1509: Four Dominicans for the Jetzer affair

Add comment May 31st, 2016 Voltaire

(Thanks for today’s guest post to anti-clerical Enlightenment polemicist Voltaire, whose intervention in (and caustic commentary upon) death penalty cases in his own day we have several times featured. The events described arise from the Dominican order‘s Aquinas-derived dissent from the view, predominant theologically as well as popularly, of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception would later become settled doctrine in the Church. -ed.)

It is well known that the Cordeliers or Franciscans and the Jacobins or Dominicans have detested each other ever since they were founded. They were divided on several points of theology as well as being financial rivals. Their chief quarrel turned on the state of Mary before her birth. The Franciscans argued that Mary had not sinned in her mother’s womb, while the Dominicans were of the opposite opinion. There never was, perhaps, a more ridiculous question, and yet it was this very matter which made these two religious orders quite irreconcilable.

A Franciscan, preaching at Frankfurt in 1503 on the immaculate conception of Mary, happened to see a Dominican called Vigan come into his church. “I thank the Holy Virgin,” he exclaimed “for not having permitted me to belong to a sect which dishonours her and her son.” Vigan eplied that this was a falsehood. The Franciscan then came down from the pulpit, carrying an iron crucifix, and struck the Dominican such a violent blow that he almost killed him, after which he went on to finish his sermon on the Virgin.*

The Dominicans held a meeting to plan their revenge, and, in the hope of heaping greater humiliation on the Franciscans, they resolved to perform miracles. After several fruitless attempts they finally found a favourable opportunity in Berne.

One of their monks was confessor to a simple-minded young tailor named Jetzer, who was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Barbara. This imbecile seemed to them to be an excellent subject for miracles. His confessor convinced him that the Virgin and Saint Barbara expressly commanded him to become a Dominican and to give all his money to the order. Jetzer obeyed and too the habit. When his vocation had been well tested, four Dominicans, whose names appear in the subsequent trial, disguised themselves on several occasions as best they could, one as an angel, another as a soul in purgatory, a third as the Virgin Mary and the fourth as Saint Barbara. At the end of these apparitions, which it would be too tedious to describe in detail, the Virgin finally revealed to Jetzer that she was born in original sin; that she would have been damned if her son, who was not yet on this earth, had not taken care to regenerate her immediately after she was born; that the Franciscans were impious and had grievously offended her son by claiming that his mother had been conceived without mortal sin, and that she charged him to announce this to all the servants of God and Mary in Berne.

Jetzer did not fail to do this. Mary appeared again, accompanied by two robust and vigorous angels. She thanked him and said that she had come to imprint upon him the holy stigmata of her son as proof of his mission and as a reward. The two angels tied Jetzer up and the Virgin drove nails into his hands and feet. The next day Brother Jetzer was exhibited on the altar for all to see, freshly bleeding from the heavenly favours he had received. The devout flocked to kiss his wounds. He performed as many miracles as he wanted, but the apparitions still continued. Finally Jetzer recognised the voice of the sub-prior beneath the mask he wore. He cried out and threatened to reveal everything. He followed the sub-prior into his cell, where he found his confessor and the two angels, who were entertaining some girls.

The monks, now that they were unmasked, had only one course open to them, which was to poison Jetzer. They sprinkled a communion wafer with some corrosive which had such a foul taste that Jetzer could not swallow it. He fled from the church crying out against the sacrilegious poisoners. The trial lasted for two years and came before the bishop of Lausanne because at that time laymen were not allowed to judge monks. The bishop sided with the Dominicans. He decided that the apparitions were real and that Jetzer was an imposter; he was even so cruel as to sentence the poor man to torture. But later the Dominicans imprudently degraded Jetzer, stripping him of his monk’s habit. This meant that Jetzer was now a layman again and his case could therefore be heard by the Council of Berne. As a consequence of his testimony the long catalogue of crimes was confirmed. When the ecclesiastical judges were called in from Rome, they were compelled to deliver up the criminals to the secular authorities. The guilty were burnt at the Marsilly gate on 31 May 1509. Records of the trial are now in the archives of Berne and have been printed on several occasions.


The fourteenth panel (click for the full glorious graphic novel) of a woodcut series illustrating the progress of the hoax. (Via).

* The Dominican Wigand Wirt, who denounced the Immaculate Conception so vociferously that he was summoned to Rome in 1507 to answer for it.

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1762: Jean Calas, intolerably

2 comments March 10th, 2012 Mary OGrady

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

In the 1760s, Toulouse was no place for a Huguenot, not even for an affable, prosperous paterfamilias like Jean Calas. The whole southwestern region of France barely tolerated Protestants.

The Calas household included two adult sons, Louis, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, and Marc-Antoine, their sisters, as well as their parents, Jean Calas and his wife, and a longtime maid who was Catholic. Monsieur and Madame Calas and their daughters were Protestant, as was Marc-Antoine. Friends and associates described the ménage as placid, except for occasional outbursts of misbehavior by elder son Marc-Antoine.

Jean Calas was a textile dealer. On October 13, 1761, young Marc-Antoine Calas was found hanged in his father’s shop. Wishing to spare the family’s reputation from the stigma of suicide as well as his son’s corpse from the mutilation which was customary for suicides, Jean Calas at first claimed to the authorities that an intruder killed his son.

An ugly rumor swept Toulouse: Marc-Antoine was murdered by his own parents, because he planned to convert to Catholicism. (Never mind that Jean Calas kept his Catholic son Louis in the bosom of his family and employed a Catholic servant.) Jean Calas was arrested and subjected to a trial that was anything but fair; by this time, he had admitted, too late, that his son had hanged himself, probably over gambling debts.

No dice. The appellate court of Toulouse condemned Jean Calas to death on March 9, 1762. The execution was set for the following day.

Murder of a family member was held to be a particularly hideous crime, and hideous was the penalty: breaking on the wheel. Jean Calas was tied to a cartwheel in the main square of Toulouse. His limbs were broken with iron rods. He proclaimed his innocence until the executioner finally strangled him to death.

L’affaire Calas inspired Voltaire to new vigor in his fight for religious toleration. In 1763 he published A Treatise on Tolerance, a landmark document which remains well-read today.

O different worshippers of a peaceful God! if you have a cruel heart, if, while you adore he whose whole law consists of these few words, “Love God and your neighbor,” you have burdened that pure and holy law with false and unintelligible disputes, if you have lighted the flames of discord sometimes for a new word, and sometimes for a single letter of the alphabet; if you have attached eternal punishment to the omission of a few words, or of certain ceremonies which other people cannot comprehend, I must say to you with tears of compassion for mankind: “Transport yourselves with me to the day on which all men will be judged and on which God will do unto each according to his works.

“I see all the dead of past ages and of our own appearing in his presence. Are you very sure that our Creator and Father will say to the wise and virtuous Confucius, to the legislator Solon, to Pythagoras, Zaleucus, Socrates, Plato, the divine Antonins, the good Trajan, to Titus, the delights of mankind, to Epictetus, and to many others, models of men: Go, monsters, go and suffer torments that are infinite in intensity and duration. Let your punishment be eternal as I am. But you, my beloved ones, Jean Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche, etc. who have died according to the prescribed rules, sit forever at my right hand and share my empire and my felicity.”

May all men remember that they are brothers! May they hold in horror tyranny exerted over souls, just as they do the violence which forcibly seizes the products of peaceful industry! And if the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not hate one another, let us not destroy one another in the midst of peace, and let us use the moment of our existence to bless, in a thousand different languages, from Siam to California, [God’s] goodness which has given us this moment.

-Voltaire, A Treatise on Tolerance

As a result of Voltaire’s efforts, 50 French judges were appointed to a panel to review Jean Calas’s case. Their charge was to decide whether anti-Huguenot prejudice had cost Jean Calas his life. They reversed Calas’s conviction on March 9, 1765, the third anniversary of the poor man’s condemnation.

A few French books about Jean Calas

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1761: Gabriel Malagrida, Jesuit nutter

2 comments September 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1761,* the Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida became a late casualty of the Tavora Affair and the Lisbon earthquake when he was garroted for heresy.

Malagrida (English Wikipedia entry | Portuguese) was a 72-year-old Italian with decades of missionary service to the Portuguese New World colonies under his belt.

He had, in his time, been a prominent exponent of the Jesuits missions’ policy in the Amazon, which amounted to asserting their own jurisdiction against the secular government’s attempt to order its overseas territories. (There’s more on that conflict here.)

And this only exacerbated his principal sin of being a Jesuit — an order whose diminution was eagerly sought by the rising statesman of Enlightenment Portugal, the Marquis of Pombal.

The shock of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake would deal Pombal the trump hand he needed to start reshaping both city and society to his liking.

Malagrida, meanwhile, carped that the earthquake’s causes

“are not comets, are not stars, are not vapors or exhalations,** are not phenomena, they are not natural contingencies or causes; but they are solely our intolerable sins … I do not know how a Catholic subject dares to attribute the present calamity of this tragic earthquake to causes and natural contingencies. Do not these Catholics understand this world is not a house without an owner?”

This published pamphlet merely echoed what many of the order were saying in the pulpits, and Pombal was not about to let the backwards, superstitious crowd** own the catastrophe.

Malagrida was banished from Lisbon: and, when the Tavora family was implicated in an attempt to assassinate the Portuguese king, Malagrida, their confessor, found himself clapped in prison.

Though the now-septuagenarian priest did not share the Tavoras’ grisly public butchery, he was left to molder. A couple years in a dungeon saw him go a bit strange, and supposedly he published treatises with such eccentric features as God’s personal instructions to Malagrida, and Malagrida’s fascination with St. Anne’s uterus. Catholic sources, which consider Malagrida a martyr, doubt that he ever published any such thing; if he did, it seems apparent that it was dementia rather than heresy that afflicted the old man.

But Pombal had installed his own brother as judge of the tribunal, so the matter was prearranged. The execution itself was

staged in a dramatic way, even to the point of Malagrida’s appearing on the scaffold in Jesuit habit, to impress upon the Portuguese and the world at large that an old order had come to an end and a new one was to be established … one might say that … symbolism at the cost of one human life was a relatively humane procedure in comparison with the symbolic elimination of whole classes of society in the twentieth century.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Malagrida executed at a Lisbon auto de fe. CC image from Ricardo Mealha, original provenance unknown.

Pitying the superstitious Jesuit at the stake, Enlightenment secularist Voltaire inveighed against Enlightenment secularist Pombal for conducting the execution … just part of Voltaire’s queer ideas about not killing people over their religious beliefs.

“It is all pity and horror,” Voltaire wrote in a private correspondence. “The Inquisition has found the secret to inspire compassion for the Jesuits.”

Voltaire’s appraisal in Candide (already published by this time) of a country in the grip of religious superstition unjustly stands as one of the lasting literary monuments to an event that actually rolled back clerical influence: “the sages of [Portugal] could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for … the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.” That the philosophe who penned those words waxed so immoderately outraged at the demonstrative chastisement of a man who preached precisely all that hocus-pocus — that Voltaire ascribed his execution to “the Inquisition” — plants the cherry on the irony sundae.‡

But Pombal’s expedient use of the Inquisition’s medieval machinery to make an example of Father Malagrida would not be the start of a pattern; the Pombaline reforms of the years to come brought the Inquisition sharply to heel, and it was Malagrida himself who was its last victim (pdf) in Portugal in its classical ecclesiastic form.


The house where Malagrida was born in Menaggio, Italy is marked with a plaque. Image (c) kallipyg and used with permission.

* Some sources give September 20 as the date.

** The “God is pissed” hypothesis was posited against theories of earth’s vapors promulgated by the Pombal-sponsored scientist Ribeiro Sanches.

† Anti-Jesuit sentiment was widely abroad in Europe at this time; increasingly resented as political manipulators, the Society would be suppressed by papal order in 1773, only to revive during the post-Napoleonic reaction.

‡ Malagrida was well-known to contemporaries in Europe, but that does not mean sympathy for him was universal. The British pol Lord Shelburne was satirized as “Malagrida” for his putative duplicity.

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1764: The Sirven family, in effigy

1 comment September 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1764, Pierre-Paul Sirven and his wife — who lay beyond the reach of the law, in Switzerland — were burned in effigy at Mazamet, France, for murdering their daughter.

The Sirvens actually had three daughters; the purported victim, Elisabeth, was mentally unbalanced. The Protestant Pierre-Paul Sirven had had a recent run-in with the Catholic hierarchy in his native Castres, when Elisabeth was shanghaied to a convent for Catholic indoctrination under a lettre de cachet.

The Sirvens moved away to Saint Alby, near Mazamet, but when Elisabeth turned up dead in a well there early in 1762, the official presumption was that her schismatic parents had done her in to prevent her returning to the true church. It could have been that she just fell down the well accidentally, or went and committed suicide; as often in such cases, investigations commencing from a suspicion of foul play are liable to find that suspicion self-affirming.

To make matters worse, all this transpired during the dangerous run-up to the execution of Jean Calas in Toulouse, another instance where a doubtful criminal case was pursued against a Protestant.

Wisely, the Sirvens (parents and two remaining daughters) blew town.

They made it to Switzerland, where they holed up with Voltaire. Back in Mamazet, the parents were condemned to death and the other two children to exile for participating in the purported murder of Elisabeth. “This judgment was equally absurd and abominable,” Voltaire wrote.

If the father, in concert with his wife, had strangled his daughter, he ought to have been broken on the wheel, like Calas, and the mother to have been burned — at least, after having been strangled — because the practice of breaking women on the wheel is not yet the custom in the country of this judge. To limit the punishment to hanging in such a case, was an acknowledgment that the crime was not proved, and that in the doubt the halter was adopted to compromise for want of evidence.

The death sentences — further compromised by the absence of their objects — were nevertheless carried out in effigy on September 11, 1764.

Meanwhile, Voltaire turned his pen to the service of the Sirven cause; a French pamphlet he wrote vindicating both the Sirvens and Calas can be perused here. (Deadly religious persecution in France kept Voltaire quite preoccupied in the 1760s.)

After spending the decade trying to clear the family name from abroad, Pierre-Paul Sirven sensed an opening to return and gave himself up in 1769. The anti-Protestant hostility of the early 1760s had cooled by this time; the Calas execution was widely regretted.

Pierre-Paul Sirven was officially tried and exonerated in 1771, leading Voltaire to remark,

It only took two hours to sentence a virtuous family to death and it took us nine years to give them justice.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1757: Admiral John Byng

5 comments March 14th, 2010 Headsman

Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw or keep, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty’s Ships, or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending, and being convicted thereof the Sentence of a Court-martial, shall suffer Death.

-British Articles of War (1749)

On this date in 1757, English Admiral John Byng was shot to death by musketry on the quarterdeck of the HMS Monarque for failing to “do his utmost” to defend Minorca against the French.

The first and last man of that rank executed by the Royal Navy, Byng was one of 15 (!) children of an ennobled admiral. He’d been 40 years at sea himself, a competent, forgettable senior officer unburdened by genius.

The 1750s found him in service of a listless British Empire sliding towards war with France.

London had her eye mostly on the North American conflict already underway … but that conflagration was about to jump the pond.

In 1756, the Brits belatedly realized the French were about to grab the Mediterranean island/naval base of Minorca (Menorca) from them, and dispatched a too-little, too-late expedition under Admiral Byng.

By the time he got there, the French already had Minorca in hand, save the last, besieged garrison. Byng attempted to land reinforcements for the garrison — without enthusiasm, since he perceived the inadequacy of his force — and was repelled in an inconclusive naval engagement.

The loss of Minorca raised the curtain on the Seven Years War: the first “world war,” in Winston Churchill’s reckoning, in which European alliances would duke it out for continent and colonies.

But it dropped the curtain on the ill-starred Admiral Byng.

Popular outrage at the military setback had the Duke of Newcastle‘s government scrambling to find a scapegoat, and the commander on the scene fit the bill exactly.

A gloating French account of the engagement — “the English had the advantage of the wind, but still seemed unwilling to fight” — reached Albion’s shores ahead of the admiral’s dispatch; when the latter arrived, it was publicly leaked in unflatteringly redacted form that generally made Byng look like a big fraidy-cat.

Having been thus attainted in the court of public opinion, the admiral was hailed before a court martial and convicted of not doing enough to relieve the English garrison and generally not fighting a very good fight.

Only one penalty was prescribed for this offense: death.

“The officers who composed this tribunal” themselves had such misgivings about shooting an officer for an on-the-scene tactical miscalculation “unanimously subscribed a letter to the board of admiralty [reading] ‘for our own consciences sake, as well as in justice to the prisoner, we pray your lordships, in the most earnest manner, to recommend him to his majesty’s clemency.'”

But Hanoverian George II had no upside in getting involved. He faced complaints enough wringing the revenue out of Englanders to defend a hereditary German electorate of no consequence to British security; what sense could there be in antagonizing the irritated masses by going to bat for the official fall guy in the realm’s scandalous military reversal?

On the day fixed for his execution [relates the Newgate Calendar] the boats belonging to the squadron at Spithead being manned and armed, containing their captains and officers, with a detachment of marines, attended this solemnity in the harbour, which was also crowded with an infinite number of other boats and vessels filled with spectators. About noon, the Admiral having taken leave of a clergyman, and two friends who accompanied him, walked out of the great cabin to the quarter-deck, where two files of marines were ready to execute the sentence. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance, and resolved to suffer with his face uncovered, until his friends, representing that his looks would possibly intimidate the soldiers, and prevent their taking aim properly, he submitted to their request, threw his hat on the deck, kneeled on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes, and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley so decisive, that five balls passed through his body, and he dropped down dead in an instant. The time in which this tragedy was acted, from his walking out of the cabin to his being deposited in the coffin, did not exceed three minutes.


The execution of John Byng, from the British National Maritime Museum.

Thus fell, to the astonishment of all Europe, Admiral John Byng; who, whatever his errors and indiscretions might have been, was at least rashly condemned, meanly given up, and cruelly sacrificed to vile political intrigues.

A school of thought does exist that the empire reaped from its rash, mean, and cruel example a generation of aggressive captains and commodores — or, as Voltaire put it shortly afterwards in Candide, “it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” (“pour encourager les autres”)

Whatever the morale effects, the British soon rallied from their early setbacks in the Seven Years’ War and emerged from the conflict undisputed masters of North America and India.

And they even got Minorca back, too.

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1730: Hans Hermann von Katte, Frederick the Great’s lover

7 comments November 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1730, Prussia’s greatest king watched his boyhood lover put to death at his father’s order.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Most of those ways were explored at some point by a Hohenzollern.

The 18-year-old prince Frederick had a thoroughly frosty relationship with the old man. Surly Frederick William I — “the soldier king” — didn’t have much use for his sensitive, music-loving son. An “effeminate fool,” dad thought the boy, and did not scruple to beat him publicly as he forcibly molded the unwilling heir into a military man.

Now, blue bloods have often had rocky relationships with their sires, but running away is not the usual option for a prince of the realm.

But Frederick contrived to hit the bricks, and 26-year-old officer Hans Hermann von Katte had the bad luck to be his best friend (and presumed homosexual lover). When Frederick turned to him for help, they started plotting flight.

Both were apprehended and imprisoned, and Frederick was himself in some danger of being executed by command of his own father. Dad softened up enough to keep his son’s head attached to his shoulders.

Von Katte wasn’t so lucky: sentenced only to imprisonment, the verdict was upgraded by the vindictive monarch — and as part of Frederick William’s ongoing project to break his son, he made the kid watch his friend’s beheading from close enough proximity to beg (and receive) von Katte’s forgiveness.

Here’s a melodramatic interpretation from a short film called Der Tod des Hans Hermann von Katte:

Frederick spent the next decade under the father’s thumb, chafing but bending himself to the austere demands of Prussian statecraft.

Well did he absorb them, for upon succeeding in 1740, he far surpassed his father in the martial pursuits, and for the half-century span of his reign was Europe’s acknowledged battlefield master. Known to posterity as Frederich the Great — and more familiarly as der alte Fritz, “old Fritz” — his augmentation of the empire vaulted Prussia into Europe’s great powers club and set the stage for German unification.

Frederick scarcely ever spoke again of von Katte, but neither did he lose his native intelligence, and he kept up a long-running correspondence with Voltaire.

It gives an achingly tragic cast to the boy who suffered the horrible loss of his intimate this day — who dutifully delivered to his country genius as a commander and statesman, at the uncomplaining sacrifice of the life he yearned to lead.

UC-Berkeley professor Margaret Anderson’s wonderful “Rise and Fall of the Second Reich” course podcast situates Frederick in the arc of Prussia’s development out of the Middle Ages —

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— and treats his adroit foreign policy and active mind in the age of the Enlightenment.

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1766: Jean-François de la Barre, freethinker martyr

3 comments July 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a 20-year-old French chevalier’s freethinking proclivities got him beheaded and burned for impiety in one of Bourbon France’s most notorious episodes of religious chauvanism.

Check that date again. This is 69 years after the British Isles’ last execution for blasphemy; Voltaire was alive, and already in his dotage — and the fact that young Chevalier de la Barre was reading him was proclaimed as evidence. Such a benighted proceeding with the French Revolution on the horizon calls Dickens to mind:

it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness

The luckless youth and a couple of friends had pissed off a local judge, which got ugly for them when the unexplained vandalism of a town crucifix availed the opportunity for the magistrate to wield a sledgehammer against a fly.

De la Barre’s volume of Voltaire was tossed onto the pyre with him. That Enlightenment colossus made a measured posthumous effort at having the boy rehabilitated* — primarily for the benefit of his more judicious friend, who had fled the country and required his death sentence in absentia be lifted in order to inherit the family estate — but the verdict was not set aside until the French Revolution, a few months after the end of the Terror.

France’s overall secular trajectory since has rendered this date a sort of national freethinkers’ holiday, Chevalier de la Barre Day. A statue of its namesake stands in Paris’ Montmarte:

* Voltaire’s writings on the case in the original French are collected by the Association Le Chevalier de la Barre here.

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