On Shrove Tuesday, 1672, in Langenburg, Germany, a young woman by the name of Eva Kustner brought a festive cake to her neighbor, Anna Fessler. Anna had recently given birth and as such, was still in delicate health, watched over by two other women constantly. Anna ate one of Eva’s cakes, but the rest were thrown away. Later that night, Anna began having convulsions and died. In the investigation that followed, blame fell on Anna Schmieg, Eva’s mother and the wife of the miller. Anna Schmieg had never been liked by her neighbors but had instead a reputation for alcoholism, nasty language, and cursing. It isn’t a stretch for them to accuse her of witchcraft and poisoning and throw her in prison. In this enlightening work of micro-history, Thomas Robisheaux explores Anna’s trial and sentencing as well as the larger political climate to give us a deeper look at accusations of witchcraft, the uncertain state of Germany after the Thirty Years’ War, and peasant culture in the late seventeenth century.
The broad concept of this book is fascinating. I had no idea that using one event to explore outlying themes was called micro-history but I love it. The trial of Anna Schmieg, as well as those of her daughter, husband, and fellow witches in other communities, was the focal point of this work, but so many interesting ideas are carefully considered. First, we are taught a little about village life. The miller was, naturally, an essential for every village, but was also rarely liked by townspeople. He could withhold grain, charge too much, or beef up his grain with sawdust and no one would ever know. He was also frequently richer than the average peasant. So suspicion falling on the miller’s wife, especially given Anna’s reputation and the coincidence of the cakes, is easily understood.
We also explore the reasons why Anna was found guilty and the potential thought process going through the heads of all the men involved, from the judge to the doctor who examined Anna Fessler’s body to the university authorities who were pulled in to pass judgement. This is all explained very carefully and I never felt lost or confused. Robisheaux explains everything he mentions and I felt that I learned a lot here about legal process, Protestantism and medical theory. It’s fascinating why people who had never seen Anna Fessler’s body decided that she’d died of arsenic poisoning and more still how the constant questions broke both Anna Schmieg and her daughter, horrible as that is, into confessing.
All of this, naturally, is wrapped up in the political struggles of The Holy Roman Empire and particular folk beliefs which caused the townspeople to react as they did. To some extent witchcraft was part of their culture and that made it even easier to single out those whose actions may have seemed entirely ordinary otherwise. With recent devastation behind them and threats on the horizon, people wanted someone to blame. Anna Schmieg was their scapegoat.
Never once does Thomas Robisheaux tell us outright his theory. Instead, he provides us with the evidence and allows us to draw our own conclusions. He doesn’t manipulate the evidence, but lays out the facts in a way that is understandable and interesting. There is no villainizing. Clearly, Anna Schmieg was not a witch, but she may have poisoned the cakes; they may have been intended for someone else, however, and not Anna Fessler. There are theories, but Robisheaux doesn’t force them on his reader. Instead we’re left with the feeling that we’ve learned something and, even better, that we want to learn more.