- Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany
The dust jacket of Lyndal Roper’s new book on witchcraft sports a reproduction of Füssli’s “The Three Witches.” The three women all point in one direction. The picture seems to symbolize Roper’s treatment of witchcraft. Witchcraft is essentially about motherhood and fertility. This is clear from the beginning and this remains the focal point of the study.
Following the basic argument of her early work Oedipus and the Devil,14 Roper attempts to see witch beliefs and witch hunts as motivated by the unconscious. She stresses that the unconscious is not ahistorical. Rather, it is shaped by cultural conditions and expressed in products of culture beyond the purely individual sphere, for example, in the accusations and testimonials of witch trials. Roper concentrates exclusively on source materials from the German heartland of the witch hunts. She focuses on cases from Augsburg, Marchtal, and Nördlingen.
The book consists of nine chapters arranged in four parts. Part One, “Persecution,” [End Page 108] provides on overview of the denominational, economic, legal, and administrative background of the German witch hunts. Roper is not afraid of generalizations. Some of her statements are too sweeping, a few are simply wrong (e.g., the renowned demonologist Binsfeld is said to have been a Jesuit, p. 64). Part Two, “Fantasy,” explores the more outlandish aspects of witchcraft: cannibalism—that is, the witches’ taste for infants—sex with demons, and the witches’ sabbath. Part Three, “Womanhood,” discusses the wider background of witch beliefs. Roper presents the witch as an unfertile old woman. As Roper identifies delayed marriage and an obsession with fertility as basic elements of early modern culture, the woman past menopause became the ultimate outsider. At best expendable and ridiculed, the old woman could be feared as envious of the young and fertile. Young mothers and their babies, as well as livestock and fields, the fertility of which were crucial for the survival of the peasant household, were thus the prime targets of malevolent magic. Part Four, “The Witch,” presents variants of that theme and investigates the decline of witch beliefs in the eighteenth century. The new role of the mother in the bourgeois household and the reduced interest in agricultural fertility in an increasingly urbanized society helped to rid German society of the fear of witches. That fascinating and potentially dangerous oddity of the mother past child-bearing, the witch, could transform into the fairytale character of the nineteenth century.
As a starting point for her discussions, Roper narrates several witch trials in the individual chapters. These extensive narratives are extremely detailed and knowledgeable. Roper provides transcripts of the records in the original language along with her translation. Even though there are minor mistakes (e.g., pp. 109, 128, 205), she demonstrates a command of early modern German dialects that is certainly vastly superior to that of most Germans. Roper develops her argument stringently, skillfully, and with a very good eye for details. Her study is erudite, sophisticated, and marvellously eloquent. Witch Craze is a fascinating read. It comes close to uniting historiography and art.
Roper overstates her case in some respects. She certainly overestimates the importance of cannibalism for the imagining of witchcraft. It would be easy to quote hundreds of trials in which that element did not play any role. There can be no doubt that the cultural image of the witch as an old crone was dominant. However, as Roper admits, it is next to impossible to say anything conclusive about the actual percentage of women beyond child-bearing age among the victims of the witch trials. Roper’s arguments are often daring. Her assertive insistence on the paramount importance of fertility is not free of the odd non-sequitur. Alternative interpretations are largely absent. Is it really convincing to group the magical murder of children, harmful magic [End Page 109] against male potency, the magical destruction of livestock, as well as the weather magic that destroyed the harvest together under the label “magic against fertility”? The...