1476: Hans Bohm, the Drummer of Niklashausen

1 comment July 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1476, a peasant preacher who nearly stirred a revolution was consigned to the flames in Wurzburg.

Hans Behem (or similar variations on that surname, e.g. Bohm or Boheim) is known to posterity as the Drummer of Niklashausen, for when he descended into that Tauber River town for Carnival he performed with this instrument.

His vocation — his peasant’s lot in life — was sheep-herding.

One frigid Lent night in 1476, a year when the protracted winter freeze promised gaunt months ahead for the peasantry, Hans was wrapped in his heavy cloak watching his flock when he had an unexpected visitor:

Book CoverThe Virgin Mary appeared to him.

Richard Wunderli’s very appealing Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen situates this queer episode in the foreign world of the early modern peasantry, when the supernatural suffused everyday life and the seasons of the year elapsed in “ritualized joy, laughter, deprivation, and seriousness.”

Carnival, just ended, was “liminal time”: time for inversion of natural orders, time for foolishness, time for liberation. If the rite confined and discharged potential social pressures, “liminal time” also held a latent threat to the ordered world of lords and bishops. What happened if sublime religious revelation burst the calendar’s boundaries and flooded ordinary time with the liminal?

[The Virgin] told him that both God and her Son were angry with mankind and were chastising all peoples with the dreadful cold and snow. People were consumed by their vanities, she said, and did not worship the Heavenly Family as was their due … Hans was ordered to go to the portal of the village church of Niklashausen, the Frauen kirche, the church dedicated to the Virgin, and there publicly he was to burn his drum and his shepherd’s pipe. Then he was to preach in Niklashausen, and the Mother of God would instruct him what to say. (Wunderli)

Thanks to this vision, 1476 would be a year out of time.

Hans apparently knew a Beghard mystic who dwelled in the hills where he pastured sheep. In the fullness of time, this anonymous man would die with the drummer; the precise nature of their association is a matter for speculation, though some would later charge (the better to derogate the illiterate boy’s supposed divine revelation) that the Beghard orchestrated the whole thing.

Nevertheless, the proximity to the Drummer of Niklashausen of an adherent of the suppressed Beghard movement underscores the link between Hans’s subsequent preaching and the centuries-old tradition of radical poverty. Elites long viewed these movements as seditious, and why not? Poverty was the material lot of most people just as it had been for Christ himself, but it was self-evidently not the lot of Christ’s vicars, who in fashionable attire bought with forced tithes and the sale of get-out-of-purgatory indulgences breezed obnoxiously past the everyday tolls and levies that crushed their flocks. Arrogant, predatory lords made out even better than that.

Sacralized poverty ever sat next door to levelling — next door to revolution.

The German abbot Johann Trithemius would complain of the “rustic, ignorant people [who] gathered together daily in Niklashausen,” and their terrifying-to-him vision “that peasants would become free and the clergy placed in servitude.”

What could peasants find more agreeable than that they had been freed from all payments of rents and tenant services, and that thereafter they would hold everything in common with the clergy and princes? Truly, what could a layman find more desirable than that he should see the clergy and priests immediately stripped of all privileges and liberties, and denied their collection of tithes, rents, and the proceeds of the holy altar?

Madness … or divinest sense.

Hans Behem preaching from a window, with his sinister adviser at his side. Detail (click for the full image) of a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle illustration. (via Wikipedia)

Hans, of course, obeyed the Virgin’s charge to him.

Just after Easter, he publicly burned his drum — his own little vanity — and began preaching in Niklashausen.

Maybe the words came from the Beghard, or from the alleged mendicant friar who was rumored to whisper to Hans. Maybe the young man had a natural gift for oratory and a few lucky breaks.

But to tens of thousands of German peasants who soon began arriving, he was a holy youth, the vessel for heaven. Hans’s prayers lifted the interminable frost, sparing at least some portion of the year’s crop. Peasants from all around the region caught wind of the supernatural event and began up and disappearing from their places without notice or excuse, leaving work half-done to join troops of their fellows making pilgrims’ tracks to Niklashausen.

There, they too were summoned to cast aside all their own vanities as well,* and into the flames went stylish clothes, sinful dice and cards.

“They cut the long points off their shoes,” wrote a disdainful chronicler Georg Widman. “And trimmed their hair, and it seemed as though a dozen carts would not suffice to haul away the hair and shoes being discarded that day, to say nothing of embroidered kerchiefs, robes, doublets.”

The drummer’s preaching veered apocalyptic. Medieval people would have believed of a course that God’s pleasure or disfavor went abroad in the world; the awful winter (only the latest in a series) and, for peasants, a generation of deteriorating material conditions and multiplying taxes, would have stood witness to the Lord’s dissatisfaction. The miracles attributed to Hans — healing the lame, the blind, and the mute; even raising a drowned child from the dead — were of a piece with his words, with the bonfires, with the favor of the Virgin Mary.

Hans’s call to renewal was not a summons to save individual souls but a charge to right the evils in the world that had laid divine afflictions upon all: “If they do not forthwith mend their lives, the whole world will be made to suffer affliction for their sins.” (Source)

The Emperor is a miscreant, and the Pope a nonentity. It is the Emperor who gives to princes, counts, and knights authority to tax and burden the common people. Alas! for you, poor devils!” Spies in the crowds, no doubt paraphrasing prejudicially, captured for the alarmed archbishop and lords the dangerous sentiments being preached in Niklashausen to crowds swollen into the tens of thousands who might not easily be controlled.

Princes, civil and ecclesiastical, ought to possess no more than common folk, and then all would have plenty. The time would come when princes and nobles would have to labour for a day’s wage. The fish in the water, and the game upon the land, ought to be common. Tolls, road-money, servitudes, rents, taxes, and tithes to spiritual or temporal superiors were to be wholly done away with.

Most frightful of all was the open threat to slay worthless priests, that soon clerics would cover their head with their hand for fear of being caught out with a tonsure. Hans Behem’s crowds rejoiced at the prospect; a clergyman would write later that summer of the pilgrims’ “hateful song”: “O God in Heaven, on you we call / Help us seize our priests and kill them all.”**

On the night of July 12, 1476 — the eve before the Drummer was to preach a sermon for which he had asked his followers to arrive armed — 34 mounted knights burst into the farmhouse where he was staying and hustled the firebrand into custody before anyone could resist.

The movement was beheaded and it fractured quickly: after a day of confusion, some of them set off on a march to nearby Wurzburg, where the Drummer languished in the Archbishop’s fortress, a position that the rabble was in no position to take by main force. Many gave up the enterprise, but dozens, maybe a hundred or more, were captured and filled Wurzburg’s dungeons to overflowing.

Almost all were ultimately released. Only three were put to trial: Hans himself, the mysterious Beghard, and a peasant who had risen up after Hans’s arrest to incite the crowd to kill the Wurzburg clergy. Hans was tortured by the rope, hoisted into the air by his pinioned hands then dropped with all the weight of his body tearing at his shoulders. They did this to him over and over, until he said that he was a fraud, that Mary never came to him, that he never worked a miracle, that the “wandering, cunning mendicant friar contrived everything.”

Hans was burnt flesh either way: this is the fate of martyrs. It was essential that he also be discredited, though the effect was scarcely immediate.

Certainly, there were those who with imprudent faith believed that his whole affair originated in heaven … they hoped that God would preserve him from being killed; or if God allowed him to die, then He would take immediate vengeance on the courts that condemned the Youth.

Others, who were more sane, among whom were the bishop and his clergy, did not fear the vengeance of God for the death of this wicked man; rather, they earnestly, sensibly, and rationally feared that spiteful, evil spirits — who take delight in possessing superstitious people — would scheme some plot of guile and deceit at the execution. For they judged that little Hans was not a man of God but was possessed by the devil.

At last the judgment of death to little Hans was to be carried out … After he had been led to a level piece of ground, which is behind my monastery near the house of the lepers, he was seated and bound with ropes. Nearly all the citizens of the town stood by armed, waiting for him to be delivered to the fires. In the meantime, two evildoers who were with him received a sentence to have their heads cut off.

After they were beheaded, little Hans asked the magistrate: “Are you going to hurt me?” The magistrate replied: “No, but someone has prepared a bath for you” — for the Youth had not yet seen the pile of wood for the fire, or if he had seen it, he perhaps did not know what it was.


From the Nuremberg Chronicle

When he was tied to the stake for burning, however, he sang certain songs or verses in a high voice about Our Lady, which he had composed in the German language. Among the bystanders were many who believed that the man could not be burned because of the merit of his holiness, by which they thought he would be preserved by the Mother of God. Hence, they were afraid to stand near him. They were terrified that perhaps the fire would be scattered about by divine fury and would consume those observing the execution. Others feared that the Youth could not be burned because of the protection of demons or of some other sorcery. Therefore, the executioner — who also feared this — caused all the Youth’s hairs to be shaved, so that no evil spirit or demon would be able to hide in them.

Bound to the post, the Youth shouted his songs. But as soon as the fire was set below him and he felt the flames, he cried out three times with a weeping voice: “Ow, ow, ow.” He was then engulfed by the flames. His voice uttered nothing again. Consumed by the voracious fire, he was reduced to ashes. No miracles happened, nothing that demonstrated that Innocence had been consumed by fire. Nevertheless, so that the frivolous devotion and fear of stupid people not fashion him into a martyr, the executioner ordered that all his ashes be thrown into the river. After this was done, the gathering of the people at Niklashausen came to an end.

The “gathering” did not quite blow away with the Drummer’s ashes, not just like that.

Despite edicts from nearby cities against the practice, pilgrims continued journeying to Niklashausen over the following months: not with the number and character sufficient to threaten revolution, but more than enough to make the authorities jumpy. The Archbishop was so desperate to quash these pilgrimages that in 1477 he had the church at Niklashausen razed.

In those years and long after, chroniclers as one scorned the Drummer and his flock; Sebastian Brant’s 1494 satire Ship of Fools also singles out des sackpfeifers von Nickelshusen (the bagpiper of Niklashausen) and those who followed him.† Hans’s people, illiterate commoners, don’t have a voice in the histories.

The grievances were never really answered. It was not until 1518 that authorities finally deemed it safe enough to rebuild the Niklashausen church … but even then, Germany had not heard the last of peasant revolution.

* Bonfires of the vanities were all the rage

** Wunderli notes the movement’s apparent indifference to Jews, despite its falling in the immediate wake of one of Europe’s most inflammatory blood libel cases. These peasants were not assembled for a pogrom; it was their Christian oppressors whom they hated.

† See the German version Das Narrenschiff, under “verachtung der gschrift”, “contempt of scripture”.

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1567: Wilhelm von Grumbach, Landfrieden-breaker

Add comment April 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1567, Wilhelm von Grumbach was dismembered along with two of his followers in the marketplace of Gotha.

Grumbach (English Wikipedia entry | German) was the cantankerous German instigator of the aptly-named Grumbachsche Handel, a messy clash of rights and prerogatives at the hinge of the old feudal order and centralized princely authority.

Grumbach was a knight who’s invariably described as an “adventurer”. As a young man he fought in the Peasants War, but as he headed into middle age he became your basic penniless minor nobleman chafing at the failures and obstructed opportunities life threw at him.

The thing he could not abide losing was the disappearing right of the nobility to enter into a feud or vendetta. This scans to the modern like rank anarchy, but feuds were part of the tapestry of medieval German society, long codified in law — an obvious descendant of clan and tribal obligations out of which the muddle of feudal vassalage had formed. “The passion for liberty and rights,” says this volume, “ran amok in Germany. Churchmen, princes, burghers, and peasants all wanted their independence and readily resorted to declarations of feud to secure and defend their rights.”

The standing right for miscellaneous minor lords to start miscellaneous private wars was quite naturally one that princes were ever keen to restrict. After centuries of two-steps-forward, one-step-back efforts to deal with the feud, the 1495 Imperial Diet formally codified a ban on feuding known as the Ewiger Landfriede, or “perpetual peace”. In Poli Sci 101 terms, this is the state finally monopolizing legitimate violence.

As with dueling, however, official proscription did not end the practice. It was, indeed, Grumbach’s defeat and execution that would eventually be remembered as the decisive nail in the coffin for knightly feuds.

And so in Franconia where we lay our scene will civil blood make civil hands unclean …

Grumbach’s liege was Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt, the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg. (Still another confusing dimension of the political map, some princes of Germany’s many statelets were simultaneously ecclesiastical authorities. For purposes of this post, the “-Bishop” part doesn’t enter into it.)

Knights’ basic problem — the reason they were vulnerable to losing their wacky old-time rights — was poverty, and it was in money that Grumbach’s feud was rooted. Grumbach’s personal twist on this was being the sort of irascible coot who could carry a grudge so far as to get himself sawed into pieces over it.

Immediately upon assuming the Prince-Bishopric in 1544, Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt forced Grumbach to return an unauthorized cash gift his predecessor had paid to the knight, and then stiffed said knight out of six villages whose revenues Grumbach sought by way of compensation.

He had to deal with Grumbach’s feud for the remainder of his term, which was also the remainder of his life … right up until Grumbach murdered him.

The disaffected knight hooked up with the margrave* Albert Alcibiades and started making a right mess in the middle of Europe with a 1552-54 mini-war. When Albert got thumped, Grumbach had to evacuate to France, and his holdings outside Wurzburg were plundered and/or destroyed by his foes.

So now the guy was even more aggrieved, and even more pfennigless.

He was downright vengeful about his feud at this point, although it’s noteworthy relative to that monopolization-of-violence trend that he was still the only one: in days of yore, intra-elite wars might have spawned multiple self-reproducing vendettas.

The grumpy Grumbach now gravitated to another patron,** the deposed elector of Saxony Johann Friedrich II — another dude who felt hard done by in the Holy Roman Empire.

Grumbach evened his score with Melchior von Zobel by having the Prince-Bishop killed in Wurzburg in April 1558. (In present-day Wurzburg, three Zobelsaulen markers commemorate the Prince-Bishop’s assassination, one on the very spot of the murder.)

But that still left the money, and we know Grumbach wasn’t the type to write off a debt. In 1563, he successfully invaded Wurzburg with 1,300 soldiers and at swordpoint forced from the city a concession restoring his property.

For Grumbach, it was to prove a Pyrrhic victory.

In principle, he had achieved a great vindication of the ancient right of the feud, and for the hard-pressed nobility against the realms’ many princes. If others of his station had rallied to that banner, what a whirlwind Germany would have reaped.

According to Hillay Zmora’s State and Nobility in Early Modern Germany: The Knightly Feud in Franconia, 1440-1567, however, Grumbach’s fellow-knights looked into this particular abyss and said “nein, danke.”

Grumbach was in fact hatching an extravagant scheme† to liberate the entire German nobility … from the yoke of the princes. It was a radical aristocratic utopia … nobles were not only to be protected by the [Holy Roman] emperor from the princes, but to help him subdue them once and for all and to establish an hereditary monarchy in Germany. But despite Grumbach’s best efforts to incite the Franconian nobility, they did not line up behind him. Guidied by the captain of the Franconian Circle (Kreis), Georg Ludwig von Seinsheim, who denounced Grumbach’s undertaking as ‘against God, law and the emperor’, they formally turned away from him in 1564. In the view of the majority of them, the Knighthood was to maintain its autonomy by respecting the equilibrium between emperor and princes, not by irresponsibly challenging the latter. And it was this view, reassuringly transmitted to the princes, which carried the day.

Grumbach was outlawed by the empire and in 1566-67 was overcome with his protector Johann Friedrich at Gotha. Both men spent he remainder of their lives as imperial prisoners, with the notable difference that Johann Friedrich had the pull to live out his natural ration of days while Grumbach went straight to the dungeon for torture and thence to the scaffold in the town that had lately been his last redoubt. There, Grumbach was ripped apart — his dying eyes beheld the executioner wrench the heart out of his very chest and taunt him: “Behold, Grumbach, thy false heart!” The late knight’s rotting quartered remains got nailed up around town to broadcast the unmistakable message:

The noble right to feud was dead.

* Hereditary military commander.

** Among their other capers, Grumbach and his patron Johann Friedrich conspired with Torben Oxe‘s nephew Peder Oxe to depose the Danish king Frederick II in favor of the king’s grand-niece, Christina. (Christina will be known to Tudor-philes as the young woman who scuttled Henry VIII’s post-Anne Boleyn suit with the sharp remark, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”) Nothing came of the plot. (Source)

† Christian Wieland writes that Grumbach deployed — unsuccessfully but still impressively — a 16th century multimedia propaganda campaign to state his case to the “common nobleman”: woodblock-illustrated printed leaflets, songs valorizing the attack on Wurzburg (sample verse: “Violence may be averted by violence / According to natural law”).

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1629: Anna Gurren, in the Mergentheimer Hexenprozess

Add comment January 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1629, the German city of Mergentheim burned its late mayor’s widow for witchcraft.

Anna’s remains: the inventory of the late sorceress’s estate taken by its new owner, the city of Mergentheim.

Witch-hunting was a growth industry for Thirty Years’ War-torn Germany in the late 1620s.

Not long before, a Mergentheim Teutonic knight had been petitioned for help extracting a schoolboy from Wurzburg, where the absentee father feared he was running with a devilish crowd. Once the authorities heard that witchy stuff, all the inhuman gears came to life.

Instead of returning the tyke to his concerned dad, Wurzburg arrested the boy, strongarmed him into admitting his Satanic ties, and burned him at the stake. Nine years old.

That was Wurzburg. But back where the allegation originated, writes H.C. Erik Midelfort, “the discovery in Mergentheim that children might be guilty of witchcraft was to have serious consequences.”

Like a fresh plague outbreak, a witch persecution broke out in Mergentheim and neighboring Markelsheim, with some schoolchildren hounded by inquisitors within a few weeks of their compatriot’s execution over in Wurzburg. From there, it became epidemic all over town. By October 1628, the first witches were shrouded in flames for their neighbors’ edification. Over the course of 1629, the peak year for the Mergentheimer Hexenprozess, 91 humans were put to death as Satanic wizards — not counting those who were tortured to death.

Nor was this strictly confined to the weakest prey, your outcasts and servants.

Our victim today was big game, a wealthy city elite, and she wasn’t the only such. These must have made some kind of hedgerow gossip, but the general hysteria of the place made it dangerous to sustain any public controversy even about the downfall of the recently well-connected.

Midelfort, again, on the very relatable circumstance of a prosperous innkeeper who was a little too incensed for his own good at seeing Anna Gurren die.

Thomas Schreiber had a strong sense of justice. When the trials in Mergentheim had run only two months, he had already lost faith in the judicial procedure. On December 1, 1628 when Martha, wife of Burgermeister Hans Georg Braun, was executed, Schreiber was heard by many persons exclaiming that she had been done a gross injusice. Schreiber even let slip that “King Nero” had also conducted such bloodbaths. Six weeks later Schreiber was again appalled when the extremely wealthy widow of Lorenz Gurren was convicted of witchcraft and executed on January 12, 1629. When attending the execution of the lady, he had the temerity to express amazement over her confesion. The Amtmann Max Waltzen turned to him and said pointedly, “Ha, ha, those who know the devil should not be so amazed.” That kind of talk perturbed Schreiber, and when magistrates began avoiding him, he prepared to flee. During this time he repeatedly denounced the court for its unjust trials and declared that “if anything happens to me, let every pious Christian fear for himself.” He also prayed that “God might preserve everyone from Neuenhaus [the jail and torture chamber], for even the most pious if put in there would be found to be a witch.” The trials, he insisted, were bloodbaths, and the magistrates were out to “wash their hands in my blood.”

Schreiber fled town on February 1, having heard that people had started denouncing him. But he didn’t make it long.

He, too, was dead by the end of May — as a confessed (just like he predicted) witch.

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1749: Maria Renata Singer, theological football

5 comments 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.


Witnesses reported seeing a vulture appear when the body was burned.

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.

That same year of 1749, Girolamo Tartarotti‘s influential Congresso notturno delle lammie skewered witchcraft jurisprudence.

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.”

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1628: Johan Bernhard Reichardt, a nine-year-old witch

2 comments May 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1628, a prepubescent boy went to the stake at Würzburg, the victim of a witch-hunting spasm amid the confusion of the Thirty Years’ War.

Here is the story as related by Midelfort’s Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684:

Bernhard Reichardt, a magistrate and wealthy man of Markelsheim, had tried to give his young son, Johan Bernhard, a decent education by sending him to school at Neuen Münster in Würzburg. In December of 1627, however, the father became convinced that his son had been seduced into witchcraft there, and transferred Johan Bernhard to the Jesuit school at Dettelbach. By mid-March 1628 the authorities in Würzburg were aware that this nine-year-old boy had been involved in witchcraft and wrote politely to the Teutonic Order in Mergentheim to ask for assistance in extraditing the child to Würzburg for questioning. Johann Caspar, Administrator of the Teutonic Order, responded at once that the boy was to be delivered up formally to the authorities at the border. By the end of March he was under the jurisdiction of the Würzburg authorities. Far from merely questioning him, the Würzburg court got Johan Bernhard to sign a confession on April 8 that he had been seduced into witchcraft by a classmate. Among other horrors, he had denied God, Mary, and all the saints and angels. With his own blood he had written “Ich, Johannes Bernhardus Reichard, hab mich dem Teüfel vergeben.” He had flown to numerous dances and, although only nine years old, had had intercourse with the devil on numerous occasions. Like adults, Johan Bernhard always found the devil “hard as horn” and “of a cold nature.” Implicating his complices, the boy noted that he had seen three other persons known to him at the dances.

One month later, on May 9, 1628, the authorities at Würzburg burned Johan Bernhard Reichardt and four others. Johann Caspar in Mergentheim heard of the execution only after it had occurred, but agreed fully that it had been justified.

Little Johan was far from the only child prosecuted as a witch in Europe, and many very young children number among the casualties of the Würzburg witch trials. With Catholic and Protestant armies romping back and forth over German principalities, it was a ripe moment for feeling the presence of existential threats to the civilization … and for trying children as adults.

Midelfort, again:

[A] “New Treatise on the Seduced Child-Witches” thundered against the rapid increase in childhood witchcraft. The author asserted that the first reason for such conditions was the sins of the parents, for whom witch-children were a fitting punishment. But more important, such witchcraft was due to the sins of the children themselves. One should not think that they were innocent merely because they were young. Their cursing, coveting, and immoral words and games were proof enough that these children had fallen into mortal sin.

And why, after all, shouldn’t children be witches? Everybody else was. The chancellor of Würzburg’s Catholic Prince-Bishop wrote a comrade in the summer of 1629:

As to the affair of the witches, which Your Grace thinks brought to an end before this, it has started up afresh, and no words can do justice to it. Ah, the woe and the misery of it — there are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex, nay, even clerics, so strongly accused that they may be arrested at any hour … a third part of the city is surely involved … there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen.

In the version of this story preserved in Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, desperate public demonic incantations repeated by “witches” who were either persuaded of their own guilt or hopeless of any source of aid save the infernal were absorbed by youngsters’ timeless instinct for that which is forbidden by their elders, further feeding the frenzy:

Many an unhappy urchin, who in a youthful frolic had repeated it, paid for his folly the penalty of his life. Three, whose ages varied from ten to fifteen, were burned alive at Wurzburg for no other offence. Of course every other boy in the city became still more convinced of the power of the charm. One boy confessed that he would willingly have sold himself to the devil, if he could have raised him, for a good dinner and cakes every day of his life, and a pony to ride upon. This luxurious youngster, instead of being horsewhipped for his folly, was hanged and burned.

However locally and temporarily overwhelming this current, it was never without resistance — everyday people willing to complain that charges were absurd, judges inclined to skepticism. An onset of acquittals was known to presage the end of a witch-hunting spasm.

A particular voice left to us is Friedrich von Spee, a Jesuit theologian whose tract Cautio CriminalisPrecautions for Prosecutors — accepted the existence of witches but argued forcefully against the legal apparatus of accusation and torture. To Spee’s mind, not two in fifty burned witches were truly in league with the devil, and his book quickly became influential to both Catholic and Protestant audiences. It remains in print down to the present day

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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