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Cremation of the knight of Hohenberg with his servant for sodomy ; Big Burgundy Chronicle

The pyre ( Scheiter , old plural form of log , Old High German scît "piece of wood") is a stacked pile of firewood that is used to burn a dead person ( cremation ) or to execute one or more people by burning (fire death). In the case of book burns, it was also used to destroy books and books that were banned by the censors .


Cremation, also known as cremation, was widespread - even in America. In Europe and Asia it has mostly been detectable parallel to burial since the Neolithic . Since Christians, like Jews and Muslims, viewed the cremation of the dead as incompatible with belief in the resurrection , the method fell into disuse in Christianized and Islamized areas. In North Asia, the cremation of corpses still occurs occasionally, especially the Buryats burn the corpses of shamans in the best clothing together with knives and provisions at stake. In Hindu India , stakes are the traditional form of cremation to this day. Until the 20th century, widows were occasionally burned there in a widow cremation (sati) along with their husband's corpse.

Method of execution

Burning of the Salzburg Anabaptists in 1528

Death by fire was a common form of the death penalty in the Roman Empire of late antiquity . In the late Middle Ages and the early modern period , unrepentant heretics found guilty of heresy and therefore sentenced to death were commonly put to death. The same thing happened with the witch hunts .

Cremation of Christians in ancient Rome

The Twelve Tables Act (approx. 450 BC) already provides for the incinerator to be burned in the event of arson, whereby this regulation is apparently based on a Talion principle . The application is not known from the Roman Republic , although this can be attributed to the sources. Although sporadic evidence of this form of punishment was already available under Emperor Tiberius , it was probably first used on a larger scale under Nero to punish Christians accused of causing the great fire of Rome in AD 64. The ancient historiography attributes this to the cruel character of the emperor. However, it was more a question of a consistent application of the present law, even if the actual participation of Christians in the fire is at least doubtful. In the time after Constantine , the Roman military could also be punished with this punishment if they were guilty of conspiracy ( coniuratio transfugae ) with the enemy.

Later Christian portrayals of martyrs show that burning alive was used in Christian trials regardless of the offense. In late antiquity, which was marked by religious battles, the non-Christian emperor Diocletian threatened to die by fire against the syncretistic religious community of the Manicheans . After the conversion of Christianity to the state religion under Theodosius I , despite the earlier persecutions, people of different faiths were often threatened with this type of execution, since on the one hand the crucifixion was now rejected for religious reasons, on the other hand convictions in the amphitheater , such as the Damnatio ad bestias or the Damnatio ad ferrum , because of the originally pagan origin of the facility. One also saw a cleansing effect in burning (see: purgatory ).

Cremation of heretics

Autodafé (painting from 1653)

In the Christian Europe of the Middle Ages , the first known heretics were cremated in Orléans in 1022 . The “Anti-Heretic Law” enacted by Emperor Friedrich II. In 1224 for Lombardy already provided for death by fire in severe cases of heresy . In 1231 Pope Gregory IX took over . the law for the church sector. In the inquisitorial system condemned to death heretics were usually burned publicly at the stake. The formulation for the death penalty was usually that a heretic sentenced to death was to be handed over to "the secular arm", since the church was not even allowed to carry out the death penalty according to the principle of ecclesia non sitit sanguinem .

The religious judgment of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions , known as the auto-da-fé in the early modern times and solemnly celebrated as a public act , ended with the burning of those sentenced to death at the stake, often in the presence of all ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries.

Burning Jews

Burning of Jews from Deggendorf in 1338 in Hartmann Schedel's world chronicle (1493)

In the Middle Ages, death by fire was the usual punishment for Jews for allegedly desecrating the host . The following pogroms against Jews are documented :

Cremation of criminals and witches

The "Embarrassing Neck Court Order" of Emperor Charles V , ( Constitutio Criminalis Carolina ) of 1532 saw cremation as a punishment for sorcery (§ 109), counterfeiting (§ 111), "unchastity against nature" (§ 116), arson (§ 125) and theft of a monstrance with a consecrated host (§ 172). In the early modern witch hunts , women and men who were believed to have been convicted of witchcraft were burned alive.

In addition to the method of burning the condemned alive, chained or bound to a fire stake, there was also the option of strangling them at the stake beforehand. This was seen as an act of grace. Other variants considered gracious were the use of fresh, still damp wood, so that the condemned suffocated on the smoke before his body was burned, or a small bag of black powder was tied around his neck, which exploded as soon as the flames reached it .

On April 24, 1751 Anna Schnidenwind was strangled and burned at the stake in Endingen am Kaiserstuhl , probably one of the last executions of an alleged witch in Germany. The last death sentence by burning in Germany is said to have been carried out on May 28, 1813 on the Berlin Jungfernheide , when Johann Peter Horst and Friederike Luise Delitz were executed as members of a murderous gang.

Known execution victims

Fire execution of Anneken Hendriks in Amsterdam in 1571

The people who died at the stake also include personalities of outstanding historical importance, for example Fra Dolcino (1307), Margareta Porete (1310), Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), Jeanne d'Arc ( 1431), Girolamo Savonarola (1498), Jakob Hutter (1536), Thomas Cranmer (1556) and Giordano Bruno (1600).


Web links

Wiktionary: pyre  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Execution by burning  - Collection of images

Individual evidence

  1. Gerd Schwerhoff: The Inquisition. Heretic persecution in the Middle Ages and modern times. 3. Edition. Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-406-50840-0 , p. 75.
  2. Uno Harva : The religious ideas of the Altaic peoples. FF Communications N: o 125.Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1938, p. 296.
  3. Erich Sander : The Roman Military Criminal Law , p. 291.
  4. Examples in Eusebius of Caesarea , Church History , passim.
  5. Gerd Schwerhoff: The Inquisition: Persecution of Heretics in the Middle Ages and Modern Times. Munich 2004 p. 15 f.
  6. Gerd Schwerhoff: The Inquisition - persecution of heretics in the Middle Ages and modern times. 3. Edition. Verlag CH Beck, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-406-50840-0 , p. 91 (German).
  7. Encyclopedia of Religions. 1990 Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri Bompiani Sonzogno Etas S .. p. A .. (German version: Weltbild GmbH, Hamburg 1990. Editing: M. Elser, S. Ewald, G. Murrer. With the collaboration of A. Lohner - Catholic theology, W. Graf - Protestant theology and a number of other employees)
  8. Brigitte Beier: The Chronicle of the Germans. Gütersloh and Munich 2007, p. 198.
  9. Helmut Feld: The end of belief in the soul. From the ancient Orient to the late modern. Lit Verlag Dr. W. Hopf, Berlin 2013. ISBN 978-3-643-12200-1 , p. 454.
  10. Michael Borgolte, Juliane Schiel, Bernd Schneidmüller, Annette Seitz (eds.): Middle Ages in the Laboratory: Medieval Studies tests ways to a transcultural European science. (Europe in the Middle Ages; Volume 10), Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2008. ISBN 978-3-05-004373-9 , p. 428.