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  • Imagining The Witch: Emotions, Gender, And Selfhood In Early Modern Germany by Laura Kounine
  • Kelly E. Kaelin (bio)
Imagining The Witch: Emotions, Gender, And Selfhood In Early Modern Germany. by laura kounine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Hardcover. 304 pp. isbn: 978-0-198-79908-5. $78.00.

In the early months of 1678, a widow by name of Dorothea Rieger came before the Stuttgart courts under the charge of witchcraft. During a recent illness, the widow despaired that she was not worthy of Christian burial because “‘the Devil used her sins,’ through ‘numerous adulteries’ that she had committed” (165). Although she confessed to being a witch, court records of Rieger’s trial reveal an ambiguous interplay among definitions of mental instability, demonic possession, and witchcraft. The slippage among these categories stands at the heart of Laura Kounine’s Imagining the Witch. Rieger and other accused witches feature prominently in Kounine’s conversation about identity and self-conception. Through a series of closely examined case studies, she aims to reconceive the study of the early modern witch trials by asking how accused witches, both men and women, thought about themselves. Departing from the traditional method of asking why the trials happened, Kounine instead asks what trial records can tell us about how early modern people perceived themselves both as individuals and in relation to their communities. In doing so, she reopens inquiry into a well-published field and creates space for future scholarship on gender and emotion in early modern Germany.

The bulk of Kounine’s evidence stems from the rich archival records of the Duchy of Württemberg. She is quick to note that the area is not necessarily representative of all witch trials—those in Württemberg were isolated episodes that took place over the course of two centuries, as opposed to part of a “witch craze” like those in Eichstätt. During those two centuries, more than six hundred people were accused and imprisoned, but only one-third of trials ended in execution. In making her argument, Kounine reiterates this relatively low rate of witch-execution to assert that, contrary to popular belief, resistance to witchcraft charges was both prevalent and successful. Each of the case studies highlighted in the book shows how men and women negotiated their relationships within the community in order to actively resist the identities imposed upon them.

In a field as well trodden as the early modern witch trials, Kounine finds it necessary to use her introduction to situate herself within the extensive historiography. The result is a concise and extremely useful review of the last [End Page 340] three decades of scholarship. Here the author engages with three arguments put forward by early modern German historians: first, the “bad neighbor” thesis, which contends that accusations of witchcraft were mainly the products of long-standing neighborly conflicts; second, the “little ice age” thesis of agrarian crisis following the Thirty Years’ War; and third, the linking of large-scale witch panics to the absence of strong state control, known as the “small-states” thesis (3). She then highlights the contributions of both Lyndal Roper and Diane Purkiss to the study of gender in the witch trials, foreshadowing her argument against binary gender models in chapter 2. Kounine takes the time to address each of these, allowing both expert and novice alike to enter her argument with some historiographical background in tow.

Kounine’s introduction also includes a lengthy and useful discussion of her methodological intervention. Witch trial records from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are often extensive, framed as long narratives by the accused, often with the questioner’s identity and prompts obfuscated. In order to glean more information, Kounine uses the “Listening Guide technique” as developed by Carol Gilligan, a feminist psychologist from Harvard (14). This tactic requires the researcher to read a text four times, each with a different purpose. Most pertinent for a history of emotions and the self, the Listening Guide calls attention to “I” statements and the presence of “contrapuntal voices” (15). Kounine argues that these tactics provide a method for “reading resistance” in the archival records, allowing her to identify the subject in the trial...


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pp. 340-344
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