Lyndal Roper. Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 368 pp. $37.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-10335-9.
Reviewed by Jennifer L. Welsh (Department of History, Duke University )
Published on H-German (January, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Psychology of a Panic: Witches and Magistrates in Baroque Germany
In its finest moments, Lyndal Roper's Witch Craze is a disturbing, brilliant evocation of early modern mindsets in the time of the witch hunts. Much like Stuart Clark in Thinking with Demons (1999), Roper aims to render comprehensible to modern readers a mindset in which magic and witchcraft were an essential part of the overall conception of the universe. Her approach contains a strong psychoanalytical component, with a focus on mentalities and emotions. One of the most original aspects of this approach is her attention to the psychological state of both the victims and their torturers.
While she argues that misogyny, and a particularly virulent hatred and fear of older women, played a key role in the witch craze, Roper spends a great deal of time analyzing the psychology of those who carried out the judicial acts which now appear so abhorrent. Roper enters into the mind of the magistrates responsible for interrogations and the executioners responsible for torture, seeking to paint a picture of the role of confession and torture in the overall legal system.
Roper argues that those who questioned and tortured witches saw themselves as acting for the benefit of the community as a whole, and for the witch herself (or, more rarely, himself). Theorists such as Nicolas Remy and Jean Bodin had declared that a witch could only be saved through confession and execution; forcing a confession thus became a battle for the soul of the victim. Each confession induced "proved" that the mentality of the magistrates was correct, confirming their belief that witches and pacts with Satan were real, and that Satan's powers required overcoming through torture in order to save the souls of the witches from eternal damnation. As Roper writes, "[t]he witch-hunters of the baroque saw themselves as soldiers, sworn to fight the Devil and his minions, and as Christians entrusted with the duty of saving souls. They saw no contradiction here" (p. 43). As Roper points out, for prince-archbishops and other governmental leaders, good leadership entailed listening to the panic and complaints of peasants who brought tales of crop failure and the death of livestock. Hunting witches formed part of overall efforts to save souls through ensuring conformity to proper religious belief and practice.
As she discusses the development of a standardized narrative of malevolent witchcraft, diabolical seduction, and pacts with Satan, Roper pays attention to the lines of communication within society that allowed these stories to spread. In particular, she discusses the role of jails as locations where information could be exchanged. This key arena has been overlooked by previous scholars. Prisoners could learn from one another and from their jailers what magistrates wanted to hear. Within the jails, a body of knowledge about witches developed, so that those who were accused knew what sorts of answers were sought.
The magistrates in turn developed specific questions and demanded particular answers; each victim who told them what they wanted to hear confirmed their beliefs as each new case reinforced the body of knowledge about witches. Rather than focusing on the supernatural aspects of standard witch confessions, Roper notes the proliferation of details drawn from everyday life--witch dances were portrayed like village dances, and accused witches described Satan as promising them a relationship that sounded like marriage rather than mere sexual seduction.
The second major component of Roper's work is her discussion of the attitudes towards older women and female fertility in the context of Baroque culture and the witch craze. Tracing the development of this project over fourteen years, Roper recounts her surprise at finding that those who reported witches focused not on "sex and forbidden desire, but about birth; about breast milk that dried up, about babies who sickened and died, and about the room where the woman spent her 'lying in', the period of six weeks after the birth of a child" (p. x). Even when sex is present, it is the wrong kind of sex; rather than procreative, it is sex that steals fertility, with participants who are no longer able to bear children. Older women are seen as envious of women still in their fertile years, and thus likely to cause them and their children harm.
The "pervasive" hatred of old women Roper sees in German "art, literature, medicine and popular culture," is documented through examples from each field (p. 162). Discussing the difference between witch beliefs and earlier fears about the Devil, cannibalism, the murder of children, and host desecration legends, she notes that myths which had previously been tied to Jews or heretics "became tied to the capacities of the female body, to women's ability to enjoy limitless sexual pleasure, and to the experience of birth. This meant the psychological anxieties touched by stories about witches went far deeper. They were connected to fundamental fears about separation from and longing for the mother, about birth and death.... They were about women in one's own community, even in one's own family" (p. 121).
In the last two chapters of her book, Roper looks at cases from the end of the witch craze, in which the focus was specifically on children as witches rather than old women. The shift from old women to young children is part of her general argument about the decline of witch beliefs as a viable terror as "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" (p. 204). The very complex story of Juditha Wagner, in which familial relationships and deaths combine with confessions to and accusations of witchcraft, elucidates the ways in which an association with witchcraft could cross several generations, while also demonstrating how the late-seventeenth-century environment was less likely to produce a large-scale witch panic. A century later, the figure of Mother Goose provides a concluding illustration, the old woman reduced to a fairy-tale character rather than an image of terror.
Roper writes in a powerful, engaging style, and uses frequent anecdotes drawn from actual court cases to draw the reader in. This volume is a significant contribution to scholarly literature on the witch craze and early modern culture, and would be an excellent book for undergraduate or graduate-level courses working with these themes.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Jennifer L. Welsh. Review of Roper, Lyndal, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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