1909: Jesus Malverde, narco patron saint

2 comments May 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1909, a Mexican bandit was executed by the police. Maybe. Unusually for these pages, the date is quite certain but the existence of the executed man is not.

If he existed — and this caveat is standard in practically every profile of the fascinating cultural phenomenon fathered by the man or phantom — Jesus Malverde was a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” who preyed on Mexico’s plutocratic agricultural lords and distributed the spoils to the poor.

According to Patricia Price (“Bandits and Saints: Jesus Malverde and the Struggle for Place in Sinaloa, Mexico”, Cultural Geographies 2005; 12; 175), the Malverde of legend entered the world as Jesus Juarez Mazo, but his

own parents died of hunger or a curable illness, and that this was the catalyst for his turn to a life of crime. While Malverde was said to have worked variously on the railroads, as a carpenter, or as a tailor, he soon joined the ranks of bandits that roamed Mexico’s countryside at the end of the nineteenth century. He reportedly stole gold coins from the rich hacienda owners living in Culiacan and threw them in the doorways of the poor at night.

Truly a figure who, if he did not exist, it were necessary to invent.

All the particulars about his legendary exploits are a bit fuzzy, right down to his end on May 3, 1909 — possibly gunned down, possibly left to die of exposure with his feet hacked off, or possibly (and certainly more picturesquely) summarily hanged from a mesquite tree by a posse.

(In a version that appealingly combines these threads, he’s said to have been dying of gangrene after being shot, and in a last act of charity prevailed upon his friend to bring in his body to collect the reward. The police gibbeted his corpse.)

In the years since, Malverde has become a popular divine intercessor for the marginal social classes who could identify with such a figure, like Sinaloa’s poor farmers of corn and beans.

And other cash crops.

Malverde is also the patron saint — decidedly unofficial, of course — of the region’s robust narcotics trade.

His shrine stationed across the way from a government compound in Sinaloa’s capital city draws a bustle of devotees.* Offerings like produce and shrimp share space with icons of marijuana and AK-47s, and votive notes appreciating “how things turned out, and how nobody was grabbed.” Breaking Bad gave him a shout-out from the mouths of disdainful DEA agents north of the border.

The underworld angle may draw the gawking Yankees, but Jesus Malverde — man, legend, shrine, all — is a genuine civic institution who meets a genuine need for solace not unlike his very namesake. In the words of a researcher quoted by Price, Malverde draws

the poorest, the handicapped, pickpockets, thugs, prostitutes, drug traffickers and drug addicts, in sum, the stigmatized who, in civil or religious iconography don’t find anyone who looks like them, in whom to confide and in whose hands to put their lives.

We’ll drink to that.

* So does Malverde’s Facebook page.

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1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody

2 comments March 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.

Baroque statue of John Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge from which he was hurled. (cc) image from Jaguar Julie

A relief detail ((cc) image from Charles Hoffman) on this statue depicts the moment of Nepomuk’s martyrdom.

This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.

But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.

Between the late 14th century and Catholic Austria’s bloody 17th century triumph over Czech nationalism the historical Nepomucene parted company pretty definitively.

The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*

In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.

Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.

The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*

The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)

This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.

Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.

This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.

For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†

John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.

(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)

* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.

** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.

† R.R. Betts, “Jan Hus,” History, Volume 24, Issue 94 (September 1939), pp. 97–112.

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1601: St. Anne Line

Add comment February 27th, 2011 Headsman

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.

Just one day after conviction, she hanged at Tyburn along with two priests, Roger Filcock and Mark Barkworth.

Anne Line was canonized in 1970; she’s one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

One of the possible interpretations (.doc) of Shakespeare’s recondite allegorical poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” is that it’s about Anne (the phoenix) and her husband Roger Line (the turtledove; he predeceased her).

Death is now the phoenix’ nest;
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:–
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

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1570: Hegumen Kornily of the Pskov-Pechery Monastery

1 comment February 20th, 2011 Headsman

Though the primary sources are shaky, at least one chronicle avers that it was on this date in 1570 that the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible had Hegumen Kornily [Cornelius] of the Pskov-Pechery Monastery put to death.

An icon of the sainted Cornelius marks the spot of his martyrdom at his Pskovo-Pechery monastery. From (cc) image by Usama.

This was the coda to Ivan’s bloody sack of Novgorod, part of the violent state consolidation carried out in Ivan’s terrible police state.

Having left Novgorod prostrate, Ivan marched westwards towards the edge of Livonia (what is now the Russian-Estonian frontier) to put Pskov in its place.

If Ivan’s depredations here were less extensive than in Novgorod — and they were less extensive — it might be due in no small measure to this date’s victim.

Over a period of four decades, Kornily had overseen the golden age of his priory — agglomerating lands, riches, and brethren. He had also charted a somewhat independent, contra-Moscow political course, and apparently harbored anti-Ivan refugee Andrei Kurbsky.*

[Ivan] came [to Pskov] in great wrath, roaring like a lion, for he wished to torture innocent people and to spill much blood. But the Lord God, all-bountiful and all-merciful lover of mankind … took pity on the human race … when the Grand Duke came before Pskov, he halted near the town and rested at the monastery of St Nicholas. And … when the Grand Duke heard all the bells ringing, his heart was softened and he came to himself, and ordered all his soldiers to blunt their swords with stones and forbade them to commit murder in the town … he was met by the Abbot of the Pechery monastery, Kornily, with all the clergy … and they went into the cathedral church of the Holy Trinity and heard mass.**


Ivan the Terrible begs Kornily for admission to the monastery, by Klavdy Lebedev. (Detail view; click for the full canvas.)

This all sounds friendly enough.

What we may have in the passage foregoing is a conflation of legends about the monk, who is unambiguously attested a martyr to Ivan at the gates of the monastery even as he’s credited with sparing the city as a whole from the tsar’s full fury. (This particular execution — or murder — date is cited in this popular history of Ivan; “February” sometime is generally agreed.)

So maybe it was one of the tyrant’s famous piques of rage — or maybe Kornily didn’t really charm him into altering his plans at all.

Although the particulars are half-obscured in legend, one can still visit at this gorgeous monastery the “Path of Blood”: the route from the gates to the cathedral along which the remorseful tsar allegedly carried his victim’s body. Ivan also made several gifts to the monastery.†

Kornily himself is still venerated on these sacred grounds, thanks not only to his holy martyrdom but to his worldly machinations. A decade after the abbott laid down his life, the walls he had raised around the monastery proved fortification enough to repel the Polish king Stephen Bathory‡ — helping cement Kornily’s reputation as the celestial defender of Pskov.

* See the title of the next footnote? Vassian Muromtsev was a protege of Kornily’s in the Pskov-Pechery monastery; Kurbsky actually had a running correspondence with Muromtsev.

Muromtsev “was put to death together with [Kornily],” reports Kurbsky, although his authority for this claim is doubtful. “They say that they were both crushed together on the same day by some kind of instrument of torture; and their holy martyred corpses were buried together.”

** Quoted in Nikolai Andreyev, “Kurbsky’s Letters to Vas’yan Muromtsev,” The Slavonic and East European Review, June 1955.

† Andreyev, “The Pskov-Pechery Monastery in the 16th Century,” The Slavonic and East European Review, June 1954.

‡ We’ve met Stephen Bathory’s infamous niece in these pages.

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1679: St. John Kemble, 80-year-old priest

2 comments August 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1679, 80-year-old Catholic priest John Kemble was martyred for the faith at Hereford.

Kemble had been discreetly performing the offices of his faith — still illicit, but less liable to get you killed at this late date — for over five decades since ordination.

Unhappily, Titus Oates and his tall tales of a Popish Plot to assassinate King Charles II came along at the end of that run. In the ensuing anti-Catholic spasm, Kemble was one of the unlucky ones rousted.

Even in the hysteria of the times, nobody could make an actual conspiracy charge stick against this ancient cleric, but in the hands of a sufficiently hostile judiciary, his demonstrable exercise of the priesthood could be enough to make him a traitor. And at his age, the opportunity to buy his life at the cost of his conscience didn’t look the bargain:

According to the course of nature I have but a few years to live. It will be an advantage to suffer for my religion and therefore I will not abscond.

He got the mild consolation of hanging to death before the unpleasant drawing-and-quartering bits were executed upon him, and calmly puffed a pipe and shared a bowl of wine with the sympathetic representatives of the law before it all happened. As a result, Herefordshire long called the comforts enjoyed before a parting a “Kemble pipe” and “Kemble cup”.

He’s been elevated to sainthood on the strength of his posthumous miracles, like healing the jailer’s daughter of throat cancer; the holy man’s severed hand, held at St. Francis Xavier’s in Hereford, is supposed to have saved a man from death as recently as 1995.

(The rest of St. John Kemble reposes at Welsh Newton, and is venerated at an annual pilgrimage.)

Kemble was among the last of the Forty Martyrs of England to die for the Catholic faith; a fellow-inmate, David Lewis, paid his own penalty just five days later.

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Feast Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

12 comments June 29th, 2009 Headsman

June 29 is the shared feast day (in both the Latin and Greek rites) of the two biggest wheels in first century Christianity, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Tradition holds that both men were martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Nero after Rome burned: Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside-down at his own request not to die in the manner of his lord.* Some traditions have both being put to death on the same day; others do not.

Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.

But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.

[flv:http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/video/flv/1610/jc7.flv 440 330]

More from this program — and other resources on early Christianity — at this Frontline page.

While linked on this day, Peter and Paul appear in the Bible as sometime rivals. One might well speculate at the dynamics between them: Peter, after all, got his commission straight from the Savior himself; the upstart Saul of Tarsus, late of the Jewish establishment, arrived fired with the zeal of the converted and went from persecuting Christians to appropriating their doctrine, even calling Peter out publicly.

However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?

The stakes: would anyone outside of already-existing Jews actually want to convert?

Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly and tirelessly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.

Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.

Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.

Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)

A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times

* See the apocryphal Acts of Peter.

** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.

† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.


Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.

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1389: Saint Tsar Lazar, after the Battle of Kosovo

2 comments June 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date (by the Julian calendar then in use) in 1389, Stefan Lazar Hrebeljanovic — that’s Tsar Lazar to you — led the armies of Moravian Serbia against the expanding Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Kosovo.

The Serbs were defeated — thereby plunging, in the national mythology, into a half-millennium of Turkish domination. Lazar was supposedly* captured and beheaded.

For a generation, Lazar had firmed up his authority as the most significant Serbian autocrat outside the Ottoman orbit. The gravity of that orbit, however, grew more powerful with each passing year; soon, it would devour Byzantium.

Here in the 14th century, the Turkish expansion took on vassals in southeastern Europe. For a prince in the marches, a reckoning had to come due.

Of course, some Serbian lords and other Christian rulers were prepared to owe fealty to the Turks.

In the national epic poem The Battle of Kosovo, our day’s hero receives divine visitation charging him to choose between the treasures of earth and those of eternity, perhaps the author’s critique of European nobles who joined the infidel.

‘Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”

Lazar built the church.

This particular battle grew into one of mythic importance in the national memory of Serbia: the sacred apogee of national honor, even the bulwark of Christendom upon which the Islamic wave broke.**

Its site, “Kosovo Polje” or the “Field of Blackbirds” near Pristina, is a monument to the Serbian and Orthodox cause; that it is located, as its name suggests, in the province forcibly detached from Belgrade by NATO during the Kosovo War makes it a politically touchy bit of topography. Nationalist outfits like the Tsar Lazar Guard are violently displeased with Albanians having say-so about the place.

Not surprisingly, the record of the time suggests less a Balkan Thermopylae than that old historical standby — shifting relationships of collaboration, resistance, and negotiated boundaries amid Ottoman advances and (sometimes) reverses.

Lazar’s own son and heir Stefan Lazarevic became an Ottoman ally; when the Ottomans were themselves invaded, he shifted his alliance to a different regional power, Hungary. His successor, Durad Brankovic, became estranged from that alliance and eventually fought against the Hungarians in the Second Battle of Kosovo … as an Ottoman vassal.†

Be that as it may, St. Vitus’ DayVidovdan in Serbo-Croatian — which is now observed on its Gregorian calendar date of June 28th, remains one of the most sacred days on the Serbian calendar (it’s also the feast day of Lazar, a saint in the Orthodox tradition).

Vidovdan obtained another layer of meaning in 1914, for it was June 28 that Yugoslav nationalists then under the heel of a Christian empire assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand and ignited the First World War.

* It’s the predominant version of legend but not a settled historical fact that Lazar was actually beheaded as a prisoner. He may have simply died in battle, or of wounds taken sustained in the fight.

** Subject, like all good myths, to opposing interpretations.

† At the Second Battle of Kosovo, Serbian forces captured the fleeing Hungarian ruler, John Hunyadi, and his eldest son, Laszlo.

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1009: St. Bruno of Querfurt

4 comments March 9th, 2009 Headsman

We have the rare privilege this date* to salute 1,000 years since the martyrdom of St. Bruno of Querfurt.

St. Bruno — also Brun or Boniface — had his head chopped off, and 18 companions were allegedly simultaneously hung or hacked to pieces, by a chieftain who did not appreciate the bishop’s efforts to Christianize the Baltics. The wherefores, and even the wheres (different sources locate it in Prussia, Rus’, or Lithuania) of this missionary’s end are permanently obscure to us.

But this relatively forgotten saint has something to tell us about the fluid area of contact between the Latin and Greek Christian spheres in the decades before their schism.

Lithuanian Institute of History scholar Darius Baronas argues** that although Bruno’s missions were conducted independently under papal authorization, he received support from the courts of both the Polish king Boleslaw the Brave and the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’ Vladimir the Great.†

Both rulers hoped to extend their influence among the still-pagan lands of Europe, a secular incarnation of the rivalry between eastern and western rites.

So why is he so little-known to posterity? Baronas observes that St. Bruno

is a supreme example of a missionary saint and his activities ranged almost from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Yet despite his activities, let alone his glorious death, he did not receive much praise from his contemporaries and still less from later generations. His subsequent cult was rather circumscribed and was largely forgotten.

Precisely because of his ambiguous place between these two competing powers, and because his mission did not conform precisely with either’s policies of statecraft, neither Boleslaw nor Vladimir promoted a cult of Bruno: each realm was uncertain which side Bruno was on, and which side would profit most from his inroads among the pagans.

* February 14, 1009 is also cited as a date for St. Bruno’s martyrdom — for instance, by the Catholic Encyclopedia; the source of this may be the chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg. In the absence of a determinative reason to prefer that earlier date, and allowing that 1,000-year-old executions are prone to shaky dating, I’m placing it on March 9 based on the Annals of Quedlinburg.


This text, reading “St. Bruno, an archbishop and monk, who was called Boniface, was beheaded by Pagans during the 11th year of this conversion at the Rus and Lithuanian border, and along with 18 of his followers, entered heaven on March 9th,” also happens to be the earliest surviving written reference to Lithuania.

** Darius Baronas, ‘The year 1009: St. Bruno of Querfurt between Poland and Rus”, Journal of Medieval History (2008), 34:1:1-22

† Vladimir the Great is himself a saint, too — in the Catholic tradition as well as the Orthodox.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.

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305: Feast Day of St. Philemon the Actor

1 comment March 8th, 2009 Headsman

This is the feast day for St. Philemon the actor, supposed to have been hurled into the sea at Alexandria, Egypt, during the persecutions under Diocletian.

The fate of this otherwise obscure saint — he’s not to be confused with the first-century prelate to whom St. Paul addressed the shortest of his canonical epistles — is, of course, a byproduct of Christianity’s centuries-in-coming overthrow of the pagan world in which it incubated.

And in fact, Philemon the Actor’s martyrdom would have occurred towards the very end of the reign which saw the very last major anti-Christian persecutions. Already by this time, the young man whose sword arm would bear Christianity to its political triumph was a major political figure in the Empire.

The very next year, Constantine received the imperial purple, and over the ensuing years overcame his partners and rivals in that station to win unchallenged hegemony over the Roman World.

Laurels for Philemon and many others of his ilk would soon be policy for the empire that had put him to death, as celebration (perhaps exaggeration) of such travails cemented the newfound legitimacy of the formerly illicit religion elevated by Constantine.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.

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Feast Day of Boethius

4 comments October 23rd, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

Today is the feast day of Neoplatonic philosopher and Christian theologian Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius), author of The Consolation of Philosophy, and according to tradition martyred in 524 or 525, or possibly 526, by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric.

Well, maybe.

We know roughly as much about why Boethius was killed as when or how. We do know that he came from a line of prominent Romans (including a couple of popes back there, depending on who you count as “pope”), was himself consul in 510, and his sons were rather astonishingly joint consuls in 522. At that time he moved up to Ravenna accepting an appointment at Theodoric’s court as the Master of Offices, something like the equivalent of chief of staff, managing the work of Theodoric’s officers.

But then things went horribly wrong.

There is a long tradition, going back at least to the eighth century, regarding Boethius as having been executed for maintaining the Catholic faith against the Arian Theodoric. While Theodoric was probably paranoid about spies representing the Catholic eastern emperor-in-waiting Justinian (who would, in fact, later “reconquer” the Italian peninsula), and Boethius claims in the Consolation that he was hated for being smarter than everyone else, the truth is probably that he was caught up in the usual machinations of an imperial court.

A member of the Senate was accused of treasonably conspiring with Justinian’s predecessor Justin I against Theodoric. Boethius defended the accused (apparently the only person to do so, although the charges were surely trumped up), and in the Consolation, Boethius says he was only defending the Senate (implying that the accusations were meant to undermine the authority of the Senate by challenging its loyalty to the king).

In any event, the sources we have say that Boethius was condemned by the Senate (who appear to have thrown him under the bus) without being able to speak in his own defense. After an indeterminate time of imprisonment, he was executed.

It was while he awaited death that he wrote his most famous and arguably most influential work, The Consolation of Philosophy.

A few of the many editions of The Consolation of Philosophy available. Others are available free at Project Gutenberg (here, here and a Latin one here), as is a podcast version.

Boethius’ translations of and commentaries on ancient Greek philosophy were the only such texts available in Europe for much of the Middle Ages, but the Consolation was translated and widely read even outside of the philosophical circles in which his other work was so important.

Written in the form of Menippean satire (alternating verse and prose) as a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, the Consolation is Boethius’s attempt to think through and make sense of the sad state of his affairs.


Boethius and Philosophy, by Mattia Preti.

Ultimately, it was both the universal nature of the problem (why are these horrible things happening to me?) and the compelling way in which he tackled the problem (a combination of Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism) that have made this text so widely read and imitated.

There is no way in this space to do justice to the Consolation, which addresses the very idea of philosophical discourse (“would you like us to clash together our arguments, for perhaps out of a conflict of this kind some beautiful spark of truth my fly out?”), the nature of time and God’s perspective outside of time, the difference between providence and fate, and the nature of and way to the Good itself.

But the gist of Boethius’s argument about the sufferings of the good person maybe be quickly summarized. In short, Boethius has forgotten his true nature, which never changes, and gotten caught up in the things of this world, which come and go. If he but remembers himself, he will have something no injustice, no turning of the wheel of fortune, can take away from him. And as for the unjust and the evil, they also have their “reward”:

But since goodness confers on each man his reward, he will only lack it when he has ceased to be good. [ . . . Now] since the good itself is happiness, it is clear that all good men are made happy for this reason, that they are good. But those that are happy, it is agreed, are gods; and therefore that is the reward of good men, which no time can lessen, no man’s power diminish, no man’s wickedness obscure, to become gods. These things being so for good men, no wise man can doubt either of the punishment inseparable from evil men; for since good and evil, and also punishment and reward, are directly opposite to one another, what we see added in the case of the good man’s reward must necessarily be reflected in an opposite manner in the evil man’s punishment. As therefore goodness itself is the reward for good men, so for wicked men wickedness is itself the punishment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,God,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Nobility,Ostrogothic Kingdom,Other Voices,Politicians,Power,Ravenna,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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