Monday, June 15, 2009
Book rec, as promised
I was browsing through Rock Point Books in Chattanooga a few weeks ago, and came across The Last Witch of Langenburg by Thomas Robisheaux, a historian at Duke University. The jacket blurb made great claims: "...Robisheaux brings one of the last European witch panics to life, unraveling the complex set of motivations, beliefs, and fears that lay behind this accusation. The texture of day-to-day life and the terror that the witch trial engendered are fully rendered in novelistic detail."
Promises, promises. Over the years I have slogged through a lot of books churned out by academics and then marketed to general readers. They're usually awful. Sometimes they're just drivel dressed up with footnotes and a nice bibliography. More often, they contain some interesting material but destroy their intellectual allure with bad prose and/or a clumsy narrative. (Another book on witch trials, Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare, is a classic example of this "smart book, badly written" phenomenon.) The Last Witch of Langenburg is not awful. In fact, it's one of the best examples of popular history I've read in a long time.
The book tells the story of Anna Schmieg, a miller's wife in the German village of Langenburg in 1672, who finds herself accused of witchcraft and murder. The narrative is pretty standard witch hysteria fare: middle-aged, mouthy woman is disliked by her community; an accusation is made; torture and execution follow. What sets this book apart from others of the genre is Robisheaux's nuanced understanding of the dynamics of 17th century village life, and his insight into the complex interplay of religion, law, and budding science that marked the period. Robisheaux is a fine writer, with a straightforward, readable style. Though his account of events is meticulously sourced, his empathy for Anna gives many scenes the emotional punch of fiction. He provides the reader with poignant glimpses into the crumbling psyche of a woman who has been isolated and tormented:
"Anna's belief that this confessional rite could heal her broken life--going back to her childhood--explains why painful memories came tumbling out of her at times. Remembering her mother's death and going to her uncle's house for help, Anna said 'she did not stay long with him because he had so many children and she misbehaved so badly.' Without prodding, she then recounted other sad details of her childhood, and her own guilt, so common among children, that she bore moral responsibility for it all."
Robisheaux doesn't linger over the physical horrors inflicted on Anna, but his portrait of her character is so engaging that her ultimate fate is shocking, though completely predictable. She was just one of many victims of the witch hunts of her day, a fact that makes The Last Witch of Langenburg a tale of tragedy much larger than the destruction of one unlucky woman.
(I said I'd have a few words about this book, and now I've blathered on for hundreds of words. Sorry about that. The review of Valentino: The Last Emperor will have to wait until tomorrow. It's a tragedy, too, in its way--but more fun, with prettier people.)
Punishments for Witches, an illustration for Laienspiegel, 1509.