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The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village Hardcover – February 16, 2009


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The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village + Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present (Critical Issues in World and International History) + The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (February 16, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393065510
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393065510
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #905,836 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Duke historian Robisheaux turns the obscure story of a smalltown German woman convicted of witchcraft into a marvelous window onto a society in crisis. On Shrove Tuesday, 1672, Eva Küstner delivered Shrovetide cakes baked by her mother to her neighbor, Anna Fessler, who was still recuperating from the birth of her child a few weeks earlier. A few days after eating some of the cakes, Anna died a painful death. Almost immediately, the community accused Eva and her mother, Anna Schmeig, of witchcraft. In this fast-paced account, Robisheaux chronicles the roles that various ministers, lawyers and physicians play in the indictment of Anna Schmeig and her immediate family. Robisheaux shows that Schmeigs trial and execution as a witch grew out of a small villages superstitions and its belief in the power of God to transform an evil event into an exemplary one. Drawing on rich records of the trials of Schmeig and her family, Robisheaux finely crafts a vivid glimpse of a time, place and state of mind that, though remote, is all too familiar. 22 illus., 3 maps. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

In the German hamlet of Langenburg in 1672, panic ensued when a young woman named Anna Fessler ate a butter cake and died overnight. Had Anna Schmieg, her neighbor, poisoned the cake by means of witchcraft? Robisheaux explores the lore surrounding one of Germany’s last witch trials, using details from a gruesome autopsy report, an investigation mounted by the court adviser Ulrich von Gülchen, and eyewitness testimony. The rich microhistory that results illustrates the contradictions between early modern European thought and medieval superstitions. Schmieg’s fate—underscored by filial betrayal, torture, and a wrangled confession—is worth learning, but, frustratingly, Robisheaux leaves larger historical questions unanswered, and we’re left pondering the significance of why Schmieg was the last witch of Langenburg.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Cassondra Vick on February 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The Last Witch of Langenburg is a fascinating look at the mechanics of witch trials as well as an interesting account of one of the latest convictions of a woman for witchcraft. Perhaps one of the more interesting things, and a blessing for readers, is how well-documented the trial is and author Thomas Robisheaux delivers this bounty of information in a very engaging narrative. While it is historical non-fiction, it reads, at times, like an historical thriller.

Robisheaux makes the smart move of diving immediately into the story, beginning with the miller's daughter, Eva Küstner traveling around her village delivering small cakes for the holiday of Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras' more tame cousin. From court testimony, we learn of her neighbor's deep suspicions about the delivery of the cakes, which will help lead to the accusation of witchcraft. Then of the dramatic death of villager Anna Fessler the evening after eating one of her cakes seals the deal. It is only then that Robisheaux goes into some of the more dry background details of the holiday of Shrove Tuesday, the tradition of baking cakes for it, and why witchcraft, rather than simple murder by poisoning, was Küstner's neighbors' conclusion. A wise decision, I think, to begin with the dramatic, involving the reader before moving on to some of the more academic material.

Robisheaux continues in this vein, giving the reader a bit of the story and a bit of the background as the town's leaders and citizens become embroiled in the investigation of witchcraft. Most fascinating to the modern reader is the contrast between the rising notion of justice, fair trials, forensics, and the consultation of scientific experts, versus the almost medieval notion of witchcraft.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A. Droessaert on February 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Researched for over fifteen years, this complex web of personal relationships in a time of crisis offers an astonishing glimpse into every day life in a small village in the 17th century. A high stakes drama with much food for thought about religion, science and sociology, this well written book will grab you and offer you a view from many perspectives on a wide range of human emotions and includes everything from superstition, famine, war and devastation to state of the art science, the workings of medicine and law, love, betrayal, and an education in history. The human drama which unfolds with increasing intensity and the gripping yet non-fiction tale of Professor Robisheaux, are unique in its genre and reveal new potentials in the field of micro history. This book and its deeply dramatic and disturbing story are made for a movie, and an award winning one at that!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Kyle M. Hemmert on June 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover
What a great, but tragic, history. This well researched, and readable, account captures a surprising amount of detail for people who lived almost 350 years ago. Centering around the poisoning of a young mother (Anna Fessler) and the accusation of a miller's wife (Anna Schmieg) of witchcraft Robisheaux expertly captures village life in a 17th century German principality.

The book captures the tragic life of Schmieg, a village outsider, as well as the political, religious, and social fabric of village life. Schmieg was put up against an entire village, the betrayal of a daughter and son who told half-truths, an over-zealous judge (who bent the rules of law to get a conviction), and a stern Lutheran orthodoxy.

This book also describes 17th century legal and medical practices, Lutheran theology, superstitious beliefs, and the effects of the Thirty Years War on the above mentioned issues.

This book is an great account of high drama in 17th century Germany. Its very absorbing and tragic at the same time. For anyone interested in European witch hunts or just a good story to read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Susan R. Matthews on August 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The story is intriguing and engaging: the death of a young mother, underlying currents of resentment and suspicion, and the interactions of personalities in small communities. What intrigued me most about this book was the light it shed on the state of jurisprudence in a German principality at the end of the seventeenth century and related academic and medical developments. The bottom line is that things were considerably more sophisticated than I had thought: and a stereotyped witch hunt this definitely wasn't. The characters are established with respect and sympathy; the story's background is well established but not allowed to swamp the story itself; and the reverberations of the story over the years down to the present day are traced -- just fascinating. I really enjoyed the book and can recommend it to readers interested in true crime stories, sociology of small towns, and the impact of developing humanities on jurisprudence of the time. That sounds very dry, but this was great stuff!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By R. Gilbert on December 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The subject matter of "Last Witch" would make it compelling even if written by the most stuffy of historians, but Robisheaux deftly whips it into a piece not only entertaining but extremely informative. What's most compelling is that it humanizes one family in the midst of a drama that played out countless times in Europe. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the way in which witchcraft trials proceeded, start to finish.
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