The execution of convicted crime suspects attracted the attention of the general public in Early Modern Europe. Authorities saw the public administering of punishments as a key element of criminal law. For a lot of cases we know about the last words people said before their execution, and authors reckoned even on the particular interest of their public to record such words. Less attention has been given to another genre, sermons spoken just before or after public execution. The Universität Zürich has now digitized such sermons, Standreden, based on the materials of the late Urs Herzog, a Swiss philologist. What was said in these sermons from the eighteenth and nineteenth century? What was the purpose of the preachers and the effect of the sermons on their public? In this contribution I will look at the digital collection, its background and at some questions surrounding these sermons.
It is not the first time that a post appears here after an alert or message at Archivalia, the blog of Klaus Graf (@Archivalia_kg). It is up to any visitor of his blog to pursue the paths he indicates or to heed his warnings. Anyway, Switzerland has seldom been the subject in my posts.
A wide range of materials
The website of this joint project of the department for German language and literature and the center for legal history of the Universität Zürich starts with pointing out how these sermons serve as a focus of attention and as a genre in which the law and Christian teaching came together. Urs Herzog (1942-2015) taught German literature at Zürich. He became a specialist in the field of Early Modern sermons (Barockpredigte), but his interests were much wider. The Standreden are a form of the much more common Leichpredigte, death sermons. As a professor emeritus he did research on the history of criminal justice, moral theology and the spiritual and psychic care for prisoners. In the project only a selection of his materials has been digitized. One of the purpose of the project is to present the sheer scope and range of Herzog’s materials and to invite other scholars to use them for their research.
The image on the start screen shows the execution of a woman in 1851. Below the text the explication mentions an often quoted verse from the letter to the Romans (13,4): “For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (King James Version). In the verse immediately preceding this quote it is clear he refers to rulers. This quote was used as an argument to confirm the right and duty of authorities to execute justice in a most literal way, by applying even the death sentence.
The digital project has a page on further sources (Quellen) with a scholarly bibliography. Apart from the nearly 140 digitized sermons Herzog traced nearly 400 other sermons in Swiss libraries. A glossary helps you to understand numerous terms with a very specific meaning. The questionnaire contains at present only three fairly obvious questions you can ask about these sermons. The page for research (Forschung) gives you access to articles written by Urs Herzog and a few other scholarly publications about the Standreden.
Preaching a good end
The nearly 140 sermons in the digital collection date from 1601 to 1867. In an Excel sheet you can find bibliographic details. However, there is just one sermon from the seventeenth century. 21 sermons stem from the eighteenth century, and some 120 sermons were held during the nineteenth century. The bibliographical information is concise but most useful. Herzog noted the religion of the preacher, the gender of the executed persons, and he even gives his verdict on the nature of the texts. In thirty cases women were executed. Some texts were not really a Standrede. Most sermons were printed, but he traced some sermons in manuscript. Herzog found the majority of the printed sermons, in a way pamphlets, in the holdings of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich. It is a bit mystifying he does not mention where he found the other publications. The digital collection has been created using digitized black-and-white photocopies made by Herzog himself.
In the digital collection each sermon has been given a code for the year, and often the name of the preacher, the executed person and the location of the execution are also included. A small number of sermons was not held in Swiss towns , but in Dresden (1601), Stuttgart (1738), Wernigerode (1747), Ludwigsburg and Heidelberg, the latter both in 1812. In the Excel sheet you can query for dates and places, names of the convicted and the preacher, the kind of crime and the way of execution, the location where the sermon was held, its public (the delinquent, the beholders or a parish), the location of publication and the publisher, and for the facts I mentioned already in the paragraph here above. Some sermons were addressed directly to the criminal, others only to the public that had watched the execution. Of course I feel tempted to use here one or more sermons, preferably very different ones. A sermon in 1843 was held in a case in which the felon was pardoned. The Jesuit priest Matthias Heimbach held three sermons in 1716, a prime case for comparison. Nine sermons date from 1827.
All the strengths of this project do not hide one particular point. It is understandable to use first of all Herzog’s research material, but in the case of the sermons themselves it is rather remarkable his own photocopies have been digitized, and not the original editions. In view of the more than 35,000 thousand titles from the Zentralbibliothek Zürich digitized for the Swiss portal e-rara, conveniently grouped in one set, it is feasible to search for digitized execution sermons. I suppose one had rather seen a simple list of those items or a notice on the presence or absence of items within e-rara. As a matter of fact I searched for Standreden in e-rara, with two results, only one of them an execution sermon by Alois Diogg, a Capucin friar, Standrede, gesprochen auf der Blutstätte in Schwyz bei der Hinrichtung des Raubmörders Hieronymus Kessler von Galgenen (Schwyz, s.a. (1839); online, e-rara). Using the joint catalogue of the university library and the Zentralbibliothek Zürich you will realize quickly the word Standrede was used for any kind of Leichenpredigt.
You might pause for a thought how it took Herzog years to bring his resources together even with the assistance of online catalogues, but luckily he could at least partially build on research concerning death sermons. Since many years the Akademie der Wissenschaften und Literatur in Mainz is home to the Forschungsstelle für Personalschriften. An important section of its website is devoted to Leichenpredigten. You will find a database and links to projects with digitized German death sermons. Legal historians might want to look in particular at the legal dimensions of these execution sermons, but they can equally be treated as a subspecies of death sermons.
The presentation of these research materials, the digitization of (photocopies) of resources and not in the least the cooperation between two scholarly disciplines is to be welcomed. This Swiss project does homage to the legacy of a scholar with wide interests who found an intersection of theology, literature and legal history. My frowns about some elements should not stop you from investigating the project website and these digitized Swiss execution sermons.