Thu 22 October 2020

Mike Stuchbery returns with his telling short histories – this time of how climate change and panic led to an explosion of persecution, mainly of women.

As the year 1622 dawned, it must have seemed as if the very fabric of the world was unravelling around the prince-bishopric of Bamberg. Following the outbreak of brutal sectarian warfare across the German-speaking lands, the climate began to rapidly change – frost, rains and blights ruining crops and driving those with little already to the brink of starvation. 

Yet what was about to befall over a thousand local souls was much, much worse – and had an all too human root. 

Bamberg Today

Today, the entire Old Town of Bamberg is a World Heritage site, a baroque jewel that stands as a testament to the former power and glory of the Holy Roman Empire. I recently spent a weekend there, marvelling at the ornate Catholic imagery painted and sculpted onto the doorways and eaves of half-timbered houses, and enjoying the local Rauchbier, or ‘Smoked Beer’.

Yet no matter how far you stray within the confines of the Island District or the Domberg, you’re never too far from a site of execution – places where men, women and children were tied to a stake and burned as a result of the most crazed witch panic in European history. 

Fears over the malign activities of witches had existed throughout the late 15th and 16th centuries, across the Holy Roman Empire, largely due to the influence of Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum, or ‘The Hammer of Witches’. Indeed, several local German legal codes had made it a capital offence, and quite a number of men and women had been executed as a result.

It was with the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, however, and a sudden drop in temperatures during what is now known as the Little Ice Age that true horror was to arrive. 

It began slowly, with a few accusations aimed at old women and itinerant travelling folk. They were blamed for the failing harvests, for illnesses and death – easy targets, some might say. These resulted in interrogations, during which they were tortured, as per Bamberg’s legal code. Whether as a result of prompting, or a desire to settle scores, suspects named others, including members of their own families. 

Over the next four years, regular executions took place, either in the Alte Hofhaltung, the cathedral’s courtyard, or open spaces across the city straddling the Pegnitz River. These were recorded in the occasional broadsheet or ballad. 

With the ascent of the new Prince Bishop, Johann Georg Fuchs von Dornheim, an unprecedented period of hysteria began – and one that he was only too happy to fan the flames of. As a zealous prosecutor of the Counter-Reformation, and an opponent of efforts by the city’s prosperous merchants to increase their power, an alleged ‘threat from within’ was all too convenient. It was easy for those who threatened von Dornhim’s grip to suddenly find themselves incarcerated, fearing days of torture. 

During his reign, not only were sermons preached throughout the diocese, warning of the presence of witches but a special prison called the ‘Malefizhaus’, was constructed, purely for the imprisonment of suspects. 

The Malefizhaus

Combined together, this led to an explosion of accusations. The terrifying tales of witches preached each Sunday, along with the hulking presence of the Malefizhaus, that was daubed in Bible verses and apotropaic symbols, inspired many to come forward with their suspicions, or to take the opportunity to condemn an enemy.

By the end of 1628, over 200 trials had taken place, with multiple accused, almost all of those charged having been led to the pyres. Even the city’s mayor, Johannes Junius, had been arrested upon the accusation of another member of the city council and executed – he had least been decapitated by sword before his body was burned. 

Reading the transcripts of the trials, and the lists of victims made, a few things stand out – most of those accused are women, although several high profile men were executed. Social class or status seems not to matter, with high profile victims being targeted as often as the poor and vagrants. Torture was applied in nearly every single case, with those confessing giving remarkably similar accounts.   

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It was only with the arrival of Swedish troops in Bamberg in 1632 that the horror was to end. Those still languishing in jails were set free, while von Dornheim fled, only to die the next year in Austria. The Malefizhaus was torn down, and so too many of the execution sites. Many records of the trials were destroyed, although some of the most important were kept as evidence of the atrocities. 

Never again would such horror and panic fall upon a German city as it did in Bamberg – not at least until the 20th century, that is. We are well aware of the atrocities of our own age, and the lasting scars they have left on our world. Indeed, not far from the Hexenmahnmal, or ‘Witch Memorial’, a Holocaust Memorial stands by the ‘Alte Rathaus’.

Yet the horrors of Bamberg’s witch trials still manage to fill me with a unique dread – probably because the fear and hatred at their heart were so easily manipulated as a tool to grasp and maintain power over a population. The dread also comes with the realisation that it takes but a few moments to see the same sort of control exerted in our modern world. Those at the margins of society are still targeted for scorn and fear-mongering, others within labelled as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors’. 

We still haven’t learned, no matter how many times the fires burn.

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