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Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany Paperback – October 31, 2006
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"In this brilliant piece of investigative history [and] . . . thanks to Roper’s patient and sophisticated work . . . we finally have a joined up history of the witch."—The Guardian
"Lyndal Roper is an original and insightful historian of witchcraft, and the publication of this major work is most welcome. Her style is fluent and accessible, but those who examine the 59 pages of closely printed notes will rapidly see the depth of scholarship that underpins her work."—Times Higher Education Supplement
"Where history meets psychology . . . Lyndal Roper is pre-eminent. This ambitious and subtle book is testament not only to Roper's skill in excavating stories from the German archives, but also to her imagination and determination in reading between the lines of examinations and confessions, venturing where historians fear to tread. . . . It is vital and irresistible to try to make windows on the souls of our ancestors, and in this compelling, courageous and inspirational work Lyndal Roper leads the way."—Malcolm Gaskill, Journal of the Historical Association
"Witch Craze presents a story of the ways in which mythologies of evil forces can lead people to carry out unspeakable acts that seems both very foreign and very familiar."—Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Victorian Studies
"An interesting outline of beliefs about the activities of witches in early modern Germany seen from a standpoint of psychological analysis, but from a standpoint that does not wallow about in jargon or unnecessary speculation. . . . [Roper] mercifully gets to the point with an ease of writing that is a relief to readers who all too often have to resort to plows to get through the verbiage. . . . This is an interesting book and one in which the author has provided her readers with a good selection of primary materials."—Jane P. Davidson, Sixteenth Century Journal
"Get to it immediately because, though it reads like a sensational novel, it covers in an extremely adept scholarly way a century of witchcraft persecutions in Germany. . . . It is also of great interest to all students of psychology, delusion and the madness of crowds, fear and fanaticism, life and law."—Chronique
"This book thus not only answers many questions, but also raises more—an indication of the intellectual vitality of the topic and of the author's broad engagement with it. It is a major work which must be read, not only by those interested in witch hunting in Germany, but by those in related fields. It has, indeed, much to tell us about the human condition as a whole."—Julian Goodare, Canadian Journal of History
"[A] fine book. . . . A major contribution to an already remarkable body of academic work. . . . [Roper] presents much well-grounded evidence to support her conclusions."—John Demos, New York Review of Books
"Deserves to be widely read. . . . Should ensure Roper's position as the doyenne of witchcraft scholarship for many years to come."—Journal of Modern History
"This is a major work that pushes the history of witchcraft in new directions and offers remarkable and sometimes startling new insights. Lyndal Roper breaks new ground in her remarkable, subtle analysis of the interpersonal relations among those caught up in fantasies of witchcraft."—H. C. Erik Midelfort, author of A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany
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"The importance of Akhmatovas works in the Russian poetic tradition can scarcely be exaggerated. These works also hold a place of honor in the history of artistic engagement of moral responsibility."--Olga P. Hasty, Princeton University --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Other factors contributing to this demonology are also looked at, including family conflicts and children who act out in extreme ways and are labeled as diabolical by their clueless parents.
Germany's "Baroque landscape" was one consumed with environmental and religious turmoil. The early 17th century in Europe experienced what recent historians have documented as the "little ice age." This included "a combination of perishingly [sic] cold winters and wet summers and autumns which brought bad harvests as the grain rotted" (20). Because witches were often tied to notions of fertility, they were the obvious culprits of and infertile soil. Village life was marked with a continuous concern over reproduction, of both the body and the land (food). Thus, "people could become inclined to see threats to fertility lurking everywhere" (8). Witches, especially women who were beyond the reproductive age, were easily rationalized as the cause of infertility in a world that was deficient of scientific reasoning.
The Reformation and Counter-Reformation, with their power visually erected in "imposing alters" and churches also created a landscape in which religious leaders and disciples of three different Christian faiths competed for superiority and legitimacy. Roper investigates Julius Echter, the "ruler of Wurzburg," who accommodated the mentally ill with a new hospital (the Juliusspital) yet also adamantly hunted witches. Moreover, he was known for his "adulation of Mary" and "hatred of Jews" (40). During his reign, hundreds of witches were executed. Moreover, lawyers such as Jean Bodin, also a demonologist, sought not only to hunt witches, but also to "save witch's souls" while advancing their own careers. However, Roper also points out that the witch hunt in Wurzburg was, at first, a sincere "attempt by officials to take seriously peasant fears concerning sick cows, outbreaks of hail, mysterious insects and various diseases" as these political and religious leaders felt pressure "from the populace itself" (27-28). By defining witchery, political leaders could bring some semblance of order to the fears amongst the populous.
The interrogation process, Roper insists, was "at the heart of the witch craze" (43). "Interrogators shaped the story that the witch confessed, even if they did not consciously believe themselves to be doing so. Consciously or unconsciously, she [the witch] learned what she had to say" (58). Roper links this phenomenon to the Freudian concept of "transference and counter-transference" in which the interrogator and the witch create the "witch `fantasy'" (58). The witch comes "to know the interrogator and unconsciously to identify with his needs" (58). Moreover, the torture itself becomes sadistic, as the torturer receives some sort of sexual pleasure from the experience, and, in Roper's estimation, likely rapes the witch while incarcerated (and, of course, blames "the devil"). The "compelling narratives" that emanated from the "confessions" generated from the interrogation, torture, and rape of witches "fueled the witch craze" (61).
Cannibalism amongst witches was likely a "myth" related to communal understanding of communion in Nordlingen. Even after judges received a statement from the gravedigger that graves had not been disturbed, they were still convinced that witches had not been convinced by the Devil that they had eaten human flesh (73). The myth of cannibalism, which had consumed Nordlingen society, was purveyed by the subconscious psychological inquisition of the interrogator. Moreover, women interrogated for witchery gave stories "reminiscent of the sensory experiences of motherhood" (74).
Roper's account of witches having sex with the Devil also plays with the similar Freudian chord that rings throughout the book. "Sex with the Devil, which began with courtship, is unmasked as degrading, filthy and anal" (84). Roper quotes the thoughts of demonologists as well, to denote the underlying notions or fantasies about the Devil and his relationship with women. "The Devil uses them [women] because he knows that women love carnal pleasures" (84). The accounts of accused witches under interrogation then come out as admissions of intercourse with the Devil, since the inquisitors already have a preconceived, unconscious understanding of the devil-female relationship that has been ingrained in the cultural dialect. However, it is interesting to point out Roper's elucidation of how demonologists battled with the notion that progeny of the Devil (or an animal) and a female may still be human beings.
In the third part of the four part book, Roper presents a broader overview of the witch belief system, including notions of fertility and the problem of women who were too old to reproduce (crones). Women were susceptible to the Devil's charms while "lying in" for six weeks following child birth. This was also a risky period of time for midwives or lying in maids who brought food for the new mother. If the child did not survive its infancy, which was common, the midwife or maid would likely be accused of witchery. Further exacerbating the issue was state involvement in marriage. The state had a compelling economic interest to make sure that only couples who were financially prepared were permitted to marry. This meant that women often waited until their mid to late twenties to marry. Thus, their "most fertile years" for "reproductive potential were lost" (130). Infant mortality rates were further increased by poor harvests and malnutrition. Fertility was further stressed in the artwork of the era in which artist's "obsessive focus on breasts and stomachs...seem almost to reduce women to their position in the reproductive hierarchy" (150).
The fourth and final section of Roper's text analyzes the end of the witch craze. Interrogations increasingly focused on "motives, life histories and individual psychology of accused witches" as well upon "youths and children" (181). An interrogation and long, brutal torture took place in 1745 of an elderly woman in rural Marchtal, even though it was during the "beginnings of German Enlightenment, when torture was being denounced" (228). The 18th century records, however, differ from 16th and 17th century records. The later records "ooze with emotion" and the "role of animals" shows less importance (230-231). Roper contends that the more precise and lengthy interrogation of this era "reveal people's hidden thoughts and feelings" and indicate that "the Age of Sentiment had certainly dawned" (231). Her final story, of a conflict between a mother and daughter, reveals that the symbolic and psychological understandings of "witchcraft had become a family drama rather than a cosmic battle between good and evil" (246). "The moral codes of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation...had fallen into disuse. They became matters of convention and education, not of law and politics." As politics and religion become more dichotomous, "the baroque imagination" and fears of witchery faded as well. Politics was no longer a religiously driven "moral crusade" (251-252).
"Hansel and Gretel" is a children's fairy tale that, like many others collected by the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early nineteenth century, contains a certain edge to it. The stepmother of a girl and boy urges their father to abandon the children in the forest because they cannot afford to feed them. In the forest the siblings come across a gingerbread house in which lives an old woman. The crone, as it turns out, is a witch who intends to cook and eat the children. And so, from out of our "innocent" past comes this old children's favorite seared with aspects of cruelty, pain and horror: abject poverty, abandonment, witchcraft, cannibalism.
Although of uncertain provenance, "Hansel and Gretel" captures a terrible aspect of late medieval/early modern Germany: a society so imprisoned by fear of witches that it burned to death or otherwise killed untold thousands of men, children and mostly women. In other words, as Lyndal Roper points out in the epilogue to her insightful book, "Witch Craze," this fairy tale was a distant mirror (to borrow from Barbara Tuchman) of a dark past in which old women could be accused of horrific crimes including cannibalism. Looking at it in this light, "Hansel and Gretel" provides literary evidence of a society gone mad with the conviction that neighbors could be evil witches.
"Witch Craze" focuses on the century of witch trials in Germany between 1550 to 1650. This was, Roper notes, "one of the most terrible periods in Germany's history" (p. 16), which given Germany's modern history, may be overstating it but just a bit. To give some idea of just how terrible, in one area under just one ruler, "Ferdinand of Bavaria, in the electorate of Cologne (1612-37), 2,000 people were killed" as witches (p. 15). Overall, 70-85 percent of those burned at the stake for witchcraft were women (p. 17). The seeming random cruelty of this period was given a narrative of sorts through the drama of the witch trials: "Beliefs and apprehensions about witches who flew to sabbaths, fornicated with Satan, made men impotent and cooked and ate dead infants formed a `fantasy' in the sense that they gave structure to wordless terrors and grief, translating them into a recognizable narrative," Roper says (p.10).
Contrary to what one might think, these accusations did not for the most part stem from local religious or civic leaders. It is true that religious leaders in particular fanned the flame of belief in witchcraft, but the accusations mostly stemmed from the country peasantry. The authorities were then obliged to prosecute, and they did so with gusto, using a menu of extreme cruelty; torture included the rack, thumb screws, ankle screws, and whipping. These interrogations usually succeeded, of course, in getting confessions, but even when they didn't, that, too, became evidence of satanic involvement: the witch was getting help from the devil. In most cases, execution followed.
"Witch Craze" is not a chronological accounting of the witchcraft trial phenomenon in this period. It is, rather, a well researched, argued, and nuanced report on the underlying causes for the witchcraft hysteria. Unlike some other studies of this "witch craze" (see, for instance, Anne Barstow's book), Roper does not ascribe the cause solely to misogyny. Rather, she sees a more complex set of sociological factors at work. Controlled fertility, delayed marriage and concerns about fecundity and age led to stories about witches--barren women who, "consumed with envy . . . attacked the property and fertility of others" (p. 158). Roper concludes that "preoccupations about fertility, women's bodies and the fragility of infancy lay at the heart of the witch craze in Germany..." (p. 151).
This is an outstanding and highly readable study of witchcraft in Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The astute student of the period will peruse this fine book.