Medieval cross of expiation/Sühnekreuz

I don’t know what to call this in English.

It isn’t a wayside or roadside cross, put there for pilgrims, but a relic of an old practice before criminal offences were recognized as punishable by the state. There are several of these crosses in Franconia and further afield, and a Google image search will show more.

I photographed this today on the last day of guided tours of Fürth by the Stadtheimatpflegerin Barbara Ohm, who is retiring from her honorary position (it entails encouraging knowledge of local history and traditions). Unfortunately she seems to have cleared her website too. I can recommend the books ‘Durch Fürth geführt’, with guided walks and pictures.

I don’t know what to believe about the cross. We heard that before 1532, when Emperor Charles V introduced a system of law where criminal offences were punished by the state, voluntary manslaughter (Totschlag) was dealt with privately, by a contract between the killer and the family of the deceased. The killer had to pay the funeral expenses, provide for the survivors, have masses read, set up one of these crosses near a public road so people can see it when they pass, and go on a pilgrimage. This had various advantages: it avoids revenge killings, and the killer can be reintegrated into society when he comes back from his pilgrimage.

Another source is a book called Justiz in alter Zeit, published in German and English (Criminal Justice through the Ages) by the Kriminalmuseum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (site, and museum, have German, English and Japanese texts). The book shows interesting pictures, especially for those interested in forms of punishment and torture (like me). The English version is shorter, and I found these crosses in the German version. It says that under old Germanic law, voluntary manslaughter was expiated by wergeld (OED: In ancient Teutonic and Old English law, the price set upon a man according to his rank, paid by way of compensation or fine in cases of homicide and certain other crimes to free the offender from further obligation or punishment). The introduction of christianity introduced the idea of penance. This book says that in order for a killer to be obliged to submit to this process of expiation or penance, there had to be a functioning court system, so the king ensured that every six weeks there was a ‘genuine thing’ (echtes Thing) lasting three days. There were sometimes other things, and a judge (often called a Thungin!).

So I don’t know if these crosses were private, but I suppose the consequences were between the private parties.

This was a walk through Unterfarrnbach, rather wet, with rural episodes.

6 thoughts on “Medieval cross of expiation/Sühnekreuz

  1. Well, there’s a second type of cross, encountered in Catholic districts (Fürth, Nürnberg and Erlangen are more Protestant). That’s the wayside or roadside cross, a sort of shrine, usually a crucifix. I would imagine if those crosses at the scenes of accidents are based on any of these crosses, it would be that type. Still, you never know.

    Actually, though, that Catholic type of cross may well have developed from the other.

  2. This is intruiging.

    Looking for Sühnekreuz on non-German and non-Austrian sites turns up some in the Czech Republic and Poland, where they are known as Krzyż pokutny and smírčím křížem (respectively, cross of penitence/penitential cross and cross of conciliation/conciliatory cross).

    For some reason I also thought of looking for “murder cross” and stumbled on the Dutch word “moordkruis”, so they’re known in Holland and Flanders too.

    Then there is a reference at to “the planting of an expiatory cross” on Place Vieux Marché in Rouen, by way of atonement by the Church for wrongfully condemning Jeanne d’Arc.

  3. Trevor: there’s a summary in German with pictures of some investigation into roadside crosses, starting with ‘murder crosses’ and ending with ‘accident crosses’.
    It is probably the summary of a film.

    Robin: thanks for the investigation. Btw, I forgot to mention that there are three stories associated with this cross. I forgot the details and the Fürth book only says there are three but doesn’t summarize them. These stories grew up at a later time, usually associating the cross with some later killing on that spot.

  4. Although probably not of much use to your average Bavarian berserker, reaching MacDuff’s Cross in Fifeshire seems to have been a way for a murderer of avoiding death and becoming eligible for wergeld-type expiation.

    In terms of deep origins, I was drunkenly wondering whether stone crosses were one step on from stringing up or burning the murderer on the heath, and whether/how this tied into the Easter man tradition. Here’s Frazer: “About a hundred years ago or more the custom at Althenneberg, in Upper Bavaria, used to be as follows. On the afternoon of Easter Saturday the lads collected wood, which they piled in a cornfield, while in the middle of the pile they set up a tall wooden cross all swathed in straw. After the evening service they lighted their lanterns at the consecrated candle in the church, and ran with them at full speed to the pyre, each striving to get there first. The first to arrive set fire to the heap. No woman or girl might come near the bonfire, but they were allowed to watch it from a distance. As the flames rose the men and lads rejoiced and made merry, shouting, “We are burning the Judas!” The man who had been the first to reach the pyre and to kindle it was rewarded on Easter Sunday by the women, who gave him coloured eggs at the church door. The object of the whole ceremony was to keep off the hail.”

  5. Hmm, I had forgotten about Frazer and could only think of Frazier. Apparently Easter fires are a general Germanic tradition, burning wood. Here is a link that shows a doll that is said to have ‘reminded’ many onlookers of a cross!, and that’s in Schleswig-Holstein. The American blogger Scott also mentions an Easter fire.

    (For some reason my attempts at html don’t work in comments. I have now made the links in this and the earlier comment visible).

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