Saturday, June 2, 2012

Thomas Robisheaux, The Last Witch of Langenburg

When you have read as much about witch trials as I have, they all start to run together. Another poor old woman is brought before the authorities, accused by her neighbors of killing their cattle or their children. The authorities are not really much interested in cattle poisoning; they want to know if the old woman has sold her soul to the devil and become part of the army of witches that threatens Christian civilization. If anything about her makes them suspicious that she has, they throw her in prison and drag her out at regular intervals to be questioned until she confesses. If necessary, she is tortured, but usually the repeated intense questioning over months or even years is enough in itself. Eventually she is burned, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of relatives or neighbors.

Thomas Robisheaux's The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village (2009) is another tale of this basic type. What makes it interesting and unusual is that this suspected witch, Anna Schmieg, fell into the clutches of an investigator of the most fanatical Germanic thoroughness. Tobias Ulrich von Gülchen was Court Adviser to the Count of Langenburg, one of the many minor princes whose realms dotted the German Rhineland. He was trained in the law and in Lutheran theology, and he devoted his life to bringing order to his prince's small patrimony. Langenburg had been devastated in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and desperately needed some of the order that von Gülchen tried to bring it. If bureaucratic precision were enough, he would have succeeded brilliantly, since I have never seen a legal case as well documented as this one. Nor have I ever read about any ordinary person of the past whose life is as well known as Anna Schmieg's. Von Gülchen's questioning was a combination of police methods and religious instruction. He took Schmieg through her whole life, demanding that she confess all of her sins going back to childhood, trying to pinpoint the moment when she became the devil's minion.

Anna Schmieg's father died when she was a child, her mother when she was a teenager. Her stepfather, a schoolmaster, sent her to be a domestic servant in the household of her mother's sister, who was married to a tavern-keeper. The uncle was a successful man, the richest peasant in his village. In 1630 he was one of the leaders of a peasant protest movement called the Oberregenbach Assembly, which demanded tax relief and an end to the quartering of troops in their villages. Anna's brother went off to fight in the war and was never heard from again. Even though she was a propertyless orphan, Anna's guardians made a good match for her, marrying her into a family of well-off millers. (How her aunt must have crowed about that coup.) Hans Schmieg leased the lord's mill in the village of Bächlingen. Anna thus became one of the leading citizens of the village, the miller's wife, a person to be reckoned with. She never managed to fit into her new community, though. A quarrelsome person, she was regularly fined by the village court for fighting and swearing oaths. She also defied the court on several occasions, refusing to pay fines or petitioning to have them reduced. She was also, as she admitted to von Gülchen, a heavy drinker, and she sometimes invoked the devil's name when she was drunk. Of her seven children, only two reached adulthood, the others dying at ages between two months and 5 years.

But this is only the beginning of what we know about Anna Schmieg. When know that she talked to her pigs when she fed them, "as people do." We know that she would not share the cherries from her favorite tree with her neighbors. We know that her husband, troubled by repeated breakdowns in the machinery of his mill, decided that it was haunted by an evil spirit and obtained "several" cat heads from the court executioner and buried them around the mill to keep the spirits away. (Executioners were often thought to have occult knowledge, because of their profession, and some did a good business in the body parts of executed criminals.) We know that she lost her virginity when she was her uncle's servant, in the barn, with a friend of the uncle's that she described as a "whorish scoundrel." She and her daughter fell out because her daughter refused a match arranged by her parents and eloped with a neighbor boy -- the decisive moment in her trial came when her own daughter turned against her and accused her baking poisoned Shrovetide cakes. Her husband and son remained faithful to her to the end. It is quite remarkable to know a woman who died in 1672 in such detail.

The other thing I found most interesting about this case is that Robisheaux did not discover it. On the contrary, it has figured in local histories and general witchcraft books for a century, and two plays and a best-selling novel have been based (loosely) on Anna Schmieg's story. The thick bundle of papers that make up her trial record once appeared in a traveling museum exhibition on witchcraft. Like many other authors of famous history books, Robisheaux has taken one of the best known records of the past and re-examined in a new and very thorough way.

The Last Witch of Langenburg is a good book, and I recommend it. There are, however, many, many historical studies of witchcraft, and this one does not make my top ten list. If you want a thorough study of a single witchcraft case, I still recommend High Road to the Stake by Michael Kunze.

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