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.

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Introduction This book is a study of the trials involving allegations and confessions of maleficient or demonic witchcraft that took place in the German city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber between c. 1561 and c. 1652. It has two aims. First, it will explain why 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.1 Second, it will offer detailed

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
Slander and speech about witchcraft

appeared as accused witches in witch-trials there, with most of the former cases ending with the punishment of the slanderer.39 In her study of twenty-seven slander cases brought by alleged witches against their accusers before the court of Davensberg in the Prince-Bishopric of Münster in the early seventeenth century, Gudrun Gersmann shows that they also enjoyed a high success rate: only one of these alleged witches was subsequently prosecuted and executed for witchcraft by the authorities.40 In 24 WITCHCRAFT NARRATIVES IN GERMANY Rothenburg, the gamble of taking

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
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apostasy) and instead continued to impose the late-medieval punishment of banishment on alleged witches, although only in the most serious of cases.5 Of the three women executed as witches in Rothenburg between 1500 and 1800, two had committed other crimes (infanticide and attempted murder by means of poison) which were anyway deemed worthy of the death penalty. The third, Anna Margaretha Rohn, was a mentally unstable self-confessed witch who was largely the architect of her own downfall in 1673.6 Political priorities perceived to be of fundamental importance by the city

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
Elite beliefs about witchcraft and magic

these activities at law: it was chiefly this doubt which explained their relatively mild treatment and punishment of alleged witches during the early modern period. Like their subjects, the Rothenburg elites believed that witches could interfere in all manner of damaging ways with the lives and bodies of people and animals. In 1587, for example, the questions put to alleged witch Magdalena Gackstatt of Hilgartshausen asked her whether she had caused bad weather, created discord between married couples, attacked pregnant women, or otherwise caused harm to people and

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

patriachal elite’, whose statements and confessions were simply forced rehashings of that elite’s demonology.1 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

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany

bewitched. Almost all the witch accusations started in the same way: children who said they were abducted during the night and brought to the witches’ sabbath accused their abductors of being witches. Some of them also gave details about the sabbath, including the identity of witches and children they had seen there.7 The alleged witches were older than their accusers, but not all of them were elderly. Instead they varied in age from the late teens up to over sixty years old.8 The main accusation made during the trials was that the accused had brought local children with

in Beyond the witch trials
Gender and contemporary fantasies of witchcraft

of witchcraft. In so doing they tried to assuage their terror at their own increasing powerlessness by seeking vengeance against the malevolent power of the alleged witch whom they believed had caused their suffering. Domestic authority usurped?: Catharina Leimbach, 1652 The idea of the witch that Diane Purkiss suggested as a ‘usurper of the authority of other women over the domestic realm’ has particular resonance for a witchcraft case that occurred in the village of Wettringen in 1652.90 It began on 26 August, when fifty-two-year-old Hans Schürz brought his eight

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
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and argument, evidence was often open to interpretation, and whether a given proposition about an alleged witch was accepted or not might depend on a variety of local factors. Nonetheless, some broad generalisations are possible. One important point is that the late medieval and early modern period in Europe saw the emergence of a specifically Christian conception of witchcraft. Witchcraft belief, and laws against witchcraft, had existed long before this. But from the fifteenth century onwards, important people within the late medieval Church began to accept the

in Scepticism and belief in English witchcraft drama, 1538–1681
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Witchcraft and the symbolics of hierarchy in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Finland

witchcraft in Ulvila, which were heard twenty-six times altogether in court since some cases developed in a very complicated manner with countersuits being pursued. One such case was a defamation suit brought by an alleged witch attempting to clear her name. Four of the cases, heard at eleven different sessions, primarily concerned vidskepelse,8 such as that involving Jaakko Eerikinpoika Karlö, his neighbour, and their wives, who accused each other of vidskepelse.9 Yet some cases were officially described as vidskepelse, but actually consisted of acts of traditional

in Beyond the witch trials