Lyndal Roper's tome, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany, attempts to investigate the "realms" of "fantasy, envy and terror" in the psychology of Germans during the early 1600's and into the 1700's (xi). These psychological states are, in Roper's estimation, critical to an investigation of history, especially witchcraft, as these lines of consciousness drove perceptions and realities during the Baroque era. Societies developed semiotic categorizations as well as mental schemas, to delineate and identify witchery. These abstractions, or "unconscious fantasies," became the reality of the "witch craze" and the resulting witch hunt, trial and execution. The symbols and fears of witchcraft itself revolved around notions of femininity and fertility. Utilizing these concepts, Roper employs a Freudian histoiographical approach. Prominently investigating Southern Germany, specifically Marchtal, Augsburg and Nordlingen in Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg, she explores "the fantasy of witchcraft, the reasons for its persuasiveness" in the Baroque Era, "and its gradual decline" (10).
Germany's "Baroque landscape" was one consumed with environmental and religious turmoil. The early 17th century in Europe experienced what recent historians have documented as the "little ice age." This included "a combination of perishingly [sic] cold winters and wet summers and autumns which brought bad harvests as the grain rotted" (20). Because witches were often tied to notions of fertility, they were the obvious culprits of and infertile soil. Village life was marked with a continuous concern over reproduction, of both the body and the land (food). Thus, "people could become inclined to see threats to fertility lurking everywhere" (8). Witches, especially women who were beyond the reproductive age, were easily rationalized as the cause of infertility in a world that was deficient of scientific reasoning.
The Reformation and Counter-Reformation, with their power visually erected in "imposing alters" and churches also created a landscape in which religious leaders and disciples of three different Christian faiths competed for superiority and legitimacy. Roper investigates Julius Echter, the "ruler of Wurzburg," who accommodated the mentally ill with a new hospital (the Juliusspital) yet also adamantly hunted witches. Moreover, he was known for his "adulation of Mary" and "hatred of Jews" (40). During his reign, hundreds of witches were executed. Moreover, lawyers such as Jean Bodin, also a demonologist, sought not only to hunt witches, but also to "save witch's souls" while advancing their own careers. However, Roper also points out that the witch hunt in Wurzburg was, at first, a sincere "attempt by officials to take seriously peasant fears concerning sick cows, outbreaks of hail, mysterious insects and various diseases" as these political and religious leaders felt pressure "from the populace itself" (27-28). By defining witchery, political leaders could bring some semblance of order to the fears amongst the populous.
The interrogation process, Roper insists, was "at the heart of the witch craze" (43). "Interrogators shaped the story that the witch confessed, even if they did not consciously believe themselves to be doing so. Consciously or unconsciously, she [the witch] learned what she had to say" (58). Roper links this phenomenon to the Freudian concept of "transference and counter-transference" in which the interrogator and the witch create the "witch `fantasy'" (58). The witch comes "to know the interrogator and unconsciously to identify with his needs" (58). Moreover, the torture itself becomes sadistic, as the torturer receives some sort of sexual pleasure from the experience, and, in Roper's estimation, likely rapes the witch while incarcerated (and, of course, blames "the devil"). The "compelling narratives" that emanated from the "confessions" generated from the interrogation, torture, and rape of witches "fueled the witch craze" (61).
Cannibalism amongst witches was likely a "myth" related to communal understanding of communion in Nordlingen. Even after judges received a statement from the gravedigger that graves had not been disturbed, they were still convinced that witches had not been convinced by the Devil that they had eaten human flesh (73). The myth of cannibalism, which had consumed Nordlingen society, was purveyed by the subconscious psychological inquisition of the interrogator. Moreover, women interrogated for witchery gave stories "reminiscent of the sensory experiences of motherhood" (74).
Roper's account of witches having sex with the Devil also plays with the similar Freudian chord that rings throughout the book. "Sex with the Devil, which began with courtship, is unmasked as degrading, filthy and anal" (84). Roper quotes the thoughts of demonologists as well, to denote the underlying notions or fantasies about the Devil and his relationship with women. "The Devil uses them [women] because he knows that women love carnal pleasures" (84). The accounts of accused witches under interrogation then come out as admissions of intercourse with the Devil, since the inquisitors already have a preconceived, unconscious understanding of the devil-female relationship that has been ingrained in the cultural dialect. However, it is interesting to point out Roper's elucidation of how demonologists battled with the notion that progeny of the Devil (or an animal) and a female may still be human beings.
In the third part of the four part book, Roper presents a broader overview of the witch belief system, including notions of fertility and the problem of women who were too old to reproduce (crones). Women were susceptible to the Devil's charms while "lying in" for six weeks following child birth. This was also a risky period of time for midwives or lying in maids who brought food for the new mother. If the child did not survive its infancy, which was common, the midwife or maid would likely be accused of witchery. Further exacerbating the issue was state involvement in marriage. The state had a compelling economic interest to make sure that only couples who were financially prepared were permitted to marry. This meant that women often waited until their mid to late twenties to marry. Thus, their "most fertile years" for "reproductive potential were lost" (130). Infant mortality rates were further increased by poor harvests and malnutrition. Fertility was further stressed in the artwork of the era in which artist's "obsessive focus on breasts and stomachs...seem almost to reduce women to their position in the reproductive hierarchy" (150).
The fourth and final section of Roper's text analyzes the end of the witch craze. Interrogations increasingly focused on "motives, life histories and individual psychology of accused witches" as well upon "youths and children" (181). An interrogation and long, brutal torture took place in 1745 of an elderly woman in rural Marchtal, even though it was during the "beginnings of German Enlightenment, when torture was being denounced" (228). The 18th century records, however, differ from 16th and 17th century records. The later records "ooze with emotion" and the "role of animals" shows less importance (230-231). Roper contends that the more precise and lengthy interrogation of this era "reveal people's hidden thoughts and feelings" and indicate that "the Age of Sentiment had certainly dawned" (231). Her final story, of a conflict between a mother and daughter, reveals that the symbolic and psychological understandings of "witchcraft had become a family drama rather than a cosmic battle between good and evil" (246). "The moral codes of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation...had fallen into disuse. They became matters of convention and education, not of law and politics." As politics and religion become more dichotomous, "the baroque imagination" and fears of witchery faded as well. Politics was no longer a religiously driven "moral crusade" (251-252).