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Killed by the Panic

1.

On a September evening in the year 1623, in the small south German village of Marchtal, a group of farmers and their families celebrated the end of the harvest by dancing and singing. Just then an elderly woman approached—one Ursula Götz, suspected locally of being a practitioner of witchcraft. A girl shouted at her, “Be gone!” Another screamed, “You shitty witch!” Within months Ursula Götz was accused of many acts of maleficia (harms caused by witches) including poisoning food and causing children and cattle to be ill or lame. Threatened with torture and a criminal trial, she was pressured into giving an elaborate confession. She had, she said, long consorted with a personal devil—had made a “pact” of fealty with him, taken him as a sexual partner, and obtained from him supernatural powers. These, she said, had enabled her to attack some eighty-eight animals in the village herd, and to murder at least two of her own relatives. She also confessed to sucking out the blood of her victims for use in preparing magical potions and ointments. Because she admitted her guilt she was spared the usual execution method for convicted witches, being burned alive. Instead she was beheaded; only then was her body burned. Two other local witches were executed alongside her.

This incident, typical of its time and place, serves to open Lyndal Roper’s fine book on the history of witchcraft. Roper, a professor at Oxford and the author previously of important studies on early modern religious culture, has been drawing on the rich archival materials from German witch trials for many years; Witch Craze is the culmination of her lengthy and fruitful research. It can also be seen as a major contribution to an already remarkable body of academic work during the last four decades.

2.

Before 1965 the great European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was of limited, not to say marginal, interest to professional historians—acknowledged because it was a widespread phenomenon but at the same time neglected, perhaps because it seemed both sensational and baffling. Since then it has become central to studies of the period. The turnaround began with a long essay by the British historian H.R. Trevor-Roper in 1967. Though the theory he put forward—essentially that the “witch craze” was an outgrowth of the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation—now seems too reductive, Trevor-Roper did much to legitimize the subject for other historians. Another important contribution came just a few years later, with the publication of Keith Thomas’s magisterial Religion and the Decline of Magic. Thomas initiated a major shift in historical approach by linking his own work (chiefly on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England) to the research of social anthropologists on witchcraft in a wide variety of modern cultures. From that point onward, important works accumulated very fast, many of them concentrating on a particular country or region. There were general views of the subject as well, most notably Stuart Clark’s brilliant Thinking with Demons, which argued that in view of other ideas circulating at the time a belief in witches should not necessarily be seen as having been irrational. Religion, high politics, the law, social class, the history of medicine and scientific thought, and popular culture: all had a part in Clark’s remarkably comprehensive analysis of witchcraft.1

The resulting knowledge can be summed up briefly. Before the sixteenth century, witchcraft—or, more accurately, concern with witchcraft—was a regular but limited presence in many parts of Europe. Then, for a period of roughly two hundred years, it developed into something widespread: there were thousands of witch trials and much panic over the alleged activities of witches in one town and village after another. The climax came during the opening decades of the seventeenth century, and was concentrated in northwest Europe, most especially in the various principalities and other entities that made up pre-modern Germany, as well as in some adjacent parts of France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scotland. There were fewer witch trials elsewhere (including England), but scarcely any region was spared. The total number of executed “witches” throughout Europe likely surpassed 50,000. These, in turn, were just a fraction of a much larger number of suspects. There is no way to arrive at a precise estimate of the many thousands of people who were directly involved—as supposed victims of witchcraft, as accusers, as interrogators and “witch-finders,” and as witnesses in court. Entire communities could be transfixed, and transformed, by sudden witch panics. (One of the last such—and the most disproportionately famous—occurred in the British colonial town of Salem, Massachusetts.2 ) Then, as the seventeenth century drew to a close, the pace of these events slackened, and in the eighteenth, the trials came to an end. Vestiges of the belief in witchcraft would survive here and there into the twentieth century, but formal proceedings—witch-hunts in the old sense—were finished.

The question is why? For what reasons—from what set of underlying causes—did the witch craze begin? Why did it rise to such murderous heights? And why, after two centuries, did it come to an end?

The answers so far are nearly as numerous as the historians who offer them. Some argue that it was one result of a deeply reverberating transition from the communal value system of pre-modern times to the individualized ethos that followed. Others point to the rigors and tensions attending the process of modern state formation, as well as a broad patriarchal reaction in which woman-hating became witch-hunting. The list goes on, also including severe demographic pressures, chronic violence (as in the Thirty Years’ War), climate change (what is sometimes described today as the Little Ice Age), recurrent epidemic disease, and the inadvertent ingestion by witch-accusers of hallucinogenic poisons (for example, ergotism, caused by a psychoactive fungus sometimes found on common field crops). None of these factors seems sufficient by itself. A careful scholar of witchcraft will disavow, in almost ritual fashion, “monocausal” modes of explanation. At the same time, most of the alleged causes appear to have something to do with the advent of a modern social order. The great witch-hunt is sometimes understood as a sort of historical growing pain. But such an argument seems far too diffuse and generalized to be meaningful.

3.

Lyndal Roper’s scholarly work is quite different; it takes account of the myriad, specific details present throughout the historical record. Roper is not afraid to make leaps of interpretation, but she presents much well-grounded evidence to support her conclusions.

The material at hand for her project is formidable. Precisely because witchcraft was such a pressing social and legal concern, it prompted not only public discussion on many levels but much record-keeping. Statutes, trial dockets, and witness depositions; how-to manuals for prosecutors; sermons and official ecclesiastical pronouncements; broadsides, chapbooks, and pamphlet narratives; learned treatises on “demonology” (the study of the Devil): such documents, taken together, make up a truly remarkable resource. The papers generated by even a relatively minor case, such as that of Ursula Götz, can run into the dozens or hundreds.

Moreover, Roper goes much beyond the available print and manuscript materials. She is an astute reader of nonverbal evidence, too, drawing heavily on painting and statuary art from the period. Her book includes more than sixty illustrations, among them illustrations of witches, witch-hunters, and trials. Often enough, these make her point more powerfully than the words in her written documents. Moreover, they are only a sampling of what became a huge iconography centered on Satan and his “infernal” designs against humankind.

The book starts with a discussion of the “baroque landscape” that she suggests proved conducive to witch-hunting. “By the period of what we might loosely call the baroque,” she writes,

stretching from the newly re-invigorated Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation to its apogee in the early eighteenth century, German culture was characterized by intense emotionality, a profound religious sensibility, and a predilection for extremes and opposites.

She lays particular stress on a kind of gargoyle spirit characteristic of much contemporaneous art and literature—the grotesque ornamentation of churches showed “skeletons, skulls and even rats eating away at corpses.” Both Protestants and Catholics, she writes, acted out a powerful “purifying impulse.” This was a time of moral “crack down,” in which church leaders on every side sought to impose strenuous forms of religious orthodoxy and when “unremitting struggle against the forces of evil was integral to the religious imagination on both sides of the confessional divide.” Witch-hunting represented a “natural extension of the fight.” All this was especially true of Germany, where political fragmentation allowed religious and moral passions unusually free rein. Roper also takes account of the effects of warfare (again, particularly destructive in Germany) as well as harsh environmental conditions—year after year of bitterly cold winters, followed by wet summers ending in bad harvests. She concludes, “It must have seemed as if the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were on the loose, bringing war, hunger, disease and death.”

In such an atmosphere, Roper concludes, the witch-hunters could for the most part proceed as they wished. She sees them as deeply and sincerely committed to their task, which was nothing less than the total defeat of Satan and his witch minions. Everything depended on making the alleged witches confess, since the actual performance of witchcraft could not be directly observed. Confession was most readily obtained through intensive interrogation or, when that failed, physical torture. Roper does not minimize the horrific aspects of such treatment; still, she views witch-hunters as something less than outright “psychological monsters.” On the one hand, they often displayed “astute psychological insight and even highly developed sympathy” in their desire to save the witches’ souls. On the other, their relationship to the accused was obviously unequal and those responsible for torture and sexual abuse were in some cases clearly sadistic. In the case of Katharina Keßler, an accused witch in Nördlingen, her interrogators administered “first the thumbscrews, then the boots [legscrews] were applied and finally the bench [on which she was whipped] was used, as if they were experimenting with every means available.” The many parts of a complex picture emerge in one example after another, drawn from Roper’s painstaking work with trial records.

With rare exceptions, prosecutors, interrogators, and trial judges alike were men of considerable education and social standing. Many belonged to the clergy. Yet very often they were hearing accusations that came from ordinary peasants and burghers. Indeed, as Roper’s evidence plainly shows, it was the alliance of elite with humble folk that made particular witch-hunts so cruelly efficacious. The original accusers included men and women, the young and the old, the prosperous, the “middling,” and the poverty-stricken. The sorrows and difficulties they blamed on witchcraft included family illness and death, losses of cattle or other property, failures in work and human relationships, as well as innumerable small forms of everyday mischance, such as the spoiling of butter or beer, or the sudden disappearance of household utensils. As for accused witches, roughly 80 percent were women, nearly all of them past the age of forty. Roper notes that many had been mothers and were widowed; most were of modest social rank. “They were people who might be thought likely to envy young mothers in the prime of life, and so to wish to harm fecundity,” she writes. “Older and less secure financially, they were likely to want to strengthen their ties to society through caring for children. And often, this was what led to their undoing.” The very high proportion of women holds not only for Europeans in the early modern period, but also for “witches” in most cultures, past and present, throughout the world. Apparently, then, witchcraft reflects a near-universal impulse of misogyny, and not only in men, but in women as well.3

4.

Roper wants to draw psychological conclusions from the trial proceedings she discusses. “Deeply rooted fantasies” and “overwhelming emotions” emerge, in her account, as the sources of the entire history. Her subject, in short, is the psychology of witch-hunting—and she brings to it a richly informed, almost clinical, perspective. Though she does not use technical language or the formal trappings of theory, her debt to psychoanalysis is clear. For example, while never using the word, she relies heavily on the Freudian concept of projection. “Witchcraft accusations,” she writes, “were a hall of mirrors where neighbors saw their own fear and greed in the shape of the witch.”

To explore this “hall” she draws on the huge mass of testimony produced either by confessing witches (usually under conditions of extreme pressure, and often with the “coaching” of interrogators) or by their alleged victims. In a sense, therefore, she is more concerned with the belief system surrounding witchcraft than with particular social or personal realities. The book’s middle section, entitled simply “Fantasy,” lays her view out in highly specific, sometimes lurid, detail. Cannibalism, for instance, figured prominently in the interrogations. The accused were supposed to have exhumed corpses (especially of children), and to have cooked and eaten them as part of elaborate “feasts.” From the recurrent evidence of such accusations, Roper makes suggestive links both to the Christian communion ritual (of which it would be seen as a kind of inversion) and to a powerful, culture-wide preoccupation with cannibals (including, for example, some of the native people described by travelers in the newly discovered Americas). Roper points out that the communion ritual and cannibalism were perceived to be linked even in the sixteenth century: “One of the taunts the Swiss Protestant reformer Zwingli, who did not believe in the Real Presence, hurled against his opponents was that to believe one truly ate the body of Christ in the Eucharist was to believe oneself a cannibal.”

Another major element in the fantasy world of witchcraft was “sex with the devil.” Interrogators pressed confessing witches to describe this, and they generally obliged. The Devil had approached them—so they variously said—sometimes as a charming and seductive stranger, sometimes as an importunate and unwanted suitor, sometimes as a virtual rapist. Often he took particular advantage of their “melancholy” moods. (In this Roper sees the expression of “a strong cultural hostility to feelings of depression.”) Whatever the circumstances, he always had his way. And, again, there were plenty of details to ponder. Was his “member” warm or cold? Did he give, and receive, sexual pleasure? Most of all, could his “seed” yield offspring?—and if so, of what sort?

Such details come down to us through the recorded confessions of accused witches. Roper points out that their accounts often failed to conform with contemporary demonological theories because the confessions

forced women to tell convincing tales about sex, stories which would draw on individual detail in order to persuade the interrogators that the stories were true; and the more individual detail was supplied, the more the tales departed from the demonologically conventional.

In another of her interpretive asides, Roper notes that sex and reproduction were inextricably joined for pre-modern people, as they are not for us today, and suggests that insistent concerns with the Devil’s procreative powers expressed a fear that the process of “generation” might go awry. Indeed, she writes, this was all the more the case when “fertility and its preservation were key social imperatives.”

Roper ties this last point to the deepest, most fully charged fantasy of all: the witch as an “evil mother,” indeed as the obverse of maternity in its broadest possible aspect. Trial records and demonological writings teem with references to the malign influence of witches on child-bearing, breast-feeding, cooking and eating, reproductive biology, and fertility. The witch’s alleged crimes often included attacks on infants and children. Here, and elsewhere too, the lore of witchcraft pointed to deep strains between different generations of women. “Fecund married matrons,” Roper finds, were “suspicious of older women who could no longer have children.” And yet, she writes, the same lore also reflected “fundamental fears about separation from and longing for the mother.” Taken as a whole, the witch was seen as someone who turned “motherhood upside down” by allegedly attacking “all that nurtures and leads to growth and warmth: the crops, cows, milk, the animals, babies, children.” Indeed “she represented the destruction of fertility itself.”

These elements can be connected, in turn, with a widely prevalent animus against elderly women. Witches can be seen as fitting into the larger category of “crones,” whose social position and influence were below that of every other demographic group. Old women were thought to be demanding, envious, and, worst of all, inordinately lustful even without the possibility of “generation.” Art, literature, and traditional folklore demonstrated that “hatred of older women’s bodies…was a rich seam of early modern culture.” Leering faces, tangled hair, sagging breasts, distended bellies, grotesquely deformed genitalia: such was the typical imagery associated with crones, and another source for the “fascinated hatred that a witch could arouse.”

Fantasies, Roper writes, “gave a structure to wordless terrors and grief, translating them into a recognizable narrative.” Fear, anger, envy: time after time, these emotions appear to be the truly motivating forces in the prosecution of witches. Such “destructive” emotional states were conventionally frowned on and they could be punished by “deep cultural sanctions” against those who confessed to them. “Those who were in a state of enmity with their fellow Christians,” Roper writes, “were not admitted to communion. People were regularly excluded from the Lord’s Supper on these grounds, or took their own decision not to participate in the sacraments because they felt themselves to be guilty of hatred and enmity.” According to Roper, these emotions were so proscribed that once an accused witch confessed to them, she typically went on to admit to much more serious crimes like murder. But, as Roper concludes, “in reality it was the witch’s denouncers and interrogators who were driven by anger and hostility [toward her].” The witch, in her view, could represent all that people felt most troubling in their lives—the sorrowful, the frightening, the evil, the sinful. And destroying the witch became an urgent necessity.

5.

Witch Craze deals mainly with the middle, most terrible, decades of the great witch-hunt, during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and has less to say about its beginning and ending phases. Still, Roper tries at various points to link her psychological interpretation with changing social realities and phases of history. Rising demographic and environmental pressures, she argues, brought early modern European society to a precarious “knife-edge balance.” On one side loomed the threat that overall population growth would overwhelm scarce resources; hence governing authorities sought to enact “strict controls on marriage and fertility.” Yet this was countered by the realization that “children’s lives were fragile and no one could be sure [of securing]…a line of descendants.” Thus, as Roper puts it, “a demographic system… shaped the most intimate decisions of men and women.” These decisions, in turn, had effects on land-holding, inheritance, and social status. Were there too many children, or too few? Were people facing potential impoverishment or the end of a family line? Under such fraught social conditions psychological conflicts and anxieties could only be heightened.

When the witch-hunts finally began to diminish in numbers and extremity, Roper discovers a significant change among the accused. Instead of blaming elderly women (“crones”), accusers shifted their attention to children. “Witchcraft…was always in the nursery, indeed, in the nursing bond itself”; now, however, the roles were reversed. Children were less often seen as victims; instead they became “Devilish” agents, even witches, in their own right. Their fantasies and games, their moods, their attitudes, their occasional “indecency” (particularly masturbation) became a source of fearful fascination—for adults. Somewhat paradoxically, then, “fears about witchcraft began to open up the subject of childhood itself.” This, presumably, was part of what family historians sometimes describe as the birth of modern childhood. The childishness of children, their status as a distinct and different human category, would henceforth be acknowledged as never before. However, Roper argues, that change in status carried a certain price in “ambivalence” toward children, in that many people took some distance from them and became suspicious of their claims and fantasies.

But this, too, would pass—at least as part of the great witch-hunt, as would the witch-hunt itself. Yet the matter will not rest there, in view of the survival of the metaphor up to and into our own time—“witch-hunting” in its many different guises. The settings of such behavior, including all the pertinent social and historical circumstances, may change in many ways. During the last century we have seen episodes that recall witch-hunts, from McCarthy’s investigations in the 1950s to the cases of “rediscovered memory” that led to allegations of ritual abuse of children in the 1980s and 1990s. Notwithstanding historical differences, Roper argues, the underlying psychological drives seem remarkably similar, including overwhelming (sometimes unacknowledged) fear and hatred, hostile fantasy, and lethal action. There is no lack of occasions to start the process of accusation going. As Roper puts it, “Perhaps what we see in the witch craze is a moralism which has failed to integrate the mixture of good and bad elements that are part of human life itself.”

  1. 1

    H.R. Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, and Other Essays(Harper, 1967); Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971); Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe(Oxford University Press, 1997). The scholarly literature on witchcraft his-tory is far too large to describe in detail here. But among many excellent studies, see also: Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Longman, 1995); H.C. Erik Midelfort, Witch-Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1582–1684(Stanford University Press, 1972); Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons (London: Chatto-Heinemann, 1975); Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550–1750 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996); Christina Larner, Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981); and Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (Viking, 1996).

  2. 2

    On the Salem witch-hunt, the best recent study is by Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (Knopf, 2002).

  3. 3

    On the psychosocial roots of misogyny, see the classic study by Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (Harper Collins, 1976).

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