1561: 88 Calabrian Waldensians, like the slaughter of so many sheep

Add comment June 11th, 2015 Headsman

A horrible intra-Christian auto de fe in the Calabrian town Montalto marred this date in 1561.

The pre-Reformation Waldensian sect, dating back to the 12th century, managed to survive Catholic persecution in the hills and valleys of northwest Italy’s Piedmont — but not only there. Waldensians partook of the spiritual movements that emerged throughout Europe in this period challenging Church domination.

The Waldensians are named for Peter Waldo, a Lyons merchant who translated the Bible into the vernacular so that common people could better adhere to it; one of their first appellations, alluding to their creed of voluntary poverty, was “the Poor of Lyons”. Others professed like notions, and Rome viewed them as part of a common heresy — as Pope Lucius III decreed in anathematizing the whole lot in 1184:

In order to eradicate the wickedness of various heresies that have begun to manifest themselves in many countries throughout the whole world, the power of ecclesiastical discipline must be called into requisition. Therefore … [we] set ourselves against the heretics, who from various errors have received various names, and by apostolical authority, through this our constitution, have condemned all heresies by whatever name they may be called. First, the Catharists, and the Patarini, and those who falsely and fictitiously call themselves Humiliati or Poor Men of Lyons; as well as the Passaginians, Josephists, Arnoldists; all these we lay under an everlasting curse.

As heavily as these movements and their cousins, offshoots, imitators, and successors were pressed by the authorities in the subsequent years, they were never fully extirpated. The Waldensians, in the end, survived by keeping their heads down: in their defensible mountainous haven in the Piedmont, and in an offshoot community of Piedmont refugees that settled in Calabria, the rural toe of Italy’s boot where towns like Guardia Piemontese still reflect in their names the cross-regional influence.* For generations before Luther, these exiles made their way with security by obscurity, participating superficially as Catholics while privately maintaining their outlaw doctrine.

With the onset of the Protestant Reformation, these heretical enclaves could no longer be ignored and drew renewed persecution. Conversely (and this surely cemented the end of the look-the-other-way policy) reformers and Waldensians recognized common identity and common interests between the dissident communities; the Calabrian Waldenses sought and received missionaries from Calvinist Geneva.

Taking a very dim view of a hellbound heresiarch establising a toehold in its very own boot, Rome — and specifically the cardinal who would soon become the Counter-Reformation stalwart Pope Pius V — dispatched inquisitors backed by armed men to uproot these Poor of Lyons. As their targets were isolated from any store of aid or support, Rome’s agents had a wide latitude to treat them all with heedless brutality. After all, how many divisions did the Calabrian Waldensians have?

In June of 1561, after the heretics had defied an order to start attending mass daily, troops began invading the Waldensian villages. Guardia Piemontese, mentioned earlier, was assaled on June 5; one of the town’s entrances is still named Porta del Sangue, Gate of Blood, for the gore that was supposed to have flowed through it on this infamous day.

Waldensian prisoners from Guardia and elsewhere were hauled to nearby Montalto Uffugo to undergo the rough hospitality of the Inquisition. A Catholic servant to one of the lords tasked with effecting this persecution wrote with horror about watching the culmination of that Passion for 88 Waldensians on June 11.

Most illustrious sir, I have now to inform you of the dreadful justice which began to be executed on these Lutherans early this morning, being the 11th of June.

And, to tell you the truth, I can compare it to nothing but the slaughter of so many sheep. They were all shut up in one house as in a sheep-fold.

The executioner went, and bringing out one of them, covered his face with a napkin, or benda, as we call it, led him out to a field near the house, and causing him to kneel down, cut his throat with a knife. Then, taking off the bloody napkin, he went and brought out another, whom he put to death after the same manner.

In this way the whole number, amounting to eighty-eight men, were butchered. I leave you to figure to yourself the lamentable spectacle, for I can scarcely refrain from tears while I write; nor was there any person, after witnessing the execution of one, could stand to look on a second.

The meekness and patience with which they went to martyrdom and death are incredible.

Some of them at their death professed themselves of the same faith with us, but the greater part died in their cursed obstinacy. All the old met their death with cheerfulness, but the young exhibited symptoms of fear.

I still shudder while I think of the executioner with the bloody knife in his teeth, the dripping napkin in his hand, and his arms besmeared with gore, going to the house, and taking out one victim after another, just as a butcher does the sheep which he means to kill.

This was not the end of it. The Archbishop of Reggio reported deploying the hacked-up remains like Spartacus’s crucified followers, “hanged on the road from Murano to Cosenza, along 46 miles, to make a frightening spectacle to all who pass by.” (Source) Over the months to come, numerous others would go to the stake, or if “lucky” the galleys.

Whatever remnant survived was laid under heavy communal punishment: “that all should wear the yellow habitello with the red cross; that all should hear mass every day … that for twenty-five years there should be no intermarriage between [Waldensians]; that all communication with Piedmont and Geneva should cease.” One can still find in Guardia the inward-looking spioncini, peepholes, that Waldensians were forced to install on their doors for the more convenient monitoring of their behavior behind closed doors.

* The emigre Waldensians brought their tongue, Occitan, with them, and a linguistic enclave of Occitan still perseveres in Calabria. (The language primarily persists in the belt from Catalonia through southern France to northwest Italy, known as Occitania.)

Here’s a Guardia Piemontese Occitan speaker describing the slaughter of the Waldensians:

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1307: Fra Dolcino, Apostle

7 comments June 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1307, radical preacher Fra Dolcino was gruesomely put to death in a daylong public torture at the Piedmontese town of Vercelli.

Dolcino was the millenarian successor of Gerard Segarelli, whose itinerant commune of impoverished penitents — Apostles, they called themselves, to the chagrin of the Church hierarchy — had attracted followers for near half a century before the powers that be smashed it.

The shade of the burned firebrand (and the corporeality of his refugee onetime followers) haunt the murderous monastery of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Here, the paternal Franciscan unraveling the novel’s mystery explains Fra Dolcino’s illicit movement to his naive protege.

We were talking about those excluded from the flock of sheep. For centuries, as pope and emperor tore each other apart in their quarrels over power, the excluded went on living on the fringe, like lepers … all of them were ready to hear, or to produce, every sermon that, harking back to the word of Christ, would condemn the behavior of the dogs and shepherds and would promise their punishment one day. The powerful always realized this. The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics, whatever their doctrine …

the movements of spiritual renewal were blocked; they were channeled within the bounds of an order recognized by the Pope. But what circulated underneath was not channeled. It flowed, on the one hand, into the movements of the flagellants, who endanger no one, or into the armed bands like Fra Dolcino’s …

From the cinematic adaptation of The Name of the Rose. The monk’s semi-coherent summons to “penitenziagite” is significant because it marks him as a former adherent of the penance-focused movement. An Italian metal band called Dolcinian had a song (and album) of that exact title.

But were they really an “armed band”?

Executed Today is pleased to mark this portentous anniversary in conversation with historian Dr. Jerry Pierce, currently working on a book about the outlaw movement.

ET: Who were the Dolcinians?

JP: A lot of people get kind of caught up in the Dolcino part. It’s not about him until the very end.

The group itself originated in 1260, and it lasted 40-some years before it ran into any trouble. Their whole goal when they start is essentially, live a life of poverty like the original Apostles. And apparently that’s a problem for people later.

That’s really all it was about. It’s communal living, it’s not owning things at all, including houses. By 1260, they were better Franciscans than the Franciscans were.

And the Franciscans had a big presence in the city of Parma, where this thing got started, so they were slightly peeved.

So it’s a challenge to the Franciscans?

It’s not trying to show up the Franciscans, but it becomes a challenge.

The “Apostles” wander around, they beg for their food, they tell people to do penance.

The early Franciscans started off the same way, all about poverty, but once they became established, the order became all about money.

And the Apostles are not the only ones mounting this challenge.

Right. Waldensians in France predate the Franciscans by about 30 years or so.* You just have a guy in France who’s a businessman who hears a reading of the gospel saying to give up your possessions and follow Christ. And that’s what he does. He even pays someone to translate the Bible into vernacular French, which is a big no-no.

His group and Segarelli’s group are not an issue as long as they don’t say anything about the doctrine. So long as they don’t say anything about the Trinity or the Eucharist, they’re just calling people to penance — they’re okay.

But the reason these groups come along is that in that period, around 1150 — Europe is experiencing a big economic change. The haves are on the side of the church. This is the core of all of them, and it’s the core of the Dolcino philosophy as well — the church is preaching poverty, but it’s living wealthy.

So they were doing something within the practice of the Church’s community for decades. How did they get so dangerously on the outs?

The bishop of Parma actually patronizes the Apostles and grants indulgences to people who give money to them. They’re not just some kooky group that’s out there even though the main writings about them are by their opponents.**

But what happens is they become really, really popular, and people start following them, and the Franciscans get the hierarchy involved.

There’s nothing doctrinal about them until Dolcino that becomes heresy.

And what specifically is that?

You take Segarelli’s stuff about poverty and radical egalitarianism, and you have Dolcino either witness or know about the execution of Segarelli, and that sort of crystallizes for him that members of the Church are forces of evil.

Basically, Dolcino says that if they would kill this guy for preaching nothing other than poverty, which is their own message, then there’s something wrong.

Because of the persecution — Segarelli’s execution, the Inquisition moving in and questioning people — that kind of pressure is what spurs Dolcino to take off to the northern mountains. That’s sort of the catalyst for him to become apocalyptic.

But even suppressing that takes the Church years.

The chronology is muddy because we only have about three sources, but we think he joined the order before Segarelli was executed. And between 1300 and 1302 or 1303, he’s off in the northeast of Italy near Trento.

He’s from Valsesia, a river valley in the Piedmont, and he eventually returns with a bunch of followers across the mountains — between Novara and Vercelli. It’s an important area because the bishops of the two cities have been fighting each other for access to the valleys, and fighting the local feudal lords, the Biandrate.

This family that’s been controlling the region, they’ve been extending their influence far up the river valley and the farther you go up the valley, the more independent the people are up there; they hate people who encroach on their autonomy and they’ve recently rebelled and kicked them out.

Essentially, Dolcino enters this sovereign territory, and he’s saying to the inhabitants, the wealthy church and the people who live down on the plain are wicked and they’re going to assault you, and sure enough …

And that’s the rebellion that takes place, it’s these farmers and families who live up there against the Crusader army.

A Crusade?

The Pope† allowed a papal indulgence for people going on Crusade up there. They essentially recruit a mercenary army.

The irony of it is that the things that Dolcino and his followers are accused of is raiding people’s houses and stealing all their stuff, and raiding churches and stealing all the gold. Well, guess who actually did that? And all the mercenaries needed to say when they plundered was, “uh, yeah, Dolcino did that.”

You have these non-Valsesian Crusaders and mercenaries who sort of move into these territories and basically get beat by the locals several times.

We know there was this final pitched battle. The Dolcinians flee to a mountaintop awaiting the End Times. Essentially what the Crusader army did was they starved them into submission, basically just blockaded the whole area, and then overran a bunch of starving women and children.

“On that day more than a thousand of the heretics perished in the flames, or in the river, or by the sword, in the cruellest of deaths. Thus they who made sport of God the Eternal Father and of the Catholic faith came, on the day of the Last Supper, through hunger, steel, fire, pestilence, and all wretchedness, to shame and disgraceful death, as they deserved.” (Source)

Dolcino also had a female opposite number, and the sect preached egalitarianism. Did they have an egalitarian gender politics as well?

The woman, Margaret or Margherita, it’s hard to tell exactly who she is — there’s all this embellishment. She’s sometimes called the “wife” of Dolcino, or sources call her the “mistress”, which makes it sound seedier. But we don’t actually know if they were involved or not involved. She was a former nun, and we know a little bit about her family, but there’s just not much about her.†

As to gender generally, the sources will say, these Apostles believed that nobody should own any property so they shared all their things and even their women.

So you’re meant to think that they just pass them around, but that wasn’t the case at all; there weren’t orgies and such. In this case, they did stress radical egalitarianism.

This is actually the ideology of the Christians in the first century: they also say, the world we live in is wrong, and it’s about to end — one of the things about the world they live in is, it’s patriarchal, and they come up with radical egalitarianism because there’s not supposed to be any distinctions in heaven and they’re looking forward to that.

We don’t exactly know if, in the end, it was the Dolcinians themselves fighting or the inhabitants of the area who protected them. But whoever it was, the [anti-Dolcino] sources on the battles also say, basically, “oh my God, the women are wearing pants and fighting next to the men.”

What’s the legacy of this whole movement?

In its own time, there were remnants of the Order of the Apostles still in Parma and the area for the next 20 or 30 years. It’s not heresy to be part of the group per se. There are references to sort of straggler parts of the group in France, in Spain, for the next 100 to 200 years, but it’s really hard to tell.

We do know they spread out pretty far. At one point under Segarelli they sent people to Jerusalem.

The people who live in Valsesia still today totally revere Dolcino. You can go on Dolcino hiking tours!

And there’s been this long history of appropriating his meaning.

“Thou, who perchance
Shalt shortly view the sun, this warning thou
Bear to Dolcino: bid him, if he wish not
Here soon to follow me, that with good store
Of food he arm him, lest impris’ning snows
Yield him a victim to Novara’s power,
No easy conquest else.”

-Mohammed, in Dante’s Inferno (He sounds prophetic, but Dante wrote after Dolcino’s death, with the action set while the heresiarch was still alive.)

In 1407, members of the Church went out and built a church consecrated to the fight aganist the heretics near the site where the Dolcinians were wiped out, and the local populace was outraged.

In 1907, Dolcino was appropriated by the Italian socialists. There was a workers’ group that planted a big red flag, and then they built a monument to him, with a plaque on it with the lines from Dante‘s Inferno.

There’s pictures of this monument, with tons of people up on the mountainside and they’re all dressed in their best.

And the monument lasted until the mid-1920s when the fascists blew it up with pro-fascist clerics. It was rebuilt in 1974, and you can see the old Catholic church from it — two opposing claims on Fra Dolcino.

Obviously you’re pretty sympathetic to this movement. What do you think we ought to make of them?

I think for me the key to understanding the whole order is not just to say, “well, everyone understands it wrong.” There’s a sort of willful wrongness to it, that whenever you put apocalypticism in it, it immediately puts people in the crazy category.

But in this period, when people talked about the end of the world, it didn’t necessarily mean they were nuts.

And then the other thing is, they’re not as violent and threatening as they appear on first read. I’m not even sure that they ever lifted a finger against the Crusaders, they may have just fled. Which in a sense means that they hold true to their values to the end.

More reading: A Historical Memoir of Fra Dolcino and His Times -ed.

* The Waldensians hung around into the Protestant Reformation, and still exist today.

** e.g., about Segarelli, by a Franciscan — who calls them something that translates loosely to “ribald bumpkins”.

Pope Clement V: he would prove more effective crushing the Templars.

‡ Margaret was also executed — allegedly turning down several smitten suitors’ offers to marry her if she would abjure. (Margaret was rich.) Although she’s most picturesquely shown burnt to death in front of Fra Dolcino during or before the latter’s torture, the sources seem to be unreliable as to whether she was in fact also executed on June 1, or on some other date.

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1655: Massacre of Waldensians

8 comments April 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1655, Catholic forces under the Duke of Savoy carried out a notorious massacre of Waldensians* in the Piedmont.

This interesting, excommunicate sect had persisted for centuries in those hard-to-reach places in Alpine foothills, intermittently ignored and hunted. After Martin Luther, many Protestants inclined to see them as a proto-Reformation movement, or even a counter-papal apostolic succession reaching back to ancient Christianity.

At any rate, they sure weren’t Catholic.

And our friend the Duke decided — perhaps piqued by the murder of a missionary Catholic priest, or for whatever other reason — to mount one of those heresy-extirpating sorties and make them Catholic in 1655.

On April 17, the Marquis of Pianezza appeared with an overwhelming force of mixed Piedmontese, French, and Irish** troops. They conducted a few skirmishes, then made nice with the Waldensian civic leaders and induced them to quartering their troops temporarily further to some expedient pretext.

Alas! alas! these poor people were undone. They had received under their roof the executioners of themselves and their families. The first two days, the 22d and 23d of April, passed in peace, the soldiers sitting at the same table, sleeping under the same roof, and conversing freely with their destined victims …

At last the blow fell like a thunderbolt. At four of the clock on the morning of the 24th April the signal was given from the Castle of La Torre. But who shall describe the scenes that followed? On the instant a thousand assassins began the work of death …

Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, and dashed against the rocks; or, more horrible still, they were held betwixt two soldiers, who, unmoved by their piteous cries and the sight of their quivering limbs, tore them up into two halves. Their bodies were then thrown on the highways and the fields. Sick persons and old people, men and women, were burned alive in their own houses; some were hacked in pieces; some were bound up in the form of a ball, and precipitated over the rocks or rolled down the mountains … Some were slowly dismembered, and fire applied to the wounds to staunch the bleeding and prolong their sufferings; some were flayed alive; some roasted alive; others were disembowelled; some were horribly and shamefully mutilated, and of others the flesh and brains were boiled and actually eaten by these cannibals.

Source, whose atrocity accounts channel those in this French tome

Without doubting the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man, the cannibalism charge reminds that we’re dealing with propaganda alongside historiography. And what great propaganda — like, babies-torn-from-incubators great.

Thumbnails (click for a larger, disturbing view) of selected images of this date’s atrocities from Samuel Morland’s The History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont

And there’s little doubt as to the overall savagery of the affair, which could well have become the opening salvo in a full-scale sectarian cleansing campaign. (A later addendum to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs narrates the ensuing Piedmontese armed struggle, petering out before any definitive resolution in the field.)

Outrage at this hecatomb spread in Protestant Europe — which would also refer to the day’s doings as the “Bloody Easter,” since it corresponded with the eve of that celebration as reckoned by the Julian Calendar (source).

It was felt especially in Protectorate England, which intervened diplomatically.

A “day of solemn fasting and humiliation” was promulgated in Albion, along with collections for the relief of the survivors. Oliver Cromwell personally put £2,000 into the kitty.

More importantly, he dispatched diplomat Samuel Morland† to force the House of Savoy to lay off the persecution; in fact, he threatened to disrupt high statecraft between England and France unless the French twisted arms on behalf of the Waldensians.

Written correspondence for Morland’s diplomatic tour addressed to Louis XIV of France and various other continental potentates, as well as a fiery bit of oratory that Morland delivered to Savoy, all seem to have originated from the pen of Republican scribbler John Milton — the future author of Paradise Lost.‡

Milton, for whom the whole thing was more than just a day job, was further moved to put his umbrage at the slaughter into sonnet form:

Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship’t Stocks and Stones,

Forget not: in thy book record their groanes
Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold
Slayn by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans

The Vales redoubl’d to the Hills, and they
To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow
O’re all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway

The triple Tyrant: that from these may grow
A hunder’d-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian wo.

* The Waldensians in question here are interchangeably known as the Vaudois for their geographic region, actually above the Piedmont and abutting the Swiss region also known as Vaud. (These pages have visited the latter.)

** Fresh from being on the receiving end of another infamous massacre.

† Morland is more regarded for his post-Restoration labors as an inventor; he created an early calculator and internal combustion engine.

‡ The speech in particular is not definitively attributed; see Robert Fallon, “Milton in Government: Denmark and Savoy,” Milton Quarterly, May 1989.

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