The sufferings of the women most cursed

Witch Craze

December 22, 2006

Between the mid-15th and the mid-18th centuries, perhaps 50,000 people were executed as witches in Europe, and innumerable demonological tracts appeared in which the intellectual foundations of witch-hunting were restated and elaborated. Over the past decade, the witch-hunts have constituted a rich seam of historical writing, yet the topic remains one of the most puzzling, and most debated, in European history.

Lyndal Roper is an original and insightful historian of witchcraft, and the publication of this major work is most welcome. Her style is fluent and accessible, but those who examine the 59 pages of closely printed notes will rapidly see the depth of scholarship that underpins her work. She has researched extensively in German archives and early modern printed works; she also has a firm grasp of recent German writing in her field. The book is attractively produced and well illustrated, and Yale University Press is to be congratulated for publishing so handsome a volume at so reasonable a price.

The German-speaking lands include some areas of the most severe witch-hunts; nearly half of Europe's condemned witches were burnt in the Holy Roman Empire. The trials of a number of these witches were well documented; some resulted in 300 manuscript pages as judges carried out examination after examination while attempting to establish what they saw as the truth. This depth of documentation allows Roper virtually to write the life stories of some of the women whose unhappy fate she records.

For it is women who are Roper's main concern. It is well known that some 80 per cent of those convicted as witches were women, and interpreting this fact has proved one of the most contentious areas of debate among witchcraft historians. I

* her earlier writing, Roper has made the important suggestion, echoed by the research of other scholars, that a key set of relationships behind many witchcraft accusations was that involving a mother, her child and an elderly woman who was thought to have done that child harm. In particular, she has argued that there is a need for a psychoanalytical exploration of the emotions behind a witchcraft accusation, and that such an exploration should focus on the emotions inherent in the bond between mother and child, with the witch possibly filling the role of the bad or deviant mother.

In this book, she acknowledges the influence of psychoanalytical ideas but attempts to move beyond a study of the individual subjectivities involved in a witchcraft accusation and tries to encompass both the broader society in which witches and their accusers lived and the processes of historical change. Adeptly, Roper leads her readers through a subject matter that is grim but fascinating. There is an especially interesting chapter on interrogation and torture, which raises some important issues about the mindset of those investigating suspected witches and the sometimes surprisingly complex relationships between those suspects and the men interrogating or torturing them. Other chapters deal with alleged cannibalism by witches, the recurring motif of sexual intercourse between the witch and the Devil, and another recurring fantasy, the witches'


Roper's most important theme, however, is that of fertility - of how witches were believed to attack it and how, moreover, this belief incorporated early modern notions of gender. Witches were thought to harm animals and crops and to inhibit the act of procreation among humans and animals alike. What was significant was that most of those accused of these acts were elderly postmenopausal women who were clearly no longer fertile themselves and who might be thought to be jealous of those who were. For, as it is now widely accepted, the women accused as witches were not a random group; they were overwhelmingly elderly women from within the peasant community. An additional strength of Roper's book is that she explores the world of peasant squabbles and antipathies that underlay so many witchcraft accusations, a world where an ambivalent or even friendly phrase uttered at the wrong moment could be interpreted as a witch's curse.

There are some problems with this thesis (for example, many of the elderly women eventually executed as witches had first been suspected to be witches when they were young), and Roper's suggestions about why the strength of the classic stereotype of the witch declined in the 18th century do not entirely convince. But this is an important book marked by a deep scholarship and an equally deep humanity. Its central thesis should encourage all historians of witchcraft to re-examine their sources and reformulate the questions they ask of them.

James Sharpe is professor of history, York University.

Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany

Author - Lyndal Roper
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 362
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 10335 2

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