The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Bailey, Michael D.
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Robisheaux, Thomas
Accession Number: 254405169
Full Text: The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village. By Thomas Robisheaux (New York: Norton, 2009. 427 pp.).

Thomas Robischeaux has written a book valuable on several levels. He tells, in careful detail and vivid prose, the story of Anna Schmieg, a miller's wife in the village of Hurden, near the town of Langenburg, executed as a witch in 1672. Her trial was not part of a major hunt, but rather was a fat more contained legal process. Aside from Schmieg, suspicions and accusations spread to a handful of people, but ultimately only two, Schmieg herself and another woman, Barbara Schleicher, were executed. By focusing on a small-scale "hunt," Robisheaux illustrates many of the typical mechanisms of early modern witch trials, which often became distorted by the extreme pressures of a major panic. With painstaking archival work and a few well-informed hunches he reconstructs the social relations between his small cast of central characters, and he clearly shows how those relationships created the conditions for suspicion and accusation, and then endured tremendous strain once accusations were made. He is also able to demonstrate the skepticism, as well as the credulity, of authorities, and how their tears of social disorder both motivated and restrained their witch-hunting zeal. Not least, he has been able to bring all the twisted strands of his story together into a gripping and at times deeply moving narrative.

It was not Anna herself but her daughter whose actions sparked the fire that ultimately consumed her mother. On Shrove Tuesday, 1672, Eva Kustner brought Shrovetide cakes that Anna had prepared to several neighbors, including Michael Fessler and his wife, also named Anna. No one received Eva or her cakes very warmly. Suspicion hung around her mother, who was loud, combative, and often failed to attend church. People warned each other not to eat the cakes that came from the Schmiegs' mill. Anna Fessler, however, took a bite. By that evening, she was acting strangely. By that night, she was dead.

That Anna Fessler died of poisoning was clear to almost everyone. That the poisoning entailed witchcraft was less so. Robisheaux pursues the mounting suspicions at two levels. At the village level, he focuses on the social networks in and around Hurden that caused suspicion to fall at Anna Schmieg's feet. He explores her own background and personality, the social and economic status of her family, and even the political position of her husband, who had received the grant for the mill from the count of Hohenlohe. He outlines common conceptions of witchcraft, and he recounts previous suspicions and panics that had broken out in the Langenburg region. Anna Schmieg was the sort of woman one could suspect of witchcraft. She was combative and disruptive. Her family, through their possession of the mill and the grant they held from their territorial lord, enjoyed an elite status of a kind, but also they were outsiders. The mill, moreover, was often more of an economic drain than a benefit, and the family struggled and schemed to raise their status and that of their children (mainly by arranging favorable marriages).

At the "town" level, Robisheaux examines how the case circulated among various legal and medical authorities of the count's government. The first official act was an autopsy to determine the nature of Anna Fessler's mysterious death. At all stages of this process, Robisheaux is at pains to demonstrate that the Langenburg officials were not gullible or fearful fools. They employed the latest in medical and legal science, and they consulted leading experts in these fields. Above all, they sought to preserve social (and political) order. This meant they wanted to see malefactors rooted out and justice served, or at least an example of justice that could be shown to their lord's subjects. When suspicion came firmly to rest on Anna Schmieg, for example, they were willing to set aside skeptical advice they received from outside experts and consult instead with others more likely to return the legal opinions they wanted. But they also endeavored to keep concern over witchcraft contained. Once a few malefactors were identified and executed, others were not pursued with such vehemence.

The saddest story in this book is that of Anna Schmieg and her daughter. Since Eva had delivered the bewitched cakes but Anna had baked them, the central question of the whole case was who really perpetrated the poisoning. Mother and daughter did not have a good relationship. Eva had once gotten pregnant out of wedlock, wrecking plans for a socially advantageous marriage. Anna was probably an unbearable parent at the best of times. Yet initially Eva had tried to deflect accusations from her mother - until she realized this was the only way to remove suspicion from herself. Daughter turned on mother, and mother on daughter as Anna came to hurl accusations back at Eva. In the end, however, some motherly instinct prevailed - or perhaps Anna just decided that hers was a lost cause. She finally accepted blame for her supposed crime, and she went to the stake with only a few more sporadic outbursts against her daughter.

We have long known that witch trials were shaped by a dizzying array of legal, social, political, and economic factors. Only through the detailed study of individual cases can we see how these factors combined, as well as how local realities, and even individual personalities, meshed with more abstract legal, theological, and scientific principles. Robisheaux has given us an outstanding and much-needed case study of witchcraft at this level. And he has written a book that is a pleasure to read. My only qualm - and it is slight - is that, while he provides a good deal of background information on witchcraft and the early modern world, in the interests of good storytelling, he does not always indicate clearly where Anna Schmieg's case is typical or extraordinary, in terms of larger historical trends in witch hunting. But maybe this is no fault, either, because his book also starkly reminds us that there really was no such thing as an "ordinary" witchcraft case, after all.

Michael D. Bailey

Iowa State University
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.