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I read this morning that on this day, back in 1386 , St John of Capistrano, leader of the 1456 Battle of Belgrade, was born. I was immediately transported to Belgrade, one of my favourite European cities.

I remembered the delight of discovering the magic of the golden hour. I recalled the geography lesson I had when I visited the cobblestone town of Zemun and its fabulous little cemetery. And I have very fond memories of the many great restaurants in the city. But most of all, I’m still in awe of the love Serbians have for their music and their generosity towards their musicians.

But I had a vague notion that that particular battle had a Hungarian general at the helm, so I did a little digging.

So it was that an army comprised mostly of peasants defended Belgrade and Christendom in the summer of 1456 against Mehmet II’s Turkish host. The leader of that hodge-podge army was legendary Hungarian General János Hunyadi.

Had something had gotten lost in translation, somewhere along the line? As I read on, I found this piece of trivia that warrants further investigation…

Hunyadi’s name may not be widely known in the West, but his memory has been honoured since 1456, albeit unknowingly, in Catholic countries all over the world, by the ringing of church bells every day at noon.

So, who was this St John of Capistrano then? I thought of San Juan Capistrano in California, the town where the swallows commute to from Argentina each summer. I have fond memories of meeting a mate from LA there during my time in California as it was half-way between LA and San Diego. I love the old mission and the romance of the returning swallows. And I quite fancied it as an address. That San Juan was Giovanni da Capistrano (1386–1456), the Franciscan saint from Capestrano, in the Italian region of Abruzzo. He was born in the right year but he died in 1456 – did he die in Belgrade?

I did some more digging and it turns out that yes, our boy from Italy was in Belgrade in 1456 where he’d earned the nickname Soldier Saint for his joint venture with Hunyadi.

In 1451 he was sent to Austria by Pope Nicholas V to convert the Hussites (followers of the Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus). Aware of the Turkish threat to eastern Europe, he helped raise and lead the army that lifted the Turkish siege of Belgrade in 1456. He died of plague upon returning from his crusade.

I was curious, so I kept on reading – and I wish I hadn’t.

John was known as the “Scourge of the Jews” for his inciting of antisemitic violence. Like some other Franciscans, he ranged over a broad area on both sides of the Alps, and his preaching to mass open-air congregations often led to pogroms. In 1450 the Franciscan “Jew-baiter” arranged a forced disputation at Rome with a certain Gamaliel called “Synagogæ Romanæ magister”. Between 1451 and 1453, his fiery sermons against Jews persuaded many southern German regions to expel their entire Jewish population, and in Silesia, then Kingdom of Bohemia, at Wroclaw many were burned at the stake.

I’m not quite sure why I was so upset at this. Because I love Belgrade? Because I had a thing for San Juan Capistrano and the swallows? Because I’m fond of Warsaw? Then I thought – I’m reading Wikipedia… that’s hardly a credible source. But then on another page I noted that my old mate Norman Davies had documented his findings and agreed.

Giovanni da Capistrano, although raised to the sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church is documented by historical research by the Oxford University historian Norman Davies to have burnt to death more than 50 Jews in May 1453 in the Polish city of Wroclaw.

I’ve only met Norman once in person (or maybe I’m even imagining that – perhaps our relationships has been completely virtual). I’ve worked on a few of his books with the lovely niche Polish publishing house, Rosikon Press. And he’s a stickler for detail.

Thoughts of him took me to both Warsaw and to Oxford, the former I prefer to Krakow and the latter I called home for a year back when I was studying.

To think that my mini-tour of four countries and two continents was sparked by reading a simple sentence in an email this morning. All it cost me was my time.



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