Murder in a 17th Century German Village

By Tom Robisheaux, Ph.D. (History, Duke University)

From start to finish The Last Witch of Langenburg is high drama full of surprises. Where the pictures we have of most women accused of witchcraft give us only sketchy views of their lives The Last Witch of Langenburg offers a rich picture of a woman and family whose struggles became the pivot of one of the last small witch panics in Europe. The story reveals the terror of witchcraft as the offer of a gift triggered a panic that quickly spread throughout the village and out to the surrounding area.

The tale of Anna Elisabeth Schmieg—the last woman prosecuted for witchcraft in this region of the German lands—does not offer comfortable clich├ęs about witchcraft and witch trials, however. The story unfolds from the vantage point of all of those touched by the events: village women, farmers and workers, surgeons, physicians, petty government officials, the territory’s chief minister, a prince struggling to return the land to order after a long war, as well as prominent university jurists and physicians drawn into the drama. Here witchcraft is shown to mean many things to many different people. Along the way we learn how seemingly disconnected things—Shrove cakes, medical autopsies, poison, mandrake roots, legal reform, torture, secrets between a mother and daughter, and the threat of a distant war—all come together to reveal a cosmic drama of good against evil. This is a story of what it was like to experience witchcraft.

[To read reviews of Tom Robisheaux's latest, click here. By the way, the image above depicts an early-modern imagination of a Witches Sabbath. Look carefully and you'll be able to find the demonic bat-like figure that the publisher used for the book! HT]

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