Seven woman and one man, villagers from the remote region of Val Camonica in the Italian Alps, were burned to death today in 1505, after being tried for witchcraft. The execution marked the beginning of two outbreaks of witch-mania in the region, which only ended in 1521 after 110 people had been killed. They were found guilty of casting spells, conjuring fires, calling forth drought and plague, and commanding thunderstorms.
‘A most pernicious kind of people were utterly damned by the stain of heresy, which was causing them to renounce the sacrament of the baptism they had received, denying their Lord and giving their bodies and souls to Satan whose advice was leading them astray. In order to do something to please him, they were eagerly and indiscriminately slaughtering small children and were not afraid to carry out other acts of harmful magic and fortune telling.’ Pope Leo X, letter to the Bishops of Venetia
Today is the feast of St Etheldreda – or to use the Norman version of her name, Audrey. The daughter of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon king, she managed to hang on to her virginity through two marriages – in the first case, by persuading her husband to respect her vow of perpetual celibacy, and in the second, by fleeing from husband number 2 to the Isle of Ely, assisted by a rising tide which cut him off from her. She gave her name to St Etheldreda’s, one of the oldest of London’s churches, and Catholic, in which is a relic of Etheldreda’s hand, kept in a jewel cask.
The Roman Emperor Vespasian, who became the top Roman when Nero committed suicide, himself died today in the year 79. Before becoming Emperor, he commanded the legions which fought the First Jewish War, savagely putting down a revolt in Judea, which culimnated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70. He was in power for a decade, and as he felt death approaching, famously quipped, Vae puto deus fio – ‘Alas! I think I’m becoming a god!’ His final, final words were, ‘An Emperor ought to die standing,’ and he died struggling to get to his feet.
John Mill, the theologian and early textual critic of the Greek New Testament, died today in 1707. Mill spent 30 years examining a large number of surviving manuscripts, and collected over 30,000 differences of wording between them. He was attacked by other scholars who accused him of undermining the truth of the scriptures, but his work was a big step forward in understanding how the New Testament was copied and transmitted across the centuries.