was also about this period — 1527 to 1529 — that Luther composed the hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Based on the Bible’s Psalm 46, this enduringly popular (even with Catholics) piece has been thought (though it’s just one speculative hypothesis among several) to be Luther’s tribute to his lion-hearted friend.

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1739: Michael Blodorn, “selvmordsmord”

1 comment June 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Michael Blödorn was stretched out on a scaffold at Copenhagen’s beautiful Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square), where an executioner set about smashing his limbs with heavy wagon wheels.


A 1727 illustration of Danish prisoners broken on the wheel.

Scholar Tyge Krogh’s new book titled (and about) The Lutheran Plague of suicide-murder.

As he lay suffering, Blödorn sang vigorously — a joyful hymn to lift his soul to heaven.

That, indeed, was why he was being broken on the wheel in the first place.

Blödorn was part of an alarming trend in Lutheran countries that waxed especially strong in Denmark: a homicide-to-heaven loophole apparently licensed by the Reformation theology.

Crudely put, the scam is this: you have a sure ticket to salvation if you die with no un-repented sin on your soul. But the only real way to know when you’re going to die is to kill yourself … and since that’s a mortal sin, that’s even worse than risking the everyday mischance of life.

But do like Mike and kill a random stranger to incur a death sentence, and you get to check out pure as the driven snow: assured last-minute repentance with no suicidal downside. Everybody wins!

Um.

Actually carrying out this plan required what you might call a deep commitment to your theology: in an effort to discourage the practice without backing off the death penalty for murder, penalties for apparent suicide-by-executioner cases had been ramped up into an archaic bloody theater. Blödorn, a soldier, had already been suffering weekly floggings leading up to the execution. Civilian murderers could look forward to having the flesh ripped with red-hot tongs.


Ouch. A 1727 illustration of judicial penalties that might attend a suicide-murder: tearing with hot tongs, the breaking-wheel, and severed hands.

Still, selvmordsmord persisted (Danish link: or, here’s the same story in Norwegian).

At last in 1767, the Danes reversed course abandoned capital punishment for “melancholy and other dismal persons [who committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives,” implementing instead sentences of humiliating hard labor: a punishment to fit the crime and also meet the larger society’s need for deterrence.

“This made Denmark a pioneer when it came to abolishing the death penalty,” said Danish academic Tyghe Kroghe, author of a new book about the suicide-murder phenomenon. “But it was not something they did proudly. The decision violated the religious understanding of the criminal system.”

Here’s Kroghe discussing his research … in Danish.

Crazy, right?

Executions of men and women who not only decline to fight their sentences, but even commit their capital crimes with the intent to engineer their own executions, are hardly confined to the foreign country that is the past.

Maybe you wouldn’t point the finger at Martin Luther any longer, but Denmark’s very last civil execution was of an arsonist so insistent about attempting murder that the authorities finally gave him the peace of the grave that he desired. We’ve seen in these pages the headsman courted by people motivated by depression and by romantic love.

And numerous more modern criminals right into the 21st century look every bit like selvmordsmord cases. For example:

  • Christopher Newton, who killed his cellmate to draw a death sentence and was executed in Ohio in 2007;
  • Daniel Colwell, who gunned down a couple randomly to “win” a death sentence in Georgia in 2003 but died before reaching execution;
  • Mamoru Takuma, the mentally disturbed author of Japan’s notorious Osaka school massacre, who committed the crime with no intent to escape and immediately demanded a death sentence (carried out in 2004).

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Feast Day of the Holy Maccabees

1 comment August 1st, 2010 Headsman

This is the feast date, in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, of the Woman with Seven Sons — each of whom is supposed to have been put to death for refusing to break the Mosaic law by eating pork.

Although they are Jewish martyrs more than a century before Christ, they are revered most especially by the Christian faith that elbowed Judaism aside. Their story comes from 2 Maccabees, a “deuterocanonical” text that is part of the Old Testament but not part of the Hebrew Bible — for reasons having to do with the contingent process of formulating the canon.* (Short explanation | Long explanation)

Whether sent from the Lord or not, this story features the righteous resistance of the faithful family against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, which was one of the successor Hellenistic states to Alexander the Great’s conquests.

In 2 Maccabees (and also in 1 Maccabees, which covers the same period, though not this specific martyrdom), Antiochus IV is making an unwelcome pro-heathen intervention in a Jewish civil war on the side of the hellenizers as against the hidebound traditionalists. This comes to attempting “to compel the Jews to depart from the laws of their fathers, and not to live after the laws of God: And to pollute also the temple in Jerusalem, and to call it the temple of Jupiter Olympius.” (2 Maccabees 6:1-2; this chapter features a Whitman’s sampler of other faithful traditionalists slaughtered for various forms of adherence to the Law.)

Same deal with the dietary laws, whose countermanding edict Antiochus (being a wicked heathen king) is pleased to enforce by the most ghastly tortures.

Here’s the description of the martyrdom from 2 Maccabees chapter 7:

Das Martyrium der sieben Makkabaer, by Antonio Ciseri, in an aptly classical setting.

1: It came to pass also, that seven brethren with their mother were taken, and compelled by the king against the law to taste swine’s flesh, and were tormented with scourges and whips.
2: But one of them that spake first said thus, What wouldest thou ask or learn of us? we are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our fathers.
3: Then the king, being in a rage, commanded pans and caldrons to be made hot:
4: Which forthwith being heated, he commanded to cut out the tongue of him that spake first, and to cut off the utmost parts of his body, the rest of his brethren and his mother looking on.
5: Now when he was thus maimed in all his members, he commanded him being yet alive to be brought to the fire, and to be fried in the pan: and as the vapour of the pan was for a good space dispersed, they exhorted one another with the mother to die manfully, saying thus,
6: The Lord God looketh upon us, and in truth hath comfort in us, as Moses in his song, which witnessed to their faces, declared, saying, And he shall be comforted in his servants.
7: So when the first was dead after this number, they brought the second to make him a mocking stock: and when they had pulled off the skin of his head with the hair, they asked him, Wilt thou eat, before thou be punished throughout every member of thy body?
8: But he answered in his own language, and said, No. Wherefore he also received the next torment in order, as the former did.
9: And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.
10: After him was the third made a mocking stock: and when he was required, he put out his tongue, and that right soon, holding forth his hands manfully.
11: And said courageously, These I had from heaven; and for his laws I despise them; and from him I hope to receive them again.
12: Insomuch that the king, and they that were with him, marvelled at the young man’s courage, for that he nothing regarded the pains.
13: Now when this man was dead also, they tormented and mangled the fourth in like manner.
14: So when he was ready to die he said thus, It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him: as for thee, thou shalt have no resurrection to life.
15: Afterward they brought the fifth also, and mangled him.
16: Then looked he unto the king, and said, Thou hast power over men, thou art corruptible, thou doest what thou wilt; yet think not that our nation is forsaken of God;
17: But abide a while, and behold his great power, how he will torment thee and thy seed.
18: After him also they brought the sixth, who being ready to die said, Be not deceived without cause: for we suffer these things for ourselves, having sinned against our God: therefore marvellous things are done unto us.
19: But think not thou, that takest in hand to strive against God, that thou shalt escape unpunished.
20: But the mother was marvellous above all, and worthy of honourable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord.
21: Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them,
22: I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you;
23: But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.
24: Now Antiochus, thinking himself despised, and suspecting it to be a reproachful speech, whilst the youngest was yet alive, did not only exhort him by words, but also assured him with oaths, that he would make him both a rich and a happy man, if he would turn from the laws of his fathers; and that also he would take him for his friend, and trust him with affairs.
25: But when the young man would in no case hearken unto him, the king called his mother, and exhorted her that she would counsel the young man to save his life.
26: And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised him that she would counsel her son.
27: But she bowing herself toward him, laughing the cruel tyrant to scorn, spake in her country language on this manner; O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee such three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age, and endured the troubles of education.
28: I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.
29: Fear not this tormentor, but, being worthy of thy brethren, take thy death that I may receive thee again in mercy with thy brethren.
30: Whiles she was yet speaking these words, the young man said, Whom wait ye for? I will not obey the king’s commandment: but I will obey the commandment of the law that was given unto our fathers by Moses.
31: And thou, that hast been the author of all mischief against the Hebrews, shalt not escape the hands of God.
32: For we suffer because of our sins.
33: And though the living Lord be angry with us a little while for our chastening and correction, yet shall he be at one again with his servants.
34: But thou, O godless man, and of all other most wicked, be not lifted up without a cause, nor puffed up with uncertain hopes, lifting up thy hand against the servants of God:
35: For thou hast not yet escaped the judgment of Almighty God, who seeth all things.
36: For our brethren, who now have suffered a short pain, are dead under God’s covenant of everlasting life: but thou, through the judgment of God, shalt receive just punishment for thy pride.
37: But I, as my brethren, offer up my body and life for the laws of our fathers, beseeching God that he would speedily be merciful unto our nation; and that thou by torments and plagues mayest confess, that he alone is God;
38: And that in me and my brethren the wrath of the Almighty, which is justly brought upon our nation, may cease.
39: Than the king’ being in a rage, handed him worse than all the rest, and took it grievously that he was mocked.
40: So this man died undefiled, and put his whole trust in the Lord.
41: Last of all after the sons the mother died.
42: Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures.

The upshot of the Maccabees texts is the revolt of Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucids, the episode that gives us Hanukkah, when that “temple of Jupiter Olympius” was rededicated back to YHWH.

And though not specifically because of the Holy Maccabees, the start of that revolt is the very next thing to occur in the text,** at the start of chapter 8:

1: Then Judas Maccabeus, and they that were with him, went privily into the towns, and called their kinsfolks together, and took unto them all such as continued in the Jews’ religion, and assembled about six thousand men.
2: And they called upon the Lord, that he would look upon the people that was trodden down of all; and also pity the temple profaned of ungodly men.
3: And that he would have compassion upon the city, sore defaced, and ready to be made even with the ground; and hear the blood that cried unto him,
4: And remember the wicked slaughter of harmless infants, and the blasphemies committed against his name; and that he would shew his hatred against the wicked.

And then, of course, it’s the good guys’ turn to start killing.

* It is worth noting that deuterocanonical books aren’t part of the Old Testament for most Protestants; Martin Luther declared himself “so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.”

** The book’s chronology is scarcely rigorous, but if the episode is considered historical, it would have occurred in 167 B.C.E. (the year the Maccabean revolt began) or the few years before, reaching back to Antiochus’s anti-Mosaic injunctions c. 175 B.C.E.

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1536: William Tyndale, English Bible translator

7 comments October 6th, 2009 Headsman

“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” cried William Tyndale at the stake this date in 1536 … just before he was strangled and burned.

“Translated the Bible into English,” reads Tyndale‘s epigraph; in the Protestant blossoming, this Herculean academic labor was also of itself a dangerous religious and political manifesto.

As with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, Tyndale’s English version threatened, and was intended to threaten, papal ecclesiastical authority. In undertaking the work, Tyndale defied the 1408 “Constitutions of Oxford”, an English clerical pact further to the suppression of the Lollards and kindred post-John Wycliffe heresies which expressly prohibited rendering scripture in the vernacular.

In Protestant hagiographer John Foxe‘s Book of Martyrs, a young Tyndale exasperated with a Romish divine memorably declared,

“I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.”

Tyndale would give his life to, and for, that ploughboy.

On the lam in Protestant Germany, Tyndale produced an English New Testament, and then an Old Testament, of startling poetry.

The scholar also kept a reformist voice in the day’s robust theological pamphleteering — trading fire, for instance, with Sir Thomas More.

Even when the once-staunch Catholic Henry VIII broke with Rome over Anne Boleyn, the English manhunt for Tyndale continued: Henry’s reformation did not share radical Protestant objectives like scriptural authority, and the king was not shy about enforcing his version of orthodoxy.

Tyndale was equally stubborn in defense of his life’s mission to put a Bible in the hands of the English ploughboy. Offered the king’s mercy to return and submit, Tyndale countered by offering his silence and martyrdom if Henry would but publish the Good Book in English.

I assure you, if it would stand with the King’s most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the Scripture to be put forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts, and of other Christian princes, be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his Majesty, I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, not abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this [translation] be obtained. Until that time, I will abide the asperity of all chances, whatsoever shall come, and endure my life in as many pains as it is able to bear and suffer.

Luckily for posterity, the English crown wasn’t biting, leaving Tyndale’s mellifluous rendering of Holy Writ to enter the English tongue.

And leaving Tyndale, eventually, to enter the martyrs’ ranks.

In 1536, an English bounty hunter befriended the fugitive translator and betrayed him to the authorities in Vilvoorde, near Brussels. It was the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire that did the dirty work of their rivals in the Isles.

And — the Lord works in the mysterious ways, they say — Tyndale’s dying prayer was indeed answered.

By the end of the decade, a Bible in English drawn from Tyndale’s version (revised by former Tyndale assistant Myles Coverdale under Thomas Cromwell‘s direction; prefaced by Thomas Cranmer) was by regal authority placed in every parish of the Church of England.

The Tyndale Bible became the basis for the King James Bible that remains for many authoritative to this day … and Tyndale’s work lodged in the textual DNA of the evolving English Bible(s) in the five centuries since his death. (The wonderful site The King’s English deals with the linguistic legacy of the King James Version; many of the examples in fact trace back to Tyndale.)

Works by and about William Tyndale

Audiophiles should consider this podcast from a Protestant perspective, located here.

[audio:http://www.bethanybaptist.co.uk/mp3/2008-05-09-pm-Brian-Edwards.mp3]

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1525: Thomas Müntzer, prophet of the Peasants’ War

9 comments May 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1525, radical religious reformer and Peasants’ War leader Thomas Müntzer lost his head in the town of Mühlhausen.

Müntzer, a university-educated theologian, caught the whiff of Lutheranism in the Zeitgeist; following Luther’s call to study the Biblical text directly without the intervention of the doctors of Rome, Müntzer swiftly discerned a heavenly admonition to set to rights the many wrongs of an unjust world.

Luther had not had in mind dispossessing the haves, particularly not when imperial electors defended him from the Pope’s inquisitors.

When in 1517 opposition against the dogmas and the organisation of the Catholic church was first raised by Luther, it still had no definite character. Not exceeding the demands of the earlier middle-class heresy, it did not exclude any trend of opinion which went further. It could not do so because the first moment of the struggle demanded that all opposing elements be united, … Luther’s sturdy peasant nature asserted itself in the stormiest fashion in the first period of his activities. “If the raging madness [of the Roman churchmen] were to continue, it seems to me no better counsel and remedy could be found against it than that kings and princes apply force, arm themselves, attack those evil people who have poisoned the entire world, and once and for all make an end to this game, with arms, not with words. If thieves are being punished with swords, murderers with ropes, and heretics with fire, why do we not seize, with arms in hand, all those evil teachers of perdition, those popes, bishops, cardinals, and the entire crew of Roman Sodom? Why do we not wash our hands in their blood?”

This revolutionary ardour did not last long. The lightning thrust by Luther caused a conflagration. A movement started among the entire German people. In his appeals against the clergy, in his preaching of Christian freedom, peasants and plebeians perceived the signal for insurrection. Likewise, the moderate middle-class and a large section of the lower nobility joined him, and even princes were drawn into the torrent. While the former believed the day had come in which to wreak vengeance upon all their oppressors, the latter only wished to break the power of the clergy, the dependence upon Rome, the Catholic hierarchy, and to enrich themselves through the confiscation of church property. The parties became separated from each other, and each found a different spokesman. Luther had to choose between the two. Luther, the protégé of the Elector of Saxony, the respected professor of Wittenberg who had become powerful and famous overnight, the great man who was surrounded by a coterie of servile creatures and flatterers, did not hesitate a moment. He dropped the popular elements of the movement, and joined the train of the middle-class, the nobility and the princes. Appeals to war of extermination against Rome were heard no more. Luther was now preaching peaceful progress and passive resistance.

Muntzer became adopted into the Marxist pantheon sufficiently to grace East Germany’s five-mark bill.

That’s Engels in The Peasant War in Germany, revisiting the theological conflicts at the birth of the Protestant Reformation from the perspective of 19th century Marxism.

Projecting backwards, Engels saw in Müntzer a distant forerunner of their own day’s class conflicts — the man whose language was Biblical and apocalyptic but whose subject matter was the peasantry’s demand for material justice.

[Luther] says in his booklet on commerce that the princes should make common cause with thieves and robbers. But in this same writing he is silent about the source of all theft … Behold, the basic source of usury, theft, and robbery is our lords and princes, who take all creatures for their private property. The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the animals of the arth must all be their property, Isaiah 5[:8]. And then they let God’s commandment go forth among the poor and they say, “God has commanded, ‘Thou shalt not steal’.” But this commandment does not apply to them since they oppress all men — the poor peasant, the artisan, and all who live are flayed and sheared, Micah 3[:2f]. But, as soon as anyone steals the smallest thing, he must hang. And to this Doctor Liar says, “Amen.” The lords themselves are responsible for making the poor people their enemy. They do not want to remove the cause of insurrection, so how, in the long run, can things improve? I say this openly, so Luther asserts I must be rebellious. So be it!*

In this detail view of East German artist Werner Tübke’s weird panorama of the Battle of Frankenhausen, a crestfallen Müntzer realizes divine aid is not forthcoming.

Müntzer embraced the cause of a massive peasant revolt in central Europe in 1524-25. Luther said God wanted them “knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog!”

So it was with Müntzer, who was captured in the decisive Battle of Frankenhausen, tortured into recanting his heretical doctrines,** and beheaded.

Whether one thinks of politics leading Müntzer’s theology or theology leading his politics† or some sort of dialectic between them, we see Müntzer latterly through a glass darkly — the wasted root of a lost Reformation.

* From a 1524 pamphlet vituperatively entitled “Highly provoked defense and answer to the spiritless, soft-living flesh at Wittenberg, who has most lamentably befouled pitiable Christianity in a perverted way by his theft of holy Scripture,” reprinted in Revelation and Revolution.

** Müntzer’s theology included rejection of infant baptism, which ranks him as an early anabaptist.

† “I have done nothing but say that a Christian should not so wretchedly sacrifice someone else on the butcher’s table. And if the political bigwigs do not cease to do so, the government should be taken from them. Whenever I have seriously proclaimed this to Christendom, it either refused to act or was too scared to do so. What more shall I do? Should I perhaps be silent, like a dumb dog? Why should I then make a living off the altar?”

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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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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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