Heresy in 18th century Lucerne
Weinmarkt was the fresh-produce market in the city of Lucerne and also served as an open-air public meeting place. Legal cases were heard in the southwest corner of the square, and offenders were put on public display and humiliated here in a pillory and stocks. These were removed in the mid-19th century.
The last death sentence in a heresy trial was pronounced here in the mid-18th century.
In 1747, a man was condemned to death for the heresy of sympathising with Pietism, a Protestant reform movement, and for the crime of reading the Bible and other religious texts with a group of like-minded people.
This tragic case illustrates in the strongest manner the hostility to science (here in the form of criminalising the reading the Bible independently) and religious intolerance that held sway in Lucerne in the 18th century.
You can find out more about this in the audio contribution or in the complete text "Heresy in 18th century Lucerne".
Heresy in 18th century Lucerne
Academic scholarship fundamentally depends on being able to develop freely, without religious shackles or state restrictions. Universities depend on a social environment that allows critical, unprejudiced and innovative thinking. In Catholic Lucerne, in the middle of the 18th century, when the Enlightenment was already flourishing elsewhere in Europe, these preconditions did not exist at all.
Nothing illustrates the prevalent narrow-mindedness better than an awful incident that happened here in 1747. At noon, on 27th May, an execution train stopped at the wine market. At the fish bank, the death sentence against the 48-year-old so-caled heretic, Jakob Schmidlin was read out – in front of a gaping crowd. The smallholder, who had been debilitated by long weeks of imprisonment and torture, was accused by the Council of the most serious of crimes against the state and the church. His crimes were: apostasy from the Catholic faith, disseminating highly harmful and damnable teachings, importing and distributing unlawful writings, participating in foreign reformed religious services, corresponding with other faith groups, disturbing peace and order, enticing the people to rebellion, holding prohibited meetings and endangering the salvation of his compatriots’ souls.
That very same day, Jakob Schmidlin, convicted of heresy, died a cruel death at the Lucerne execution site outside the city walls. Tied to a stake, the executioner strangled him with a rope before handing Schmidlin's lifeless body, along with the contested writings to a burning pyre. Even Schmidlin's place of residence, the Sulzig-Hof located above Werthenstein in Entlebuch, was burnt down and a pillar of shame erected on the site. Three weeks after the execution, the authorities renewed the ban on the buying, selling and reading of the Bible in German. What kind of storm had now been unleashed?
Jakob Schmidlin's only offence was that he wanted to worship his God in his own way. Born in 1699 to poor Catholic peasants, the miner never attended school. Nevertheless, he taught himself to read and enjoyed reading independently throughout his life. A circle of like-minded people formed around him, people who sympathized with pietism, a Protestant reform movement. They prayed together, read and discussed the Bible and other religious writings. According to the legal understanding at the time, these private prayer meetings constituted serious violations against the state and the church. Possession by itself, let alone reading “Lutheran writings”, was strictly prohibited in the surroundings of Catholic Switzerland. At that time, a special episcopal permit was needed even to read the Holy Scriptures in the national language. After the bloodily crushed peasant rebellion of 1653, secret meetings were also suspected of preparing conspiracies against the godly order. The pietist circle was first exposed in 1739. But the authorities let clemency hold sway over the rule. This strengthened Schmidlin and his friends in their convictions, and probably made them a little careless. Their gatherings did not go unnoticed.
In November 1746, for the second time, an overzealous surgeon denounced Jakob Schmidlin to the Lucerne authorities as the main ringleader. In doing so, he put in motion a machinery that not only ended with Schmidlin’s execution, but which also saw 73 people permanently exiled and 3 sent to the galleys.
Only days later, the canon of St. Leodegar presented the high government with a silver portrait of St. Francis Xavier, a portrait which was transferred to the court church with the active participation of state and church dignitaries, as well as citizens. With this, Lucerne thanked the patron of the city and state for having interceded with God and for ‘illuminating, directing and blessing’ the authorities in destroying the faithless heretics. Thereby, the last word was not yet spoken, as the distance to the last Lucerne heretic trial shows. While Schmidlin himself was not aware of it, one can, indeed must see him as a champion of the freedom of conscience as well as an advocate for independent reading – a prerequisite of all academic scholarship.