Witch Craze

Lyndal Roper. Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. Yale University Press, 2004.

Something very strange was happening to teenager Regina Groninger. At night a strange figure would come to her, with a head as black and round as a cannonball, on which there was no face at all, its arms thin and withered and surmounted by pointed claws, and with the feet of a goat. She said that it "lies on her whole body and presses on her in such a way that her shit goes out of her body ... (and) ... put something pointed like a spindle in the front part of her body ... from which she felt great pains, but she did not feel that anything was left behind in her body, and when he had to do with her thus, it lasted quarter of an hour."

Today such a story might lead to a visit from Budd Hopkins, but in early 18th century Augsburg it led to an accusation of witchcraft, and Regina only escaped with her life by starting to giggle during the court proceedings and saying she had made the whole thing up. Times were changing and the judges were prepared to believe this, a century earlier she would not have been so lucky. Lyndal Roper is somewhat puzzled by this story and wonders if it glosses a case of actual sexual abuse, but Magonia readers will perhaps detect a classic account of sleep paralysis.

A century earlier, according to Roper, such a teenager would not have been suspected as being a witch, unless she was a subsidiary of an older woman, for she argues that most of those accused were post-menopausal women, and most of their accusers were married women of child-bearing age.

Roper's explanation centres on the demographic situation in Germany in the Early Modern period, situated on a knife edge between over and under population. Many of the inhabitants had to delay marriage to conserve scare resources, thus the future of the community lay with those women who were child-bearing wives.

The infertile, such as elderly women, were thought to envy their status, and to pose a threat. Sexual desire on the part of non-fertile women was seen as somehow contrary to nature, and to pose a threat to communal fertility. This, and perhaps other generational tensions, led to such women being denounced by neighbours and by sometimes their own families. Roper is shocked by the cruelty and sexual violence shown in many such cases, but even today we see many shocking examples of 'elder abuse'.

Under pressure from torture, or perhaps because they came to believe in the accusations made against them, the accused would make confessions centred around not so much scholarly notions of the Sabbatt, but from fantasies constructed from their daily lives.

Toward the end of the witch hunting period the focus of concern shifted from older women to wayward children and teenagers. Looking at these cases, it seems clear that some of these children's behaviour would, even (or rather especially) today bring them to the attention of social workers, or make them the subject of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.

Only as statistics and the new rationalism replaced notions of supernatural power as the means of interpreting demographic and social crises did the witchcraft accusations fade away. But we Magonians know that they haven't really gone, they are hiding in the dark places of the imagination, waiting for new labels to clothe themselves in, so they can again venture into the light of day. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson


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