Thursday, March 01, 2007
Burning books... and the bookseller:
Papal persecution of the Waldenses
For the last month, I’ve been traipsing about the Alps and nearby valleys between France and Italy, and on a timeline around the mid-1500s. I’ve been trying to find a bookseller who was burned at the stake for selling books he shouldn’t have been selling, according to papal authorities at that time.
I recently acquired an antique print from 1770 that depicts a bookseller being burnt at the stake in Avignon. His crime was selling Protestant Bibles, reportedly printed in the native French tongue of his customers. The print came from Henry Southwell's, The New Book of Martyrs or Compleat Christian Martyrology, published in London by J. Cooke in 1770. I wanted to know who the bookseller was and why selling certain books cost him his life. I had a similar curiosity about a German bookseller named Johann Palm, who was executed by napoleon's troops, and researched some pretty fascinating history that resulted in the very first entry on this blog. So now I have another martyred bookseller on my hands. I know from the print that it happened sometime before 1770 in Avignon, France, and the bookseller was selling French language Bibles. Time for some more research.
My search led me to the Waldenses of France, a Protestant sect that broke from the teachings of the Church of Rome and suffered brutal persecution for hundreds of years. Providing some very brief background details, a certain Pierre Valdo became a thorn in the Pope's side sometime around 1150 A.D., preaching a reformed Christianity that supported separation from the Catholic Church. His followers became known as the Vaudois (Waldens), with most of their parishes being in the Alpine valley of the Piedmont. Their numbers reached about 20,000 and missionaries went forth to spread the word. They were savagely persecuted in France, Spain, and Italy. And over the next 600 years or so, the Vaudois, or Waldenses, suffered repeated persecution at the hands of Popes, and Dukes and Duchesses. But 1540-1570 seems to have been particularly cruel and horrific. That may be where the bookseller comes in, and being burned at the stake seems tame compared with the umbelievably inhuman torture suffered by most (details are spared here... see the Book of Martyrs if you have a strong stomach). Halley’s Bible handbook, 1965 estimates 900,000 Protestants killed from 1540 to 1570 in the persecution of the Waldenses. Concerning the persecutions in France, Southwell writes,
“Thus did popish malice pursue the reformed in most parts of France, and persecute them under various names, but the denomination about this time, viz. the sixteenth century, most obnoxious to the Roman Catholics were hugonots, protestants, Lutherans, and Calvinists; and as these words were then synonymous in their meaning, and implied renouncing the errors of the church of Rome, so all who were apprehended under the imputation of belonging to either, were equally martyred. Yet the reformed flourished under persecution….” [p. 93]
“the king [of France] publically declared he would exterminate the protestants from France….” “The general cry was ‘Turn papists, or die.’” [p. 108]
“Those who were not put to death suffered imprisonment, had their houses pulled down, their lands laid waste, their property stolen, and their wives and daughters, after being ravished, sent into convents…. If any fled from these cruelties, they were pursued through the woods, hunted and shot like wild beasts....At the head of the dragoons, in all the provinces of France, marched the bishops, priests, friars, &c. the clergy being ordered to keep up the cruel spirit of the military. An order was published for demolishing all protestant churches….” [pp. 108-109]
However, I can find no record of a bookseller being burned at the stake in Avignon, but a rather well-documented case of another bookseller’s demise, for the same crime no less as the that of the bookseller in Avignon, does exist about the same time in Turin, Italy. This bookseller was Bartholomew Hector, a native of Poiters in France. After his own break from the Church of Rome to embrace the Protestant faith, he had settled in Genoa to live peacefully with his family, practicing his new faith. He began selling Bibles and his journeys took him into the Piedmonts to sell French language Bibles to the Waldenses. On one such trip, he was captured by Roman soldiers and jailed for nearly seven months before being brought to trial for the crime of selling French language Bibles to Protestants. He was subsequently ordered to be burned at the stake in Turin. But the judges must have taken pity on him—a rare attitude in those times—because Hector was given several chances to renounce his faith and rejoin the Church of Rome. He refused. At the last minute, as he was about to be burned, he was offered on last chance, a most unusual gesture. Here’s what happened (from Testimony of Bartholomew Hector - A.D. 1555):
"To this faithful Christian man this last offer was but old temptation under a new form. It was in his eyes an absolute recantation of his Faith, an actual betrayed of the Savior who had died for him. This was no time for unholy compromises. Instead of returning an answer to the messenger of the court, he fell on his knees on the pile on which He was to die, and clasping his hands and raising his eyes to heaven, he exclaimed in a loud voice: "O Lord! Give me Grace to preserve unto the end; pardon those whose sentence is now to separate my soul from my body; they are not Unjust, but Blind. O Lord! Enlighten by Thy Spirit this people who are around me, and bring them very soon to a knowledge of the TRUTH." At these words the people, who had waited in a painful suspense, to see how the martyr would receive the offer of pardon, burst into a loud sob, and there were some who cried out that it was a shame to put to death so good man who gave such evidence of being a Christian. The officers, fearful of the effect of this feeling, ordered the execution to put his victim to death without delay. The martyr was seized, thrown down upon the pile and strangled, and at the same moment the flames shot up enveloping the stake and the victim from the gaze of the multitude. The soul of Hector had passed through eternity into New Jerusalem, to receive its reward from the hands of Him who has said: "To him that overcometh Will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and sit down with my Father in His throne."
Quite a story of unwavering faith. But this is just one of millions during several hundred years the Waldenses resisted the Church of Rome. It is very likely there was more than one bookseller selling French Protestant Bibles. It is equally likely that more than one could have been caught and burned at the stake. But the way in which Bartholomew Hector moved the people who had gathered to watch him burn distinguishes him from any others, of whom no record appears to exist.
Bartholomew Hector is the only “burnt bookseller” I know of from Foxe’s, Southwell's, and others’ editions of the Book of Martyrs. Is it possible that the French Protestant bookseller depicted by artist Dodd delin in Southwell’s book was actually executed in Turin? It stands to reason that if you’re going to depict a bookseller burning at the stake, your likely subject will be the bookseller well documented in the book in which your engraving will appear. Until I find out otherwise, if I do, I am leaning towards a factual error in the engraving.
Another interesting aspect of researching forgotten history subjects is what you find along the way that can take you down other roads, directly related or otherwise. For example, D.J. McAdam’s website for book collectors. Lots of interesting and valuable information here for bibliophiles. The page that linked to my research was about historical authors who met their fates because of the books they wrote. Within that page, a link to Books Fatal to Their Authors, by P.H. Ditchfield (1895) . And quite possibly, any bookseller caught selling such offensive material suffered a similar fate of mortality. With the two I have found this year, I may have the beginnings of another volume: Books That Killed the Bookseller.