Nobody Liked Her

Lee Palmer Wandel

  • The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux
    Norton, 427 pp, £18.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 393 06551 0

Anna Fessler was a young mother. Her death, on Shrove Tuesday, 20 February 1672, was typical of those that brought about thousands of witch prosecutions in early modern England, North America and German-speaking Europe: agonising and unexpected. Fessler’s life was otherwise unremarkable: she was a resident of a small village, peaceably married, and had given birth to her second child a month before. She was still housebound, according to custom, but had seemed healthy that day to those who were with her: her sister, her husband and a friend. Thus, a visit she received, though not unusual, later came to seem significant. Towards evening, another friend, Eva Küstner, also a young mother, brought Fessler six Shrove cakes, then insisted Fessler eat a seventh that Küstner produced from the folds of her clothing. She said that her mother, Anna Schmieg, had baked them. That night, as Fessler’s husband testified, Anna woke up abruptly, her torso swelled, she became feverish, thirsty, and began to pass blood. Again and again she cried out: ‘O God! I must die!’ By midnight, she was dead.

Anna Fessler’s death opens Thomas Robisheaux’s microhistory of a single trial for witchcraft in a small Franconian principality. The court barber-surgeon and bath master, called to examine the corpse, reported it distended and pale, but they could not determine the cause of death. The physician who conducted the autopsy concluded that ‘poisoning … likely caused her death,’ but he would not venture a guess about the source of the poison. Neighbours’ suspicions and medical evidence were brought to Tobias Ulrich von Gülchen, the chief counsellor of Count Heinrich Friedrich of Langenburg. He ordered the arrest of Küstner and Schmieg. When he received the first depositions in the case on 27 February, von Gülchen, a pious Lutheran trained in the law, asked whether the law was able to discern evil. Like so many early modern jurists and clergy on both sides of the Atlantic, von Gülchen suspected malice in the death: not the simple social malice of murder, but the cosmological malice of witchcraft.

The case is typical of early modern witchcraft trials in so many ways: Fessler’s youth and fertility; a pious jurist; a ‘hag’; a collection of ‘witnesses’ whose testimony concerns the character of the accused and offers no evidence – at least in the modern sense that would physically link the death, the cake and the accused. Trials for witchcraft are among the most intensively studied of all early modern phenomena: the accusation, prosecution, condemnation and execution for an unprovable crime have troubled historians since the Enlightenment.

Von Gülchen left extensive notes on the trial, and they are the primary source for Robisheaux’s book. His questions determined what evidence was sought, and framed its interpretation. He summoned witnesses. He consulted various authorities, from the court preacher, Ludwig Casimir Dietzel, to the Altdorf university faculties of law and medicine, and the University of Strasbourg faculty of law.

From the beginning, Schmieg was von Gülchen’s primary suspect. In his first interrogation of the two women who had been with Fessler on Shrove Tuesday, her sister and a friend, he asked them about Schmieg. ‘What did they know about her? What had they heard?’ She quickly became his sole suspect. Three chapters later, one learns that von Gülchen knew of her reputation. As another official recorded, she was

this well-known good-for-nothing woman, who is given to wine and to the quarrels, brawls, shocking curses, swearing and blasphemous insults of all kinds that stem from this drunkenness, as is shown by the established court protocols and by others who have fallen into recalcitrance with her.

Like so many of the women accused of witchcraft, Schmieg was not an attractive personality. It was not simply that she was old – she gave her age as 57 – though by no means as old as many of those accused. She drank, on Sundays as well as weekdays, mornings as well as evenings, often, according to her own testimony, to the point of oblivion. She swore. Indeed, one of the many puzzles of this trial is why she had not been prosecuted for blasphemy, itself a most dangerous crime. She swore at everyone: her children, her husband, her neighbours, von Gülchen, the executioner. She fought, usually with words, but at one point hit another woman. She had a few redeeming qualities: she seems to have worked hard at the mill, taking good care of the livestock, which were – as became significant in the trial – more productive than her neighbours’ cows and chickens; she was loyal to her husband until the very end of her ordeal.

There is no doubting that Schmieg’s neighbours, and her daughter, found her disagreeable. For more than 30 years, however, she had been thought merely difficult. That one Shrove cake was pivotal. In the months following Fessler’s death, von Gülchen sought ‘to produce one of four specific types of testimony: that Anna had taught witchcraft; proof that she threatened someone with sorcery or witchcraft; signs that she associated with known witches or sorcerers; or findings that she possessed the paraphernalia of sorcery, such as manuals of charms or collections of poisonous toads and powders’. By the end of May, ‘he had no such evidence.’ But the trial did not end there. He continued to pursue a ‘confession’.

A confrontation on 26 July revealed the limits of von Gülchen’s authority. He summoned all those who thought Schmieg had poisoned Fessler, though none was willing to call her a witch outright, none could prove in any way that Schmieg had put poison in the cakes, and no one had been able to find any poison. At the end of a session in which her daughter and her neighbours had all testified, von Gülchen threatened Schmieg, once again, with torture. She was removed from the courtroom, and all swore oaths that they were telling the truth. Robisheaux, following von Gülchen, takes those oaths as evidence of the sincerity of their claims against Schmieg. And yet Robisheaux the historian knows from his earlier work on the same region that people broke their oaths for all kinds of reasons. And what, exactly, were they swearing was true? Their suspicion that Anna Schmieg was capable of evil? What sort of evidence is that for a historian?

After the oaths, Schmieg ‘refused to confess’ – the phrasing Robisheaux maintains throughout. Von Gülchen summoned the torturer, who, following tradition, asked her to forgive him for what he was about to do. According to Robisheaux, who may (it isn’t clear at this point) be following the jurist’s notes, ‘Anna became furious. “She wanted to hit him in the face with all her strength [and said that] she would rather be cut to pieces than that she confess.”’ The adjectives Robisheaux attaches to her echo those used by her neighbours: ‘vehement’, ‘angry’, ‘furious’. The blending of authorial voice and jurist’s perspective becomes most complete immediately afterwards:

Master Fuchs began the session by hoisting her up on the strappado. Her hands tied behind her back and then lifted off the floor, she refused to confess: ‘The Devil can take her, she’s never seen any poison in her whole life.’ When Fuchs went to the next degree of torture, placing her thumbs in the thumbscrews and tightening them ‘until the blood ran out’, Anna remained defiant. The chamber secretary approached her, asking her finally to speak the truth: ‘At this she said that it helps her soul not one bit, she can confess nothing, she asks for God’s sake that they believe her, so that she can earn her place in heaven.’ Torture had failed.

Robisheaux describes the jurist’s determination, from the very beginning of the process, to prove Schmieg a ‘witch’ as the work of a ‘truth-seeker’. Yet torture ‘fails’ when the interrogator is looking for a specific answer. At this point, in fact, von Gülchen had turned to torture because he had failed to produce the evidence he was seeking. The mill, where Schmieg lived with her husband, Hans, and her son, had been searched. There was no poison. There was no evidence of any practice of witchcraft: no manuals, no toads, no powders, no signs of Satan or his demons. The most damaging ‘evidence’ that this months-long investigation produced was the information that Schmieg’s husband had purchased cats from a neighbour, for the purpose of cutting off their heads and burying them at the entrance to the home, to protect it – cats frequently figured in witchcraft and sorcery. But the court failed to prove anything. Throughout von Gülchen’s interrogations, which continued for another three months after the torture, Schmieg consistently testified that she had not baked the cakes for Fessler.

Two narratives are obscured by Robisheaux’s decision to follow von Gülchen. The first is the relationship between Schmieg and her daughter, Eva Küstner, who first offered the cakes to Fessler and insisted that she eat the hidden one while Eva was present. Halfway through Robisheaux’s account, we learn the history of mother and daughter, whose antipathy is there throughout the interrogations. A year before the trial, Eva had been forced to marry against her will: she had become pregnant and marriage was the only way to repair, albeit imperfectly, the family’s honour. In an epilogue, we learn that Eva’s mother-in-law later asked the court to dissolve the marriage: Eva’s pregnancy had been discovered after a liaison with a soldier stationed nearby. Neither von Gülchen nor Robisheaux asks whether the daughter’s forced marriage played a role in her bitter representations of her mother. On 14 August, Eva admitted that she had baked cakes with the wife of one of the witnesses against her mother. This does not, however, alter either the direction or the outcome of the trial.

The second obscured narrative is Schmieg’s own. From the end of February to 4 November, this difficult and pugnacious woman ‘refused to confess’. She ‘refused’ as often as von Gülchen or Fuchs or the court preacher, Dietzel, pressed her. She resisted the characterisation of her life that others, both then and now, seek to impose on it. Her testimony offers a glimpse of the tender affection she shared with her husband. Her attachment to their other surviving child, a son, differs markedly in tone from her relationship with her daughter. Her life was marked by catastrophe, which wasn’t unusual in early modern Europe, as Robisheaux notes. It was also marked by survival and loyalty. Von Gülchen never succeeded in extracting testimony against her from her husband, who brought her food and fresh straw to sleep on during her imprisonment. It is not surprising that both husband and son fell under suspicion of sorcery: they, too, confounded the interpretation von Gülchen sought to impose on her life.

As with every death that led to a witchcraft trial, other explanations were available. In the 17th century, mutually exclusive claims were often made concerning different methods for determining the truth. In setting out the discrete kinds of expertise brought to the trial by the barber-surgeon, the physician, the jurist, the executioner or torturer, and the faculties of law and medicine, Robisheaux touches on but does not pursue these epistemological battles. One is left wondering what relationship they might have had with trials for witchcraft. There was no consensus in 1672 as to how people were supposed to think about the human body. William Harvey’s models of the respiratory and blood circulation systems had challenged but not displaced Galen’s humoral model. Was there a relationship between Galen’s model and perceptions of witchcraft, in which the practitioners’ knowledge of the natural world enables them to harm others’ bodies, often at a great distance? Did the various experts’ deeply different conceptualisations of the body, which they brought to their assessments of the corpse, themselves play a role in this trial? After all, none proved conclusive for the jurist, who set all the medical judgments aside, except for the diagnosis of probable poisoning.

The decision to stay close to von Gülchen also has two methodological consequences. First, the reader is able to see the process by which evidence was first defined, then gathered, weighed and finally incorporated or excluded. In giving us so much of von Gülchen’s account, Robisheaux reveals far more of the jurist’s thinking than most studies of witchcraft trials. We follow him, for example, as he seeks the opinions of the faculties of law and medicine at Altdorf, to which he sent such evidence as he could gather in order to secure a formal justification to pursue further a verdict of witchcraft. According to both medical and legal standards of evidence, they decided, von Gülchen did not have sufficient evidence even to justify further torture in his search for evidence. He rejected their opinion and sought advice elsewhere.

Right to the end, von Gülchen failed to prove that Schmieg poisoned the cake, that she intended it for Fessler and, most crucially, that the poison in the cake was itself the product of witchcraft. He could find no one to testify to her knowledge of poisons. When he failed to get authorisation from the local university faculty, he looked further afield. The faculty of law at Strasbourg had a different intellectual, political and religious history. It shared with von Gülchen that particular blend of Lutheran piety and sense of demonic agency that justified torturing Schmieg again.

On 4 November, she broke. The torturer had found a ‘mark’, that particular spot that witch-hunters examined bodies to find, where the accused felt no pain. He found it after Schmieg had been tortured at least twice, by the strappado and by thumbscrews. Four days later, she was ‘torn with hot irons and then strangled with a rope’, her body ‘burned to ashes’. She agreed to a list of crimes that von Gülchen drafted, but she never spoke a confession.

The second methodological consequence of following von Gülchen so closely is that Robisheaux brings home – in a way studies more sympathetic to the accused do not – a tension at the centre of studies of these trials. The reader sees in detail the process through which the category of ‘witch’ was forced on the accused. Hundreds were immolated by means of its deployment. In accepting it, as Robisheaux makes clear, historians risk adopting the perspective of a particular theatre of justice. It is, however, only one perspective. Anna Schmieg did not think of herself as a witch. It was not simply that she was ‘innocent’ of the crime of witchcraft. She held the category as a thing apart from the person she understood herself to be. She did not in fact ‘refuse to confess’: she rejected the category as defining who she was. If we listen to her own words, as they survive in von Gülchen’s record and Robisheaux’s account, we can hear a different voice in the epistemological battles, belonging to a person who differentiated between such knowledge as others brought to bear on her life and the knowledge she had of herself, a knowledge, until she broke at the very end, that she held as the more certain:

At the end of the day [June 3] Anna Schmieg faced the court alone. The questioning turned to the heart of the matter: Was she a witch? They asked her to see herself through the eyes of others – her daughter, her neighbours, Satan, the executioner. It was as if she were being asked to peer into the mirrors others held up to her, and then view herself through the images they reflected. Von Gülchen pressed Anna twice, about her own statement – sometimes denied, sometimes affirmed – that ‘if her daughter were a witch then she must have learned it from someone.’ Maddeningly, however, Anna allowed that she had indeed said those words, but that ‘she hoped that she [her daughter] was no witch.’ Von Gülchen pressed her harder. ‘Right now you say you are not a witch, but if it were to come out that you are one, would you then reconcile yourself to the contents of the rest of the interrogation?’ Anna only replied that ‘her daughter will certainly know, she only has to say so. If Eva can say that she isn’t a witch, then she has not learned it from anyone.’ As for herself, she has a clear conscience.