On the 7th April 1498, a group of Franciscan monks met their Dominican rivals in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence to take part in the first trial by fire in 400 years. The belief was that God would intervene to protect the rightful side from the flames as they walked over them. But the trial never went ahead.
The Dominican friar Savonarola had built a powerful following in Florence with his passionate sermons against vices and luxuries that tempted people to sin. The previous year he had been excommunicated for defying Pope Alexander VI’s order to stop preaching sermons in which the Pope himself was criticized for corruption and greed. However, Savonarola ignored the Pope’s order and continued to preach and to celebrate mass. Combined with his support for the French invasion of northern Italy, which he claimed was God’s punishment for the Florentines’ sinful past, Savonarola began to face a large and vocal opposition.
When he hinted at having performed miracles, monks from the rival Franciscan order proposed a trial by fire to prove Savonarola’s holiness. When the two sides met on the 7th April, they squabbled for so long that a rainstorm eventually led to the cancellation of the event.
With Savonarola unable to prove his claim, the crowd turned against him. The next day his convent was stormed by an angry mob and he was arrested. Within six weeks he and two fellow friars had been executed for heresy.
(The image shows Savonarola’s execution, but we can’t find any of his trial by fire.)
The Book of Mormon is a key sacred text of the Latter Day Saint movement that was published by Joseph Smith, the founder of the movement, when he was twenty-four years old. He claimed to have been visited by the angel Moroni who showed him the location of a buried book etched on golden plates in a previously unknown language referred to as ‘reformed Egyptian’. He translated the plates into English with the help of special spectacles or seer stones, and dictated the resulting text to a scribe.
Smith approached the printer and publisher Egbert B. Grandin after work on the book was completed in 1829. He was eventually persuaded to print 5,000 copies, but only went through with the full task after prosperous local farmer and early Mormon convert Martin Harris mortgaged his farm to cover the $3,000 security payment. It took Grandin’s staff of eight men and boys under the oversight of chief compositor John H. Gilbert almost eight months of working 12 hour, six day weeks to complete the job.
Concerned that the book might undermine existing Christian beliefs, and could even be blasphemous, local people in Palmyra organised a boycott. With thousands of original copies remaining unsold, the financier Martin Harris was later forced to sell his farm to cover to outstanding debt.
The original building in which Grandin printed and sold the first edition of the Book of Mormon was bought by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October 1978. It was subsequently restored to its original layout and appearance, albeit with the addition of a visitors’ centre.
On the 23rd March 1540, Waltham Abbey in Essex became the last abbey to be dissolved by Henry VIII. Henry had visited the abbey a number of times and is known to have stayed there with Queen Anne Boleyn in 1532. However, despite surviving for a number of years Waltham Abbey eventually succumbed to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This caused an economic disaster in the town, which had grown prosperous as a result of pilgrims visiting the abbey.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the more than 850 religious houses that existed in England at the start of Henry VIII’s reign disbanded and their property taken by the crown. Although only some of these were actual ‘monasteries’, England’s religious houses together owned between a quarter to a third of all the land in England. Furthermore, many of them were rumoured to tolerate decidedly un-monastic behaviour.
Having severed his ties with the Catholic Church in the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry was free to deal with religious houses without needing approval from the Pope. Within two years his ministers began to shut down religious houses on financial grounds, and by 1540 all the abbeys except for Waltham had been closed. Abbot Robert Fuller surrendered the abbey and its property on the 23rd March 1540, and within just a few years all the buildings except for the parish nave were demolished or collapsed due to neglect. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was completed in less than four years, but brought Henry significant income as well as suppressing political opposition from those who might have sided with the Pope.
On the 17th March 1766, the first recorded St Patrick’s Day parade took place…in New York. Irish soldiers serving in the British Army led the parade which, due to the high number of Irish immigrants in the city, quickly became an annual tradition. The first parade in Ireland didn’t take place until 1903 in Waterford.
St Patrick was a Romano-British Christian missionary who converted thousands of Irish Pagans before his death in 461. Although he didn’t really rid Ireland of snakes, since Ireland never contained any snakes, he was responsible for driving out Paganism from almost the entire country. The 17th March, the reputed date of St Patrick’s death, was being marked with feasting by the end of the 10th Century. However, it was not officially recognised by the Catholic Church until the early 17th Century.
Within a century, however, Irish immigrants to America had begun to mark the date in their own ways. Significantly, the early settlers were predominantly Protestant and this helps to explain why many St Patrick’s Day celebrations are largely secular in nature as they are associated more with celebrating Irish culture than the Catholic Saint. This also became an official approach of the Irish Government in the mid-1990s, who established the St Patrick’s Festival to showcase Irish culture.
However, the secularisation of St Patrick’s Day has drawn criticism from some Church leaders who have criticised its “mindless alcohol-fuelled revelry”. In the past, pubs and bars in Ireland had actually been required to close on the 17th March due to concerns over excessive drinking. However, that law was repealed in the 1970s.
On the 1st March 1692, the Salem witch trials began when Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba were brought before local magistrates in Salem Village, Massachusetts. The paranoia and hysteria that ensued eventually led to the executions of twenty men and women, and the deaths of seven more accused whilst in prison.
Salem’s witch hysteria began in January 1692 when the daughter and niece of the Reverend Samuel Parris began to suffer violent fits. The local doctor couldn’t find a physical cause for their illness, and so blamed the supernatural. Other young girls in the community soon began to display similar symptoms, and three local women were accused of bewitching them.
Significantly, the three women were all in some way social outcasts – Tituba was a slave; Sarah Good was a homeless beggar and Sarah Osborne was a poor elderly woman who rarely attended church. They were brought in front of local magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, and although both Good and Osborne denied their guilt Tituba confessed to being “the Devil’s servant”. The reason for her confession is unclear, but it is presumed that she sought to act as an informer in a bid to save herself.
Over the next few weeks dozens more people were accused of witchcraft including the four-year old Dorothy Good, Sarah’s Good’s daughter, who was imprisoned for nine months before being released on bond for £50.
Of the three women first accused of witchcraft in Salem, only Sarah Good was executed. Sarah Osborne died in jail while on trial while Tituba was eventually freed from jail after an anonymous person paid her fees.
On the 23rd February 1455, tradition dictates that Johannes Gutenberg published his printed Bible – the first book to be produced with moveable type in the West. Although there is no definitive evidence for this publication date, numerous secondary sources state it and therefore it is accepted by most people.
Gutenberg was not the first person in the world to use moveable type, and nor was the Bible his first foray into printing with it. He didn’t even produce that many copies, with estimates ranging from 160 to 185 Bibles of which only twenty-three complete copies survive. However, the process with which Gutenberg printed his Bible revolutionised the production of books and is viewed by many as crucial to the developments that followed in the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The earliest examples of moveable type – the use of individual components that can be ordered to produce a printed document – date back to China’s Northern Song Dynasty at the turn of the last millennium, but the enormous number of characters in scripts based on the Chinese writing system made the system unwieldly. Gutenberg therefore benefited from the much smaller number of characters in the Latin alphabet, but also invented a reliable way to cast large numbers of individual metal letters using a device called the hand mould. Furthermore, he developed an oil-based ink that was optimised for metal-type printing onto paper.
With 1,286 pages a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible is now estimated to be worth up to $35 million dollars, but the value of the printing press itself is immeasurable. Gutenberg’s creation was responsible for an intellectual revolution.
On the 13th February 1689, William and Mary became co-regents of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland after agreeing to the Declaration of Right. On the 5th November the previous year William, the head of state of the Dutch Republic, landed at Torbay after being invited by a group of English Parliamentarians to invade England. His Dutch fleet and army went on to oust the Catholic King James II, his wife Mary’s father, in the so-called Glorious Revolution. James was allowed to flee the country and later took up exile in France.
The Declaration of Right, which became a Bill after it was formally passed on the 16th December, joined other documents such as Magna Carta and the Petition of Right as a central part of the uncodified British constitution. The Declaration placed limits on the monarch’s power and confirmed Parliament’s own rights, ensuring that it was free to function without royal interference. Furthermore, it banned Catholics from the throne.
Parliament originally only wanted to offer the crown to Mary, with William as Prince Consort, but the couple pressed for co-regency. Parliament agreed, and so on the 13th February the couple was declared king and queen. Their coronation took place on the 11th April.
The Glorious Revolution was not seen as such by everyone. The Bill of Right was both politically and religiously divisive, laying the foundations for generations of conflict. Beginning with the Williamite–Jacobite War that confirmed British and Protestant rule in Ireland, the Protestant Ascendancy established political, economic and social domination of the country for over two centuries.
On the 29th December 1170, Thomas Becket – the Archbishop of Canterbury – was murdered in front of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. He had been appointed by Henry II to the most important religious position in England in 1162, but was slain after some of the king’s men interpreted one of their ruler’s angry outbursts as the desire to have Becket killed.
Thomas Becket was appointed Chancellor by Henry in 1155. In this job he proved himself to be a loyal member of the king’s court and so when Theobald, the existing Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry saw his chance to dominate the church by appointing Becket to succeed him.
Having a loyal friend in the most senior religious position in England made sense to Henry. However, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket’s allegiance quickly switched to siding with the church. This frustrated Henry, who asked Becket to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164 to extend the king’s authority over the clergy. Becket refused, and shortly after being summoned to the king to explain his actions fled to France.
Becket returned in 1170 but, after excommunicating members of the clergy for supporting Henry, found himself the target of an angry outburst by the king – which almost certainly wasn’t “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Whatever Henry did say, however, it was enough to encourage four knights to travel to Canterbury and kill him inside the Cathedral. It is said that the fatal blow split his skull. Becket was canonised by the Pope barely two years after the murder, and in 1174 the king himself walked barefoot to Canterbury in penance.
On the 27th December 537, Hagia Sophia was inaugurated by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and Patriarch Menas of Constantinople. The current building is the third church of Holy Wisdom to be built on the site, after the first two were destroyed in separate riots and revolts. However the third church’s long history saw it serve as both a Greek Orthodox cathedral and a Roman Catholic cathedral, before Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. He ordered it be converted into a mosque, which it remained until being secularised and reopened as a museum on the 1st February 1935.
The architects of the enormous basilica were the physicist Isidoros of Miletos and mathematician Anthemios of Tralles who, as the first to put together a comprehensive compilation of the mathematical theories of Archimedes, was clearly heavily influenced by the Greek academic. The two architects devised a series of complex vaults and semi-domes surrounding a high central dome with a diameter of over 31 meters. Supported by four marble-clad arches, this dome is probably the most immediately recognisable part of the building although it is not the original structure. The first dome collapsed during an earthquake on the 7th May 558, and was rebuilt over the next four years.
After Mehmed II was victorious in what became known in the west as the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, he ordered the basilica be converted into a mosque. This involved stripping it of Christian iconography but also building the four minarets that surround the central dome and are now a major part of the Istanbul skyline.
The Exorcist is one of the highest-grossing films of all time, but originally opened in just twenty-six American cinemas. Famed for its ground-breaking special effects, the film terrified audiences yet was nominated for ten Academy Awards of which it won two.
The film, directed by William Friedkin who had previously had success with The French Connection, was adapted from William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name. This was itself inspired by reports of the real-life exorcism of an anonymous boy known by the pseudonym Roland Doe that emerged in the late 1940s. Blatty described his novel as ‘an apostolic work’ that sought to prove that if supernatural evil existed then so too must supernatural good.
These themes came through in Friedkin’s film, but for many audience members it was the sight of the twelve year-old Regan’s spinning head, levitation, vomiting and other extreme behaviour that proved most shocking and most memorable. With newspapers reporting cases of people fainting at screenings, The Exorcist quickly became a social phenomenon.
The film went on to sell 6 million tickets within just three months of its release in the United States despite a mixed response from the critics. While Variety praised its “expert telling of a supernatural horror story”, the New York Times criticised it as “a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap”.
Such negative responses failed to affect the film’s success, however. The Exorcist was the second most popular film of 1974 and, once gross earnings are adjusted for inflation, remains the ninth highest-grossing film of all time.