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Murder in a German Village

by Thomas Robisheaux

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-393-06551-0
Publisher: Norton

Scrupulously scholarly but accessible study of how witchcraft was experienced in a 17th-century German village.

Robisheaux (History/Duke Univ.; Rural Society and the Search for Order in Early Modern Germany, 1989) employs the techniques of microhistory, delineating the multiple layers in everyday lives as he recreates the chilling “social drama” of a small community’s response to crisis. When new mother Anna Fessler suddenly took ill and died after eating her neighbor’s Shrove cake on February 20, 1672, the general outcry in the southwestern town of Hürden was that the miller’s wife, Anna Schmieg, had poisoned Fessler through witchcraft. Offering butter cakes to neighbors was a routine courtesy before Lent, yet the gruesome death of a seemingly healthy woman, coupled with Schmieg’s troublesome reputation among the villagers, created suspicions that prompted the involvement of the district of Langenburg’s court adviser, the local executioner and various university scholars, enlisted for their opinions on how to proceed. Schmieg was an outsider; she had moved into the district when she married the miller, and records show her frequently at odds with the neighbors. Known to be a drinker, she lost two of her many children in suspicious mill accidents and had a difficult relationship with her daughter Eva, who had delivered the cakes to Fessler. Indeed, the court adviser would exploit animus between mother and daughter to implicate Schmieg and generally wear her down over eight months of incarceration, interrogation and torture. She eventually confessed to 15 crimes. Although contemporary legal consultants argued that the case had been based on “conjecture and presumptions,” the Langenburg court saw Schmieg’s execution as necessary to restore the breach in public order. On November 8 she was torn with hot irons, then strangled with a rope; her body was “burned to ashes.” Robisheaux’s work offers a fascinating way of understanding witchcraft “at the level where real life was lived.”

Compelling social and legal history.