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A Visit with Thomas Robisheaux

robisheaux-photo-11-2008My second installment in all things witches this week is a question and answer session Thomas Robisheaux, Professor of History from Duke University.  While the Blue Devils couldn’t count on their basketball team to lead them to glory during March Madness this year, they have much to be excited about in Professor Robisheaux.  He wrote The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Villiage, which I will be reviewing here tomorrow.  It is an interesting look at the witch trial of Anna Schmieg, a miller’s wife accused of witchcraft after a local woman suddenly dies after eating one of her Shrove Tuesday cakes.  After reading his book I was interested in so many different thingg that I found it hard to narrow down my questions to a reasonable amount.  Tom was very gracious in answering them all.  I hope that you enjoy our visit as much as I did.

Literate Housewife: Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and the readers of The Literate Housewife Review about your book, The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village.

You are a History professor at Duke (sorry about their March Madness loss).  What is your concentration?  What are your favorite courses to teach?

Thomas Robisheaux: Long ago I became fascinated with the Middle Ages, the era of the Renaissance and Reformation, the time of Europe’s religious wars right up to the Enlightenment.   The questions that stirred me as an undergraduate student—what was it like to live in a period of discovery, new states, and religious strife?—have never left me.  It was only natural that as an historian that I would specialize in the “early modern era” of Europe’s past, the centuries between 1400 and 1800.   My favorite course?   There’s no doubt about it: it’s my “Magic, Religion and Science since the Renaissance.”   When I first started work on The Last Witch of Langenburg I realized that magic, witchcraft, religion, and science came up in the story in complicated ways I had not foreseen.   Teaching this course became my way of exploring the intriguing ways that these ways of knowing the world overlapped with each other.   Students seem to share my curiosity and since then the course has become a very popular one at Duke.   The course also asks the questions that students often have about science, religion and magic but which frequently go unanswered.  I teach it every spring.

LH: Before I readThe Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman, I had no exposure to European witch trials.  I enjoyed your book because it provided an in depth look at the role of government and other outside forces to these people’s lives.  What was your inspiration for writing The Last Witch of Langenburg?  Have you always been interested in witch trials?

Neuenstein Castle

Neuenstein Castle

TR: The inspiration for this book: understanding Anna Schmieg, the woman at the center of this last witch panic in her region, and her life story.  When I first came across her trial records in the castle archives in Neuenstein, Germany, I was astonished.   At the time I was looking for something else.   I never set out to research and write about witchcraft.  I thought that historians had written enough about it and that there was little new to say.   I also avoided the topic for a long time because my mentor at the University of Virginia, Erik Midilfort, had written brilliantly on the subject, opening up this difficult topic for many other historians to write about,, and I never imagined that I would have anything of interest to say about it.    When parts of Anna’s story began to leap off the pages of the trial records, however, I simply could not let it go.  Who was this fierce woman?  What was her life story?  How did her cakes spark a terror that swept through the countryside?   I was hooked.  I had to find out as much as I could about her, her family, her neighbors, and how she came to be the center of such a crisis at the end of her life.

LH; How long did it take you to write this book?  What did you find the most difficult to write about?  The easiest?

TR: It took over 15 years.   Reconstructing the lives of villagers from the seventeenth century is difficult.  There were no established accounts of Anna Schmieg’s story or the Langenburg witch trials to work with.  There are no biographies, no diaries, no letters.  To reconstruct the story—and the lives of all of the people who were drawn into it—I had to work through many separate series of archival records, hundreds of documents, thousands of separate entries in protocols, account books, government and church records.   There were trips to specialized libraries and still other archives in Germany.  The project was like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces strewn across the table.   Piecing them together was time-consuming, extremely pain-staking work.  As an historian I could not solve difficult problems in the narrative.   In this regard I envy novelists who can solve them with their imaginations.   As an historian I have to be scrupulously loyal to historical method.   You cannot make things up.   The easiest part of writing this book was dedicating it to my wife, Angelique.  She is a medievalist, knows six modern languages (plus several ancient ones) and therefore has an extraordinary sense for language and the meanings and uses of words.   She offered countless insights into Anna Schmieg and many other characters.  When I took a big gamble and set aside a more conventional approach to the project, and imagined telling the story in a new way, she supported me every step of the way.

LH: While reading your book, I was struck by how relatively calm the government was.  Although the townspeople may have been more hysterical, the government followed its processes to ensure a fair outcome.  Was this a relatively new phenomenon at the time of Anna Schmeig’s trial?  Do you think that the people would have taken justice into their own hands if this happened closer to the end of the Thirty Year’s War?

TR: The government was indeed calm, deliberate, and methodical.   The prince and his ministers all knew from their own experience what chaos and terror was about.   They knew the price of giving in to panic.  And they also knew that the only thing that stood between their world and unimaginable disorder and reckless persecution was the state and the law.  Our modern stereotypes of witch trials as panics driven by fearful persecutors make it difficult to grasp this fact about the authorities who faced the terror of witchcraft.   Their cautiously deliberative approach to the evidence was not new.   Most trials in Europe were small, individual trials that never triggered larger panics or hunts.    In fact, a great many accusations—perhaps up to half of them—failed and the accused were let go.   The really terrifying chain-reaction witch hunts took place around 1590 and then again in the late 1620s, but those were exceptional.   In some of the earlier witch hunts  around Trier, the Moselle and the Rhine Rivers, when the authorities proved reluctant to pursue suspicions of witchcraft, small communities had organized their own witch committees.  By the middle of the seventeenth century the authorities were very reluctant to give in to such pressures.   The chaos at the end of the Thirty Years War also made this kind of rough popular justice unlikely.

LH: Langenburg was a Lutheran town. How different was the Lutheran approach to dealing with witchcraft and prosecuting witches different than a Catholic approach?  Did you come across any references to the Malleus Maleficarum during your research?

langenburgTR: Protestants and Catholics approached witchcraft in much the same way: as a heresy and a heinous crime.   Theologians and jurists and popular writers debated the reality of witchcraft and there were skeptics on all sides.   The debates generally cut across lines other than the religious ones.   For example, some questioned the reality of witchcraft.    Everyone knew that Satan worked in the world, and that sinners could be lured into pacts with him.   But some wondered whether witches might be deluded into thinking that they could work the harmful magic they were accused of.   Others thought that witnesses and the faithful could easily be deceived as well.   How well can you trust your senses after all?   Many others worried that it was difficult to detect secret or occult crimes, and that the law was a crude and even doubtful way of ferreting out evil malefactors.   The one difference that historians have noted between Protestants and Catholics is that some Catholic bishops—those of Trier, Cologne, Würzburg and Bamberg—presided over unusually large and fierce witch hunts.   But Catholic Bavaria, Italy and Spain prosecuted relatively few people for witchcraft overall..   The Malleus malificarum—the notorious legal manual on prosecuting the crime of witchcraft—was sometimes cited in sixteenth century trials.   By the seventeenth century—when the Langeng burg trials took place—it was rarely cited any longer.   There were more modern, more comprehensive, more recent works that were influential, like those of Jean Bodin, Bendedict Carpzov, Nicolaus Remy and others.

LH: Although we often use the term “witch hunt” today, we no longer have witch trials.  Do you think this is because science is advanced enough to explain things otherwise attributed to witchcraft or because people themselves have changed?  Do you think economics plays a role?

TR: It’s true that witch trials declined and ended in the eighteenth century.   It was largely the elites who abandoned witch ideas, such as the biblical basis for prosecuting witches or the theological idea of witchcraft as a pact with the devil.  Others found more persuasive explanations of poisoning in medical theories of how toxins worked in strictly material ways within the body.   In parts of rural Europe the fear of witches continued well into the twentieth century, however.   As late as 1944 Britain invoked its witchcraft laws to prosecute “Hellish Nell,” a Scottish seer, out of fear that she might use her powers as a spirit medium to reveal the Allies’ secret plans for invading Europe.  We may no longer have witch trials like those in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but here and there we still endure small panics triggered by social dynamics and fears very much like a witch trial.  Back in the 1980s and 1990s—in both America and Great Britain—a wave of panics over alleged Satanic ritual abuse of children struck a number of small communities and suburbs.   These panics fed on parents’ anxieties over daycare, fears of organized underground rings of Satan worshippers, and waves of concern over sexual abuse.

LH: Based upon Anna Schmeig’s relationships with her daughter and her neighbors, I got the feeling that no one, especially not a woman, was safe from being accused of witchcraft.  Of all the evidence against Anna Schmeig, what do you think was the most damning?  Would it have gotten to this level had Anna not been the miller’s wife?

TR: We historians who work on witchcraft are now struck by how pervasive witch beliefs were, how easily adapted they were to many circumstances.   The amazing thing is how few trials actually took place.  The potential existed for many, many more.    You’re right about women and the fears of witchcraft: under the right circumstances the suspicion of witchcraft could settle on many women: older women beyond their reproductive years, women known for an independent streak or who stood out for their behavior, etc.    The most damning evidence against Anna Schmieg in the end—the evidence that clinched her conviction in the last appellate review in Strasbourg—was that she was a “barbarous, wicked old woman” who had “renounced the kingdom of God” and shocked the community with her drinking, cursing and immoral behavior.    To these jurists such a woman was the most dangerous enemy of the civic order they could imagine.

Did your research point to what might have really happened to Anna Fessler?

TR: This may surprise and shock some of your readers, but I believe that Anna Schmieg actually did poison her neighbor, Anna Fessler.   Most likely she laced her Shrove cakes with arsenic powder.    The descriptions of Fessler’s death accord almost exactly with acute arsenic poisoning.    It is very unlikely—in my view—that she died a natural death from complications of following pregnancy and childbirth or some other cause.  But I don’t think that Anna Schmieg intended her poisoned cake for Anna Fessler.   Instead I believe she meant it for her son-in-law, the one who had brought such grief and crisis to the future of Anna’s family.   Had he eaten the cake and died I doubt that there would have been an uproar.   In fact, the authorities may not have conducted an investigation at all.   Villagers understood that some men were simply “no good” or “of no use”—and Anna Schmieg’s son-in-law certainly fit the bill—and a woman might understandably resort to extreme methods to protect their family and household.

LH: Have you read many novels about witch trials?  If so, what might you recommend to my readers?

TR: I really recommend Kathleen Kent’s new novel, The Heretic’s Daughter: A Novel.   What makes it so compelling is her extraordinary ability to work her way into the life of a woman touched by the Salem witch trials.   There are others that I find well worth reading, too, including Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem and Leslie Wilson’s Malefice.   I also found the older novel of Mary Webb, Precious Bane, a realistic depiction of how suspicions of witchcraft settled on a woman.   There is also a six-part BBC production of it.

LH: What is your next project?  Can you give us a little sneak peak?

TR: I have two other projects in the works.  Your readers are likely to be more interested in the one called Magic, Religion and Science since the Renaissance, a historian’s view on the ways that these three great ways of knowing the world and nature have related to each other since the Renaissance.   We have a lively contemporary debate about science and religion, of course, but my view is that a “third person” also sits at this table, one whom we acknowledge only reluctantly, but who is equally engaged in the debate: the person who relies on “magic” to think about and live in the world.   My other project is meant for historians.  Colleagues who read The Last Witch of Langenburg often ask me: how did you do it?   This is a book about the historical technique behind The Last Witch: microhistory.

LH: Thank you so much for your time and bringing the lives of those living in Langenburg, Germany circa 1672 to life for us.


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5 Comments

  • At 2009.04.07 04:09, Meghan said:

    Wow, this is really a fantastic interview! I have this book on my TBR immediately pile and now it might just be next.

    Meghan’s last blog post..Review: Mr. Impossible, Loretta Chase

    • At 2009.04.07 10:25, Kathy said:

      Great interview, Jennifer. Your enthusiasm for the subject matter really came through in your questions. Since he recommended The Heretic’s Daughter, I think I need to try to get to it soon.

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      • At 2009.04.07 18:16, Jen - Devourer of Books said:

        I have this on hold at the library right now, but I have the hold frozen until I have a little more time. Based on this awesome interview I may have to go ahead and unfreeze the hold and just figure out how to work this in. I REALLY wish I could take the “Magic, Science, and Reason Since the Renaissance” course. Any chance we can get the course reading list?

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        • […] For more information about Thomas Robisheaux and The Last Witch of Langenburg, be sure to check out my interview with the author. […]

          • At 2009.04.08 15:23, Erika Mailman said:

            Great interview, Jennifer! I cannot wait to read this book!

            Erika Mailman’s last blog post..Giveaway!

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