Religion26 Mar 2010 09:13 am
Death by burning has a long and storied history in the grisly annals of capital punishment. The undisputed execution method du jour for the crimes of treason, heresy and witchcraft before the practice fell out of favor in the late 18th century death by burning is now considered cruel and unusual punishment in the Western world. According to ancient records, many an early Christian martyr met their maker thanks to the Roman practice of punishing the newly-minted followers of Christ by burning them alive. Luckily for Christians, the tables had turned in their favor by 1184, when the Synod of Verona (Catholic church council) legislated that burning was to be the official punishment for heresy. This decree was later reaffirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, the Synod of Toulouse in 1229, and numerous spiritual and secular leaders up through the 17th century.
Execution by burning surged in popularity during the 14th and 15th centuries, as witch trials became all the rage in Scotland, Spain, England, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. It is estimated that up to four million convicted “witches” and heretics were burned at the stake during this time. Called The auto de fé, the popular ritual involved a Catholic Mass; prayer; a public procession of those found guilty; and a reading of their sentences which took place in public squares or esplanades and lasted several hours with ecclesiastical and civil authorities in attendance. After this lengthy service, the patience of the attending audience was well rewarded when the condemned were bound to a large stakes and roasted to death. According to experts on such things, death comes from the carbon monoxide poisoning before the flames engulf the body if the fire is relatively large (for instance, when a large number of heretics were executed at the same time). However, if the fire is small, the convict burns slowly and dies in great pain.
The Catholic saint Joan of Arc is probably the most famous historical figure to be put to death by burning. Claiming divine guidance, this nineteen year old peasant girl led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years’ War. Moreover, she was indirectly responsible for the coronation of Charles VII. Eventually captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English, Joan was tried by an ecclesiastical court which found her guilty of heresy and condemned her to death by burning. Tied to a tall pillar in the Vieux-Marche in Rouen, she asked two of the clergy, Fr Martin Ladvenu and Fr Isambart de la Pierre, to hold a crucifix before her (to give her something to look at while she died). After she died, the English allegedly raked back the coals to expose her charred body so that no one could claim she had escaped alive, and then burned her body twice more in a literal example of the word “overkill”. Her executioner, Geoffrey Therage, admitted later that he “…greatly feared to be damned.”
On the initiative of Charles VII Twenty-four years later, Pope Callixtus III reviewed the decision of the ecclesiastical court and found Joan innocent of all charges and declared her a Catholic martyr too boot. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. She is, along with St. Denis, St. Martin of Tours, St. Louis IX, and St. Theresa of Lisieux, an official patron saint of France.
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