On this day in 1669, the Bavarian city of Augsburg executed 67-year-old Anna Ebeler for bewitching a string of infant children and just-delivered mothers.
Detail view of a pictorial history of the “witch” Anna Ebeler: the panels display her mutilated with tongs as she is led to execution; then, beheaded at the scaffold.
Ebeler plied her client with a refreshing bowl of malmsey and brandy soup (I could go for some myself), and the mother fell into a delirium that was bad enough to kill her but not so bad as to impact her credibility when she accused her lying-in maid of culinary devilry.
Once the accusation was “out there,” every other family on Ebeler’s c.v. whose birth experience was less than satisfactory — and there must have been a few of them, since infant mortality was off the charts in the 17th century — came forward with its own tale of woe.
Ebeler confessed when threatened with torture.
According to Lyndal Roper, who uses this affair as the touchstone event in “Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany” (History Workshop, Autumn 1991) — it was one of “just” 18 scattered witchcraft executions in a relatively forward-thinking burg — witchcraft
beliefs rested on a whole economy of bodily fluids. A post menopausal woman, the old witch was in a sense a dry woman who, instead of feeding others well, diverted nourishment to her own selfish ends. Older widows were believed to have the power to ruin young men sexually, and youths were warned against marrying such women because they were sexually ravenous, and would suck out their seed, weakening them with their insatiable hunger for seminal fluid and contaminating them with their own impurities.
I could go for some of that, too.
At any rate, a lying-in maid like Anna Ebeler — a woman hired by the birth mother for a ritualistic period of several post-natal weeks of maternal sequestration — put herself at risk (quoth Roper) of having projected onto her all the delivered mother’s psychological amibiguity about her condition, all her illicit resentment of her progeny, all her own latent fear of death after childbirth. All the ingredients, in short, of post-partum depression … in supernatural form.
[I]nstead of seeking the source of her ills in post-natal depression, within herself, as we [modern people] would, the mother’s anxieties about the child’s fate and her own ability to nourish it were directed outwards, so that harm to either mother or baby was believed to have been caused by another. Here we might make use of what Melanie Klein says about splitting, which allows intolerable feelings of hostility and malice to be projected onto another, so that the mother recognizes only benevolence in herself, projecting the evil feelings about herself onto the ‘other’ mother. The lying-in-maid was thus destined for the role of the evil mother, because she could be seen to use her feminine power to give oral gratification to do the reverse – to suck the infant dry, poison the mother and her milk and, in the most extreme form of witch fantasies, to kill, dismember and eat the child at the witches’ sabbath.
That dish, we’ll pass on.
Roper makes an interesting and nuanced exploration into the psychic space of witchcraft accusations, usually shaped by female-on-female charges. It’s terrain further developed in her Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany.
One last item from Roper, of specific relevance to the lot who haunt these pages:
There is a further collusive dynamic at work in interrogation, that between witch and torturer. Torture was carried out by the town hangman, who would eventually be responsible for the convicted witch’s execution. Justice in the early modern period was not impersonal: the act of execution involved two individuals who, by the time of execution, were well acquainted with each other. Particularly in witch trials, torture and the long period of time it took for a conviction to be secured gave the executioner a unique knowledge of an individual’s capacity to withstand pain, and of their physiological and spiritual reactions to touch. In a society where nakedness was rare, he knew her body better than anyone else. He washed and shaved the witch, searching all the surfaces of her body for the tell-tale diabolic marks – sometimes hidden ‘in her shame’, her genitals. He bound up her wounds after the torture. On the other hand, he was a dishonourable member of society, excluded from civic intercourse, and forced to intermarry amongst his own kind. His touch might pollute; yet his craft involved him in physically investigating the witch, a woman who if innocent was forbidden him. He advised on the mode of execution, assessing how much pain the witch might stand, a function he could potentially exploit to show mercy or practise cruelty. In consequence, a bond of intense personal dependence on the part of the witch on her persecutor might be established. Euphrosina Endriss was greatly agitated when a visiting executioner from nearby Memmingen inspected her. She pleaded that ‘this man should not execute her, she would rather that Hartman should execute her, for she knew him already’.