Book of the Week: The Last Witch of Lagenburg

By Holly Tucker

We're certainly on a Witch Kick imagine my delight when I came across this new title by Thomas Robisheaux, a professor at Duke.

The Last Witch of Lagenburg: Murder in a German Village hit the stores last week and has already met with rave reviews.

Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic's Daughter and recent guest here at Wonders & Marvels, offers up this glowing assessment:

“A fascinating study of an accused witch, combining detailed historical research with the timeless and tragic story of an outspoken woman brought to a horrific end through superstitious dread. Professor Robisheaux brings the pacing and emotional pitch of a novel to an impressive recounting of trial documentation.”

Booklist gave it thumbs up (or should that be brooms up?) with praise that would make any historian blush:

"By 1672, Count Heinrich Friedrich of Langenburg had restored order and prosperity to his southwest German domain, which had been ravaged by the Thirty Years’ War. But a threat arose when a healthy young mother died suddenly, and suspicions fell on Anna Schmieg, a miller’s wife. Capitalizing on the meticulous record of Schmieg’s case, historian Robisheaux not only re-creates who Anna Schmieg was but also explores the confluence of social, legal, and religious streams that put her life in jeopardy. In literary terms, Robisheaux writes a courtroom drama that will hook readers and secure their attention until the last page....With an incisive ability to view matters through the participants’ eyes, Robisheaux vividly brings this historical incident to life."

Take one historian, mix up a good tale from the 17th century, throw in a witch, a little murder, a court case, and a writerly spell or two...and you have our Book of the Week pick.

Image: "The Stone Operation, or the Witch of Malleghem"
After Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-1569) by Pieter van der Heyden (circa 1530 - after 1569). Courtesy of Christie's.

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They Weren't Green, But Were the Giants Jolly?

By Holly Tucker

On January 21 1742, the minutes of the English Royal Society reported that:

"Daniel Cajanus a Finlander about thirty two years of age was brought into the Society as a Sight and an instance of one of a gigantic Size of human body.

He stood by one of the Pillars [at Crane Court] & his Height was marked, which measured seven feet four inches and a quarter, and the heels of his shoes were about an inch....The Man said his father was 6 1/2 feet in height, and his Mother six feet three inches and that he was brother to one of the name name shew'd for a sight in London some years ago. His servant affirmed that his usual mean was about 4 1/2 pound of meat.

But as some of the Society were of opinion that this Man was the very same person with the other formerly shown in London; there being a great resemblance in their Feature, tho' this seemed more proportionally made: the Revd. Dr. Pearce, who happen'd to be one of the tallest Gentlemen in the meeting, said he had some reason to think otherwise. For that he had observed he could not reach higher than the other man's forehead, yet he could reach about an inch above the forehead of this man."

This all leaves me to wonder the average height of NBA basketball players. And what a marvel they would be for these early members of the Royal Society!

And, apparently, WE can marvel at Cajanus's skeletal remains from the waist down at Leiden University's Museum of Anatomy and Embryology in Holland--where the bones are said to be on display...

Image: portrait of giant and dwarf, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (German, late 17th Century)

References: John H. Appleby, "Human Curiosities and the Royal Society, 1688-1751" Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 50 (1996): 13-27

Another favorite resource for marvels:
Lorraine Daston & Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750 (New York: Zone, 1998).

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But She Doesn't Look Like a Witch!

For those of you interested in having a peek at Maria Gaetana Agnesi, the woman for whom the mathematical formula "Witch of Agnesi" was named: here you go.

And for more on witches more generally, here are a few of our favorite posts:

Why Call It A Witch?

Witches and Midwives

Midwives and Witches, oh My!

Image from the book Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities by Ian Stewart. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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Why Call It a Witch?

Witch of Agnesi

Guest Post by Ian Stewart

Maria Agnesi was born in 1718 and died in 1799. She was the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant, Pietro Agnesi (often wrongly said to have been a professor of mathematics at Bologna), and the eldest of his 21 children. Maria was precocious, and published an essay advocating higher education for women when she was nine years old. The essay was actually written by one of her tutors, but she translated it into Latin and delivered it from memory to an academic gathering in the garden of the family home. Her father also arranged for her to debate philosophy in the presence of prominent scholars and public figures. She disliked making a public spectacle of herself and asked her father for permission to become a nun. When she refused, she extracted an agreement that she could attend church whenever she wishes, wear simple clothing, and be spared from all public events and entertainments.

From that time on, she focused on religion and mathematics. She wrote a book on differential calculus, printed privated around 1740. In 1748 she published her most famous work, Instituzioni Analitiche ad Uso Della Gioventu Italiana (Analytical Institutions for the Use of the Youth of Italy). In 1750 Pope Benedict XIV invited her to become professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna, and she was officially confirmed in the role, but she never actually attended the university because this would not have been in keeping with her humble lifestyle. As a result, some sources say she was a professor and others say she wasn't. Was she, or wasn't she? Yes.

There is a famous curve, called the "witch of Agnesi"....The curve looks remarkably unlike a witch--it isn't even pointy.

From the book Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities by Ian Stewart. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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Book of the Week: Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities

By Holly Tucker

I make before you now an earnest confession: I am a not a math genius.

Thanks to graduate training, I feel pretty darn confident when it comes to historical research and critical theory. But math, well, let's just say that I'd never be able to play the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting.

For those more numbers-minded than I am, the history of early mathematics is actually very fascinating: Pascal, Fermat, and a host of others chased after math's greatest secrets.

Long ago, we profiled Kevin Devlin's The Unfinished Game here on Wonders and Marvels. (And I just noticed that I made the same confession about being math illiterate on that post too.)

Up this week is Ian Stewart's Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities.

With the good help of Professor Stewart, I'll be offering up a few examples of why math can be so interesting to historically minded folks.

Extra points for the person who can name the guy in the picture above. It starts with A. He's known as the Father of Mathematics. Christian Huygens' father compared his son to this legend of 287-212 BCE. Anyone?

Give up? Archimedes.

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Early Surgery & Cautery: Or How to Boil a Puppy

By Holly Tucker

How did early surgeons control bleeding? Many of you can guess the answer. For as horrific as it sounds, cautery with hot metal instruments and boiling oil were the methods of choice in the 16th and 17th centuries.

What is less well-known, however, is that the practice was thoroughly critiqued by Ambroise Pare, one of the most prominent French surgeons of the early-modern period.

In his First Discourse Upon Wounds Made by Gunshot (published in English in 1617), Pare experimented with salves as a way to avoid causing his patients the intense pain that comes--understandably--with pouring boiling oil on open wounds.

"I observed the method of the other Chirgurians in the first dressing of [gunshot] wounds, which was by the application and infusion of the Olye as hot as they could suffer it...:wherefore I became embolded to do as they did. But in the end, my oyle fayled me, so that I was constrained to use in steede thereof, a digestive made of the yolke of an Egge, Oyle of Roses and Terebinth. The night following, I could hardly sleepe at mine ease, fearing lest that for want of cauterizing, I should find my Patients on whom I had not used the aforesayed Oyle, dead and impoysoned; which made mee to rise earely in the morning to visit them: where beyond my expectation, I found those on whom I had used the disgestive medicine, to feele but little paine, and their wounds without inflammation or tumor, having resting well all that night.

The rest, on whom the aforesaide Oyle was applyed, I found them inclining to Feavers, with great pain, tumor, and inflammation about their Woundes: then I resolved with myselfe never to burn so cruelly the wounded Patients by Gunshot anymore."

Pare continued to pursue his studies on post-surgical balms. Not long after, he went to Paris and met with the King's surgeon. This high ranking surgeon gave Pare the "receipt" for his own balm. And, I should add here my history of medicine students cry out in protest when I remind them that "whelps" mean puppies...


"He sent me to fetch him two young whelpes, one pound of earth-wormes, two pounds of the oyle of Lillies, six ounces of the Terebinth of Venice, and one ounce of Aqua-vitae: and in my presence he boiled the whelpes alive in the saide Oyle, until the flesh departed from the bones. Afterward, he tooke the wormes (having before killed and purified them in white wine, to purge themselves of the earth which they have always in their bodies) being so prepared, he boyled them also in the said Oyle till they became dry, this he strained through a Napkin, without any great expressions, that done, he added thereto the Terebinth, and lastly, the Aqua-vitae, and called God to witnesse, that this was his Balme which is used in all wounds made by Gunshot."

I'll stick with neosporin, bactine, and my favorite hand lotion...Thanks.

Image: Ambroise Pare, De la methode curative des playes, et fractures de la teste humaine (1651). Wellcome Library, London

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By Holly Tucker

The seventeenth-century poet John Donne is perhaps best known for his extraordinary poem "Death Be Not Proud."

To my mind, however, the most remarkable poem by Donne is "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." The first stanza moves me, always, into a sublime place each time I read it. The imagery, the alchemy, the rhythm: All conspire to draw me into an emotional space, an emotional journey of grieving, that I never want to take but one that the poet seduces me into taking.

As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"The breath goes now," and some say, "No:"

I teach a course in our Medicine, Health, and Society program on "Medicine and Literature." We spend the semester in this course teasing apart sentences and stories. We find meaning and conflict where, at first glance, there seems to be none. We focus on what the conflicts in literature tell us about medicine and health, health and the body, the body and the mind, life and death.

As an academic, it is easy enough to be lulled into the idea that the intellect can protect you from pain, protect you from the overwhelming emotions that come with your passport as a member of humanity.

And as a professor, it is easy enough to teach students big words and complicated critical processes to probe into the human experience. The side effect, however, can be that both you and your students are more out of touch with life (and death) than you were when you started.

So this is where John Donne comes in. In particular, where Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning play "Wit" comes in.

"Wit" is the heart-wrenching story of a successful and dedicated professor of seventeenth-century English. She has spent her life studying John Donne--every comma, every punctuation mark, every hidden meaning possible. As knowledgeable as she is about Donne's death poems and about the philosophical and psychological complexities of death, the professor is perfectly incapable of wrapping her mind around her own imminent death.

Dr. Vivian Bearing has been diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. We watch her from diagnosis to her poem's end. During this journey, she meets a former student: now her doctor. She becomes the object of study. And she must find meaning in her own life, her career, and her inevitable death.

Emma Thompson does a magnificent job in the film version of the play. Students view it in small groups together, at the end of the semester. It is so hard to watch, even more difficult to talk about.

I've watched it so many times for my classes. But each time I get chills and tears flow. It hits too close to home, I think. I am not only a professor, I'm a seventeenth-century studies specialist. Just like Professor Bearing.

The play is a cautionary tale about the importance of learning--but the dangers of using that learning to distance ourselves from others. It is also a cautionary tale about what we must be sure never to lose when we throw ourselves so fully into a field, a career, or some other goal. "Death, thou shalt die."

But there is so much goodness, so much laughter, so much friendship to experience before that happens. And, there friends, is why on any given day you'll me head-first gleefully exploring the most esoteric of historical documents--and then just a few hours later, playing Connect Four just as gleefully at the kitchen table. If I can help my students discover their own balance between the love of the mind and the love of living, then I have certainly done my job well.


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An Extraordinary Love Story

Guest Post by Mary Novik

My novel Conceit, which is set in 17th-century London, is about the family of the poet John Donne. In writing it, I drew mainly on primary sources. I was happiest when I found eye-witnesses, for instance Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, who wrote about the Great Fire of 1666 in their diaries, which I consulted for the prologue. As well as the fishing manual The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton, a minor character in my novel, wrote the first biography of John Donne, which was full of half-truths and editorializing.

Donne's own works were invaluable, for instance the sermon he preached just before he died, "Death's Duel". During an earlier illness, he wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, in which he penned his most famous words, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . . never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." This book was a great source of information about spiritual belief and 17th-century medical practice, such as putting dead pigeons on the patient's feet to "draw the vapors from the head".

By far the most useful source for Conceit was Donne's love poetry. We don't know the chronology, or which women he wrote them to, but we like to think that the most sincere love poems were written to Ann More, who became his wife. Ann, and her daughter Pegge, are known to history only through church records (births, marriages, deaths) and letters written by male relatives, but piecing the poems together into a chronological story gave me insight into John and Ann's extraordinary love--the fictional narrative that is at the heart of Conceit.

Mary Novik's novel Conceit won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was chosen by AbeBooks as on of the "top ten hottest new Canadian books of 2008". She is now writing a novel set in 14th-century Avignon. Her website is

(1) Latham, Robert and William Matthews, eds. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 12 volumes. London: HarperCollins, 1995.

(2) Bray, William, ed. The Diary of John Evelyn. 2 volumes. London: J.M. Dent, 1907.

(3) Donne, John. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel. New York: Vintage, 1999. This volume also includes "The Life of Dr John Donne" by Izaak Walton.

(4) Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A.J. Smith. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1971.

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Madame du Coudray

by Allyn Bures (Vanderbilt University)

Angelique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray, midwife to the nation of France, holds a substantial position in the history of early modern medicine. Mme du Coudray is most famous for her revolutionary midwifery teaching techniques, including an incredibly detailed textbook and lifelike machines utilized to simulate childbirth (1).

As a practicing midwife in 18th century Paris, Mme du Coudray violated the majority of standards demanded of midwives; she had no children of her own, was not married (though possibly widowed), and believed in the organization of midwives (2).

In 1751, Mme du Coudray traveled to Auvergne, where birth survival rates were incredibly low, and was exposed to the horrors of untrained peasant midwifery. She dedicated herself to improving midwifery practices in rural France, designing child-bearing machines constructed from leather, dyed fabric, padding, and real pelvic bones, wicker, or wood to replicate deliveries (3, 4). Later models included sponges that released dyed liquids representing blood and amniotic fluid at proper moments (3).

In 1759, the same year that Mme du Coudray released the first edition of her midwifery manual Abrege de L'art des Accouchements, King Louis XV appointed her to spearhead a nationwide public health campaign educating female students and male surgeons in rural provinces (5). This campaign, the first of its kind, would counteract the low birth survival rates throughout the country and rebuild the soldier population that had been depleted in the Seven Years' War.

Mme du Coudray's teaching initiative was a huge success, lasting 30 years and educating an approximated 400,000 peasant women; in addition, a number of male surgeons taught her technique to later students. By the end of her career in the 1780s, approximately 2/3 of practicing French midwives used her techniques; success rates were reflected in the increased numbers of successful births that appeared in the 1780 and 1790 censuses (5, 6). Before her 1794 death, she ensured that her legacy was lasting by providing for her "niece" Marguerite Guillaumanche and her surgeon husband Coutanceau to continue teaching the du Coudray technique at France's first maternity hospital (5).

Image: "The Machine." Madame du Coudray's Machines. Musees en Haute Normandie.
(1) Gelbart, Nina. "The Monarchy's Midwife who Left No Memoirs." French Historical Studies (19) 1996: 997-1023.

(2) Cody, Lisa. "Sex, Civility, and the Self: du Coudray, d'Eon, and Eighteenth Century Conceptions of Gendered, National, and Psychological Identity." French Historical Studies (24) 2001: 379-407.

(3) Riskin, Jessica. "Eighteenth Century Wetware." Representations (83) 2003: 97-125.

(4) Stanley, Autumn. Mother and Daughters of Invention. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1995.

(5) Marland, Hilary, ed. The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives on Europe. London: Routledge, 1993.

(6) Gelbart, Nina. The King's Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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Vocabularies of Inquisition

Guest Post by Jonathan Kirsch

For those of us who bristle at the word "waterboarding" and its dismissal as nothing more than a "harsh interrogation technique," the Obama administration took an encouraging first step toward candor in American policy by frankly calling it by its rightful name: torture. And, in fact, Eric Holder, Obama's nominee for Attorney General, took another step by attributing water torture to one of its earliest users, the Inquisition.

The fact is that the Inquisition casts a long shadow over world history, and both the language and the tools of the first friar-inquisitors are still in use. When we speak of giving someone "the third degree," for example, we are recalling the five degrees of torture by which the Inquisition formally measured out the violence to its victims. The first degree of torture, by the way, consisted of showing the victim the instruments of torture; the inquisitors understood that their best weapon was terror, and often it was enough to extract a confession without bothering to heat up the irons. And "putting his feet to the fire," too, is a verbal artifact of the Inquisition--the victim would be seated in front of a fire, grease would be slathered on the soles of the feet, and he (or she) would be brought closer or farther away from the flames, depending on how much pain the inquisitor wanted to inflict.

The problem with torture, as we learn from the transcripts of torture sessions that the Inquisition itself made and kept, is that the suffering victim will say whatever he or she thinks the torturer wants to hear just to stop the pain. "Senores," begged one pathetic victim of the Spanish Inquisition, "why will you not tell me what I have to say?" For the Inquisition, which put its first victims to torture in the early 13th century and did not stop for another six hundred years, it hardly mattered because the inquisitors were perfectly willing to burn wholly innocent men and women as heretics if they could not find someone who actually practiced a forbidden faith. Indeed, many of the so-called heresies that it persecuted only existed in the dirty minds of the friar-inquisitors themselves.

For the American democracy, however, the use of torture is not only a moral and diplomatic catastrophe, but also an intelligence blunder. "Harsh interrogation techniques" may inflict terrible pain on the victim, to be sure, but they do not reliably produce actionable intelligence. So we are left with both a false confession and a bad odor. In the war for hearts and minds in which were are engaged, that's one inquisitorial relic that we should shun.

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of twelve books, including, most recently, The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God.

Image: courtesy of author

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Book of the Week: The Grand Inquisitioner's Manual

Congratulations go out to Judy P. who has won a copy of Justin Marozzi's The Way of Herodotus, last week's book of the week.

Up this week: a somber look at inquisition and torture. Only the most uplifting posts here, friends!

To enter the drawing for Jonathan Kirsch's The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God, just click on the book cover TO YOUR LEFT.

The Grand Inquisitor's Manual explores the often overlooked methods of torture used during the Catholic Inquisition and how these methods were used in an ever-broadening circle of reconnaissance efforts during the early-modern period. On Thursday, Jonathan will be offering up some thoughts on the connection between the early history of terror and core debates regarding torture in the present day. It's intense stuff, but richly interesting.

For those of you who need a dose of horror before then, I recommend Kris Waldherr's piece on the "Art of Dying" which includes some wondering about why decapitated heads blush when slapped.

OR, you might head over to the Tate and take a peek at one of the most famous series on the darker side of humanity: Hogarth's Four Stages of Cruelty. Even the 18th century understood that violence pays itself forward. Cruel children become cruel adults, who make cruel children who become cruel adults...

Or if this is all just too intense for you, perhaps some fun potato marvels or chocolatey wonders will shake the harsh world away...

Image: William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty: The First Stage of Cruelty (1751). Courtesy of the Tate Britain.

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