Given the widespread belief in witchcraft and the existence of laws against such practices, why did witch-trials fail to gain momentum and escalate into ‘witch-crazes’ in certain parts of early modern Europe? This book answers this question by examining the rich legal records of the German city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a city that experienced a very restrained pattern of witch-trials and just one execution for witchcraft between 1561 and 1652. The book explores the factors that explain the absence of a ‘witch-craze’ in Rothenburg, placing particular emphasis on the interaction of elite and popular priorities in the pursuit (and non-pursuit) of alleged witches at law. By making the witchcraft narratives told by the peasants and townspeople of Rothenburg central to its analysis, the book also explores the social and psychological conflicts that lay behind the making of accusations and confessions of witchcraft. Furthermore, it challenges the existing explanations for the gender-bias of witch-trials, and also offers insights into other areas of early modern life, such as experiences of and beliefs about communal conflict, magic, motherhood, childhood and illness. Written in a narrative style, the study invites a wide readership to share in the drama of early modern witch trials.
This chapter focuses on the trials involving allegations and confessions of maleficent or demonic witchcraft that took place in the German city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber between c.1561 and c.1652. Rothenburg had a restrained pattern of witch-hunting during this period, with relatively few trials (even fewer of which ended in guilty verdicts against alleged witches); no mass-panics involving large numbers of accused witches; and the execution of only one alleged witch. The reasons for this phenomenon are analyzed. Detailed readings of the exceptionally rich records from the Rothenburg witch trials are provided to explore the social and psychic tensions that lay behind the making of witchcraft accusations and confessions, the popular and elite reactions to these accusations and confessions, and the ways in which participants in witch-trials pursued strategies, expressed emotions and negotiated conflicts through what they said about witchcraft. The witch-trials are contextualized, using a range of other sources in order to establish the life histories of trial-participants, the immediate circumstances of particular trials, and the broader social and cultural context of the beliefs and conflicts expressed and negotiated within them. The different ways—desperate, measured, artful, enthusiastic, unwilling—in which accusers and witnesses shaped their stories of witchcraft and participated in trial-processes to the advantage or disadvantage of the accused witch tell a great deal about their reasons for so doing and about their pre-trial relationship with the accused witch, as well as about the narrative-telling strategies available to them and their awareness of the risks that they ran in speaking openly about witchcraft.
This chapter explores popular speech about witchcraft, explains why the inhabitants of Rothenburg and its hinterland were generally unwilling to accuse suspected witches at law, and details the non-legal methods with which they more usually coped with witches. The Wettringen case from 1561 is used as a starting point to focus on two legal factors central to this web of restraints: the unwillingness of the Rothenburg council to abandon due legal procedure in its treatment of witchcraft, and the role that the legal treatment of slander in Rothenburg played in dissuading people from accusing others formally of witchcraft, and even from voicing suspicions of witchcraft publicly at all. The Wettringen case is the forerunner of a case-type in which allegations of witchcraft were treated as instances of slander and in which the slanderers rather than the alleged witches came off worst—which played an important part in shaping the council's judicial engagement with witchcraft in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century and remained of some, albeit lesser, significance thereafter.
Rothenburg and its hinterland had this restrained pattern of formal prosecution for witchcraft during the early modern period. There was a web of legal, social and cultural factors at popular and elite levels which operated and interacted to deter the inhabitants of the area from accusing their neighbors of witchcraft at law, and to ensure that the allegations of witchcraft that reached the courts rarely led to convictions for the crime and never triggered mass trials. This chapter discusses elite beliefs about witchcraft and explains reasons that the city councilors were unwilling to overstep the boundaries of due legal procedure in their prosecution of alleged witches. Elite beliefs about maleficent or demonic witchcraft were expressed around three themes in early modern Rothenburg: maleficium, or the causing of harm by magical means; the making of pacts with the devil; and the flight to and attendance at witches' dances or sabbats.
This chapter analyses the first Rothenburg case involving a self-confessed child-witch from 1587 and explains why the councilors found such cases hard to deal with and what precedents this case set for the future. The case involves a six-year-old boy called Hans Gackstatt from the hinterland village of Hilgartshausen, who tells a tale of nocturnal flight to a witches' dance, which starts an investigation of dubious legality and physical severity against his mother and himself from which other inhabitants of the village were not initially entirely safe. This case became the precursor of an increasing number of particularly problematic trials involving self-confessed child-witches dealt with by the councilors and their advisers in the seventeenth century. Their engagement with these cases had the long-term effect of deepening their concern about witchcraft and of intensifying their hostility towards what they increasingly came to regard as the archetypal witch-figure: the bad mother.
The Catholic challenge during the Thirty Years’ War
The Thirty Years' War had started in 1618, and the late 1620s were years of ascendancy for the Catholic Habsburg Emperor, Ferdinand, and the Catholic League, the coalition of Catholic allies under the leadership of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. This chapter analyses two trials from 1627 and 1629 to illustrate the ways in which they were shaped by the events of the Thirty Years' War and particularly by Catholic challenges to the city council's authority. Thirteen-year-old Margaretha Hörber's narrative of witchcraft and the manner in which the Rothenburg council handled it proved to be firmly embedded in, and expressive of, this wider context of religious conflict, in which a beleaguered Lutheranism appeared to be fighting for its survival against the resurgent forces of counterreformation Catholicism. The arrest of Margaretha by the council on 18 May can certainly only be understood in the context of a long-standing and extremely acrimonious battle to defend its judicial and political power in Gebsattel, a battle which had acquired an additional religious edge in the spring of 1627.
As was the case in many other places in early modern Europe, most of those who were accused of or who confessed to witchcraft or who were formally questioned as suspected witches in Rothenburg were female. This chapter provides new explanation for the gender-relatedness of witchcraft accusations through the prism of several seventeenth-century cases. The cases are analyzed in the light of ideas about how witches were conceptualized. These ideas suggest that women were more likely to be accused of and confess to being witches because witches were predominantly imagined by contemporaries as the evil inverse of the good housewife and mother; as women who poisoned and harmed others rather than nurturing and caring for them. The gender-bias which encouraged the citizens of Rothenburg and the peasants of its rural hinterland to imagine women as witches more readily than men was more marked at the elite level, where the influence of the city councilors, their legal advisors, and medical and theological experts combined to ensure that women accused of witchcraft were more likely to be formally prosecuted than their male counterparts and also to suffer more severely as a result of the rigors of the legal process.
The idioms and risks of defiance in the trial of Margaretha Horn, 1652
This chapter offers a detailed analysis of one accused witch's strategy of denying her guilt in council custody from 1652 and also shows that elite and popular attitudes towards witchcraft began to change in the course of the seventeenth century. The accused witch called Margaretha Horn not only refused to confess to witchcraft in 1652 but also developed a sophisticated rhetoric of defiance against the city council and its handling of her case in the course of her interrogation. Her trial is of such interest because it underscores particularly effectively the point that women on trial for witchcraft were not ‘mere mouthpieces of a patriarchal elite’, whose statements and confessions were simply forced rehashing of that elite's demonology. On the contrary, and despite the fact that power over the trial process lay ultimately with the council, alleged witches were capable of contributing to and of shaping the course of interrogations in idiosyncratic ways. At the same time, however, the trial of Margaretha shows that it was becoming increasingly problematic for women accused of witchcraft in early modern Rothenburg to articulate defiance against their accusers and the council without this defiance being interpreted as additional evidence of their alleged identity as witches.
The Rothenburg evidence suggests that those areas most likely to be characterized by a restrained pattern of witch-trials in early modern Germany were those in which a significant majority of the ruling elites came to realize that the social, economic and political stability of their territories was likely to be damaged rather than strengthened by severe and large-scale witch-hunts. This way of thinking was effective, however, only if it could be put into practice: it was thus crucial for the ruling elites who were of this opinion to be able to maintain or assert control over the judicial processes by means of which alleged witches were tried. They also had to help ensure—perhaps chiefly by punitive measures such as the punishment of slander—that their subjects did not bring irresistible pressure in favor of more severe action against witches to bear upon them. It was not the size, cohesion or location of a territory which made it more or less likely to fall prey to the horrors of large-scale witch-trials in early modern Germany, but rather the question of whether and for how long this set of restraining factors pertained in its particular case. In Rothenburg and its hinterland they were kept essentially intact throughout the whole early modern period, sparing the lives of many individuals who might otherwise have been executed for witchcraft.