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  • The Witch in the Western Imagination by Lyndal Roper
  • Michael Ostling

Lyndal Roper, witch, witchcraft, imagination, transgression, history of art, demonology

Lyndal Roper. The Witch in the Western Imagination. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012. Pp. xii + 240.

As its title suggests, this collection of insightful essays illuminates the witch-figure as imagined, as represented: as inscribed in print, carved in statuary, engraved, painted, fictionalized. Roper’s conversation partners are such historians as Stuart Clark and Charles Zika (she dedicates the book to the latter, her early mentor at the University of Melbourne) who have looked to the witch to reflect upon high-cultural concerns far removed from the village quarrels and torture chambers of the witch trials. And yet, as in her Witchcraze (2004), Roper never loses sight of the local, the human, the embodied: of the origins of witch discourse in anxieties over fecundity and reproduction, and the all too real consequences of this discourse to real women and men. Just as demonology readily intermingled high theology, classical allusion, and personal anecdote, juxtaposing wretched village crones with Circe and Medea, Roper’s capacious erudition spans the several registers into which modern scholarship slots the witch-figure: art and literature and drama; sociology and psychohistory; theology and law. Throughout these seven essays, she emphasizes the witch-figure’s talent for transgression, her propensity to wander “in directions that led to moral ambiguity and doubt” (p. 27).

The title essay presents a provocative rereading of Kramer, Bodin, and De Lancre: their tracts emerge as picaresque collections of titillating anecdote that found a wide readership unconcerned with the authors’ theological concerns. From the beginning, demonology formed a rich source for works of drama, art, and fiction, from the Faustbuch to the great German baroque [End Page 101] confections of comedy and horror such as Johann Praetorius’ Stories from the Blocksberg (1668). In Roper’s nuanced reading, “demonology did not limit itself to mapping the witch-hunter’s intellectual belief structure, but contributed to a new literature of entertainment” (p. 27).

Chapters 2 through 4 explore the “symbolic and psychological capaciousness” (p. 3) of the imagined witch. Through the curious case of the “Gorgon of Augsburg”—a witch-like pre-Christian heroine alternately celebrated and excoriated by the city-fathers of that imperial city—Roper shows that fictive witches could be honored as valiant champions even while “real” witches were burned at the stake. “Dürer’s Empty Frame” traces the emerging centrality of the trope of Envy—an aging woman with dried up, dangling breasts—in German artwork in the sixteenth century. This theme is elucidated more fully in “Envy,” the longest chapter of the book and a summation of its project. Envy bridges the gaps between discourse and habitus, text and body, high art and village dynamics. Snake-haired and scowling, she stalks a landscape encompassing every register of the early modern world: lurking in the proliferating emblem books (where she preserves an ambivalence inherited from Ovid: Invidia shadows and thus defines Cupid, emblem of desire), but also in the emotionally charged atmosphere of childbirth, where young women’s fear of the (projected) envy of postmenopausal elders “provided the emotional fuel of the witch craze” (p. 113).

Chapters 5 and 6 move out of Augsburg to the rustic stock characters, both real and fictitious, of the Obermarchtal villages. “Witchcraft and Village Drama” juxtaposes the judicial theater of interrogation against the satirical idylls of the Swabian playwright Sebastian Sailer: the latter’s depiction of a “coarse but cozy” village life provides an eerie backdrop to some of the last German witch trials. “Witches’ Children” considers another sort of “play-writing”: the spontaneous incorporation of witchcraft into children’s games. Children toyed dangerously with transgressive motifs such as the demonic pact, initiating witch trials in the early seventeenth century but later contributing to the Enlightenment interest in childish imagination. The final chapter provides a microhistorical analysis of a “Suicidal Student” and his autobiographical account of diabolical pact and sexual escapade. Through the story of Veit Karg’s tumultuous relationships with his devil and with the Augsburg magistrates, Roper takes the opportunity to revisit and refine (but not to repudiate...


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pp. 101-104
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