June 21st, 2009 Headsman
On this date in 1749, an aged subprioress of the Unterzell nunnery was beheaded and burnt in Wurzburg for witchcraft … and for the principle of witchcraft.
Maria Renata Singer (or Singerin — here’s her German Wikipedia page) had been a reclusive denizen of the convent for half a century.
A dying nun accused her of working black magic, and everything snowballed in the usual way: other nuns got into the act, often in the throes of exorcism. Confinement and interrogation (torture is not recorded) eventually induced her to confess to having been a witch for more than 60 years. (Details of the unfolding procedure here, in German.)
On this morning 260 years ago, her sentence — moderated from burning alive — was carried out: Singer’s head was struck off and mounted on a pole, and her body burned to ashes.
Nothing so remarkable, really, in the annals of witchcraft. Nothing except the date. Witch-burnings in 1749! Voltaire was in his fifties. Thomas Jefferson was alive. Wurzburg itself hadn’t seen witchcraft executions since the madness of the Thirty Years’ War.
But even in the Age of Enlightenment, the benighted world got its licks in. And in this instance, the case of the witch-nun of Bavaria was bulletin-board material in an unfolding public debate over witchcraft.
Scholars and theologians were burdening the mid-18th century printing presses with treatises on the legitimacy of witchcraft persecutions. Singer herself, when first confronted with the accusation, had not simply denied it: she had denied there was any such thing as a witch.
Tartarotti’s work fit into a growing critique naturally animated by the rationalist spirit of the times.
Partly through Singer’s execution, the witchsniffers’ intellectual defenders mounted their last defense.
Jesuit Georg Gaar, who had been Singer’s confessor before death, preached a sermon at her cremation “praising the wise severity of laws against these crimes, and speculating that this might be God’s warning against the men of our time who do not believe in witches, or magic, or the devil, or God. Father Gaar plainly thought himself, and told the people, that they only needed to read the evidence from Unterzell to be persuaded of the justice of the sentence and the truth about witchcraft.”
Tartarotti reprinted this sermon with a critical commentary. But some theologians (and not only Bavarians*) were ready to go to bat for the traditional superstitions.**
According to Brian Copenhaver, writing in the Journal of the History of Philosophy (January, 1979):
The rigorist Dominican Daniele Concina [Italian link -ed] argued that God permits witchcraft “for the greater confirmation of faith,” and he disposed of the skeptical sections of the Canon episcopi as a forger’s work. In a variation on Pangloss’s reasoning about noses and spectacles, Benedetto Bonelli deduced the reality of witchcraft from the existence of laws against witches.
As another critic of Tartarotti fretted, “Does not the denial of the existence of demons open the way and lead directly to the denial of the existence of God?”
Interestingly, Tartarotti accepted the reality of “magic” while denying the existence of witches, ascribing the latter’s survival as folklore to incomplete Christianization. While (see Copenhaver once again) this tack could be read as a tactical choice of moderation on Tartarotti’s part to achieve the pragmatic end of eliminating witchcraft trials, it put him in the crossfire between more rigorously rationalist intellectuals and the likes of Georg Gaar.
This angle of Tartarotti’s, especially given his simultaneous interest in the occult, has led to his work’s subsequent adoption as an antecedent to the still-popular if academically disreputable theory that underground sects of pagan practitioners really did persist in Europe, and were the true targets of witch-hunts like the one that killed Maria Renata Singer.
A lengthy 19th-century treatment of the case is available in German in a public domain Google books entry here.
* 18th century English theologian John Wesley, feeling himself pinned by the Old Testament verses about not-suffering-a-witch-to-live and all that, insisted that “giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible” and “the credit of all history, sacred and profane.”
** Conversely, a German scholar sneered at the backward prejudices of “the common rabble, especially in our beloved Bavaria.”
On this day..
- 1378: Pierre du Tertre and Jacques de Rue, Charles the Bad men - 2016
- 1600: John Rigby, lay martyr - 2015
- 1962: Gottfried Strympe, purported terrorist - 2014
- 1475: Four Jews of Trent - 2013
- 1989: A day in the death penalty around post-Tiananmen China - 2012
- 1924: Not Onisaburo Deguchi or Morihei Ueshiba, Japanese new religion exponents - 2011
- 1734: Marie-Joseph Angélique, for burning Montreal - 2010
- 1621: Bohemia's "Day of Blood" - 2008
Tags: 1740s, 1749, Add new tag, age of enlightenment, benedetto bonelli, daniele concina, girolamo tartarotti, june 21, maria renata singer, maria renata singerin, nuns, unterzell, wrongful confessions, wurzburg