Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book Review: "The Last Witch of Langenburg"

At long last, a microhistory done right! The Last Witch of Langenburg, by Thomas Robisheaux (W.W. Norton, 2009), is the rare book which manages to actually do what microhistories are supposed to do: use an individual case to "illustrate the function of the formal institutions in power and how they handle people’s affairs." In his preface Robisheaux says that he "wanted to use the narrative potential in microhistory to explore the multiple layers of experience and meaning important to understanding witchcraft" (p. 13).

Taking Anna Elisabeth Schmieg, a miller's wife accused of (and executed for) witchcraft in the German village of Hürden in the early 1670s,
as his focal point, Robisheaux uses her richly-documented case to examine a tremendous variety of cultural and societal elements which played a role in the way she was treated by those who handled the accusations against her. Among these: the region's tense political and religious history, the role of millers in local society, local customs and superstitions, the backgrounds of local officials (including the court advisor, ministers, doctors and others), and so forth.

At the very moment when religious, legal and scientific worldviews were shifting in key ways, this case captures those changes to such an extent that it seems almost uncanny. From the court advisor's request for a "second opinion" from the law faculty of a university in another city when the first doesn't give him the answer he wants to the remote diagnosis of arsenic poisoning based solely on a description of the symptoms, Robisheaux manages to capture how these paradigm-shifts played into the Schmieg case in integral ways, shaping how the evidence was handled, how the suspect was treated at trial, and what happened after her execution.

Perhaps even more importantly, Robisheax takes the archival evidence of Schmieg's case and creates from a narrative that reads easily, like a good novel. Even the discourses of legal and scientific arcana are melded nicely into the book's narrative structure, and do not in any way take away from the flow of the story (in fact, I would go so far as to say that they enhance the book tremendously).

One of the best histories of witchcraft I've read, right up there with Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare.