Killed by the Panic

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.

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 …

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