German Witchcraft

German Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

More than a hundred times as many witches were executed in Germany as were in England. Whereas England did not torture nor burn witches, Germany did both. Rossell Hope Robbins emphasizes the severity of the witchcraft persecutions in Germany by listing typical atrocities. In Wolfenbüttel in 1590, there were so many stakes erected for burning witches that the site looked like a small woods. In 1631, outside the walls of many towns and villages near Cologne stood numerous stakes with women bound to them and burned. At Neisse in 1651, the executioner built an oven and in one year roasted to death 42 women and girls, including children two to four years of age (witchcraft was believed passed on from mother to child or even from godmother to child). Over a period of nine years, this same executioner roasted over a thousand people.

The witchcraft scare actually was late arriving in Germany, as trials did not start until well into the sixteenth century. In southern France and elsewhere, trials occurred since the fifteenth century. However, Germany quickly made up for lost time through sheer brutality and ferocity. What really brought witchcraft—or the suspicion of it—to Germany was the Council of Trent in 1563, when the Jesuits set out to save Germany from Protestantism. The use of torture was prescribed by the law of the Holy Roman Empire, to which the states belonged. Through hundreds of laws and thousands of sermons, recognition that witchcraft was real was forced on the people. Just as the Dominican inquisitors had brought the idea of witchcraft into Europe in the preceding two centuries, so did the Jesuits establish its presence in Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Julio Caro Baroja says that although the Canon Episcopi continued to be quoted by some theologians of the sixteenth century, and they still looked upon Diana as the patron goddess of witchcraft, most books and trials of the period regarded the Devil as the prime leader of witches.

Godelman (Tractatus de magis, veneficis et lamiis, Frankfurt, 1601), a prolific author on the subject of witchcraft in Germany, said, "It is widely believed that all German witches are carried, on the night of the first of May, in the shortest time imaginable, to the mountain called Blocksberg and Heinberg, in the Brusteri region, having first anointed themselves. . . . They spend the whole night in feasting and jollity, dancing with their lovers." Blocksberg is the old name of the highest peak in the Harz mountains in Saxony (now East Germany); on many maps it is called Brocken. The First of May is the old festival of Beltane, or Walpurgisnacht in Germany, and it is a known date for witches' sabbats. Brocken is the scene of the sabbat in Goethe's Faust, which inspired many artistic renderings of the gathering, particularly by painters of the Flemish and German schools. In fact, in the middle of the eighteenth century cartographers showed witches riding broomsticks toward the mountain top when drawing maps of the region.

Confessions in Germany were obtained under torture and generally followed a particular format that had been established over a thousand years before by the Emperors Constantine, Valentine, and Valens. The format had originally been laid down in the fourth century, when used against demon-worshipers. By retaining that format, the records of the trials are repetitive and monotonous.

Robbins points out that no one religion had a monopoly on the hunt for witchcraft. Protestants were just as eager as Catholics to destroy witches. In Protestant Saxony, in just one day in 1589, 133 witches were burned at Quedlinburg. Between 1587 and 1594, twenty-two villages under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Abbey of St. Maximin were eradicated of witches. Two of the villages were completely decimated; just two women were left alive in two others; and 368 witches were burned at the stake in total.

Eric Maple makes a point when he states that the trials and executions became the livelihood of many people, from the judges to the people who provided the wood for the pyres. An industry was born. Costs were borne by the estate of the accused. As Maple says, "Whenever the confiscation of the property of the accused was suspended, the number of executions always declined." Johan Linden, in his History of Treves, says, "Notaries, copyists, and innkeepers grew rich. The executioner rode a blooded horse, like a noble of the court, and went clad in gold and silver; his wife vied with noble dames in the richness of her array. The children of those convicted and punished were sent into exile; their goods were confiscated."

Such was the fury of Germany's persecution of alleged witches that it is perhaps sufficient to examine only one or two areas to reach a full understanding of what took place across the country.

Würzburg and Bamberg were ruled by cousins who were prince-bishops—Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg and Gottfried Georg II Fuchs von Dorheim. Von Dorheim was known as the "Witch Bishop" and ruled the state of Bamberg from 1623 to 1632. During that time he executed 600 people as witches. His predecessor had killed only half that number. Von Dorheim set up a special "Witch's House" (Hexenhaus), where those accused could be interrogated and tortured; the house was presided over by his subordinate, Suffragan Bishop Friedrich Förner. Torture included the use of thumbscrews, leg vices, heavy weights hung from various parts of the body, roasting on a red hot chair, the rack, the Spanish boot, a bath of lime, the wheel, rending flesh with red hot pincers, and much more. All the instruments of torture, as was the custom throughout Germany, were blessed by a priest before use. Trials were extremely speedy. From accusation to death might take no more than three weeks.

Dr. George Haan, vice-chancellor of Bamberg, had difficulty with the entire process and tried to slow the wholesale slaughter. He was immediately labeled a "witch lover" and was himself accused of witchcraft. He was terribly tortured until he named others—eventually all the burgomasters were condemned—then he and his wife and daughter were burned in 1628. By April 1631, the Hexenhaus held twenty-two prisoners. Robbins states that their combined property, which went to line the Bishop's pockets, amounted to 220,000 florins. Another 500,000 florins had previously been collected from those already executed.

Refugees from Bamberg fled to the emperor and inundated him with details and accusations of travesties of justice. Ferdinand II was slow to respond but eventually, after his confessor pointed out the adverse effect of public opinion, he did order some reforms. They were slight, however, and merely slowed the atrocities. In 1630, Bishop Förner died, followed two years later by Von Dorheim, the Witch Bishop himself. Shortly thereafter Germany was invaded by Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, and attention was drawn away from witchcraft.

However, Von Dorheim's cousin, Prince-Bishop Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, was not to be outdone in cruelty. Between 1623 and 1631, he burned 900 witches in Würzburg. In Eberhard David Hauber's Bibliotheca, Acta et Scripta Magica (Lemgo, 1738-1745), there is a list of 29 mass executions that took place on February 16, 1629, with 157 people put to death on just that one day. Men, women, and children were all executed, and thirteen of the children were under the age of twelve. They came from all walks of life, many of them wealthy and, until then, respected. Peasants and clergy were tortured and executed. Burghers, parish priests, schoolboys, old men and women, and young children all suffered. One of the wealthiest citizens was burned, as was a village mayor. A guard who allowed some prisoners to escape was executed, along with a number of strangers to the town. Even Ernest von Ehrenberg, heir to the prince-bishop, was accused and killed.

In 1612, the Jesuits had been invited into Bamberg and they became advisors to the two cousin prince-bishops. Robbins believes they were the ones mainly responsible for starting the hysteria in the two bishoprics.

In the late sixteenth century, the hysteria of the witch persecutions spread from Luxemberg and Loraine into Treves, an electoral state of the Holy Roman Empire. The infamous judge of that area was Nicholas Remy. In 1595 he published his Demonolatreia. On the title page of the book he boasted that he had condemned 900 witches in fifteen years. Five women had been accused and burned in 1572, but it was ten years later that the main persecutions began, which was earlier than in Bamburg and Würzburg. Detailed court records from 1587 to 1594 show as many as 1,500 people denounced, 306 actually taken to trial, and 6,000 names on record within a jurisdiction of twenty villages.

With the succession of Johann von Schönenburg to the See of Treves in 1581, there began a suppression of heretics, first the Protestants, then the Jews, and finally the witches. Bad harvests for nineteen years, with accompanying plagues of pests, were thought to be caused by witches. This stoked the fires of persecution. Dr. Dietrich Flade, vice-governor of Treves and, in 1586, rector of the university, found himself at odds with the wholesale slaughter (much as would George Haan of Bamberg in 1628). As a result, it was not long before Governor Johann Zandt approached the archbishop with false evidence of Flade's attendance at sabbats and had him charged as one of the witches. After much investigation, accusation, and repeated torture, Flade was executed on September 18, 1589, after first being "mercifully and Christianly strangled."

How much credence might be given the confessions is seen in the comments of Father Friedrich von Spee, a confessor to witches in Würzburg. Writing in 1631, he said: "The most robust who have thus suffered have affirmed that no crime can be imagined which they would not at once confess to if it could bring down ever so little relief and they would welcome ten deaths to escape repetition."

As elsewhere in Europe, the professional witch finders earned a good income. In Styria, Jakob Bithner was the witch finder of note. In Lindenheim, it was a man named Geiss. Count Balthasar operated in Voss and Nagogeorgus in Esslingen. But perhaps the most interesting witch finder was a man named Kothman in the town of Lemgo. In early persecutions in that area, Kothman's mother was burned at the stake and he was forced to flee and roam the country in poverty, despite having come from a wealthy family. Some years later, Kothman returned to Lemgo and became friendly with the mayor. On the mayor's death in 1666, Kothman managed to get himself elected as the new mayor. He then set out to gain revenge. With a number of accomplices, he systematically accused all those who had been in high authority and had executed his mother. Kothman remained in office till his death in 1684. In that time he sent ninety people to the stake.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton: Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Citadel, 1972. Trevor-Roper, H. R.: The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Harper, 1969.

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