Saturday 30 November 2013

A ROYAL WEDDING IN CRACOW, 1592. Were they having too much fun?

On 31 May 1592, Anna of Austria married the Polish king Sigismund II. The Polish nobility opposed this alliance. They sent a posse to guard the border and prevent Anna from entering the country, but she outfoxed them and reached Pless (Pzczyna) on 26 May. According to the Fugger Newsletters, she holed up there and “practiced Italian dance steps” in preparation for the wedding ball.

Also on the programme of festivities: A wedding masquerade that cost 50,000 ducats (about 5 Million dollars) because the participants were dressed in gold-embroidered clothes.

More extravagance: The bridal coach was pulled by six black and six white bears, which were made to dance afterwards, “so that there would be sufficient drollery”.

You thought paparazzi were a modern phenomenon, reflecting our preoccupation with the lives of the rich and famous? Read on:

The informant of the Fugger Newsletter clearly had the makings of a tabloid journalist. He snuck into the royal couple’s bedroom and provided this breathless description: “It is a very spacious chamber, with the royal bed set up in the middle thereof. The bed has velvet curtains, and is surrounded by velvet-covered chairs. On the bed lies a coverlet lined with sable furs. On the wall, there is a portrait of the Royal bride wearing a white and silver robe and looking at you with a laughing mouth, so as to make the King laugh likewise when he looks at the picture.”

Meanwhile, in Germany, Count Octavian Fugger felt that such fun was unwarranted “in these present grievous times, with death rampant, with wars, strife, and tribulation everywhere.” He had posters affixed to the church doors of his estates, “forbidding most forcibly all public expressions of joy, such as singing, whistling, dancing, masques, promenading in the street and other worldly merry-making.” He made an exception for weddings, “provided they were conducted with all modesty and the accompaniment of muted string music.”

The weddings on his estate must have been dreary affairs. No, wait, I just realize there is nothing in his injunction about getting drunk.

Thursday 28 November 2013


Check out
You’ve read my posts on witch trials and the procedures outlined in THE HAMMER OF WITCHES -- if not, check them out below. But now let me backtrack: Not everyone believed in witches. Here is what German reformer Martin Luther thought about them:

“When I was a child, there were many witches and sorcerers, who worked their magic on animals and human beings, and especially on children, and did great harm otherwise. Now in the light of the gospel these things are no longer so common, for the gospel drives out the devil with all his illusions.” But in a way the devil still “bewitches” people by giving them “a false opinion of Christ and turning them against Christ.”

A generation after Luther, the German physician Johann Weyer declared that witchcraft was an illusion, a “trick played on the optical nerves.” So-called witchcraft could usually be explained by “the stupidity of old age, the inconstancy and fickleness of females, a weak mind, despair, and mental illness.” Like Luther, however, he suspected that the devil was behind those illusions. People might be “deceived by their imagination or by the wiles of the evil spirit”. Weyer’s book was so popular that it went through four editions (1563-68). 
But Weyer's arguments did not save Walpurga Hausmann, widwife of Dillingen. Her judges were convinced that she was actually in league with the devil. Here is a list of her confessed misdeeds:
  • Solicited one Hans Schlumperger with lewd words and gestures,
  • rode on a pitchfork,
  • killed infants at birth before they had a chance to be baptized,
  • made a child fall into the millpond and drown,
  • caused miscarriages,
  • sucked blood from a child,
  • brought about the death of cows, pigs, and geese,
  • caused hail once or twice a year.
For these misdeeds she was burned at the stake in September 1587. For good measure, her ashes were “carried to the nearest flowing water and thrown thereinto.”

Sunday 24 November 2013

A MILLION CALORIES:  A wedding feast, 1587
My last five posts were about the dark side of the 16th century. Let’s take a break from blood and gore today and look at the good life: a list of food and drink consumed at a wedding in Prague, 1587.

The list comes from the so-called Fugger Newsletters. The Fuggers were German merchant-bankers and venture capitalists. The Newsletters is a collection of memos sent by agents in branch offices all over Europe and in Asia to “head office” in Augsburg. They contain political and military news that might have an impact on the economy, but also descriptions of social customs, sensational crimes, or natural disasters.

One of the newsletter lists what the Bohemian nobleman William of Rosenberg offered his wedding guests:
  • Venison: 12 tons, including 36 deer, 36 boars, 49 roes, and 11,560 field hares
  • Poultry: 27 turkeys, 272 pheasants, 1910 partridges, 50 Westphalian cocks, 200 Indian cocks, 500 fattened capons, 560 fattened hens, 900 young hens, 1350 fattened geese
  • Meat: 9 tons of suckling pigs, 75 oxen, 754 sheep, 173 calves, 221 lambs, 32 fattened pigs, 160 young sows, 1290 rabbits.
  • Eggs and Dairy products: 20,620 eggs, 17 hundredweight butter, 2 tons of cheese.
  • Fish: 960 Skate, 70 char in pastry, 300 large pike, 420 small pike, 5,800 carp.
  • Wine: 70 pails Rhine wine, 100 pails Hungarian wine, 40 pails Moravian wine, 17 barrels Austrian wine, 47 barrels Bohemian wine, 10 kegs sweet wine
  • Beer: 150 barrels pale ale, 8 barrels Rakonitz beer, 18 barrels barley beer
  • Also: “a goodly amount” of spices, marzipan, sweetmeats, wheat rolls and rye bread.
“In his estates, towns, and villages, a considerable number of poor people were likewise fed, and it is not yet known how much has been consumed altogether.”


Thursday 21 November 2013

TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN. Tales from the records of the Spanish Inquisition

In the popular imagination the Spanish Inquisition is associated with heretics being burned at the stake. But the statistics show that executions were infrequent. Here are some figures:

  • Some 26,000 people were tried in Aragon between 1540 and 1700 – 2 percent were executed (the judicial term for this was “being relaxed”, meaning handed over to the secular government for execution).
  • In Toledo, 1422 people were tried between 1575 and 1610 -- 15 were “relaxed”. Others were scourged, imprisoned, had their property confiscated, served on galleys, or were exiled. 179 were acquitted or had their case dismissed. The majority of those found guilty was formally reconciled with the church and had to walk in an auto-da-fe.

What is an auto-da-fe? A public ritual, in which heretics had to demonstrate that they were penitent. They took part in a procession, wearing sackcloth (sanbenito) and carrying candles or crosses. Their sentences were read out aloud, and they fell on their knees to give thanks to God (or just thanks for having escaped the clutches of the Inquisition?)

Witches and Jews were not the only ones dragged before the tribunals. The Fugger Newsletter (a forerunner of today’s newspaper) lists the 38 people who walked in an auto-da-fe in Seville, 3 May 1579. There were Jews, Moors, nuns, Lutherans, escaped slaves, and fornicators.  One was burned at the stake. The others were reconciled with the church.
Here are examples of the sentences handed down:
  • Juan de Color, a black slave, 35 years old, “reviled the name of Our Dear Lady” and denied her miracles: 2 years imprisonment.
  • Juan Corineo, a Moor, said: “Our Dear Lady did not conceive as a virgin”: 100 strokes of the rod.
  • Francisco Gonzales married twice: 100 strokes of the rod and three years on a galley.
  • Francisco Berocano “said that it was no sin if a woman tgoes to a man and they copulate.” No punishment since he “disavowed his words as frivolous.”
  • Orbrian, a native of Flanders, 30 years old, burned paintings of Jesus, endorsed the teachings of Luther, and “showed great stubbornness”: goods confiscated, burned at the stake.

Sunday 17 November 2013


In the summer of 1525, the shoemaker Silvestre Gonzales of Las Palmas, a convert to Christianity, was accused of relapsing into Judaism -- eating kosher meat and celebrating the Sabbath in his house. He was gagged, seated on an ass, and thrashed through the streets of Las Palmas. The following year, he insisted that none of the accusations against him had been proven. Wrong move! He was tried again.
From the records for the second trial:
"23 January 1526:
He is sentenced to be put to torture and is bound hands and feet to a frame; then water is poured down his throat. After the second jar of water, he begs to be unbound and promises to speak the truth. He is a dog and a Jew, and if they will only unbind him, he will tell them the number of Jews on the island. [He also implicates his father]. Two days later he declares that his confession made under torture was a lie, that he said the first thing that came to mind to be set free. He is again put to torture, and after the second jar of water, admits that he is a Jew but insists that he gave false testimony against his father. After four more jars of water, he begs to be released and swears to speak the truth.

24 January 1526:
He says that what the witnesses have said about him is untrue.

31st January 1526:
The judges are of the opinion that he has perjured himself and shows no remorse and must be handed over to the civil authorities [for the death penalty].”

Silvestre was burned at the stake on February 24, 1526, together with his father Alvaro. Alvaro had a previous conviction. On that occasion he had been sentenced to do public penance. He was gagged (for uttering blasphemies) and had to stand at the church door for three Sundays holding a candle and wearing the corozo (a kind of pointed dunce cap).

In August 1530, Johan de Xeres, a silk merchant of Las Palmas, was accused of keeping the fast of Yom Kippur. He was “stripped and tied to the ladder in preparation for the water torture. After receiving eleven jars of water, the prisoner says that, seeing he must die, he wishes to confess the truth. The charges against himself and his relatives are true. Being brought into court again, he declares that the confession was made in his death agony and is false.”

Johan de Xeres was handed over to the secular authorities for capital punishment. His property was forfeited to the Crown.


Thursday 14 November 2013

Still more from THE HAMMER OF WITCHES: The trial procedure

In a case of witchcraft, the prisoner is not permitted to know the names of his accusers, [because they may be bewitched in revenge]. But the judge must inquire into any personal enmity felt by the witnesses toward the prisoner.  For the less opportunity the prisoner has to defend himself, the more carefully and diligently should the judge conduct his inquiry.

The witch should be led backward into the presence of the judge [so that she cannot bewitch him with her eyes]. As a precaution she should be stripped and her hair shaved from every part of her body, for witches are in the habit of hiding charms in their hair or even in the most secret parts of their bodies which must not be named.

[If she is recalcitrant, she must be tortured].
If, after being properly tortured, she still refuses to confess the truth, she should be shown other instruments of torture and threatened that she would have to endure those. If then she is not induced by terror to confess, the torture must be continued for a second and third day.

Let the judge take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence or when being tortured. A witch will not be able to weep, although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping.

[The devil has made witches immune to red-hot irons.]
A witch in Constance asked for trial by red-hot iron and carried it not only for the stipulated three paces, but offered to carry it even farther. Although the judge ought to have taken this as manifest proof that she was a witch, she was released and lives to the present day, which is a great scandal to the faith!

Sunday 10 November 2013

More from the inquisitor's manual, THE HAMMER OF WITCHES: The fury of a woman scorned.

In the town of Regensburg, a young man had an affair with a girl and, when he left her, lost his penis through a spell she cast over him.

In his worry he went to a tavern to get drunk and started talking to a woman there, telling her everything and giving a physical demonstration of his loss.

The woman said: “If you can’t persuade her to restore your health, you must use violence.”

The next evening he talked to the girl, but she maintained her innocence. Then he fell upon her and, throttling her with a towel, said: “Unless you give me back my health, you shall die at my hands.”

With her face already swelling and turning black, she said: “Let me go, and I will heal you.” The young man relaxed the pressure of the towel, and the witch touched him between his legs, saying: “Now you have what you desire.” And the young man plainly felt, even before he verified it by looking or touching, that his penis had been restored. 

Note: Do not believe that a penis can really be removed from the body, but rather that it is hidden by the devil through magic art so that it can be neither seen nor felt.


Friday 8 November 2013


From The Hammer of Witches, 1486:

                             Why Superstition Is Chiefly Found In Women
  • They are more credulous than men, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, he attacks them by preference.
  • They are readier to receive spiritual influences. When they use this quality well, they are very good, but when they abuse it, they are very bad.
  • They have slippery tongues.
  • They are feebler in mind and body than men.
  • They were formed from a bent rib [of Adam], which makes them deceptive.
  • The word femina [Latin for woman] is derived from fe [faith] and minor [less].
  • They are affected by strong passions, given to brooding and vengeance…wherefore it is no wonder that so great a number of witches exist.
  • Women have weak memories…to follow their own impulses without thinking of what is due – that’s all they can keep in mind.
  • Woman is a liar by nature.
  • She is more dangerous than a snare…If she places her hands on a creature to bewitch it, she achieves her purpose with the help of the devil.


Yes, friends, I’ve changed the heading and the direction of my blog. From now on I’m posting quotations from historical sources that may surprise or shock or amuse you. I begin with the Hammer of Witches, a medieval handbook for inquisitors, compiled by Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger and first published in 1486.

Sunday 3 November 2013


How can I parody a man who is shaped like a Goodyear blimp and looks like a parody of a man? I mean Rob Ford, the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto and friend of downtrodden drug dealers. How can I improve on his statement I don’t throw my friends under the bus? Is that a kind of update on the biblical casting pearls before swine?

How can I spoof the incompetence of government employees when they beat me to it with their glitch-prone US healthcare site? Can I be funnier than spokeswoman Marilyn Tavenner, who apologized and promised to bring in a new infusion of talent ( Oh no, please, Marilyn, we are still trying to cope with the first load of talent. Tavenner, by the way, is a former nurse. I can just see her holding your hand, as you lie on your deathbed after a botched operation: Don’t worry, dear. We’ll bring in a new infusion of talent.

How can I improve on the news of teenagers beginning to lose interest in Facebook and Prof Neil Bearse’s profound analysis of the trend: Teenagers tend to stay away from places when their parents, teachers or potential employers show up (Globe 31 Oct). Oh, so you need a doctorate and a chair in a School of Business to come up with that bit of insight? How can I improve on Neil Bearse’s DUH statement?

Speaking of Facebook: apparently it is now the provider of news for 78 percent of its users. People go on to Facebook to share personal moments, and they discover the news almost incidentally, as Amy Mitchell of PEW explains. How can I beat that for satirical value?

I can’t. So farewell to spoofing contemporary events. From now on my incredible stories will be taken from bygone times. I have in mind something along the lines of “facts are stranger than historical fiction.”

Yes, friends, that’s my new motto. Future blog posts will feature rummelsincrediblestories from the past.