1525: Count Ludwig von Helfenstein

1 comment April 16th, 2010 Melabesq

At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, conditions for peasants in what is now southern and central Germany were in decline. The cost of goods continued to increase while the ruling aristocracy, who owned the land rented by peasants to grow crops, declined to reduce rents or raise wages

In addition, the territorial sovereigns attempted to increase their income to accommodate the increase in prices by levying additional taxes and tithes on, and increase other obligations owed by, the peasants and serfs under their control.

Simultaneously, changes in the economic market due to increased international trade and industry affected the structure of society, putting into conflict the interests of the aristocracy and the growing merchant class, and giving rise to burghers and industrial workers. Growing awareness of the Reformation and changes in commerce and the social structure also put ecclesiastical society and its lifestyle into conflict with secular interests.

In 1524, a petition known as the Twelve Articles of the Black Forest was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor.

The majority of the Twelve Articles asked for relief from economic hardships, such as the cattle tithes and death tax, and for the preservation of “common” land for use by the peasants. The Emperor ignored the petition, which then became the definitive set of grievances of the lower class. The movement quickly splintered into three factions: Catholics who resisted any challenge to the Church’s supremacy; burghers and princes seeking autonomy from the Church through reforms proposed by Luther; and the lower classes.

Violence soon errupted, as these factions took up arms to preserve, or better, their way of life in an uprising known as the Peasant’s War (1524-1525).

Not surprisingly, sources differ on why the conflict came to a head when it did: the Catholic church blamed the revolting Lutherans; the peasants blamed the aristocracy; and the aristocrats blamed the church. Regardless of the reason, Count von Helfenstein was not in a favorable position.

Count Ludwig von Helfenstein fought against the peasants during this conflict. Occupying the town of Weinsberg on the orders of the Archduke, von Helfenstein freely slew peasants either when discovered in small bands or when they sought admission to the town.

On April 16, in revenge for these killings, an attack led by Florian Geyer and Jacklein Rohrbach (German link) and under the command of George Metzler captured the town and von Helfenstein.

Many aristocrats and knights were killed outright during the fight. Von Helfenstein, however, was forced by vengeful peasants to run (while his wife and child watched) a double gantlet of men with spears drawn.


Helfenstein is led to his messy fate, while his kneeling wife entreats in vain, in this 1844 painting by Gustav Metz. (More, in German.)

Like most peasant revolts, however, it got its licks in and then got crushed. The princes, connected to the Empire, were able to amass greater control over other nobility, while feudalism’s decline was accelerated in favor of commercialism and trade.

(See The Peasants War in Germany, 1525-152, by Ernest Belfort Bax for a florid description of Helfenstein’s end.)

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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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1573: Matija Gubec, peasant revolt leader

Add comment February 15th, 2009 Headsman

On February 15, 1573, the brief but scintillating career of insurrectionary Matija Gubec came to a brutal end when he was publicly tortured to death in Zagreb.


You know what they say about the size of a man’s feet: Matija Gubec about to be crowned with a red-hot iron ringlet and quartered.

Gubec emerged from (to us, at least) obscurity to leadership of a short-lived peasant uprising in Croatia against Franjo Tahi (Croatian Wikipedia link), your basic feudal tyrant.

Although put down inside of two weeks, this revolt and its personification in Gubec have endured as potent national symbols in Croatia.

In the revolutionary 20th century, both left and right claimed Gubec’s standard as their own: a multiethnic company of Yugoslav volunteers fought under his name in the Spanish Civil War, as did multiple partisan units during World War II who took inspiration in his peasant class uprising. By contrast, the Ustasha conceived Gubec as

one man, who was not the exponent of any class, but … a reflection of an entire nation’s beliefs.*

Fascist and communist alike can jam to the rock opera Gubec Beg.**

* See Pavlakovic, Vjeran (2004) ‘Matija Gubec Goes to Spain: Symbols and Ideology in Croatia, 1936-1939’, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 17:4, 727 — 755.

** According to Pavlakovic, Gubec’s real given name is unknown and birth records suggest it might have been “Ambroz”. He was known as “Gubec called Beg,” using the Turkish term for a lord.

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1514: György Dózsa, Transylvanian Braveheart

5 comments July 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1514, the leader of a Hungarian peasant uprising that scared the ermine robes off the feudal nobles met a punishment from the unspeakable depths of their medieval imaginations.

While Marki Sandor’s 1913 biographical treatment of this character — also rendered Georghe Doja or Dosa, or as György Székely for his native soil — is available online, it seems to be available only in Hungarian.

Since readily-accessible non-Magyar sources such as Dozsa’s Wikipedia page all appear to spring root and branch from the public domain edition of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica … well, who is Executed Today to buck the trend? (Some paragraph breaks added for readability.)

GYORGY DOZSA (d. 1514), Hungarian revolutionist, was a Szekler squire and soldier of fortune, who won such a reputation for valour in the Turkish wars that the Hungarian chancellor, Tamas Bakocz, on his return from Rome in 1514 with a papal bull preaching a holy war in Hungary against the Moslems, appointed him to organize and direct the movement.

In a few weeks he collected thousands of so-called Kuruczok (a corruption of Cruciati), consisting for the most part of small yeomen, peasants, wandering students, friars and parish priests, the humblest and most oppressed portion of the community, to whom alone a crusade against the Turk could have the slightest attraction.

They assembled in their counties, and by the time Dozsa had drilled them into some sort of discipline and self-confidence, they began to air the grievances of their class. No measures had been taken to supply these voluntary crusaders with food or clothing; as harvest-time approached, the landlords commanded them to return to reap the fields, and on their refusing to do so, proceeded to maltreat their wives and families and set their armed retainers upon the half-starved multitudes. Instantly the movement was diverted from its original object, and the peasants and their leaders began a war of extermination against the landlords.

By this time Dozsa was losing control of the rabble, which had fallen under the influence of the socialist parson of Czegled, Lorincz Meszaros. The rebellion was the more dangerous as the town rabble was on the side of the peasants, and in Buda and other places the cavalry sent against the Kuruczok were unhorsed as they passed through the gates. The rebellion spread like lightning, principally in the central or purely Magyar provinces, where hundreds of manor-houses and castles were burnt and thousands of the gentry done to death by impalement, crucifixion and other unspeakable methods.

Dozsa’s camp at Czegled was the centre of the jacquerie, and from thence he sent out his bands in every direction, pillaging and burning. In vain the papal bull was revoked, in vain the king issued a proclamation commanding the peasantry to return to their homes under pain of death. By this time the rising had attained the dimensions of a revolution; all the feudal levies of the kingdom were called out against it; and mercenaries were hired in haste from Venice, Bohemia and the emperor.

Meanwhile Dozsa had captured the city and fortress of Csanad, and signalized his victory by impaling the bishop and the castellan. Subsequently, at Arad, the lord treasurer, Istvan Telegdy, was seized and tortured to death with satanic ingenuity. It should, however, in fairness be added that only notorious bloodsuckers, or obstinately resisting noblemen, were destroyed in this way. Those who freely submitted were always released on parole, and Dozsa not only never broke his given word, but frequently assisted the escape of fugitives. But he could not always control his followers when their blood was up, and infinite damage was done before he could stop it.

At first, too, it seemed as if the government were incapable of coping with him.

In the course of the summer he took the fortresses of Arad, Lippa and Vilagos; provided himself with guns and trained gunners; and one of his bands advanced to within five leagues of the capital. But his halfnaked, ill-armed ploughboys were at last overmatched by the mailclad chivalry of the nobles. Dozsa, too, had become demoralized by success. After Csánad, he issued proclamations which can only be described as nihilistic. His suppression had become a political necessity.

He was finally routed at Temesvar* by the combined forces of Janos Zapolya and Istvan Bathory.

The radicalism of this revolt is not to be downplayed; Friedrich Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany, reports that Dozsa declared a republic and abolished nobility.

As with his French predecessor Guillaume Cale, his punishment would demarcate the feudal order by horrifically mocking its victim’s pretension to political authority. This description of Dozsa’s unenviable end comes from The History of Hungary and the Magyars, a 19th century text available free at Google Books, beginning with :

[After hearing his sentence, Dozsa] exclaimed — addressing the crowd whom he saw shuddering at his approaching doom — “Come back tomorrow, you miserable slaves, and see if I shrink in the midst of my sufferings! If a single groan escapes my lips, may my name be covered with eternal infamy!”

On the following day, he was placed almost naked on a burning throne, and his head was encircled by a crown of red-hot iron. Fourteen of his followers had been kept without food for several days, and were then brought into his presence, and while he was yet living the flesh was torn from his bones and cast to them that they might satiate their hunger. “To it hounds!” was his bitter exclamation, “ye are of my own rearing!”

This insurrectionist’s confrontation with backward power structures would offer plentiful fodder for those lands’ now-fallen Communist regimes; his name adorns many streets and monuments in Hungary and Romania.

However, Dozsa was well on his way into the nationalist pantheon before Communist ascendancy. Nineteenth-century composer Ferenc Erkel, for instance,** wrote an opera about him, and poet/nationalist revolutionary Petofi Sandor saluted him in verse in 1847.

The latter text is available in Hungarian on Dozsa’s Hungarian Wikipedia page, which also attributes at least two plays about him to the Interwar period.

* aka Timisoara — in modern-day Romania, where the execution actually took place.

** Dozsa was actually captured in a fortress constructed by John Hunyadi, whose executed son is a fellow nationalist martyr (playing for the traditional-authority team), and the subject of one of Erkel’s more famous operas.


Sculpture of Gyorgy Dozsa burned on his throne, from Budapest’s Hungarian National Museum. (cc) image from redteam.

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1358: Guillaume Cale, leader of the Jacquerie

June 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1358, 14th-century France’s most serious peasant uprising was crushed when its capable commander was lured into his enemies’ power and torturously put to death in Clermont.

The Jacquerie (English Wikipedia entry | French) sprang from the fertile farmlands north of Paris. It had a hundred fathers, no one of them self-evidently the decisive cause but many in debatable combinations and proportions conspiring to render a perfect storm of catastrophe for the despised villeins who sweated out their masters’ chivalrous living.

The Calamitous 14th Century, historian Barbara Tuchman subtitled her popular work on this period: France was buffeted by famine, the Black Death, and attendant social and economic shocks; the Hundred Years’ War opened, laying the countryside waste at the hands of crossing armies, and then marauding mercenaries during the downtime between battles, and then “friendly” forces pillaging for sustenance and pressing peasants into uncompensated labor. In 1356, the English captured France’s King John II at the Battle of Poitiers, opening a yawning gap in the country’s political authority and undermining the mounted nobility’s military prestige vis-a-vis the (smaller) yeoman army that had routed it.

We do not seem to have a certain record of what match was set to this tinderbox — the most suggestive proximate cause is a fresh tax for fortifying noble citadels in the area — but the conflagration singed the gentry’s beard. Froissart, who wrote a few years after the fact and from a distinctly hostile standpoint, captured the aristocracy’s view of rising:

[C]ertain people of the common villages, without any head or ruler, assembled together in Beauvoisin. In the beginning they passed not a hundred in number they said how the noblemen of the realm of France, knights and squires, shamed the realm, and that it should be a great wealth to destroy them all: and each of them said it was true, and said all with one voice: “Shame have he that cloth not his power to destroy all the gentlemen of the realm!”

Thus they gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. … And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein. These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, brent and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children.

Froissart’s Chronicle is the most notable of the age and (calumniously) the most defining one on the event; it helped establish the word “jacquerie” as a synonym for bloodthirsty insurrection that would be pinned to countless riots and risings for centuries to come. Some other chronicles suggest more deliberate and purposeful (and less maniacal) organization by these original Jacques, and the trenchant “charge against these noble traitors, who have shirked on their duties to defend the kingdom, who desire to do nothing but devour the sustenance of the commoners.” (Source)

Interestingly, and seemingly contrary to the obvious reading of a downtrodden underclass driven to desperation, more recent scholarship has pointed out that the rising broke out in the best farmland, seemingly among the wealthiest of the rural third estate — artisans, proprietors, petty bureaucrats and clergy.

Leadership fell to this day’s victim, Guillaume Cale, also known by the folksy sobriquet “Jacques Bonhomme” (Goodman, or Goodfellow). A charismatic man of some fighting experience, he was able to marshal this mob into a creature of passable military capacity.

His short appearance on our stage also suggests a character of strategic vision not the less impressive for its failure to materialize.

Cale was a well-off farmer, like the backbone of his movement, and reached out to make common cause with the nearby Parisian bourgeoisie then in rebellious possession of their own city — a far more consequential challenge to authority that was soon to meet its own violent termination.

The terrorized nobility turned to Charles the Bad, King of Navarre at that time attempting to exploit the captivity of John II to hoist himself onto the throne of France. Even though Charles was also treating with the Parisian bourgeoisie in this endeavor, as Jonathan Sumption puts it in his authoritative The Hundred Years’ War: “The opportunity to present himself as the leader of the united nobility of France was not to be missed.”

Charles handled the rebels with efficiency, if not with honor. Tuchman relates:

[Charles of Navarre] invited Cale to parley, and upon this invitation from a king, Cale’s common sense apparently deserted him. Considering himself an opponent in war to whom the laws of chivalry applied, he went to the parley without a guard, whereupon his royal and noble opponent had him seized and thrown into chains. The capture of their leader by such easy and contemptuous treachery* drained the Jacques’ confidence and hope of success. When the nobles charged, the commoners succumbed … To consummate his victory, Charles of Navarre beheaded Guillaume Cale after reportedly crowning him, in wicked mockery, King of the Jacques with a circlet of red-hot iron.

The potentially tricky Battle of Mello turned into a butchery that shattered the Jacquerie, and relieved nobles gorged themselves for weeks to come on peasant blood — no less horribly than any depredation of the Jacquerie. “Our mortal foes, the English, would not have done what the nobles then did in our homeland,” wrote another 14th century scribe, Jean de Venette. (Cited by Robert Knecht; some additional Venette commentary on the Jacquerie is here, in French.)

If Cale’s decision to risk parley seems madness in retrospect, picture his situation. Sumption says the Jacquerie’s bands were already beginning to dissipate; Cale himself was known and surely in line for execution — practically the preordained denouement of every medieval peasant uprising — if he were to throw in the towel peaceably. He had no way forward but forward, and even supposing that Cale-commanded peasant lines would have held at the battle that particular day, his forces had no military prospects beyond a few more weeks.

The Jacques needed something — an exit strategy, perhaps, with the opportunity to return to life pardoned of reprisal and guaranteed against the next onerous levy; or, a cemented part in the alliance of Navarre and the Parisian bourgeoisie. To get that something, Guillaume Cale had to throw the dice, and what better odds would he get than in a pavilion face to face with the man who might become king of France? Staying in the field at the head of his ill-armed peasant horde must have looked the more improbable gamble.

Cale’s wager failed horribly this day, but from the luxurious vantage of centuries, the movement of people in those days shows the germ of an altogether more revolutionary future. Thierry‘s history of the Third Estate (available free at Google Books):

The destruction of the Jacques was followed almost immediately by the failure of the revolution of the bourgeoisie in Paris itself. Those two movements, different as they were, of the two great classes of the commonalty, terminated simultaneously — one to revive and carry all before it when its time should come; the other to leave nothing behind it but an odious name, and sad recollections.

The Tiers Etat, displaced from the dominant position which it had prematurely won, resumed its ordinary part of patient industry, less pretentious ambition, and slow but uninterrupted progress.

Update: Nice tangential follow-up from The Naked Philologist into a fantasy literature recommendation. Also see more about those jittery nobles.

* You’re supposed to think this is okay because chivalric codes written by nobles say nobles don’t have to keep oaths to commoners. Readers still appalled at Charles the Bad’s bad faith: enjoy the Schadenfreude of his bad end.

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