Witch Craze

Witch Craze

by Lyndal Roper

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From the gruesome ogress in Hansel and Gretel to the hags at the sabbath in Faust, the witch has been a powerful figure of the Western imagination. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thousands of women confessed to being witches—of making pacts with the Devil, causing babies to sicken, and killing animals and crops—and were put to death. This book is a gripping account of the pursuit, interrogation, torture, and burning of witches during this period and beyond.
Drawing on hundreds of original trial transcripts and other rare sources in four areas of Southern Germany, where most of the witches were executed, Lyndal Roper paints a vivid picture of their lives, families, and tribulations. She also explores the psychology of witch-hunting, explaining why it was mostly older women that were the victims of witch crazes, why they confessed to crimes, and how the depiction of witches in art and literature has influenced the characterization of elderly women in our own culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300176520
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 12/11/2004
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 1,212,376
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Witch Craze

Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany

By Lyndal Roper


Copyright © 2004 Lyndal Roper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17652-0



The Baroque Landscape

Germany in the epoch of the witch hunt was not a unified state, and did not become so until the nineteenth century. It was a patchwork of jurisdictions and political entities of varied size and structure. Obermarchtal, for instance, where Ursula Götz was accused, was little more than a village, the administrative seat of a minute territory governed by a monastery. Across Germany, ecclesiastical boundaries, areas of legal jurisdiction, lordship and political boundaries rarely coincided, a confusion that left its mark on the witch hunt. A bishop might be a secular ruler of one part of his dominion, with full judicial power, but wield only religious authority in other parts of his diocese and lack the power to instigate trials. It is striking that most of the mass persecutions took place in just such territories, lands ruled by Catholic prince-bishops. A town, large or small, might enjoy the status of imperial city, with no overlord other than the Emperor, a judicial island in a network of surrounding territories. A village court might make its own judgments, the village jurors untrained in the science of law but schooled in local tradition. Or all such cases might have to be referred to the territorial overlord, where decisions would be made in consultation with university-trained jurists. Sometimes appeals to a higher court were possible, sometimes not; and while in theory cases might be appealed to the Imperial Court of the whole Empire, which sat at Speyer, this rarely happened in practice.

Within Germany, witch hunts followed different patterns. In some areas, one, two or more witches were burnt every few years, a regular if always terrifying occurrence; in others, none were. But in some regions, mass witch hunts of extraordinary ferocity took place where hundreds and even thousands of individuals lost their lives. Under Ferdinand of Bavaria, in the electorate of Cologne (1612–37), 2,000 people were killed; Johann Georg II Fuchs presided over 600 executions during his decade in Bamberg (1623–33). Witch-hunting encompassed more 'routine' cases, each episode terrifying in the demonstration it gave of the power of the Devil to lead people astray, and mass persecutions where the fear of witchcraft scythed its way through an entire society, killing friends, neighbours and kin.

What made these complex legal and political boundaries dangerous were the religious passions of the period. The Reformation of the early sixteenth century had set towns and territories at war with themselves, as the new faith gradually established a foothold. In the wake of the victory of the Catholic Emperor Charles V over the Protestant Schmalkaldic League in 1548, a new territorial principle was established that linked politics and religion together: the religion of the ruler is the religion of the territory. In the years that followed, this was to lead to a series of fateful struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism as rulers underwent conversions, dynasties changed, or towns tried to reach accommodations between Catholic minorities and Protestant majorities. Then, in the second half of the sixteenth century, the Counter-Reformation began to win back ground in Germany for the Catholic faith, led by militant prince-bishops and powered by the intellectual energies of the recently established Jesuit order. These men saw themselves as fighting Satan's agents. The statue on the new Jesuit church in Munich, showing a victorious St Michael brandishing his sword over the defeated Lucifer of Protestantism, conveys their sense of urgency. Protestants, for their part, believed that Catholics were emissaries of the Devil and that the Pope was none other than the Antichrist – later illustrated editions of the Lutheran Bible show the Whore of Babylon sporting the papal tiara as she rides the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse. Religious passions became all the more volatile because Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran territories lay cheek by jowl. The godless enemies of salvation were not distant foes but neighbours, and so religious hatreds were murderously immediate as well as apocalyptic in significance. In some towns, these tensions were overcome and different confessions managed to live more or less harmoniously together; but if this equilibrium was upset, powers outside the town walls could rapidly exploit the situation. Dynastic accident or political turns of events might mean that a change of ruler brought a change of confession, which was then imposed on the population. Religious tensions had the potential to touch off far wider geo-political struggles, eventually culminating in the disastrous Thirty Years War (1618–48), in which Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist armies from all over Europe fought one another on German soil, leaving cities sacked, villages destroyed, the countryside ravaged and thousands dead.

The hundred years from 1550 to 1650 was one of the most terrible periods in Germany's history. It was also the epoch of the witch craze. Witch-hunting began there in serious numbers in the fifteenth century, but went through something of a lull in the first half of the sixteenth century, years which also saw the Reformation. It was in the second half of the sixteenth century, as the Counter-Reformation began its advance and as the second generation of the Reformation (those who had grown up under a permanently divided Christendom) came to power, that the witch craze took off. Starting in the 1560s, witch hunts grew in numbers to reach a dramatic peak in the 1580s and 1590s. This wave of persecution was followed by another around a generation later, in the 1610s, 1620s and into the 1630s, which saw mass hunts of extraordinary severity.

Why Germany? Germany was not the only region in Europe to hunt witches: there were outbreaks of large witch persecutions in Scotland, Lorraine, Sweden and even Essex in England, as well as ongoing trials of one or two witches every decade or so. It is very difficult to explain why witch-hunting in parts of Germany was so horrific and why it produced so many more victims. Global religious explanations will not work: in Germany, Catholic prince-bishoprics were the most fearsome witch-hunters, but in Catholic Italy, Portugal and Spain, where the Inquisition played an important role in trying witches, the numbers of deaths were comparatively small. Calvinist Scotland suffered a very serious witch hunt and Lutheran Sweden had a late outbreak of witch-hunting in which many children were involved.

Across Europe, the image of the witch was remarkably consistent: she was an old woman, and she attacked young children. The vast majority of those executed, around 75–80 per cent, were women. There were of course exceptions to this rule: in the very first trials in Switzerland, men outnumbered women, but they soon fell behind; in France, the proportions of men whose appeals against conviction for witchcraft were heard by the Parlement of Paris were always high. In Normandy, the world was turned upside-down: there, men made up three-quarters of those convicted, though many were actually priests misusing sacred objects for weather magic. But in England, as in Scotland, witches tended to be old women who cursed their neighbours, killed their cattle and made children ill when their requests for alms were not met; in Italy, old hags killed babies and made men impotent; in Lorraine, they took revenge on their neighbours for every petty slight. In some areas, women made up 90 per cent or more of the victims. The themes of the witch trials recur with monotonous regularity across Western Europe, featuring sex with the Devil, harm to women in childbed, and threats to fertility, all issues which touch centrally on women's experience.

It was in Germany that these fears found their most terrifying expression and resulted in the largest numbers of deaths. There, the image of the cannibalistic, death-dealing witch who attends sabbaths and brews up storms reached its apotheosis as witch after witch confessed. The very fragmentation of political and legal authority in Germany made it possible for panics to get out of hand, while the intensity of the religious struggle, with the forces of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation confronting each other directly, nourished a kind of moral fundamentalism that saw the Devil's hand at work in all opponents. But the form such fears took and the kinds of fantasy to which they gave rise had a great deal to do with local conditions; with religion, history and law in baroque Germany. To understand how such persecutions could happen, we need to explore the landscape, both physical and mental, in which they took place.

By the period of what we might loosely call the baroque, stretching from the newly reinvigorated Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation to its apogee in the early eighteenth century, German culture was characterized by intense emotionality, a profound religious sensibility, and a predilection for extremes and opposites. This era saw the building of churches that were overwhelming in their forthright, totalizing theological vision of a supremely brilliant heavenly court and of depraved mortal man – not for nothing did these churches show skeletons, skulls and even rats eating away at corpses. The profuse ornamentation and the rhapsodic elaboration of details drawn from nature spring from the same mindset as that of the bureaucrats who documented the bizarre outpourings of witches, producing huge lists of questions, dizzying in their ambition to capture every detail of the witches' experiences. These men recorded the responses of those whom they interrogated in page after page of flowery handwriting, the gracious, energetic curves of the script mirroring the extravagant Latinate language formed by their study of the classics and law. Princes and intellectuals created 'cabinets of curiosities' – collections including rocks and crystals, exotic objects from the New World, even unicorns' horns, in a promiscuous mixture of science and fable, the rational and irrational. Scientists, as fascinated by transformation in nature as were demonologists by the shape-shifting of witches, tried to turn base metals into gold; writers like Grimmelshausen penned vast, baggy epics, crammed with crowds of extraordinary characters as one incredible incident follows breathlessly on another, and fed the same appetite for the uncanny as did stories of witchcraft. Baroque culture aimed to interpret the whole world, the Old and the New; the natural and the supernatural; it revelled in cosmic statements about man's place in the world and the universe.

Yet it was also a highly local culture. When Sebastian Franck came to describe Germany in 1534 as part of his ambitious ethnography of the whole world, he resorted to series of descriptions of local rituals, landscapes and beliefs in Franconia, Swabia and so on. So too, when people sought divine grace they visited the shrine of a local saint, or attended the sermon of their local minister; and when they encountered the Devil, they met him on the road to the next village, or in their own parlour. We can only uncover the baroque sensibility of the witch craze in all its baffling contrariety by exploring how it worked at local level, by uncovering how people made the totalizing moral vision of the baroque into their own understanding of life in town, village or hamlet. For although it was a Europe-wide phenomenon, the witch craze only took hold by persuading people that the apocalyptic battle between God and Satan, man and the Devil, was taking place in their very own villages, that witches were dancing in the woods where they gathered their firewood, or holding sabbaths on the hills, or congregating under the very streets of their towns.

Some of the most serious outbreaks of witch-hunting took place in southern Germany, the cradle of the German baroque, in what are now the states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. Together these regions were responsible for perhaps 9,000 deaths, over a third of the German total. To take just four contrasting localities from this region: in the prince-bishopric of Würzburg, upwards of 1,200 people were killed in one of the largest European hunts. The small rural Catholic territory of Marchtal in Württemberg saw a small, but, for its size, large number of victims and witnessed panics in both the 1590s and the 1620s. The medium-sized Lutheran town of Nördlingen executed thirty-five in the space of a brief but bitter hunt. Finally, even the large imperial bi-confessional city of Augsburg, which saw no witch craze, executed around seventeen witches over a timespan of seventy years. It was a grim period, and witch-hunting encompassed burgher and peasant, Catholic and Protestant alike. From the late sixteenth century to around 1630, Europe endured the 'little ice age' – a combination of perishingly cold winters and wet summers and autumns which brought bad harvests as the grain rotted. It must have seemed as if the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were on the loose, bringing war, hunger, disease and death.

The formal legal framework for the witch hunt in the Holy Roman Empire was provided by the Carolina, the Imperial Law Code which Charles V promulgated in 1532, and to which he gave his name. It was the nearest thing to a system of law valid throughout the Empire. But justice remained local: each of the four areas featured in this book had its own legal code and was virtually sovereign in matters of criminal justice, and though appeals to the Imperial Court were in principle possible, they were rarely made. The Carolina itself provided the barest skeleton for proceedings against witches, even though it was perpetually cited by jurists throughout the period and into the eighteenth century in support of sentencing and punishing witches.

All the Carolina stipulated was that evidence of harm had to be supplied before torture might be used and that witches deserved to be executed 'with fire'. Hardly a witch-hunter's charter, it gave no details about what witches might be thought to do. Its provisions, limited though they were, should have prevented the kinds of witch panic where denunciations by other witches were enough to convict a suspected witch: at least the Carolina insisted there must be evidence of the malefice the witch was alleged to have caused. Some regions issued special mandates against witches – Bavaria published a lengthy ordinance in 1611, when the worst excesses of its witch hunt were over. Other regions simply prosecuted using a mixture of precedent and adaptation of existing criminal procedure.

One of the shocking features of the European witch craze is that some of the most highly trained lawyers and sophisticated intellectuals of the age were its keenest proponents. The brilliant lawyer and political theorist Jean Bodin (1529/30–96) provides a telling example. His Six Books of a Commonweal, written in 1576 at the height of the French Wars of Religion, attacks the idea that there can be any justification for revolt against authority and develops the idea of the state. It remains a key text of political theory. Order in the domestic and political realms was one of his prime concerns, and he is famous for providing the philosophical underpinning of absolutist monarchy. Bodin also, however, wrote a work of demonology championing the most ruthless campaign against witches, and he took part in witch trials himself. A subtle thinker capable of works of the utmost intellectual penetration, he was a seeker after truth whose religious beliefs are hard to pin down – it has even been speculated that he converted to Judaism. But on the question of witchcraft he was unambiguous, a hardline persecutor, determined to root out the enemies of Christendom and the state and punish them with fire.

In Bodin's case, we have a rare insight into the inner world of a witch-hunter. He recorded a dream, which he includes in the chapter of his Démonomanie des sorciers devoted to the relationship between witches and evil spirits. After a lengthy discussion of the nature of the relationship between a witch and her demon, there follows an extraordinary treatment of its opposite, the relation between an angel and a human. Bodin relates how a good friend of his – or perhaps Bodin himself – was constantly accompanied by a good spirit, who would regularly wake him at two or three in the morning: 'Then he had the real dreams about what he was to do, or believe, concerning doubts that he had, or what was to happen to him.' The spirit immediately informed him in his sleep if ever he did something wrong. Bodin also reports a dream of red and white horses which, he said, foretold the dreamer's future.

These dreams, whether his or not, clearly meant a great deal to Bodin, who was convinced that the world was a battleground between the forces of good and evil and who was ready to see each individual soul in dualist terms. Who better to assure you of the rightness of your course of action than your own personal angel, ready to police your dreams, settle doubts about the future and advise you whenever you deviate from the path of goodness? It is no accident that this passage appears immediately after his long commentary on witches and devils. Whether consciously or not, Bodin recognized the kinship of the angelic spirit to its opposite, the witch's demon.

The angel offered authority, and reassured him that he had not been sucked into the world of the witch. And well might the witch-hunter have craved such an assurance. After all, even the infamous work of demonology Malleus Maleficarum (or Hexenhammer, The Hammer of Witches), the so-called witches' handbook compiled in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and the inspiration of Bodin's work, has it both ways: on the one hand, the Malleus reassures judges that they are invariably immune from the attacks of witches because they are carrying out God's work; on the other, it offers them a series of prophylactic religious rituals to ward off harm. They 'must not allow themselves to be touched physically by the witch, especially in any contact of their bare arms or hands; but they must always carry about them some salt consecrated on Palm Sunday and some Blessed Herbs'; the witch 'should be led backward into the presence of the Judge and his assessors. And not only at the present point, but in all that has preceded or shall follow it, let him cross himself and approach her manfully.' As Bodin well knew, judges could certainly be subject to the vicious attacks of witches, and they might even succumb to the Devil's blandishments. After all, they were exposed to him on a daily basis when they interrogated his creature, the witch.

Excerpted from Witch Craze by Lyndal Roper. Copyright © 2004 by Lyndal Roper. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................     vi     

Preface....................     ix     

Acknowledgements....................     xiii     

Prologue: The Witch at the Smithy....................     1     

PART I: Persecution....................     13     

Chapter 1 The Baroque Landscape....................     15     

Chapter 2 Interrogation and Torture....................     44     

PART II: Fantasy....................     67     

Chapter 3 Cannibalism....................     69     

Chapter 4 Sex with the Devil....................     82     

Chapter 5 Sabbaths....................     104     

PART III: Womanhood....................     125     

Chapter 6 Fertility....................     127     

Chapter 7 Crones....................     160     

PART IV: The Witch....................     179     

Chapter 8 Family Revenge....................     181     

Chapter 9 Godless Children....................     204     

Chapter 10 A Witch in the Age of Enlightenment....................     222     

Epilogue....................     247     

Notes....................     257     

Bibliography....................     327     

Index....................     346     

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