The white cross of shame at St. Mary’s

Dancing with the devil or: the embarrassing story of how the Berliners clubbed a priest to death

Originally this was supposed to be just a facebook post, but the story is kind of long, so we turned it into a blogpost

August 6th 1325 – 695 years ago, one of the weirdest and most embarrassing episodes of the young and growing 14th century town of Berlin unfolded. That day, Nikolaus, provost of the neighbouring town of Bernau held a sermon at Berlin’s Sta. Mary’s church, during which he complained, that Berliners wouldn’t donate enough to the church and anyway they are all rather ungodly, lazy drunkards. Grumbling, people took the abuse and since it was a market day they stayed for a bit of heated debate in the veins of „how could he, that thrice-damned tonsured sissy?“. Nikolaus then, instead of sneaking out the back, totally misreads the situation, gets out the front, starts talking and is being clubbed to death by the angry mob. After that Berlin became anathema to the church; noone got their last rites anymore, no weddings, no baptism and probably worse of all no good christian was suppossed to get in business with us until the ban was lifted. Anyway it took years of negotiations and a lot of money to lift it and one condition was that they erect a white cross as a visible sign of their shame.

Quelle: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-24785-0027 / Greiser / CC-BY-SA 3.0

But of course, it’s pretty embarrassing to have to admit that you totally lost your cool just because of trash-talkin priest, so in the following decades and centuries they came up with all kinds of legends, why there is this big white cross in front of the church. There’s the one about the drunk minstrel who climbed the steeple singing rowdy songs loud enough God could hear it and decided to have a little fun with the fellow. He throw him down the tower but saved his life, sobering the guy up instantly. Never drank again, never sang a sexy song again and to celebrate this miracle they put up the cross.

My favorite is that of the architect/builder who gambled away all the construction in card game with the devil. A deal was made, the devil gave back the money under the condition, that the builder would create a fatal flaw so the roof would come crashing down on the believers during the opening ceremony. But the builder secretly build the church stable and like a good christian, which of course made the devil mad as hell – pardon the pun – and strangled him to death on the day of the first service. To commemorate his sacrifice the cross was put. There’s another one of a princess, but that one is kind of boring.

Circling back 180° I have to tell you, that even the first story I told, isn’t really the truth. While Nick almost certainly was indeed killed by an angry mob, it probably wasn’t as spontaneous. Those days the emperor was at odds with the pope (surprise, surprise) and while Nikolaus was of course with the holy father in Rome, Ludwig of Brandenburg was a son of the kaiser, so naturally in opposition and the pope was just waiting for the perfect moment to stick it to his adversaries.

For me, it’s still a great story because it ties in so neatly with the prejudices about us Berliners: we are lazy,we drink too much, we only care about religion when it suits and we don’t do so well with authorities.



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