31 October 2012

Was an actor "snuffed" on stage in 1549?

Exemplaria published a fascinating article in 1998.  Here's part of the abstract:
Shadowy as its source is now, there exists a medieval tale of theatrical representation that seems almost impossible to believe. It prompted a series of engaged electronic queries and communications on the PERFORM discussion group 1 and also (independently) a dose of skepticism from theorist Richard Schechner, who hastened to emphasize the vast ideological difference between imitation and reality.Did an on-stage execution really take place in 1549 in the city of Tournai or not?

According to somewhat questionable evidence about a biblical drama performed in Tournai, the “actor” playing Judith actually beheaded a convicted murderer who had briefly assumed the “role” of Holofernes long enough to be killed during the “play” to thunderous ap- plause. In his work on the history of French theater in Belgium, Frederic Faber scrupulously reconstructs the festive circumstances of this incident associated with the royal entry of Philip II. [see text image at top]

The source article is long (34 pages), and I can't even begin to do it justice with excerpts,  It addresses the (unsolved) question of whether this reported execution in a public theater was real, or legendary, or whether it was "staged."  Surprisingly (to me) medieval artists had the capacity to perform impressive "special effects" -

An excellent read - especially for Halloween.  Here's the link again: Medieval Snuff Drama, via Medievalists.net.


  1. I believe Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror)recounts an instance during the MA at which a town was so bored, they purchased a convicted criminal from another town and had him 'drawn and quartered' for entertainment.

    And she also mentions a popular street game for children whereby a cat is nailed by the hind leg to a post and participants are encouraged to beat it to death with their foreheads - while avoiding having an eye scratched out I suppose!

    I have no idea if the play in question actually was a 'snuff' play. But I certainly believe its possible.

  2. This particular story is also recounted in "Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends" by Jody Enders. Although it is impossible to either prove or disprove the reality of this public execution, an in depth review points to an urban legend carefully assembled such as to use real facts as a backdrop for a fictitious scene. Perhaps to help depict Philip as a cold blooded murderer who got his jollies pretty much as Caligula did.

    Some of the facts:

    The existence of a Renaissance Judith play that calls for a beheading (albeit not a real one)

    The real visit of Philip to Tournai in 1549, when he spent one day in town, on 8 August and left for Douai the following day. There were plays performed in Philip's honour in Tournai and some theatres were built for the occasion. However, there is no mention of a Judith performance being enacted that day.

    There was one Jehan de Crehan, a magistrate who appears in historical records. However, he does not figure on the list of entrepreneurs that were in charge with organizing the theatrical performances during Philip's visit. There is no mention of Jean de Bury, either.

    There were instances in which heretics which would have otherwise been burnt at the stake were offered the alternative of a beheading as a more humane form of execution. However there is no mention that any of these beheadings was ever disguised in the form of a theatrical performance.

    All in all it seems extremely improbable that Philip stumbled upon the climax of a real snuff drama (which he wholeheartedly enjoyed) and the novice executioner got it right the very first time.

    But, interestingly enough, a theatre censorship law was passed three years after Philip's visit to Tournai. Charles V. Philip's father issued an edict that required pre-approval of any plays staged in the region.


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