On this date in 1685, Catholic priest Kryštof* Alois Lautner was degraded from the clergy and burnt at the stake as a sorcer — but his real crime was standing athwart a witch hunt.
The term “witch craze” doesn’t quite seem the just one for the Northern Moravian witch trials since they spanned 18 terribly systematic years until the gouty main inquisitor mercifully retired in 1696, having put about 100 people to the sword and stake.
Generally understood in the context of Catholic hostility to reform denominations on the soil of the present-day Czech Republic, this dreadful affair started when a Vernirovice woman was caught sneaking the Host out of Easter Mass in 1678, intending to use it as a charm for a folk spell to enhance the fertility of her cows.
By 1679, that woman was burned at the stake — along with two others whom she was induced to accuse by the threat of torture.
These executions were the fruit of a witchcraft commission that had been empaneled to pursue the original desecration of the communion bread, but now that the witch team was an institution it began finding more and more necromancers, in a self-justifying spiral of accusations.
Lautner, a well-liked deacon of Sumperk, spoke against the witch hunt when it came to that city and for his pains he was arrested there in 1680 … then leisurely broken by torture over a period of four years until he was at last undone by accusations wrenched from the torture of the wealthy Sattler family. (Whose valuables the commission did not neglect to appropriate.) It was standard witchcraft fare: black sabbaths, incestuous orgies, pacts with Satan.
“Milder tortures were used against him initially” the records say. “But those he admirably resisted, and remained obdurate. Then came harsher steps. Lautner began to confess, but when he was removed from the devices he recanted his admissions. So he was put to torture again and again, to defeat the devil’s secrecy. He was interrogated in June 1684 — twelve days in a row, except Sunday.” The case progressed so deliberately in part because the prosecution of a clergyman required the signoff of church heirarchy** … and in part because Lautner’s own friends intervened to try to free him. (One such ally, the priest Tomáš König, wrote a letter to the bishop on Lautner’s behalf and thereby became an object for investigation himself; it’s thought that he was about to be arrested by the witchsmellers when he fortuitously died in 1682.)
In the end the cleric could not hope to withstand the pressure. 20,000 people are reported to have swelled Sumperk for his execution by fire.
His case — which has latterly been commemorated by public monuments celebrating Lautner as a hero of conscience — was dramatized in the historical novel Witch Hammer by Vaclav Kaplicki. Otakar Vavry adapted the story for the silver screen; Kladivo na Carodejnice is available online in its entirety, but you’ll need to be up on your Czech.
* Hacek courtesy of Jan Hus!
** Pope Innocent XI ultimately signed off on proceedings, on the sententious grounds that clergy can’t be above the law when they traffic with devils.