When walking about in Lower Silesia, we often encounter stone crosses standing alone in the fields or by the roadside. If these crosses could talk, each of them would have a story to tell. More often than not these stories would abound in blood, pain, anger, sadness, violence and penitence.
Medieval law was harsh and merciless towards criminals. Even minor offences often meant a death sentence, let alone when someone committed an act as horrific as murder. However, there were ways to escape the penalty. If the family of the deceased was amenable, a settlement could be reached where the perpetrator could avoid execution provided certain requirements were met, the first of which was to pay the so-called “wergeld”, a sum of money that was to compensate for the victim’s life. The amount of the “wergeld” depended on the social status of the victim, therefore the price for the murder of a peasant was lower than for that of a nobleman.
The perpetrator was typically asked to donate a certain amount of money to the church and cover the funeral costs. In addition, they had to have a certain number of masses celebrated for the soul of the deceased and go on a penitential pilgrimage, usually to Rome or Jerusalem. The final condition was to finance the construction of a conciliation cross that was put up at the crime scene.
The custom of building these stone monuments came from the west in the 13th century and lasted until the beginning of the 19th century. Apart from the obvious connection with the Christian faith, the practice was largely dictated by practical considerations. The agreement between the families of the perpetrator and the victim was meant to prevent further bloodshed associated with blood feuds. The circumstances and manner in which the murder occurred also played a role. Agreements were most often reached when the murder occurred as a result of a sudden dispute or outburst of anger. The social status of the perpetrator also played an important role. In the Middle Ages, a noble person had a great deal more rights and privileges than, for example, a simple peasant, who was usually unable to cover all the costs associated with the conciliation process.
To this day about 600 reconciliation crosses have been preserved in Poland, two thirds of which are located in Lower Silesia. The crosses were usually made of granite, sandstone or basalt. Their construction was carried out by skilled stonemasons and paid for by the offender. The crosses often depicted tools representing murder weapons. The most common were swords, axes, crossbows and knives. However, we can also encounter a chalice (poison), a shovel, and even a sheep-shearing knife, which is why some scholars argue that these are not actually depictions of murder weapons, but symbols indicating the victim’s profession.
The crosses also often bear information about the circumstances of the offence. In the town of Lewin Brzeski located on the banks of the River Nisa, near the cemetery there is a cross with the inscription: “On 15 April 1617, George Friedrich Brandtner, a young man aged twenty and a half, was killed on this spot without cause by the murderer Georg … from Saxony”. We do not know why the name of the perpetrator was effaced from the stone inscription, but it is likely that it was done by the offender himself.
One of the most famous conciliation crosses in Poland can be found in Stargard. It is almost 3 metres in height and weighs approximately 2 tonnes. It is the largest monument of this kind in Europe and the second largest in the world. The cross dates back to the mid-sixteenth century and it was made in a local workshop out of Gotland limestone. The cross also bears an inscription placed below the image of Christ on cross. It is written in Lower German and its translation reads: “God have mercy on Hans Billeke, 1542”. On the back of the cross there is another inscription: “In 1542 Hans Billeke was killed with an iron bar by Lorentz Madeira, the son of his mother’s sister”. There is also an alternative translation according to which Hans was a murderer who was revenging the murder of his nephew.
There are many stories and legends surrounding the conciliation crosses. To get to know them better, it is best to pack a backpack and head out into the countryside in search of these landmarks. You can use online maps or the map available at geocaching.pl that was created for the project “In the footsteps of conciliation crosses”. You might want to hurry up, though, because the condition of many of the crosses is deteriorating year by year – partly due to the destructive human intervention.
Source: Kurier kamieniarski
Author: Jakub Zdańkowski | Published: 07.03.2017