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Past & Present 2006 Supplement (vol. 1, 2006) 139-158

Witchcraft, Nostalgia, and the Rural Idyll in Eighteenth-Century Germany
Lyndal Roper

In 1747, over a hundred years after the witch craze had ended, Magdalena Bollmann found herself accused of witchcraft. Bollmann came from the village of Alleshausen in what is now part of Württemberg, high on the plateau by Lake Federsee, a flat, brooding landscape dotted with pilgrimage churches and ruled by the Praemonstratensian monks of the Abbey of Obermarchtal. Bollmann was not the first to be accused of witchcraft in this particular outbreak of witchcraft trials. By the time the accusations against her were heard, four women had already been burnt as witches, and three more would meet their deaths before the episode was over, seven women in a population of barely 500 people.1 It was extraordinary for such a large outbreak of witch-hunting to occur so late: this was the period of the first stirrings of the Enlightenment. Even the executions did not put an end to it. Just nine years later, three more women in the neighbouring village of Brasenberg were tried for witchcraft, escaping burning only because the village mayor and the advisory jurist declared the evidence inadmissable and so brought the trials to a halt.2

At about the same time as these horrific trials, a young monk from the monastery of Obermarchtal was enjoying his early literary successes. Sebastian Sailer (1714–71) is hardly a name to conjure with outside Swabia. But Sailer played a not-insignificant role in the development of German literature that reached its apogee in the late eighteenth century: he knew the Enlightenment poet and translator of Shakespeare Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1813), who hailed from nearby Biberach and who lived there between 1760 and [End Page 139] 1765; and his literary works were read by the likes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Sailer was the first Swabian dialect poet, producing wonderfully idiosyncratic religious plays where Eve makes the speciality of the Swabian kitchen, Spätzle, and God watches the weather like a shrewd Swabian peasant, and other comic dramas based on village life. At first his dialect dramas circulated only in performance, while the devotional works which he also composed—and for which he was well known during his lifetime—were printed. But the texts of the plays were soon copied in manuscript form and passed from hand to hand; and from at least the late eighteenth century his plays began to be printed, not only by local presses in tiny townlets like Riedlingen, but by major printers. In 1783 a version of one of his plays was published—suitably rendered into the local dialect—in Vienna.3

Sailer's work was part of the early Enlightenment discovery and creation of folk culture that was to find its full flowering in the nineteenth century, as academics created dialect dictionaries, scoured peasant households for fairy tales, and documented the marriage customs and costumes of the local peasantry. In his poems and dramas Sailer immortalized the world of the peasants in rural Swabia, mocking their pretensions and narrow-mindedness with affectionate humour. Like so many local scholars at this time, working far from metropolitan centres but influenced by the new intellectual currents, Sailer was fascinated by language and determined to preserve local culture. We also know that he had an early posting as an assistant priest in the village of Seekirch, Alleshausen's parish church, at just the time when these trials were beginning. How did these two very different mid-eighteenth-century worlds connect, Sailer's satirical version of coarse but cosy village life, animated by Enlightened curiosity, and the relentless cruelty that characterizes the trials?4 [End Page 140]

The case against Magdalena Bollmann began with apparently trivial incidents. Conrad Citterel was leading his little 2-year-old son by the hand as they walked by her house and Bollmann, hearing the toddler pass, leaned out of her window to give him a bit of warm rissole to eat. His...


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pp. 139-158
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