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Beza on Zwingli

A nicely turned epigram on Zwingli by Theodore Beza from his Icones–all the more surprising because Protestants can’t write, and what is true in general should be true a fortiori in the particular case of writing about Zwingli! Beza’s imagination, it seems, did not get the memo that it did not exist.1

Zvinglius arderet gemino quum sanctus amore,
Nempe Dei in primis, deinde etiam patriae,
Dicitur in solidum se devovisse duobus,
Nempe Deo in primis, deinde etiam patriae.
Quam bene persolvit simul istis vota duobus,
Pro patria exanimis, pro pietate cinis!

Since Saint Zwingli burned with a twin love–
that is to say, of God first, and of his country second–
it is said that he vowed himself wholly to two things–
that is to say, to God first, and to his country second.
How well he paid his vows to these two at the same time–
killed for his country, burned for his piety!

Beza refers to Zwingli’s death in the Battle of Kappel in defense of Zurich. Afterwards, his body was found, tried, and burned. You can read Bullinger’s account of his death here, of which a part reads:

Above all there was tremendous joy when Zwingli’s body was found among the dead. All the morning crowds came up, everyone wanting to see Zwingli. The vituperation and insults hurled against him by many jealous people are beyond description. Mr. Bartholomew Stocker of Zug, himself a chaplain, told me after the war that he had been persuaded to see Zwingli in the company of Mr. Hansen Schonbrunner Senior who had formerly been a canon of the Fraumunster and then returned to Zug. Zwingli’s face was more like that of a living man than a corpse. Indeed he had exactly the same look as he had when preaching, which was remarkable, and Mr. Schonbrunner could not keep back his tears and said ‘Had you but been of our faith I know what a stalwart Swiss you would have been. God forgive your sins.’ He then returned to Zug, having come for the sole purpose of seeing Zwingli and shortly afterwards he died.

Later that day a crowd of wild young men collected, including pensioners and mercenaries, whom Zwingli had vigorously attacked and who were equally incensed against him. They considered dividing Zwingli’s body into five parts, sending one portion to each of the Five States. Others disagreed: who would want to carry round or send forward a heretic? He should be burnt. Some of the leaders, like Schultheiss Golder and Amman Doos, came forward, saying that a dead man should be left in peace. This was not the place for action of this sort. No one could tell how it was going to be settled—some talked about the need for luck, and so on. To this the noisy gang replied that they had discussed the matter fully and they wanted some action to be taken. So injustice triumphed, and when the leaders saw that there was nothing to be done they went off.

The crowd then spread it abroad throughout the camp that anyone who wanted to denounce Zwingli as a heretic and betrayer of a pious confederation, should come on to the battlefield. There, with great contempt, they set up a court of injustice on Zwingli which decided that his body should be quartered and the portions burnt. All this was carried into effect by the executioner from Lucerne with abundance of abuse; among other things he said that although some had asserted that Zwingli was a sick man he had in fact never seen a more healthy-looking body.

They threw into the fire the entrails of some pigs that had been slaughtered the previous night and then they turned over the embers so that the pigs offal was mixed with Zwingli’s ashes. This was done close to the high road to Scheuren.

Another report reads:

Three times Zwingli was thrown to the ground by the advancing forces but in each case he stood up again. On the fourth occasion a spear reached his chin and he fell to his knees saying, “They can kill the body but not the soul.” And after these words, he fell asleep in the Lord. After the battle, when our forces had withdrawn to a stronger position, the enemy had time to look for Zwingli’s body, both his presence and his death having been quickly reported. He was found judgment was passed on him, his body was quartered and burnt to ashes. Three days after the foes had gone away Zwingli’s friends came to see if any trace of him was left, and what a miracle! In the midst of the ashes lay his heart whole and undamaged.

The conclusion of this second account makes one wonder if Beza is in part playing with the tropes of the miraculous ends and preservation of (parts of) saints and martyrs, accounts (and relics) of which had been so popular for several centuries. If the latter account was widespread, the name-epithet combination Zvinglius…sanctus in the opening line presumably would be enough to call it to mind for the attentive reader.

The poem is self-evidently nicely structured: e.g., the parallel lines 2 and 4, and the ring composition achieved through opening with figurative burning (arderet) and closing with actual burning (cinis). There is also perhaps an allusion in the final line to Horace’s famous dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

  1. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.