Friday, March 27, 2009

On "The Last Witch of Langenburg; Murder in a German Village" by Thomas Robisheaux

This book recounts a witch trial in Germany during the the later part of the 17th century. Records of the trial were meticulously preserved in the archives of the ancient regime of the Counts of Hohenlohe and are now (since 1988) often included in museum exhibits related to the regional history and folklore of the Swabian- Franconian borderlands.

To paraphrase the author, the accused witch Anne Schieg has been is portrayed in novels, plays and poems through subsequent history in a variety of guises: from the innocent (even saintly) victim of a blind and cruel legal system in a sobering lesson about what happens when prejudice and zeal take over the machinery of the State, to a scary figure from Grimms fairy tales; sometimes a wise woman and healer repressed by male physicians or as a symbol of resistance against Christianity or misogeny; sometimes full of malice, other times simply as funny, rebellious or witty-an archetype of non-conformity.

But Mr. Robisheaux shows that Anne Schieg was a simple, illiterate woman immersed in the externalities of her social relationships which were governed in large degree by a code of honor which required a high degree of combativeness in the agonistic atmosphere of everyday affairs of Langenburg. Like the others in her small village she had to fight for the respect of her neighbors, not accepting any slights, disregard or insult no matter how casual.

She had to defend whatever material advantages she and her husband obtained against the constant suspicions and resentments of her neighbors and as a miller's wife in a predominantly agricultural community this was especially difficult. She also had to deflect blame from herself for whatever misfortunes came her way, and there were many.

By the time she reached her forties - under the burden of large debts, the need to arrange marriage settlements for her wayward children and difficulties procuring security for her advancing old age- Anne had developed a rather troublesome reputation as being specially combative, given to cursing, petty physical assaults, with a tendency to mutter obscurely in poignant frustration.

She was accused of murdering a neighboring woman with a poisoned cake and, therefore, of being a witch.

The university educated Magistrates and Ministers who examined and "confessed' her were what might be called proto-Freudian in their outlook , they tried to uncover "the core of her person in the inner self " where they believed the cosmic struggle between God and Satan is waged. On the one hand, the pure love, faith and conformity to Christ. On the other hand, pure evil enmity and loyalty to Satan.

At the time, this gruesome sort of examination (which probed the entirety of her life) was only a recent innovation in the Lutheran Church which , reacting against the practices of the Roman Church, previously only required their parishioners to make general confessions of their sins. As Anne noted on several occasions in the early parts of her trial , actually paraphrasing Luther himself: "it would take a lifetime to confess all the sins that you are asking me to".

Anne's religion was of much simpler kind than those of her inquisitors. She had attended church as a social obligation, to affirm her membership in the local community and remembered only a few of the simple prayers and hymns she had learned as a child. In the end she could no longer resist the brainwashing to which she was subjected, confessed to a myriad of crimes and went quietly to her doom seemingly convinced that through penitence she had obtained eternal salvation.

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