A Swiss court has relieved a farmer and his family of an annual debt to their local Catholic parish church dating back to 1357, when his medieval predecessor, Konrad Müller, killed a man named Heinrich Stucki.
To avoid being executed for his crime, and to save his soul, Müller gave a sanctuary lamp to the local St. Hilarius church in Näfels, Switzerland, and vowed to provide its fuel “for eternity”. If he, or subsequent landowners failed to do so, the land would go to the church.
Over the centuries, Konrad Müller’s land passed out of his descendants’ hands and was split into two lots – along with the debt. The present day owners are not related to Müller, yet each was still obliged to pay the church 70 Swiss francs a year (around £47, €58 or US $76) to pay for his sins.
In 2009, when presented with a 1400 franc bill (around £940, €1160 or US $1520) for 20 years ‘up front’ maintenance of the eternal flame, one of the land owners called time on the arrangement and refused to pay. The church took him to court.
When the case finally went before a judge in the northeastern canton of Glarus last month, he ruled that 14th century legal customs had ceased to be valid when Switzerland reformed its lending sector in the mid-19th century, and wiped the farmer’s slate clean.