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Rothenburg, 1561–1652

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.

sender. When was sorcery seen to be an act of illegitimate aggression, and when was it an act of self-defence or justifiable revenge? An analysis of folk narrative suggests that rural communities had their own value system and cultural categories for interpreting magical harm and human agents of sorcery. While some types of malevolent magic were clearly viewed as acts without social justification, other cases of harmful sorcery

in Witchcraft Continued
Open Access (free)

witchcraft, both during trials and in the course of everyday social interaction. The narratives told by the child-witches of Rothenburg were thus so shocking to contemporaries and posed such a severe test of the authorities’ restrained handling of witchcraft allegations because they broke and threatened to permanently loosen the conventions that traditionally governed and constrained how people in the area spoke about witchcraft. The second factor which limited the severity and scale of witch-trials in Rothenburg was the refusal on the part of the elites to abandon normal

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
Open Access (free)

capture nuances of meaning, the ways in which stories were shaped and told, and the personalities and perspectives of their tellers. In seeking to understand these texts and to offer explanations for why particular 8 WITCHCRAFT NARRATIVES IN GERMANY individuals – as either alleged or self-confessed witches, their accusers, or witnesses – said what they did, in the way that they did, about witchcraft, I privilege no single theoretical perspective. I have, for example, drawn on literary theory in my treatment of trial-records as created texts, on anthropological and

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
The Catholic challenge during the Thirty Years’ War

4 ‘When will the burning start here?’: the Catholic challenge during the Thirty Years’ War The authorities in Rothenburg were spared another problematic encounter with a self-confessed child-witch until 1627, when thirteen-year-old Margaretha Hörber from the hinterland village of Gebsattel began claiming that she had been seduced into witchcraft and taken to witches’ dances by older women. As befitted a teenager, her story was more detailed than that told by six-year-old Hans Gackstatt in 1587, particularly in terms of her descriptions of the witches’ dance and

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
Gender and contemporary fantasies of witchcraft

throughout the trial lay with the Schürz rather than the Leimbach household. As had been the case in earlier trials involving self-confessed child-witches, the councillors found it difficult to believe that a child could fabricate an unfounded narrative of witchcraft, while Catharina’s refusal to confess was perceived by them as insolent obstinacy and thus as additional evidence of her likely identity as a witch.120 Catharina was the most harshly treated of all the suspected Wettringen witches: she was questioned most frequently and severely in custody and was tortured

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
Open Access (free)
witchcraft continued

violently in one’s own hands represented a last resort, after self-medication, counter-magic and/or consulting healers or unwitching specialists – in so far as they were available – had all come to nothing, cannot always be discovered, although this seems likely’. 4 This statement, however, presumes violence to be outside the witchcraft discourse, as something ‘non-magical’. This is debatable when it concerned the

in Witchcraft Continued
Elite beliefs about witchcraft and magic

delusion, and legal caution Most elite scepticism was expressed in the records of witchcraft cases from Rothenburg about witches’ sabbats and the flights to them. The jurists and clerics who commented on these issues tended to believe that sabbats did not take place in reality, but that self-confessed witches and other people who claimed to have seen witches’ gatherings had been deluded by the devil into imagining that they had done so. This view was first recorded by jurist Cunradt 56 WITCHCRAFT NARRATIVES IN GERMANY Thalhaimer in 1582, when he suggested that

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
The idioms and risks of defiance in the trial of Margaretha Horn, 1652

.68 The clerics also played roles in certain late seventeenth-century witch-trials which probably helped heighten anxieties about witchcraft felt by the councillors and 194 WITCHCRAFT NARRATIVES IN GERMANY their subjects. Intensive pastoral care doubtless only helped convince self-confessed witch Anna Margaretha Rohn, who claimed that she was being plagued by witches and the devil from 1664, of the reality of her disturbing fantasies and to persuade her to repeat them with increasing vehemence until the council had little choice but to begin formal judicial

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
The first child-witch in Rothenburg, 1587

Hilgartshausen case was, in fact, the precursor of an increasing number of particularly problematic trials involving self-confessed child-witches dealt with by the councillors 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. Hans Gackstatt began telling a story of night-flying with his mother and a black, horned man in the late summer of 1587. He

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany