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Witch Craze

Witch Craze

Lyndal Roper
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
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  • Book Info
    Witch Craze
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17652-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. ii-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Prologue: The Witch at the Smithy
    (pp. 1-12)

    It was just on twilight and the Ave Maria bell sounded from the monastery tower across the fields, but the dancers outside Martin Hundersinger’s house ignored it. They were stamping and whirling to the sound of the fiddle, for it was September and the harvest was in. As the festivity reached its height, the figure of an old woman could be seen, sidling by the dancers and coming to a halt just in front of Hundersinger’s cowshed. A girl screamed at her ‘Be gone!’ and the old crone scuttled away, but soon she returned again, taking up her post in...

  7. PART I: Persecution

    • Chapter One The Baroque Landscape
      (pp. 15-43)

      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...

    • Chapter Two Interrogation and Torture
      (pp. 44-66)

      In 1595, Gertrauta Conrad from the village of Ober Wittighausen, widow of Kilian Conrad, confessed how the Devil had come to her dressed ‘in a black hat, with a black feather, during the day on her meadow’. He had demanded that she should do his will, and she had acceded, the first time in her chamber, the second in her kitchen in a corner. His sexual organ was cold. He had given her 15 shillings, half a batzen and three kreuzer, which she kept in a corner in an old butter churn, and her servants knew nothing about it.¹


  8. PART II: Fantasy

    • Chapter Three Cannibalism
      (pp. 69-81)

      In 1590 Barbara Lierheimer confessed that she had attended a banquet at a friend’s house. At first she claimed not to know what they had eaten, but then she admitted that, though she did not know who cooked it or where it had come from, the meat was ‘a roasted child’s little foot’.

      Lierheimer was one of thirty-five witches executed in the town of Nördlingen between 1590 and 1598, in the course of a wave of persecution which was repeated in a host of southern German towns and villages in those years.¹ There, women confessed to cannibalism and grave desecration,...

    • Chapter 4 Sex with the Devil
      (pp. 82-103)

      This was the story told by Barbara Hohenberger, wife of Leonhard Hohenberger, when she was interrogated early in what were later to develop into the mass witch panics in Würzburg in 1590. A born story-teller, she used vivacious dialogue, telling detail and dramatic pace to convey a vivid sense of her emotional relationship with the Devil. This was not unusual: most women provided compelling accounts of their love affairs with the demon. Few insisted that they had never slept with the Devil at all – though it is important to remember that as with all elements of the witch fantasy, it...

    • Chapter 5 Sabbaths
      (pp. 104-123)

      Witches dined off gold and silver plate, they drank vast amounts of wine, they danced and made merry, and they fornicated with the Devil. They indulged in every imaginable pleasure, and would accept no limit to their gargantuan appetite for delight. They broke every rule. And they flew. Flight is the attribute most closely associated with witches, and it is the hag astride her broomstick or pitchfork, or riding backwards on a horned goat while her loose hair streams in the wind, who has planted herself in the Western imagination.

      Flight also beggared belief, and it offered an easy target...

  9. PART III: Womanhood

    • Chapter Six Fertility
      (pp. 127-159)

      When Magdalena Winder was lying in after having given birth, a strange man appeared. Casting aside the protective hangings around her bed, he said ‘she should promise herself to him, and be his, he would not leave her’. No sooner had she promised, than he ‘committed indecency with her, he kept his clothes on’.¹

      Magdalena was sure this was the Devil. Sexual relations were completely prohibited during the six weeks of lying in, before the new mother had been churched. Ignoring the taboo, her Satanic lover did not even bother to undress. Alone in the curtained bed, prey to the...

    • Chapter Seven Crones
      (pp. 160-178)

      The cruelty shown to older women is one of the more disturbing aspects of early-modern German culture. Demonologists were careful to underline that anyone, male or female, young or old, could fall prey to the wiles of Satan, but they were also well aware that witches were predominantly older women. When the opponents of witch-hunting grappled with the problem, even they could not keep the tone of disdain for old women out of their writing. For the Dutch sceptic Johann Weyer, writing in the 1560s against the witch trials, most of those accused were only pathetic, melancholic, hallucinating old women,...

  10. PART IV: The Witch

    • Chapter Eight Family Revenge
      (pp. 181-203)

      By the middle of the seventeenth century the heyday of the great mass witch persecutions was over, and by the century’s end the image of the death-dealing old crone-witch was gradually loosening its grip on the popular imagination. But this did not mean witches were no longer persecuted: now, ironically enough, individual interrogations of suspected witches – when they took place – became more thorough, more detailed, and more systematic. Where before, a mere dozen pages of records and a few weeks might have sufficed to condemn a witch, now fifty or even several hundred pages, and trials lasting many months, were...

    • Chapter Nine Godless Children
      (pp. 204-221)

      Witchcraft, we might say, was always in the nursery, indeed, in the nursing bond itself, in the sense that it was nourished by infantile fantasies and fears about mothers. But in the final stages of the witch panic, the death of the old woman as a credible witch led to a brief moment in which the fears and fantasies of children themselves – the psychic source of the witch terror among adults – emerged in pretty much unmediated form. Before witchcraft was finally consigned to the nursery, it paradoxically helped to give birth to an ambivalent fascination with children, their games and...

    • Chapter Ten A Witch in the Age of Enlightenment
      (pp. 222-246)

      On a summer day in 1745, Catharina Schmid, aged seventy-four, was facing her eleventh interrogation in prison. She was suspected of witchcraft. Torture was about to be applied, and this, her interrogators were sure, would make her confess. Catharina came from the small Catholic village of Alleshausen on the edge of the Federsee lake on a high plateau in what is now Württemberg, in south-western Germany. She had herself set in motion the legal process which now brought her to this pass. Insulted in public as a witch, she had, like many accused witches before her, brought her defamers to...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 247-256)

    Any parent who reads ‘Hansel and Gretel’ aloud at bedtime knows what a disturbing story it is. Its climax comes when Gretel shoves an elderly woman into her own oven and burns her to death. Famed as the most German of all the fairy tales, it is also the cruellest of the Grimms’ stories. The house of gingerbread, the witch who wants to fatten Hansel and gobble him up, the children left alone to die in the forest – all this is hardly soothing material for children about to go to sleep. And there is something particularly unsettling about the bone...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 257-326)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 327-345)
  14. Index
    (pp. 346-362)