Landing at the southern Italian city on July 28, the Ottoman force quickly overwhelmed Otranto. (Otranto rashly slew the messenger come to offer a merciful capitulation, only to find that its garrison began deserting within days.) On August 11, the Turks took the city by storm. Thousands died on that day’s bloodbath, including the Archbishop of Otranto.
Surviving women and children were sold into slavery. Men over age 15 had the choice of conversion — or death.
“Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for the Lord!” a Christian shoemaker is said to have exhorted his 800 fellow prisoners. “And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him.”
The acclaim greeting this call signaled inflammation ahead for the Turkish headsmen’s rotator cuffs. They had 800 faithful souls to dispatch to their eternal reward this date at the place still known as the Hill of Martyrs. (When in Otranto, visit it by taking the via Ottocento Martiri, just off via Antonio Primaldo — that’s the name of the militant shoemaker.)
The remains of the Otranto martyrs, arrayed as relics in the Otranto cathedral. (cc) image from Laurent Massoptier.
This, at least, is the most pious version of the story. The mass execution certainly did occur, but some latter-day historians like Francesco Tateo have argued that martyrdom is not attested by any of the contemporaneous sources, and the specifically religious understanding of events was only read in after the fact.
On whatever grounds one likes, Italy’s fractious city-states were deeply alarmed by the appearance on their shores of the all-conquering Turks. “It will always seem as if the funeral cross is borne before me while these barbarians remain in the boundaries of Italy,” wrote the Florentine humanist Poliziano.* (Source, a nonfiction book which covers Otranto in some detail.)
In the ensuing months, they rallied together vowing to expel the invaders.
Fortunately for this coalition, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror died in May 1481, and a brief period of internal conflict within the Ottoman empire over the succession perhaps led it to allow its Otranto outpost to wither on the vine. The Turks made peace and withdrew from their potential beachhead not long after, having held the city for just over a year. The bodies of the martyrs were said to have been found uncorrupted by decay.
The Catholic church beatified the 800 martyrs in 1771, but their final elevation to sainthood occurred only in 2013, just three months ago as I write this. They were in the very first group canonized by the new Pope Francis — although the canonization was approved by his predecessor Benedict XVI on the same day that Benedict resigned his pontificate. Considering current relations between the respective faiths, it was seen as a potentially impolitic move.
“By venerating the martyrs of Otranto, we ask God to protect the many Christians who in these times, and in many parts of the world, are still victims of violence,” Pope Francis said at the canonization Mass, diplomatically not naming any of those parts of the world.
One of the original Apostles (literally, he and his brother John are the first two whom Jesus calls in the Gospels), James also had the distinction of apparently being the first Apostle to die for Christ.** His execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa† is reported in Acts 12:2;‡ it’s the only apostolic execution in the New Testament.
This, of course, occurred on the southeastern fringe of the Mediterranean, so it’s a wonder that James’s bones came to repose at a Spanish city literally situated on Finisterre, the far western edge of the world as far as Europeans saw it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
It’s certainly plausible — though impossible to substantiate — that James evangelized in Spain prior to his execution. The whole Mediterranean was a Roman lake. More towards the outlandish is the patriotic story (pdf) that James’s relics were miraculously discovered there in 813 at the moment when Muslim expansion into Iberia gave the hard-pressed Christian kingdoms the greatest possible need for a morale boost.§
“A knight of Christ’s squadrons,” Cervantes wrote. “St. James the moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had, and that now the heavens have … this great knight with the vermilion cross has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”
James’s martial prowess is entirely posthumous: when the Son of God recruits him, he’s a humble piscator at labor mending his nets (there are some less-bellicose present-day churches going under the name “Saint James the Fisherman”). Gibbon could not but marvel at the “stupendous metamorphosis [that] was performed in the ninth century, when from a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, the apostle James was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of Spanish chivalry in battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism.”
But mythmaking exercises a historicity all its own, and the James legends offered a rallying-point for Spain’s Christians. He stands to this day the patron of Spain as well as a number of places colonized by Spain.
Pilgrims have ever since that stupendous metamorphosis of the 9th century made the journey to the apostle’s purported resting-place; this Way of St. James, actually comprising several different possible routes covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, has in recent years emerged as a major tourist draw. The Way terminates, of course, at Santiago de Compostela and the enormous cathedral there where repose James’s relics.
Saint James’s Day, 25 July, is its celebratory culmination.
James so overawes July 25 on the liturgical calendar that it’s a mere footnote to add that this same day also pays homage to Saint Christopher, a historically dubious Christian martyr from the third or early fourth century Roman Empire.
Christopher is rather nifty, because he’s sometimes depicted in iconography as cynocephalic — that is, having the head of a dog. At least the rest of him is human, unlike Saint Guinefort the Greyhound. (No lie. It’s a doggie saint, albeit of the distinctly unofficial variety. To stamp out folk veneration, an incensed preacher “had the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood [where it received offerings] cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.”)
* The name “Santiago” derives from our saint’s name in Latin, Sanctu Iacobu. This is also the source, and James the intended honorary, for other places on the map named Santiago, such as Santiago, Chile.
† Herod Agrippa is not to be confused with his grandfather Herod the Great — the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents guy — nor with his uncle Herod Antipas — the guy who punted Jesus’s prosecution back to Pontius Pilate. Three different Herods; three different New Testament heavies.
‡ James’s death in Acts 12 is followed immediately by Saint Peter staging a supernatural jailbreak out of the same prison. The latter goes on to evangelize for another 20-odd years.
On this date in 1938, Juan Castillo Morales was shot in a cemetery for raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl.
Morales was executed under the strange ley de fugas (“law of fugitives”), an expedient quasi-lynching arrangement that gave the inmate the opportunity to flee for his life in front of the firing detail. He didn’t make it — nobody ever made it.
But the method of his death is the least bizarre thing about his story.
Juan Castillo Morales is better known today as Juan Soldado, “Juan the Soldier.” He was an army private serving at the border town of Tijuana, just across from San Diego, Calif., when young Olga Camacho disappeared on February 13. (Yes, that’s four days before the execution.)
Olga’s abduction — and the discovery of her body, throat slashed and sexually molested — triggered a public outcry.
Our man was arrested on the 14th, and the evidence quickly started stacking up against him. Even his wife incriminated him. At least, allegedly: there’s very little documentary evidence remaining from the case, and very little about the life of Juan Castillo Morales, all of which helps fuel its latter-day ambiguity.
Castillo Morales, again allegedly, confessed in jail. The public had its pedophile: the man was nearly lynched by rioters threatening to put the whole town to the torch. This radioactive case was disposed of in great haste by a secret military tribunal before the whole city spiraled out of control. Thousands of onlookers turned out for the public “fleeing” execution.
So far, so unsurprising (at least by the standards of these grim pages): a notorious sex crime, a mini-moral panic, a perp done (however unusually) to death.
Now, it gets interesting.
With blood lust sated and Morales entombed in the cemetery where he was shot to death, mysterious reports began circulating … that his grave was oozing blood, and that his anima (soul) was floating around proclaiming his innocence.
Maybe there were people who already believed that but dared not speak up when lynch law reigned. Maybe the rushed, not-altogether-judicial “investigation” and the cruelty of the execution catalyzed some latent communal guilt.
But for sure, once the idea that the man was innocent got out there, it had legs. There’s a folk belief that “those who have died unjustly sit closest to God”; before 1938 was out, newspapers had already begun to report people praying at the grave … and some of them reporting miracles worked in consequence.
He wasn’t Juan Castillo Morales the executed army private any more: for posterity, he would be Juan Soldado, the everyman sublime.
Against any odds you’d care to stake, Juan Soldado has developed in the decades since into a going cult figure in Tijuana, and throughout the border region — a popular saint (by no means acknowledged by institutional Catholicism) for everyday people’s problems. A chapel built over his resting place bursts with offerings and thanksgivings.
Juan, as befits a border-town saint, is particularly regarded as a patron of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and particularly liable to relieve the troubles of migrants. With that following has, of course, come a general understanding among most devotees that Juan Soldado was innocent, even that he was executed to cover up for a powerful general who was the real killer.
Juan Soldado receives tribute and supplication throughout the year, but particularly on June 24: so little is known about John the Soldier’s real biography that the official feast date of John the Baptist has been appropriated for his celebration, and picnics, pilgrimages, mariachi bands singing “happy birthday”, crowd the cemetery on that day. (The Day of the Dead is another biggie at Soldier John’s shrine.)
Olga Camacho’s family still lives in Tijuana and understandably disdains the cult around the little girl’s presumed murderer.
As a historiographical phenomenon, Soldier John fits into a pattern of folk saints from early 20th century Mexico, including similarly dubious characters like executed bandit Jesus Malverde, the unofficial patron saint of drug trafficking — as well as non-executees like Pedro Jamarillo and Nino Fidencio.
Part of this, surely — and Vanderwood developed the theme — is the story of the border, the story of Tijuana and Mexico in the 1930s. But part, too, is the story of Catholicism and of the contradictory, occasionally transformative, emotions excited by execution.
The potential of even an unambiguously guilty criminal to become in his passion a channel for worship goes all the way back to, well, the Passion itself, and the “good thief” on the cross with Christ. Twentieth century France has its own guillotined murderer who’s also a candidate for sainthood. And this is hardly the only occasion when folk veneration has produced an unofficial saint. Some of them even become official saints with the passage of time. But official or otherwise, once adopted into the practice of a living community of believers, they are animated by the life of that community and in return they succor the same.
“I pray to Juan Soldado even if the church does not approve,” one woman told Vanderwood. (Here quoting his “Juan Soldado: Field Notes and Reflections” in the Winter 2001 Journal of the Southwest). “I do not think that God minds.”
This is the feast date (in Christianity’s western tradition) of Saint Jude.
Possibly one of the bit players among Jesus’s original 12 apostles — “Jude”/”Judah”/”Judas” was a common name among first-century Israelites, so there’s some confusion about the identities among various texts talking about various (?) Judes — St. Jude is aptly-for-this-blog considered the patron saint of “lost causes” or “situations despaired of”.
He’s traditionally supposed to have knocked around the eastern Mediterranean after the Nazarene‘s crucifixion, introducing Christianity (along with St. Bartholomew) to Armenia, which eventually became the first officially Christian kingdom. (Jude is also a patron saint of Armenia; his other patronage gigs include the Philippines, the Chicago Police Department, a a Brazilian football club, and countless hospitals.)
Despite making so many sad songs better, Jude was eventually martyred, possibly in Armenia, allegedly by halberd; as a consequence, that sinuous poleaxe is Jude’s iconographic symbol on the relatively rare occasions when he’s artistically depicted. It’s also something you can buy in pendant form: come on … embrace The Halberd. But again, there are different versions as to who martyred Jude and where, and considerable confusion over how many Judes those versions might be conflating.
I, Francis Steinernherz, will be the first noble of my profession, where I shall have despatched one more knight of the Empire.”
“Thou hast been ever in my service, hast thou not?” demanded De Hagenbach.
“Under what other master,” replied the executioner, “could I have enjoyed such constant practice? I have executed your decrees on condemned sinners since I could swing a scourge, lift a crow-bar, or wield this trusty weapon; and who can say I even failed of my first blow, or needed to deal a second? The term of the Hospital, and his famous assistants, Petit Andre, and Trois Eschelles, are novices compared with me in the use of the noble and knightly sword. Marry, I should be ashamed to match myself with them in the field practice with bowstring and dagger, these are no feats worthy of a Christian man who would rise to honor and nobility.”
“Thou art a fellow of excellent address, and I do not deny it,” replied De Hagenbach. “But it cannot be — I trust it can — not be — that when noble blood is becoming scarce in the land, and proud churls are lording it over knights and barons, I myself should have caused so much to be spilled?”
“I will number the patients to your excellency by name and title,” said Francis, drawing out a scroll of parchment, and reading with a commentary as he went on, — ” There was Count William of Elvershoe — he was my assay-piece, a sweet youth, and died most like a Christian.”
“I remember — he was indeed a most smart youth, and courted my mistress,” said Sir Archibald.
“He died on St. Jude’s, in the year of grace 1455,” said the executioner.
The local mandarin Zhang Mingfeng was no doubt disposed to take such an harsh line against this provocation by virtue of the ongoing, Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion, which had originated right there in Guangxi and was in the process of engulfing all of southern China in one of history’s bloodiest conflicts.
So Chapdelaine and his associates were snapped up, put to a few days’ dreadful torture, and on this date a Chinese convert and Chapdelaine were both summarily beheaded. (A female convert, Agnes Tsaou-Kong, expired under torture around the same time.)
Pietistic accounts of believers’ last extremes are here and here.
It took months for word of this martyrdom to reach French consular officials, and many months more for the gears of international diplomacy to turn — but when they did so, France pressed a demand for reparations.
Since pere Chapdelaine had been acting illegally in the first place, the Qing’s obdurate Viceroy Ye(h) adamantly refused to offer Paris satisfaction.
It would be rather ungenerous to hold all the ugly imperial consequences personally against our day’s martyr. August Chapdelaine was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2000 as one of 120 Martyrs of China.
China was not impressed by this celebration of a onetime colonial catspaw, and met the Vatican’s “anti-China” celestial promotion announcement with one of its own — charging that Chapdelaine “collaborated with corrupt local officials, raped women and was notorious in those areas [where he preached].”
Mikhail Yaroslavich (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Russian) in 1304 succeeded Alexander Nevsky’s younger brother as Grand Prince of Vladimir, a position granted by Mongolyarlyk that symbolized primacy over all other Russian knyazes. But Mikhail was challenged for leadership by his cousin, the Grand Prince of Moscow.
This fellow, Yuri(y) by name, would fight Mikhail off and on for the latter’s 14 years in power. Their personal rivalry was also the political rivalry of their respective cities, Moscow and Tver — vying for that yarlyk and, in effect, for the eventual leadership of the still-gestating Russian state.
Since it was gestating at the pleasure of the Khanate at this time, the dispute was resolved by Yuri’s getting in with the new khan, Uzbeg.* To get that yarlyk, and he got it in 1317, Yuriy even went so far as to marry one of Uzbeg’s daughters.
We mention this not because it’s a piquant period detail of kingly politics and intercultural exchange, but because the next time Mikhail and Yuriy met in battle, Mikhail won a rout … and ended up with the Mongol princess in his custody.
And then, she died in his custody.
This was a most grave development for Mikhail, almost as much as for the wife herself.
The Mongol commander whom Mikhail released — because Yuriy also got a Mongol army out of the yarlyk deal — reported the tragedy with the most incriminating coloration. While we’re in no position to assert definitively that Mikhail didn’t murder the woman, it plainly does not fit the cui bono test.
The furious Uzbeg summoned Mikhail to the Horde, a summons that, times being what they were, did not admit refusal.
When he arrived, Mikhail found himself already stitched up by the accusations of his enemies, and he was beaten and stabbed to death at the khan’s order.
Mikhail mostly reads as a garden-variety unprincipled local ruler, and he had his own conflicts with ecclesiastical leaders when they took the wrong sides in the Moscow-Tver power struggle. In spite of that, our man was posthumously expropriated by the Orthodox church as a saint.** In fact, he’s the patron saint of the city (which he’s holding, in the icon pictured above) … kind of because of what happened next.
Mikhail’s son Dmitry “the Terrible Eyes” had a terrible revenge for his father’s enemy, and murdered Yuri a few years later, temporarily gaining the yarlyk for himself. The Muscovites almost immediately recaptured the upper hand, however, and in an ensuing Tverite rising the Mongols intervened directly and sacked the city.
Tver would never again regain anything like peer status vis-a-vis Moscow, which in the following years grew larger, stronger, and wealthier under Ivan I; the Mongol yarlyk thereafter became essentially the hereditary possession of his family line. The Orthodox metropolitan outright moved to Moscow under Ivan’s reign … leaving Tver with memories of what might have been, and this monumental equestrian statue of the guy who couldn’t quite make it happen.
His 1824 poem “Mikhail Tverskoy” (Russian link) casts the knyaz as a martyr for the Russian nation. After all, by Marlinsky’s time, the poet could take comfort that those terrible Mongols were
struck by their vassals,
[And] became their slaves‡
* Also Ozbeg or Uzbek. The longest-tenured khan in the Mongol empire’s history, Uzbeg adopted Islam and might be the namesake of the Uzbek ethnic group.
** According to this tome on the Russian church, Mikhail wasn’t really venerated as a saint until centuries after his death: only when that occurred were hagiographical details of his pious life, principled refusal to worship pagan Mongol gods, and supposed contemporary popular cult backfilled into the story.
† A maneuver quite like his friend Kondraty Ryleyev, who pulled the same trick with Severyn Nalyvaiko.
‡ Full original translation of this poem by friend of the blog Sonechka.
In a dungeon, glum and hollow,
Amidst nocturnal gloom,
A darkish lampad flickers,
And shines its flimsy light
Upon two men within a shady corner:
One, in his youthful years’ prime,
The other, fettered in chains,
Adorned already with gray hair.
Why has this elder been immured
Within your walls, Abode of fear?
Is he condemned to end existence hither,
Or were the gallows meant for him?
No sighs escape his mouth,
And in his fervent eyes —
The glimmer of serenity divine.
Towards the skies his gaze is often cast,
Or with a tender sorrow, he beholds
His son, imbued with grief,
And speaks in consolation:
“Enough, my dear friend,
Of tears sousing your eyes;
The time has come for us to part,
And buy the tranquil calm of native land
with Mikhail’s head.
Be always honorable, truthful.
And, if you wish
To pay your father homage,
Relinquish all the enemies of his without vengeance …”
The people clatter at the square
In the metropolis of brutal khans,
These Russia’s fierce and evil tyrants;
They gawk with savage joy
At the cadaver, beset by wounds.
Above him, smitten by despair,
The young prince weeps,
And rips his clothes and hair,
Reproaching the Tartars and Uzbeks,
And summoning the deity of vengeance …
This mighty god has heeded prayers,
And aided Russians in revolt;
Obliterating the oppressors,
Whose city turned into the ravens’ dwelling;
Whose fields of wheat were desiccated,
Whose hand that held the arms grew weak,
Who, struck by their own vassals,
Became their slaves.
(Denis is also sort of the namesake for the Parisian hill Montmarte where he’s supposed to have been put to death: “mountain of Mars” in heathen times, it Christianized to mons martyrium, “Martyrs’ Mountain”.)
While many Christian martyrs carry the instruments of their martyrdom in iconography, and a few others roll with the bits of severed flesh exacted by those martyrdoms, Denis is only the most notable of an entire designated sub-class who carry their own heads: cephalophores.
On this date in 1535, Catholic prelate John Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill for refusing to endorse Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.
The longtime Bishop of Rochester had only been elevated to the cardinalate weeks before by the new Pope Paul III, in the vain hope that the sublimity of the position would induce King Henry to ease the prelate’s imprisonment.
Henry eased it, all right. Permanently.*
Forbidding the official hat to be delivered to Albion, Henry declared he would dispatch its owner’s head to Rome instead.
A jury including the father of the usurping queen who had occasioned all this trouble — Anne Boleyn, of course, bound for the block herself in less than a year — condemned the aged ecclesiastic to death for treason.
He was hustled to the scaffold on this date to beat the June 24 feast day of his patron and namesake Saint John the Baptist, Christ‘s Biblical precursor who was … beheaded by a ruthless king whose marriage the Baptist had denounced. Struck a little too close to home, that.
Fisher’s friend and fellow-traveler both spiritual and temporal, Sir Thomas More, followed the cardinal’s footsteps to Calvary a fortnight later.
* It’s possible Henry had been out for Fisher’s blood for some time. As a foe of the king in his so-called Great Matter of many years’ standing, Fisher was the presumed target of a 1531 assassination-by-poison attempt that resulted in a horrific execution by boiling alive.
On this date in history, Anne Line was hanged for harboring Catholic priests in Elizabethan England.
There’s not too much question of her “guilt.”
I am sentenced to die for harbouring a Catholic priest, and so far I am from repenting for having so done, that I wish, with all my soul, that where I have entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand.
-Anne Line at the scaffold
She’d been disinherited from her Calvinist family for converting to Catholicism, and scratched out a living teaching and embroidering and keeping safe houses for forbidden Catholic clergy.
That house was raided in early February of 1601, and while the priest escaped, Anne Line did not.
This is the feast day of the early Christian saint Cecilia.
There’s more than serendipity in that name’s pop culture connection: Cecilia is the patron saint of music for the rather slight reason that her heart sung only for God even when she was forced to marry the pagan Valerian. Seriously, Christianity didn’t have any early martyr with a stronger biographical context for a portfolio as significant as music?*
Being the go-to divine intermediary for something this big made Cece a popular saint centuries after her martyrdom, supposed to be either later in the 2nd century or early in the 3rd. (As with many other martyrs’ legends, Cecilia survives several executions before the Romans finally manage to cut her head off.)
Musician and songwriter Paul Simon knew enough St. Cecilia lore to explicitly use her in her musical-patronage role in a different song, “The Coast” (lyrics). The song “Cecilia” deepens immensely if it’s understood as mixed frustration and exaltation with the minstrel’s inconstant artistic muse.