Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Look into My Family History: The Witch Trials

In light of Halloween being right around the corner I have decided to do a little digging into my German heritage. I have traced my German lineage to a small cluster of villages, Ban de la Roche in French and Stienthal in German. It is a French (trilingual area French, German and English) commune lying in the Vosges Mountains about 40 miles to the west of Strasbourg. There are nine villages all situated closely together in a 49 square kilometer area. 

Between the years 1607 and 1630 the area was tormented by witch trials. "Over 100 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and around 80 individuals were publicly executed. Meister Bernhardt charged 10 florins per witch to be ignited." Seventeen orphans were left in the wake of the lunacy. 

The people of the Ban were poor. The land was nestled in a green valley surrounded by streams. The constant water flow washed away any fertile topsoil and the chance for worthwhile farming. However, the land did prove to have good opportunities for industrial mining, pottery and accessible travel via. rivers. "It is noted in Vital registries, the Christmans of Waldersbach, Neuvillers, Solbach and Rothau were bourgeois, and held positions in the justice system and were associates of the nobility."


 adjective \ˈbrzh-ˌwä also ˈbzh- orˈbüzh- or brzh-ˈ\

: relating to or belonging to the middle class of society
: having qualities or values associated with the middle class : too concerned about wealth, possessions, and respectable behavior

The mass hysteria of witches and witchcraft more than likely were the causes of many families feeing the area. Due to the fact that most of the families in the Ban were poor in comparison to the higher classes of the seventeenth century, they weren't necessarily badly off, just poor. There is data on the property left behind by executed witches, it was possible for local commoners to amass some wealth, although not in land, which they held by tradition but did not own outright; rather their property consisted of goods, money and livestock. 

Sorcière soignant un malade, peinture murale du monastère de Rila en Bulgarie
(Nursing a sick witch, mural Rila Monastery in Bulgaria)
During the middle ages the Holy Roman Empire was in control of the area the Ban rested in. As we all have seen throughout history wherever the Holy Roman Empire goes so does the catholic church. With that being, the Lutheran folks of the Ban were being forced to convert. You would think during the witch trials it would have pitted the religious folk of one side against the religious folk on the other. However, records show that this was not the case. More often than not it was all the good Lutherans accusing each other. 

Where did this threat of witches come from though? Literacy wasn't exactly widespread among the people, it wasn't unknown to them either. In 1598 the bourgeois of Stienthal produced a 'sermon' to their current Lord, 'Count Georg Gustav de Velendez'. This sermon was written in somewhat decent French. It went on and on about their loyalty to him, in return for protecting their "ancient rights and customs'. They also heard preaching and read in books about witchcraft. Their Lord also was already aware that the devil was active on earth. 

Taken from Malleus Maleficarum
Strasborg was a center of learning, speaking and publishing about witches. In fact the notorious Malleus Maleficarum was printed in Strasborg in 1487. There was also another printed work concerning witches, making its way around Strasborg. There were separate editions of Ulrich Tenngler's Neuer Layenspiegel (New Mirror for Lay persons) in 1510 and 1511. It drew heavily upon the Malleus Maleficarum but went on past witches to discuss things like dragons, gryphons, sorcerers, and topics such as that. 

Strafvollstreckung. Holzschnitt mit der Darstellung verschiedener Todes- und Leibestrafen, aus einem Raubdruck des Laienspiegels (Straßburg, 1510).
Criminal enforcement. Woodcut depicting carious death and corporal punishment, a pirated version of the laity mirror (Strasbourg, 1510.)
Roughly during that same time period Strasborg became a site of sermon on witches. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries there were regular speeches given on the dangers of Maleficia and pacts with the devil. Geiler von Kaysersberg was one of such speakers and warned those who practiced sorcery and 'weather making' that they would end up in live coals in a lion's mouth on Judgement Day. This gentleman was also deeply anti-semantic and regularly bundled Jews and Witches in the same denunciations. You can read more about Geilers sermons and ideals in a book that was published in Strasborg in 1516 and again in 1517 titled Die Emeis (The Ants). It discusses a horde of witches (women) that like to march around at night around Christmas time.

Strasbourg as seen in 1644

By the early seventeenth century visual and printed propaganda surrounded Ban de la Roche warning of terrifying enemies. These images were brought into the area by travelers, wanderers, and immigrants. Any person of the Ban could have been able to read witch hunter manuals and start wondering about their neighbors. 

Witches by Hans Baldung. Woodcut, 1508

One of the major factors that heightened the sense of danger approaching their little villages was the ever-closer approach of other witch trials. Prosecutions were happening nearby... everywhere. For example, in Geneva in 1545 and 1568-69; in Ensisheim 1551-1622; in Thann 1572-1620; in Basel 1570; and in Molsheim, probably in 1575 and certainly in the 1590's, and another round in 1619-20. St. Dié, in Lorraine, which wasn't very far away, and lying directly on the road through the mountains, witnessed and immense number of trials in 1593-94 and again in 1618. 

The hunts in Ban de la Roche took place just as they did everywhere else in the region. They cam win several waves. During a wave in 1621-22 it was very doubtful that women were singled out. In those two years 21 males and 27 females. You could also read that as 44% of men and 56% of women, convicted of witchcraft. Testimonies were extracted under torture and often mentioned local women and men as attending witches' sabots. One executed man's estate was estimated at 372 florins. He owned four oxen, ten 'big and small steers", five milk cows. two calves. two pigs and five horses. A married couple both burned for witchcraft and left an estate that was valued at over 2200 florins. These families were well off my the standards of the time and region they lived in. The documents of the trials list property from wealthy individuals or couples right down to folks that had nothing. So you can see that the trials weren't merely to single out women or set or reinforce social boundaries. There were no patterns of victims according to position in society. No one was safe. 

A woodcut illustrating an execution by burning at the stake. original caption: "Burning at the stake. An illustration from a mid 19th century book."

There are only a few observations that can be made. First, all the defendants and accused were more or less ordinary villagers;they weren't newcomers to the region, and were not of alien religion. They were not from clergy or from the ruling Veldenz family. The very first witch trial in the Ban, held in 1607, involved charges of illicit sex, petty theft and possession of a 'little book'. I'm assuming this was supposed to be deemed as a book of spells of sorts. The defendant was Christman Dietrich and he was accused by several of his neighbors for a plethora of crimes. Four men swore under oath that Dietrich committed adultery with the wife of another man. He was also accused of giving a little book to a cuckolded husband. Of coarse he denies all charges but he also goes on to accuse one of the four with stealing and selling wandering livestock. More men come forth to confess they had seen Dietrich engaging in sexual activity with other men's wives as well. Record shows he only had one lover for 18 - 19 years and her name was Mansiat. The same record this is found in also mentions that a man was witnessed being thrown from his horse via magic. Dietrich isn't mentioned as the culprit.


 noun \ˈkə-kəld, -(ˌ)kōld\
: a man whose wife has sex with someone else : a man's whose wife commits adultery

One of Mansiat's neighbors reported that once she had come into his house and complained that her husband was beating her. She also allegedly said that she 'did not want to have God' and that she had called on the devil for help. Others testified that she had 'given herself' to the devil in hope that he would free her from her husband. She was also accused of selling a towel that belonged to someone else and wishing for Dietrich's house to burn down. The records do not go on to tell the outcome of this tangled web of sex, devil worship and selling of towels. You do start get the sense that a lot of these trials were started simply over mundane quarrels and tensions among neighbors. It doesn't even seem like any of the individuals involved were coerced into testifying. All it did was feed the hysteria that the devil was in Stienthal and other villagers could be entrapped. 

Summis desiderantes affectibus (Latin: "Desiring with supreme ardor") was a papal bull  issued by Pope Innocent VIII on December 5, 1484.
The bull recognized the existence of witches. It gave full papal approval fir the Inquisition to proceed, "correcting, punishing and chastising" such persons "according to their deserts." 

There were no accusations of especially heinous crimes or serious incidents. Those don't come until a few years later. One of the charges that were a bit more serious occurred somewhere between 1620 and 1621. Georgette, the wife of Jehan Le Neuf, bourgeois of Rote (Rothau) was accused of sorcery. Apparently she gave testimony 'freely'; whether she feared torture is she did not confess was unclear. By this point in time it is assumed that she knows how these things typically go and has absorbed all the standard elements of the witch stereotype. She really got into the role. Her story goes as follows; it was twelve years after she had moved to Rothau when she was out gathering wood in the forest. The devil appeared to her in the form of a man with horned feet and hands. She had sex with him because she was poor and he offered her coin. When she had returned home the money had turned into horse dung. 

The Obscene Kiss, and Illustration of witches kissing the Devil's anus from
Francesco Maria Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum (1608)

By now it is widely known throughout the area, it says so right in any witch hunters manual, that once a person has had intercourse with the devil or demons, the pact with the devil is at once sealed. The person is now a witch and can not ordinarily break free from her relationship with her master and lover. For Georgette no saintly intercessor came to her rescue to extinguish the flames of the fiery affair. Instead, the devil returns to her for sex several times, once in the form of a gentleman. It should be noted that she may have  been interjecting some of her personal fantasies into the story because demons rarely appear to anyone as 'gentlemen'. As her relationship with the devil continues she made a promise to him not to invoke the name of God or attend church. The devil pinches her on her forehead leaving a permanent mark, and this was her mark of status as his servant. She must have had some permanent mark on her forehead because this impressed the judges convincing them she was telling the truth. In return for her promises the devil made one in return. He promised not to forsake her for her entire life. Her master's name was Piercin. 

Piercin first gave her small tasks to do such as on several occasions she was to keep the sacramental church wafer in her mouth and not eat it. She was to deliver the wafers to Joly. Joly was a demon that Georgette was assigned to. Also her lover. She says she was transported to a sabbat held on the lands of 'Count Rhingraffe', presumably the elector of Palestine. All who attended the Sabbat ate black flesh  and black rice 'cooked and boiled with black milk'. After dinner they danced to the tone of a horn and everyone fornicated. They then prepared a 'venomous grease' and each took some away, she in a black bottle which was supplied by Piercin. This grease she used to apparently kill a neighbors pig and then again to kill some bulls 12 years later. Then she killed the man that owned the bulls. Eight years later she used the same material to poison five piglets but cured one for some reason with a different type of grease. Another four years went by and she blinded a girl with the grease. (If you are counting this makes about 24 years since she first meets the devil.)

Her confession if it wasn't bad enough continues to grow and get worse. She enters a little house belonging to Philipe Mareschal, with Piercin, and removes an infant that had not yet been baptized. It is well known that all witches and their mentors take unbaptized babies, split them into four pieces eating one, mixing the rest with 'spiders and venomous beasts' to make a deadly grease. They also disinterred buried infants, even a baptized one, for this purpose. Georgette even confessed to committing a crime such as that as well, giving the excavation year and the name of a child. 

After the talk of murder and digging up babies, Georgette's confession abruptly ends. There is no more about her. You would think there was no way she escaped execution. Other confessions that occurred from there on in the Ban were all seemingly very ordinary. Claulin le grump of Neuville was a male witch that had a female demon lover and killed animals. He was not tortured but executed. Sometimes the witches of the area would fly to sabots, sometimes they rode on animals like a black dog or male goat. One witch was said to have flown on a pitchfork. They ate cat and horse flesh. The demon intercourse was often described as 'front to back' and was cold, 'like ice'. The names Piercin and Joly occur several times in the records for decades. Everyone who committed any crime said the devil made them do it and if they didn't carry out his orders they would be beaten.

Albrecht Dürer circa 1500: Witch Riding Backwards On A Goat

Looking back at the cases and examining them as a whole one could clearly see that there was no rhyme or reason to have fabricated the trials other than to say, "I caught a witch". The trials were going on all around them and the hysteria must have creeped in. A panic set in upon the villagers and it made them eager to bag themselves a witch and to eliminate them. Im sure fear, greed, jealousy and vengeance came into play as well. What better way to get back at someone who slept with your wife them to accuse them of being a witch? In all cases of the witch trials in the area none accomplished anything positive. It furthered the oppressive system and hatred of women. That is about it. 

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