Court rules man no longer on the hook for 655-year-old penance

A Swiss court has quashed a 655-year-old debt that served as atonement for a medieval murder.

In 1357 Konrad Mueller promised to pay for an eternal lamp at the Roman Catholic local church as punishment for killing a man named Heinrich Stucki. The lamp was meant to appease Mr. Stucki’s family while also representing repentance for Mr. Mueller.

Failure to fulfill the agreement would have resulted in the forfeiture of Mr. Mueller’s land to the church.

During the centuries since, owners of the land were obliged to pay for the lamp’s fuel.

The tradition remained until 2009, when the current owner refused to pay the fee — 70 Swiss francs ($74.64) — which funded candles and oil at the parish of Näfels.

The church attempted to register the arrangement formally, but when the case went to court a judge in the northeastern canton of Glarus ruled 14th-century legal customs had been replaced by Swiss mortgage reforms in the mid-19th century.

A lawyer for the church said its actions were not about the money involved, but instead regarded “a simple clearing up of the land registry,” according to NZZ online newspaper.

The fact that the deal survived so long surprised Carolyn Harris, a University of Toronto history lecturer.

“Arrangements of this kind were common in medieval Catholic Europe as it was believed that sinners could be absolved of their sins through good works such as donations to the church,” Ms. Harris said.

“The Reformation and advent of Protestantism in Switzerland led to the breakdown of many of these forms of penance.”