Thomas Willard Robisheaux. The Last Witch of Langenburg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 427 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-06551-0.
Reviewed by Marc R. Forster (Department of History, Connecticut College)
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The End of the Witchcraze
Thomas Robisheaux has written a study of a late-seventeenth-century witch trial that takes the reader deep into the world of the small German county of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Robisheaux does a masterful job of telling the story of the gruesome and sudden death of a young mother, Anna Fessler, and the subsequent trial, conviction, and execution of Anna Schmieg, the miller's wife, for poisoning and witchcraft. The investigation and trial of Schmieg opens a window on many aspects of seventeenth-century society. This is a legal history, as Robisheaux seeks to understand the logic that led Court Advisor Dr. Tobias Ulrich von Gülchen, the lordship's leading legal official, to seek a conviction for witchcraft. He follows the struggles of local medical experts to understand the evidence of the autopsy of Anna Fessler. He explains the religious concerns and fears of local Lutheran pastors and members of the local elite. Most of all, Robisheaux explores the world of the hamlet of Hürden where Fessler and Schmieg lived and the social and family interactions that led to accusations of witchcraft against Schmieg and several other women in the area. The conflicts and tensions of rural life meant that some women, especially women like Schmieg, who had a sharp tongue, a drinking problem, and many enemies, gained reputations as witches, which could lead to dangerous accusations in times of crisis or after an untimely death, whether of a person or of cattle.
The Last Witch of Langenburg also reminds historians of the contested nature of witch prosecutions. In order for the horrific crazes of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to gain momentum, a consensus had to prevail across society about the reality of the witches' sabbath, the validity of denunciations from common people, and the reliability of confessions procured through torture. In Germany in 1672, when Schmieg was arrested, this consensus was falling apart. Of course, some observers had always been skeptical or even openly critical of witch trials, most famously the Jesuit Friedrich von Spee and the Lutheran medical doctor Johan Weyer, but after 1650 this group was gaining ascendency. Particularly important among these skeptics were jurists who found it increasingly difficult to gather reliable evidence against witches.
Robisheaux follows the complex process used by Gülchen to gather evidence against Schmeig and several other women accused of witchcraft. His presentation of Gülchen is sympathetic in a way, as we see this pious, well-educated, cosmopolitan man struggling to build a case based on the evidence available. As demanded by the legal reforms of the post-Thirty Years' War period, Gülchen needed evidence of Schmieg's reputation as a witch and of "inimicitia odium, or vicious enmity toward others" (p. 231). Unwilling to resort to the "extraordinary procedure" that had been used in so many cases earlier in the century, Gülchen ultimately needed evidence of a crime, in this case poisoning, in order to torture the accused and gain a confession, which was necessary for a conviction. In order to fulfill each of these requirements, Gülchen consulted the medical and legal faculties at the University of Altdorf and the legal faculty in Strasbourg. It is an indication of the contested nature of witch trials that these consultations brought mixed results. The Altdorf professors ruled that there was insufficient evidence to justify torture, but the Strasbourg jurists, in a convoluted decision, allowed it, sealing Schmieg's fate.
But why was Gülchen so intent on convicting this accused witch, especially at a time when many neighboring states were no longer executing witches? Robisheaux demonstrates brilliantly the interplay of factors that led to the execution of Anna Schmieg. Despite the involvement of universities outside the county of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, this investigation and trial were results of the political, social, and religious dynamics of this small territory. Traumatized by the experience of the Thirty Years' War, Count Heinrich Friedrich feared disorder above all else. The 1630s and 40s had been terrible for Hohenlohe--its residents had witnessed marauding soldiers, plague, famine, and the total collapse of princely authority. The count and his officials worked hard in the following decades to restore order and authority, and a measure of prosperity, to the little principality. Central to this "search for stability" was the court system, which was efficient enough to earn the loyalty of the population.
The late-seventeenth-century Hohenlohe state developed in the context of close relations between the local population and government officials. Robisheaux shows how residents of Hürden and the other villages involved in the witchcraft case had personal relationships with government officials in Langenburg and even with the count himself. Anna Schmieg's husband Hans, for example, had a personal confrontation with the count, whom he met on a lonely road near his home. Other villagers worked as servants at the court or had family members who did so. They negotiated contracts in person with high officials, and they knew judges and tax collectors well.
The close interactions between the court at Langenburg and the peasants of the surrounding villages meant that Gülchen and the count himself knew all about Anna and Hans Schmieg. Anna's reputation for drinking and brawling in taverns and for cursing her neighbors and family members was well known among officials, as were her husband's shady business dealings as miller. Both Schmiegs engaged in long-running feuds with neighbors and had had regular run-ins with the law in the decades before the witchcraft accusation. Furthermore, everyone knew of the accidental deaths of two Schmieg children and about the conflicts within the family, particularly between Anna and her daughter, Eva, over issues of inheritance and Eva's unsuitable marriage. Eva's denunciation of her own mother as a witch was very important, if not decisive, in bringing about a conviction.
Accusations of witchcraft fed a variety of fears in this close-knit society. Peasants tended to see witchcraft behind any outbreak of cattle disease, for example, and this attitude could lead quickly to panic. People also sustained long memories of earlier trials, linking women together across decades as part of an (imaginary) conspiracy of witches. The count and his officials saw it as their duty to protect society from attacks by Satan and his minions, but at the same time, trials were dangerous. They tended to create panic, since each witch was assumed to work with others and forced by torture to identify conspirators. In 1672, Gülchen was sure that he had found "a whole nest of witches" (p. 175) and this discovery motivated him to push his investigation as far as possible.
Concern with Satanic conspiracies was reinforced by the prevailing religious culture of this Lutheran territory. The Lutheran pastors, led by court preacher Ludwig Casimir Dietzel, were strongly influenced by Strasbourg's reform movement, which grew out of the Thirty Years' War. This movement emphasized active pastoral work and a strong sense that the war had "revealed God's wrath and the urgent need for spiritual, religious, and moral renewal" (p. 181). Dietzel served as Schmieg's pastor when she was in prison and pressured her continuously to admit her guilt, confess her sins, and reconcile with God. Dietzel's focus on internal, personal guilt and repentance did not match up well with the common folk's more ritualized sense of confession and communal reconciliation, but his intense sense of threat from the forces of evil did much to heighten tensions around the case.
The interplay between the count's officials and the local population led to Anna Schmieg's execution. But, as Robisheaux makes clear, the outcome was not inevitable. Schmieg was a stubborn defendant, denied her guilt for a long time and, despite torture, delivered only a partially satisfactory confession. Had the jurists in Strasbourg ruled otherwise, she might have gotten off. Furthermore, she was the last witch executed in this part of Germany and it did not lead to a larger panic. This trial is thus situated at a turning point in the history of witch persecutions. Robisheaux uses this exceptionally well-documented case to illuminate how local accusations could lead to larger panics, as they had earlier in the century. He also shows how legal reforms and new, more secular, attitudes at universities and among government officials of the post-Thirty Years' War era increasingly called these trials into question. Everyone still believed in the reality of witchcraft, but new legal rules and the requirement that medical and forensic evidence be deployed in a poisoning case made it difficult to prove a crime like this. People in the villages still referred to certain people, usually older women like Anna Schmieg, as witches, and they told stories about the Schmieg case into the nineteenth century, but the trials ended.
This is a book with great scholarly depth, but The Last Witch of Langenburg is also a lively read and deserves a wide audience. Robisheaux tells his story very well, and it is a good story--a difficult and argumentative woman, an outsider who had to fight for everything she had in life, coming to grief on the accusations of her neighbors and her own daughter. Other compelling characters play their parts, as well--the jurist Gülchen, struggling to build a case; the court preacher looking to save souls; and the count living in fear that the political order he had worked so hard to create might be destroyed by a conspiracy of witches. In the end, of course, the story Robisheaux tells is a tragedy, as Anna Schmieg is executed. But it is also the end of an era--there would be no more executions of women for the imaginary crime of witchcraft.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Marc R. Forster. Review of Robisheaux, Thomas Willard, The Last Witch of Langenburg.
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