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Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany

Joy Wiltenburg

Publication Year: 2012

With the growth of printing in early modern Germany, crime quickly became a subject of wide public discourse. Sensational crime reports, often featuring multiple murders within families, proliferated as authors probed horrific events for religious meaning. Coinciding with heightened witch panics and economic crisis, the spike in crime fears revealed a continuum between fears of the occult and more mundane dangers.

In Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany, Joy Wiltenburg explores the beginnings of crime sensationalism from the early sixteenth century into the seventeenth century and beyond. Comparing the depictions of crime in popular publications with those in archival records, legal discourse, and imaginative literature, Wiltenburg highlights key social anxieties and analyzes how crime texts worked to shape public perceptions and mentalities. Reports regularly featured familial destruction, flawed economic relations, and the apocalyptic thinking of Protestant clergy. Wiltenburg examines how such literature expressed and shaped cultural attitudes while at the same time reinforcing governmental authority. She also shows how the emotional inflections of crime stories influenced the growth of early modern public discourse, so often conceived in terms of rational exchange of ideas.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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p. v-v


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p. vi-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. 1-20

This book, like all works of history, is born of engagement with both the past and the present. It was initially conceived in the 1990s, when crime in the United States gained prominence as both a social problem and a political tool. From the famous “Willie Horton” ad of the...

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Crime and Society

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pp. 21-41

The topical crime accounts that flowed from early presses were not fiction. Although some sloppily borrowed language from accounts of similar crimes elsewhere, very few seem to have been wholly invented. Even accounts of imaginary crimes, such as witchcraft and the ritual murder...

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Law and the Rational Hero

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pp. 42-64

In 1532, Emperor Charles V issued a new penal code for the Holy Roman Empire. The document, known to history as the Carolina, encapsulates the modern approach to criminal justice that increasingly gained ground in the sixteenth century. This was a matter of practice,...

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Crime into Text

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pp. 65-87

The sixteenth century saw huge expansion in the narration of crime. While the law code laid out the ideal procedures for specific offenses, and some authors reflected on crime in fiction, there was an even greater surge in the recounting of real-life crime. Part of this surge stemmed ...

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Crime and Christianity

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pp. 88-110

The authors and audience of cheap popular literature are usually difficult to trace. In the case of crime reports, however, one group’s activity stands out in both production and reception. Protestant clergy were prominent among the few authors who signed their...

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Family Murders

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pp. 111-135

A young man, about to end his life on the gallows, begs first that he might kiss his father one last time. As the old man leans forward for the kiss, the son instead bites off his nose. “If you had disciplined me in my youth, I would not have come to shame,” he says. This story, ...

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Training the Imagination

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pp. 136-162

Early modern people were very aware of the imagination and its uses. In a recent article on the imagination and witchcraft, Lyndal Roper quotes a definition from that infamous yet influential witch hunting manual, the...

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Staging the Lamentable Theater

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pp. 163-184

For the great sixteenth-century collector Johann Wick, heinous crimes were imbued with larger meaning. Pamphlets and broadsides on the latest and most terrible murders were not trivial but helped to create a significant historical and moral record. When he died in 1588,...

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pp. 185-192

Early modern discourses of crime do not have a simple, linear history. Instead, their development evokes a web, or even an ocean of shifting layers and currents. I have long enjoyed William Hesseltine’s comment that “writing intellectual history is like trying to nail jelly to...


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pp. 193-224


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pp. 225-260


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pp. 261-268

Further Reading

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pp. 269-270

E-ISBN-13: 9780813933030
E-ISBN-10: 081393303X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813933023
Print-ISBN-10: 0813933021

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 12 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Criminology -- Germany -- History.
  • Crime -- Sociological aspects.
  • Crime in popular culture.
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