What Makes a Witch a Witch? A Brief History of the 17th Century Trials of Lemgo

By Lea Katharina Neikes

Editorial note: Lea Katharina Neikes is studying history and art history (Geschichtswissenschaften/Bild- und Kunstgeschichte) at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. Through her remote internship in the summer/autumn 2021 at the GHI, she has found new impulses for her upcoming bachelor thesis. Currently she is researching the comparison of different burial sites during the Dia de los muertos/All Saints and the construction/ effect of American and German/European cemeteries. Suitable for the Halloween month, she explored a (spooky) piece of her regional history for the href blog.

Two postcards featuring Lemgo’s history as a witch’s nest, 1920s (left) and 1970s (right). Source: Museum Hexenbürgermeisterhaus Lemgo

Have you ever heard of the city of Lemgo? No? Well, this small German town is rather well known among the citizen of North Rhine-Westphalia for its history as a “Witch’s nest” and its gruesome history of witchcraft trials. When I started my studies at the University of Bielefeld, I quickly realized that almost everyone there knew about it, everyone except for me. In fact, with about 200 trial records preserved in the city archives, the city is one of the most substantial memorials of witchcraft trials in Germany. After the 30 Years War (1618-1648), poverty and superstition had precipitated witchcraft hunts in numerous locations. It is estimated that 250 people, about 80 percent of them women, fell victim to the trials in Lemgo. There were at least two waves of persecution. The last one from 1665 to 1681 gained tragic prominence through the so-called “Hexenbürgermeister” (witch mayor) Hermann Cothmann.

Cothmann used the delusion of witchcraft to carry out his personal interests in power and to eliminate his opponents. The last witchcraft trial against Maria Rampendahl, who escaped with her life, also took place during his term of office. In 1681 the confident 36-year-old woman was interrogated for the first time, but was not intimidated by the threat of torture. Even two days later, under torture, she made no confession. Her final sentence was eternal banishment from the city and the country, a sentence that did certainly not sit well with her. Instead of accepting banishment, Maria Rampendahl sued those responsible before the Imperial Chamber Court. The proceedings ended in 1682 with her losing. Still her statements before the main court represent one of the most impressive ego documents in the collection. The trials finally ended in 1715, when the “Black Book”, in which all witchcraft accusations had been collected, was publicly burned on the market square.

Maria-Rampendal-Ehefrau-des-Barbiers-Hermann-Hermensen-1681-1682, Stadtverweisung, Stadtarchiv Lemgo, 01.02.02 A, A 3672

 

But who were the victims and how did they become victims? Of fundamental importance in this context is the question of the relevance of the category “gender” for early modern witchcraft hunts. The condemned and accused were almost exclusively female, predominantly old and often widowed. The categories of gender, age, and marital status were decisive for the labeling of a woman as a witch. One assumption is that calling a woman a witch was related to conflict. In fact, persons who were in a conflicted relationship with the accused were given preference by the council to take the stand.

Against the stereotypical persecution of women speaks the drastically increasing number of “atypical” witches. These include children as well as younger and “honorable” women, but especially Men. Andreas Koch, a priest, spoke out against the witchcraft trials and was therefore executed for being a “witch”.

Another peculiarity of the accusations in Lemgo is the symbolism used exclusively for men. For example, the brewer Olieschleger, who abused his wife, sexually assaulted his maids and offended the moral sensibilities of his neighbors, was not on trial as a witch but as a werewolf!

Schmähbrief gegen David Welman als Werwolf, 1642 (Stadtarchiv Lemgo A 4694)

This examples can only be deciphered by asking in what ways gender discourse and witchcraft discourse intertwine. From the perspective of the townspeople his wife, otherwise see as vulnerable to Satan’s wiles and dependent on male leadership, appeared as an example of Christian virtue while her husband was out of control. Besides the witch trials, there also existed so-called werewolf trials. In general, the accused persons were exclusively men.

“Witches” were said to use, primarily, harmful spells. These were based on the stereotypical image of insidious and devious femininity. “Werewolves”, on the other hand, were said to have done animal like damage. And thus embodied a strongly masculine conception. The fact that a man could still be accused of being a witch was based on behavior, not interpreted as emphatically masculine, but as witchy-feminine.

Mitschriften von zwei Geständnissen oder Besagungen? (Stadtarchiv Lemgo A 10879)

Nevertheless, the files are questionable as they are part, product and medium of one or more discourses on witchcraft. As a result, it is primarily what “made sense” in this context that has been handed down. Another problem is that the respective men „in power“ determined the socioeconomic status of women. During the witchcraft hunts, social structures could put women at a disadvantage when it came to building a “lobby” to help fend off the attack on their reputation. Women were also more likely to become outsiders.

The above shows how strongly the meaning and interpretation of “gender” influenced the witchcraft trials in Lemgo. In addition to the personal enrichment of individuals, the effect, status and perception of the accused in the society also played a major role. Above all, it shows that research must depart from typical assumptions in order to understand the people behind it. In addition to the aspects mentioned, the source situation still offers many other research possibilities. For example, the interconnectedness of the witchcraft hunts with the surrounding towns is largely unexplored. Letters and court records that are preserved at the city archives Lemgo, some of which have been digitized and made available online, offer the possibility to explore these and other research questions, on the basis of these original records.

Thanks to Casey Sutcliffe and the participants of the GHI writing workshops for their helpful suggestions and edits of the draft for this blog post.

Literature and links:

Link to the Lemgo city archives finding aid, council and magistrate court-witch trials: https://www.archive.nrw.de/archivsuche?link=FINDBUCH-20029200001782

Museum Hexenbürgermeisterhaus Lemgo, https://p57155.typo3server.info/hexenbuergermeisterhaus_home.html

Gisela Wilbert; Gerd Schwerhoff; Jürgen Scheffler (Hg.): Hexenverfolgung und Regionalgeschichte. Die Grafschaft Lippe im Vergleich, Bielefeld 1994.

Gisela Wilbertz, Jürgen Scheffler (Hrsg.): Biographieforschung und Stadtgeschichte. Lemgo in der Spätphase der Hexenverfolgung. Bielefeld 2000.

Brief einer im Hexenprozess Angeklagten? (StaL A 10879), Archivblog Lippe, https://liparchiv.hypotheses.org/954/a_10879_004

Maria-Rampendal-Ehefrau-des-Barbiers-Hermann-Hermensen-1681-1682, Stadtverweisung, Stadtarchiv Lemgo, 01.02.02 A, A 3672

Schmähbrief gegen David Welman als Werwolf, 1642, Stadtarchiv Lemgo A 4694