The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux

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The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux

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Category: True Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An extraordinarily detailed look at a singular case of a German witch trial. It serves as a very readable yet highly authoritative history book that we can recommend for all who might be interested.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: March 2009
Publisher: W W Norton and Co
ISBN: 978-0393065510

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In rural Germany, a long long time ago… A woman passes through the village, handing out good cheer and cakes. One family dismiss the food, and even their dog is seen to avoid it. She visits a second family, and urges Anna, a young new mother, still convalescing as is the norm, to try one of the cakes. Anna does. But the friends by her bedside seem to think this might not be a good idea. They may be correct, as before the night is out she is dead.

This book details the whole case, and everyone even remotely involved, so we can try and get under the skin of what happened, and why and how a death that might have been natural, and might have been an instance of poison, got deemed an instance of witchcraft.

Were this a film the opening title caption might be a bit absurdly over the top. Germany… Hohenlohe region… The village of Huerden… February 20th… Shrove Tuesday… PM… …Except what we learn about here is known to have happened at just that time. This is one instance of how remarkable this case, and this book, is. It's one of the few things it omits to mention, but this must have been a witch trial right on the cusp of recorded court documentation, and contemporary testimony. Surely any earlier, or at any other place, the immense document trail that Robisheaux followed would not have existed?

The work behind this book is extraordinary. He looks at everything you might consider a factor, especially the history of the woman at the centre of the witch-hunt. What turned her from a well known good-for-nothing woman, who is given to wine and to the quarrels, brawls, shocking curses, swearing and blasphemous insults of all kinds that stem from this drunkenness… that the whole village knew about, into an alleged witch? Was it her, or the daughter that distributed the traditional Shrove cakes – on a day that mattered a lot more then, spiritually, than it does today – that could be held most responsible?

The bigger picture is a look at the whole region, from the administrators who carried out the inquisition for the case to the local lord they worked for. Why might this instance of a common local hysterical reaction matter to him? Because since the Thirty Years' War, and agricultural and financial troubles, the Count had converted a lot of his income from crops to cattle, and any woman who might actually be able to successfully curse cows (as was alleged here) was worth noting. Everything possible is tied in.

We get a host of background then here, from the legal and educational background of the lawmen involved to the nature of the careers of the main players. The style of the book means these extra details are not added asides, but are pixels adding up to the full picture, which is as colourful as you could want (and when the autopsy crops up, perhaps too vivid…). Only with some instances does Robisheax go too far in giving us too much detail. This story is set in a tiny region and an age in history he seems to have spent his professorial career studying.

As such we can appreciate the hard work and authority he brings to resurrecting this case for our interest. It is an ever-interesting tale he has stumbled upon, and still full of mystery. Behind all the information about the careers and status of millers, such as the accused's husband, and the legal and medical thinking at the time concerned, stands the nature of the witch-hunt as brought to life as never before. Yes the main subject of the trial was a noted harridan, and not liked by many, and yes throughout the region there had been other instances of witch trials that had led to many deaths, and yes the initial investigations were all measured and detailed surveys of the known information, that did not mention sorcery at all, but things still blew up into a full-on theological hounding of an unfortunate family.

There will be some people who would wish for a more general look at the German witch trials, and the place this example might hold in them. If flaw there is in this book it is the chances not taken to step back and show the bigger picture in context, so we see the case as an instance of many. We should have had a modern eye given to the medical reports, to see if that would agree with the contemporary thinking.

Others will find a lot in the micro-history here, and the efforts in bringing everything to these pages. The details, to repeat, rarely overflow, and instead the book reads very well, and seldom too academically. With a huge section of notes, bibliography and over-detailed index, the student will crave the attention given to the matters at hand, and wish for an extra half a mark on top of my Bookbag rating, while the 340pp of the main core of text left to us general readers are judged quite finely.

It remains a most interesting spot on one page of history, expanded hugely, by a very competent communicator who probably is one among a mere handful who could have crafted a book as complete and informative as this one.

We at the Bookbag must thank Norton for our review copy.

We also enjoy reading about fictional witch trial-based mysteries, and can recommend The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona Maclean.

PS I know in the 17th Century Germany as such didn't exist. The name serves as shorthand in the above.

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