A church in the small village of Kampehl in Brandenburg, Germany displays the mummified remains of a knight who died in the early 18th century. It’s not unusual for European churches to show the bodies and body parts of saints and martyrs, especially those bodies that seem to have escaped decomposition through divine intervention. What’s unusual in this case is the church displays the mummified body of a man who was put on trial for murder. And many people believed that the knight’s unexplained preservation is because of a curse and proves he was guilty of his crimes.
Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz (1651-1702) was knight and aristocrat who had 11 legitimate children and 30 illegitimate children. Many people believe that his illegitimate children were the result of a violent tradition called droit du seigneur (Aufderheide 2011).
Droit du seigneur, a French phrase translated as “right of the lord,” is also known as jus primae noctis, a Latin phrase that means “right of the first night.” This tradition allowed a feudal lord or an aristocrat to impose intercourse on the peasant brides on his estates on the bride’s wedding night. This practice of institutionalized rape dates to ancient times. It was mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Herodotus notes that this custom was practiced in ancient Libya. Medieval Europeans were rumored to have practiced droit du seigneur but historians have not found evidence of its existence in the written laws of England or European countries, though this doesn’t rule it being performed as a custom (Wettlaufer 2000, Bullough 1991).
Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz tried to enforce droit du seigneur in 1690 with the bride of one of his shepherds. When the bride refused, Kahlbutz reportedly had the shepherd killed (Aufderheide 2011). The bride accused Kahlbutz of murder and took him to court. Because there were no witnesses and he was a nobleman, all Kahlbutz had to do was swear his innocence to be released. Kahlbutz not only declared his innocence but went overboard and swore that if he was guilty his corpse would not decay (Aufderheide 2011).
Kahlbutz died in 1702 at the age of 51 and his body was sealed in a double coffin and placed in his family’s crypt under the church of Kampehl (Aufderheide 2011).
When the church was renovated in 1794, the coffins in its tombs were removed and buried in the church cemetery, including those in the Kahlbutz family crypt. Workers discovered that all of the bodies had decomposed except the body of Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz (Aufderheide 2011). His body was kept in the crypt and put on display and the story of the murdered shepherd and his self-impose curse was told as the reason for the body’s unique state of preservation (Aufderheide 2011).
Kahlbutz’s body has been studied a few times over the years to find a scientific reason for the body’s mummification. Researchers have not been able to conclusively explain how he died or why his body mummified. Reasons for the mummification include the absence of oxygen caused by the double walls of the coffin, or tannins in the coffin’s wood, or the dry air in the tomb (Aufderheide 2011).
The reason this is unusual is that when a church displays a corpse because of its unexplained preservation or mummification it’s sign of holiness not sin. When Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches find that a body is naturally preserved or the process of decomposition has been delayed in they refer to the corpse as incorrupt (Harper 2014). They believe that incorruptibility happens as the result of divine intervention and is proof of the deceased’s holiness. Although these cases of natural preservation are likely due to temperature, moisture levels, and the unique microenvironments of the tombs they are placed in-not the hand of God (Harper 2014). With Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz, incorruptibility became proof of his crimes not godliness.
Aufderheide, A.C. (2011). The scientific study of mummies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Bullough, V.L. (1991). Jus primae noctis or droit du seigneur. Journal of Sex Research, 28: 163-166.
Harper, E. (2014). The (not really so very) incorrupt corpses. Retrieved from: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/really-whats-incorrupt-corpses#.VcZBQUtP3BE
Wettlaufer, J. (2000). The jus primae noctis as a male power display: A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21(2), 111-123. http://www.fibri.de/jus/arthbes.htm