12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance

Khalid Elhassan - November 9, 2017

The one commonality uniting all of mankind, regardless of time, place, race or sex is that sooner or later, everybody shuffles off the mortal coil, and death comes to us all – although some of us shuffle off that mortal coil in… shall we say, unusual ways. That held true for way back when as much as it holds true today, with the caveat that way back when had some strange deaths that were unique to the circumstances and conditions of their times, and their like will probably never be seen again in our modern era.

That holds particularly true for the Renaissance period, which witnessed some truly weird demises. From Charles the Bad of Navarre, who was burned to death in his bed in 1387 while swaddled in linen steeped in highly flammable spirits, to Hans Steinenger, the burgomaster of Braunau in today’s Austria, who proudly cultivated a luxurious long beard that grew to over four and a half feet in length, only to break his neck tripping on said beard in 1567 while rushing out of a burning house, to James Betts, who suffocated to death after his lover sealed him in a cupboard in Corpus Christi College in 1667 in an attempt to hide him from her father, the Renaissance had its fair share of people who ended their days in highly unusual and strange ways.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Blind king John of Bohemia charging the English at the Battle of Crecy, 1346. British Battles

Following are 12 of the strangest deaths of the Renaissance:

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Edward, the Black Prince, paying his respects to the corpse of John of Bohemia after the Battle of Crecy. Imgur

John of Bohemia

John of Bohemia (1296 – 1346), also known as John the Blind after losing his eyesight ten years before his death, was one of the most celebrated warriors of his era, having campaigned and fought across Europe from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. He was Count of Luxembourg from 1309, and when his father-in-law, the king of Bohemia, died without male heirs, John inherited that realm through his wife and became king of Bohemia from 1310 until his death.

A son of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, his father made him Count of Luxembourg in 1309, but when his father died in 1313, John was too young to inherit his throne, and so threw his support to Louis the Bavarian, who became Emperor Louis IV in 1314. An early supporter of the Emperor, he fell out with Louis IV after the latter sided with England against France in the Hundred Years War.

During his reign, John fought against Hungary, Austria, England, and the Russians campaigned in the Tyrol and northern Italy and expanded his domain by acquiring Silesia, parts of Lusatia, and most of Lombardy. He lost his eyesight from ophthalmia in 1336 while crusading against the pagan Lithuanians. Any popularity he might have gained at home was offset, however, by heavy taxation to pay for his lavish expenses.

John had strong ties to France, and having been raised and educated in Paris, was virtually French in his outlook and sympathies, even sending his own son to be educated in Paris rather than in his own Bohemian capital of Prague. When king Philip VI of France asked for his help against England’s Edward III, John, despite his blindness, came to the French king’s aid, met him in Paris in August of 1346, and marched off with him in pursuit of the English king.

When the armies met at the Battle of Crecy, August 26th, 1346, John was in command of the French vanguard and a significant contingent of the French army. The excitement, sounds, and scent of the battle must have awakened the old war dog in him, for despite his blindness, he ordered his retinue to tie their horses to his and ride into battle so he could deliver at least one stroke of his sword against the English, and thus satisfy his honor by taking an actual part in the battle.

His knights did as commanded, and tied to their horses, the blind king rode into the fight. It did not go well, however. John the Blind, being blind, was unable to judge how far he had gone, and plunged in too deep into the English ranks. He ended up getting cut off and enveloped by the enemy, and in the ensuing melee, the blind king and all of his retinue were slaughtered.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Martin of Aragon. Wikimedia

Martin of Aragon

King Martin of Aragon, also known as Martin the Humane (1356 – 1410), ruled a realm encompassing Aragon, Valencia, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, from 1396, following his brother John I’s death without male issue – although he did have daughters. It was a generally turbulent reign, rife with unrest from scheming nobles, and from the start, Martin had to overcome challenges to his claimed right to ascend the throne, particularly from the family and partisans of his nieces, his late brother’s daughters. He beat back invasions by his nieces’ supporters, but they kept up their claims, as did their sons.

Reportedly, Martin died in 1410 after consuming an entire goose, but something about the fowl was foul and did not agree with him, and gave the king indigestion. He retired to his chamber and summoned his court jester, who took his time in arriving. When he finally appeared before the king, Martin asked him where he had been, and the jester replied: “in the next vineyard, your majesty, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if somebody had punished him for stealing figs“.

Something about that joke and the image it evoked struck king Martin as particularly hilarious – apparently, while some jokes are timeless and universal, many more are time and culture-sensitive, and in the 15th century Aragon, deer hanging by the tail as punishment for stealing figs were apparently funny. So funny, in king Martin’s case, that he laughed uncontrollably for three hours, until he finally fell out of the bed, and hit the floor stone dead.

Failing to secure the succession to an illegitimate son, Martin ended up as the last king of the Aragonite House of Barcelona (878 – 1410) and was succeeded by a nephew, Ferdinand I of Aragon. Martin, however, had gone out laughing, which, all things considering, was not a bad ending for a royal life or dynasty, considering the typically nasty historical alternatives whereby royal dynasties and noble lineages usually come to an end.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
The Duke of Clarence being drowned in a barrel of wine. Vyper Look

George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence

George Plantagenet, First Duke of Clarence (1449 – 1478), was the youngest son of Richard, Duke of York whose claims on the crown led to the Wars of the Roses, and the brother of King Edward IV of England, who made him the Duke of Clarence after defeating the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461 and getting himself crowned king. The following year, King Edward made his youngest brother Lord Lieutenant of Ireland as well, notwithstanding that George was only 13 at the time. George repaid his brother’s generosity with multiple conspiracies until the exasperated Edward finally ordered his death.

As he grew into manhood, George idolized and came under the influence of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, also known as “The Kingmaker”, who had been instrumental in deposing the Lancastrian king Henry VI and replacing him with Edward IV. George married Neville’s daughter in defiance of the king’s wishes to marry his youngest brother into a European royal family to secure a dynastic alliance.

Neville eventually fell out with king Edward and deserted to the Lancastrians, and George, despite being a member of the York family, took his father-in-law’s side, betrayed his brother, and joined the Lancastrian camp. Thanks to the Kingmaker’s intrigues, Edward IV was deposed and forced to flee England in 1470, while king Henry VI was restored to the throne.

However, George then started to mistrust his father-in-law, and switched his support from the Kingmaker back to his brother. Edward IV returned to England in 1471 and defeated the Lancastrians. The Kingmaker was killed in battle, and the twice deposed Henry VI was murdered, soon after his sole son and heir was executed, to ensure that neither he nor his line would pose any future threats. The wayward George was pardoned by Edward IV.

However, George once again betrayed his elder brother and was caught conspiring against him. Fed up, Edward IV jailed George in the Tower of London and tried him for treason, personally conducting the prosecution before Parliament. George was convicted, attainted, and sentenced to death, and on February 18th, 1478, he was executed by getting dunked into a big barrel of Malmsey wine, and forcibly held under its surface until he was drowned.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Dozsa on the Wall, by Gyula Derkovitz. 50 Watts

Gyorgy Dozsa

Gyorgy Dozsa (1470 – 1514) was a Transylvanian nobleman and soldier of fortune who led the Hungarian Dozsa Rebellion of 1514 – an unsuccessful uprising of downtrodden Hungarian peasants against their aristocratic overlords. After the peasant rebellion was put down and Dozsa with it, he went down in history as both a notorious criminal and as a Christian martyr.

After earning a reputation for valor and making a name for himself in wars against the Ottoman Turks, Dozsa was appointed by Pope Leo X to lead a Crusade against the Ottomans. An army of about 40,000 volunteers soon assembled under his banner, comprised in the main of peasants, friars, and parish priests – the lowest rungs of society. The nobility however failed to supply the Crusaders, or to offer military leadership – which was particularly off putting, since military leadership was the main justification for the aristocracy’s high social status. It was not long before the gathered throng began to voice collective grievances against the oppressive nobles, and at harvest time, the peasants refused to return and reap the fields.

When the aristocrats tried to seize the peasants by force and compel them to toil, Dozsa’s conscience was stirred, and siding with the serfs against his own class, led the Hungarian peasants in a violent uprising that became a war of extermination against the landlords. Hundreds of castles and noble manors were ransacked and put to the torch, while thousands of the gentry were killed, often tortured to death or executed in a variety of gruesome ways, such as crucifixion or impalement.

With difficulty, the uprising was finally put down, and the peasantry were subjected to a reign of terror and endured a wave of retaliatory vengeance by their noble overlords. Over 70,000 were tortured to death, the peasantry as a class were condemned to perpetual servitude, permanently bound to the soil, fined heavily, their taxes were heavily augmented, and the number of days they had to work for their landlords was increased.

Dozsa was himself captured and condemned to a fiendishly gruesome death by torture. Accused among other things of having sought to become king, he was sentenced to sit on a smoldering hot iron chair, while a heated iron crown was affixed to his head. Next, chunks of his flesh were torn out, and nine of his leading followers, starved beforehand, were forced to eat his flesh.

The aristocratic backlash backfired, however, and twelve years later, when the Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary in 1526, they swiftly overran what was a still bitterly divided country. As to Dozsa, the revolutionary aspects of his life and its ending were drawn upon during the communist era in Romania, his land of birth, and in Hungary, where Dozsa is the most popular street name in villages, and a main avenue and metro station in Budapest bear his name.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Engraving of three dance plague victims being restrained. Wikimedia

Victims of the 1518 Strasbourg Dance Plague

Almost everybody gets a tune or jingle stuck in his or head from time to time, and just can’t seem to get it out, humming or mumbling it on and off for hours or maybe days on end. But what about the next level: how about a dance move that one can’t stop? Almost everyone loves a good boogie, but what happens if the boogie is so good that you just can’t quit, and end up dancing yourself to death?

That is what the good people of Strasbourg, Alsace, in what is now France, discovered in July of 1518 when their town was struck with a dancing mania, as hundreds of people started dancing nonstop, for days on end. By the time the dance fever finally broke, many had literally danced themselves to death from heart attacks, strokes, or sheer exhaustion.

It all started innocently enough on a typical July morning when a Frau Troffea started dancing in the street. Onlookers clapped, laughed, and cheered her high spirits and joie de vivre as she danced. And danced. And danced some more, without rest or respite for 6 days. Within a week, she had been joined by dozens in her marathon dance, mostly women.

Concerned, authorities consulted local physicians, who ruled that the plague was caused by “hot blood”. Convinced that the dancers would recover only if they got it out of their system by dancing continuously, musicians were hired, a wooden stage was erected, and additional dancing space was made by opening up guildhalls and clearing out a marketplace to make more room. Those measures backfired and simply ended up encouraging even more people to join the craze. Within a month, the number of nonstop dancers had ballooned into the hundreds, and at the height of the dance fever, 15 residents were dying each day from exhaustion and heart attacks.

The Strasbourg dance plague was not an isolated incident, and between the 14th and 17th centuries, there were enough similar outbreaks for contemporaries to coin a term for the phenomena: Saint Vitus’ Dance, or Saint John’s Dance. There is no modern consensus on the cause, so it is simply categorized as an unusual social phenomenon – a mass public hysteria, or a mass psychogenic illness of unknown provenance.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Humayun. The Friday Times

Humayun

Nasir al-Din Muhammad Humayun (1508 – 1556) was the second emperor of the Mughal Empire, who ruled what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northern India from 1531 to 1540 when he lost his dominions to a Pashtun noble. He regained them 15 years later with aid from the Persian Safavids, and ruled from 1555 to his death the following year, reestablishing the Mughal dynasty and passing its throne on to his son Akbar the Great.

The son and successor of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, Humayun inherited a restless realm, with many subjects – most notably the Afghans and Rajputs – not yet fully on board and reconciled to Mughal supremacy. He spent his first 9 years on the throne shuttling from one end of his realm to another, putting down revolts and fighting off intrigues, until 1540, when an Afghan adventurer with a power base in Bengal, Sher Shah, defeated Humayun and chased him out of India, while the rest of his realm rose up in revolt and threw off Mughal rule.

The former emperor hit the road, becoming a homeless wanderer, until he finally reached Persia in 1544, and succeeded in convincing its Shah to give him military aid. With Persian aid, Humayun set out to regain Afghanistan, and after 6 years of protracted campaigning, including the seizure of Kabul three times from a disloyal brother who had turned on him, he completed the task in 1550.

By 1555, back in India, Sher Shah had died and a civil war had broken out between his descendants. Seizing the opportunity, Humayun invaded what is now Pakistan, and captured Lahore, then plunged into and seized Punjab. Continuing his march, by July of 1555, Humayun had regained Delhi and Agra as well, and finally completed the restoration of the realm he had lost a decade and a half earlier.

He did not enjoy it for long, however. Only half a year after regaining his throne, on January 27th, 1556, Humayun was walking down the stairs from his library with his arms full of books when he heard a nearby mosque’s azan, or call to prayer. For some reason, he chose to pray then and there on the stairs, and when he knelt during the ritual, he got his foot tangled in his robe, tripped, and tumbled down the flight of steps to the stone ground below. He struck his head and died of his injuries three days later.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Tycho Brahe. The Famous People

Tycho Brahe

The pioneering Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601) was one of the first in his field to carry out a systemic study based on the scientific method and exacting empirical facts, and his astronomical and planetary observations were the most accurate possible before the invention of telescopes. His studies in measuring and fixing the stars, and his development of innovative astronomical instruments, paved the way for future advances in astronomy, and one of his assistants, Johannes Kepler, would go on to use data collected by Brahe in formulating his laws of planetary motion.

Born into a wealthy noble family, Brahe was abducted at an early age by a childless uncle who raised him as his own in a castle in Scania, and paid for his education, sending him to study law. After witnessing a solar eclipse at age 14, however, Brahe’s interest turned from law to astronomy, and while he continued to attend lectures on jurisprudence during the day to satisfy his uncle’s wishes, his heart, and nights, were devoted to studying the stars.

In 1563, he made his first observation of the overlapping of Jupiter and Saturn and discovered that all existing almanacs were inaccurate. So he decided to devote his life to making accurate observations of the cosmos to correct the inaccurate tables. Starting in 1565, he began traveling extensively throughout Europe, making observations and collecting instruments, and in the midst of his travels, he got into a duel in 1566, in which he lost half his nose, and for the remainder of his life wore a metal insert over the missing part.

His life mission was helped by the deaths of his father and uncle, which left Brahe a wealthy heir, with the financial wherewithal to pursue and fund his passion for astronomy. In addition to his accumulation of accurately recorded observations, Brahe was also a visionary, and one of his biggest breakthroughs was the theory that stars were not, as had hitherto been believed, fixed in the heavens, but moved about in the cosmos, and had life cycles of birth and destruction.

After a rich career full of accomplishments, such as making him one of the giants upon whose shoulders future luminaries in the field of astronomy stood, Brahe’s days came to a weird end. In October of 1601, while at a banquet in Prague, he felt an urgent need to relieve himself, but resisted doing so because he thought it would be a breach of etiquette and good manners, and so held it in. By the time he got home, something had gone wrong with his bladder and he was unable to urinate at all. 11 days later, he died from what was likely uremia, or urea in the blood.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Arthur Aston. Royal Berkshire History

Arthur Aston

Sir Arthur Aston (1590 – 1649) was a scion of a prominent Catholic family from Cheshire, and a professional soldier from a military family. His father had served on the continent in Russia in 1610, then in Poland, for whose king he raised thousands of British mercenaries for a war against the Ottomans in 1621. Arthur Aston joined his father in Poland with 300 mercenaries, who went on to form the Polish king’s bodyguard.

Aston then fought for the Poles in the Polish-Swedish War of 1626 – 1629 and was captured by the Swedes in 1627. After the war’s end, Aston joined the Swedes, whose king, Gustavus Adolphus, commissioned him in 1631 to recruit an English regiment to fight for Sweden in the Thirty Years War. He did, and Aston and his English regiment fought in Germany in the 1640s.

By the time he returned to England in 1640, Aston was a grizzled and highly experienced professional soldier. He commanded a regiment for King Charles I in the Second Bishops’ War against the Scots, but his Catholicism became an issue, as Catholics in those days were legally prohibited from a variety of public positions, and expressly barred from serving as army officers. The outcry forced him to resign, but as consolation for his efforts, Charles knighted him.

When the English Civil War erupted in 1642 between the king and his royalist supporters, pitted against the forces of Parliament, Aston, now Sir Arthur, sought to join Charles’ forces but was initially rejected because of his Catholicism. As the royalist cause deteriorated, however, desperation and the intercession of Prince Rupert, the king’s nephew and main military commander, finally convinced Charles I to commission him into the royalist army.

His authoritarian style of command, learned on the continent, was unpopular in England, and he was disliked by his troops, who viewed him as a martinet. He was wounded and captured in 1642, then released in a prisoner exchange, after which he was appointed governor of Oxford, headquarters of the royalist cause. There, he was severely injured in a fall from a horse, lost a leg, and used a wooden prosthetic leg thereafter. While recovering, he was relieved of his command and pensioned off.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Arthur Aston getting beat to death by his wooden leg. Flickr

In 1648, he joined royalists in Ireland and was made commander of the port town of Drogheda, where he was besieged in 1649 by Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell, who stormed and captured the town on September 11. He was captured, and Cromwell’s soldiers, convinced that Arthur Aston’s prosthetic must contain hidden gold, demanded that he show them how to access its secret hidden compartment. They refused to believe his denials, and frustrated at his perceived obstinacy, they ended up beating him to death with his own wooden leg.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Thomas Urquhart. Cromarty Courthouse

Thomas Urquhart

Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660) was an idiosyncratic Scottish polymath and author, best known for his original and vivid translation of the works of Francois Rabelais into English. His own writings included original work on a new system of trigonometry, which he revolutionized, mathematics, family histories, epigrams, and the invention of a universal language long before the fad for Esperanto.

A royalist, Urquhart fought for King Charles I against the Scottish Covenanters in 1639 and was knighted by the king for his support in 1641. The following year, his father died, leaving him an estate heavily encumbered with debts, and Urquhart spent most of the 1640s dealing with and avoiding creditors, even leaving for the continent for a time, before returning in 1645 to publish a mathematical treatise.

In 1648, he joined a failed royalist uprising at Inverness and was declared a traitor by Parliament. In 1651, he joined Charles II’s long-shot attempt at regaining the throne but grew increasingly disgusted with the incompetence and mismanagement of the affair, which culminated in a decisive royalist defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Urquhart was captured and imprisoned for two years, first in the Tower of London, then at Windsor.

He lost all his manuscripts and had to forfeit all his properties, before he was finally paroled and freed from prison on the orders of Oliver Cromwell in 1653, on condition that he leave for the continent. He reportedly died in 1660 in a fit of maniacal laughter, upon hearing that Charles II, whose incompetence in the 1651 attempt to gain the throne had ended in disaster and cost Urquhart so much, had been restored and welcomed back into the Three Kingdoms as their crowned king.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Chateau de Chantilly, site of Francois Vatel’s last banquet. Domaine de Chantilly

Francois Vatel

Francois Vatel (1631 – 1671) was born Fritz Karl Watel in Switzerland, apprenticed as a pastry cook, then went to work for Nicolas Fouquet, who became King Louis XIV’s finance minister in 1653. Vatel became a celebrated master chef, often credited (inaccurately) for inventing Chantilly cream, and rose within Fouquet’s household to become his majordomo – the highest-ranking employee in an aristocrat’s household.

In 1661, Vatel supervised the grandiloquent inauguration fete of Fouquet’s chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte – now a famous tourist site southeast of Paris. Vatel did such a great job, and the inauguration was so splendid, that Louis XIV grew jealous of his finance minister’s display of opulence, fired Fouquet and threw him in jail, charged with maladministration of state funds and lese majeste, and kept him locked up until his death in 1680.

Out of a job, Vatel did not remain unemployed for long – apparently, throwing a party so great as to arouse the Sun King’s jealousy and ruin one’s boss was a CV plus in the French aristocracy’s eyes. He was quickly snatched up by Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Conde, also known as the Grand Conde, who made him his master chef and majordomo.

In1671, Vatel was put in charge of a grand banquet for 2000 people scheduled for April 25th, in honor of Louis XIV, who was to visit the Grand Conde’s Chateau de-Chantilly that month. The royal banquet was scheduled on short notice, and Vatel, who had only 15 days to prepare, grew increasingly stressed by a series of minor mishaps in the preparations for the grand feast.

During a preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet, there were more guests than expected, and two out of 26 tables had to go without roast. A mortified Vatel wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Reassurances from the Grand Conde that the dinner had gone great, and that Louis XIV was pleased, did little to assuage Vatel, who kept obsessing about the tables that had gone without roast. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended, which lowered Vatel’s spirits even further.

Early the following morning, April 24th, one day before the banquet, he encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish and asked him if that was all. The supplier, unaware that Vatel was referring to all fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept in the preceding fortnight, and he broke down, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake“. Unable to endure what he was sure would be a humiliation when the royal banquet turned into a flop, he took a sword and ran himself through. As it turned out, the fish misunderstanding soon resolved itself, as fish from other suppliers began arriving not long after Vatel had stabbed himself, the wagon loads trundling into the Chateau de-Chantilly even as the master chef and majordomo lay dying of his wound.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Moliere, by Charles Antoine Coypel. Fabricio Mueller

Moliere

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Moliere (1622 – 1673), was a French actor and playwright, the greatest author of French comedy, and one of the best and most innovative comedic writers of all time. His greatest contribution was the development of a new comedic style based on double vision – depicting the normal and abnormal in relation to each other and elevating the genre from slapstick to a more refined and high brow level. He penned a rich body of work during his career, including literary classics such as The School for Wives, The Miser, The Misanthrope, and The Bourgeois Gentleman.

Born into a wealthy family, Moliere was afforded a solid education before taking to the stage as a rich dilettante actor for thirteen years – no starving actor or writer he – during which he honed his comic skills and began writing. He impressed and secured the patronage, of king Louis XIV’s brother, who arranged for Moliere to perform before the Sun King at the Louvre. It was a smashing success, and with the king himself a fan, Moliere’s career took off.

Louis XIV subsidized Moliere and his acting company and made him the official author of court entertainments. Royal favor did not save him from criticism and controversy, however, and some of his biting satire – particularly Tartuffe, which mocked religious hypocrisy – earned the ire and condemnation of the Catholic Church. Other works, such as Don Juan, were banned outright after moralists attacked it for mocking religion and eulogizing a debauched libertine.

His years of hard work took a toll on his health, which was already ailing as a result of a decades-long affliction with tuberculosis. When he took the stage on February 17th, 1673, to perform in his most recently written play, The Imaginary Invalid, he collapsed halfway through the performance in a fit of coughing and hemorrhaging of blood. A true trooper, dedicated to his craft even unto death, Moliere insisted on finishing the performance anyhow. As soon as the curtains came down on the performance, they came down on Moliere as well, who collapsed with an even greater hemorrhage, from which he died a few hours later. Ever since, a stage superstition developed that green, the color worn by Moliere during his last performance, was bad luck for actors.

12 of the Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance
Jean Baptiste Lully. Study

Jean Baptiste Lully

Master of French baroque and the most successful musician of his era, the Italian-born Jean Baptiste Lully (1632 – 1687) was a French court and opera composer, instrumentalist, and dancer who spent most of his career in the court of King Louis XIV of France. From 1662, he completely dominated French court music, and such prominence in the Sun King’s court, Europe’s most splendid, led to widespread imitation of Lully’s style throughout Europe.

Born in Florence as Giovanni Battista Lulli, which he later gallicized upon naturalization as a French subject, a 14-year-old Lully was clowning with a violin on the street when he attracted the attention of a visiting French duke, who took him back with him to France so his niece could have someone to converse within Italian. He honed his musical skills in the lady’s household, and soon gained renown as a violinist, guitarist, and dancer of genius.

In 1653, he attracted the attention of a then 14-year-old King Louis XIV, with whom he danced at a ball, and soon thereafter was appointed royal composer for instrumental music. He became one of the king’s closest lifelong companions and friends and spent the remainder of his career and life at court. There, he earned a reputation as a libertine, with a long trail of romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women.

By 1686, Louis had started souring on Lully and his increasingly dissolute lifestyle and homosexual escapades. On March 22nd, 1687, while conducting a Te Deum to celebrate the king’s recovery from surgery, Lully, perhaps trying too hard to regain Louis’ good graces with a fervent display of happiness at his royal patron’s return to health, got carried away, and while enthusiastically keeping the beat by banging a long staff on the floor, accidentally smashed it hard on his big toe. The toe became infected and turned gangrenous, which spread to his leg. Not wishing to give up on dancing, he refused to have the leg amputated, and the gangrene spread into his body and killed him.

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