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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY THIRTY SIX Witches in Bamberg

This morning was spent exploring this beautiful town. We wanted to find the offices of the old Bamberger Zeitung which, in 1807, was edited by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: "All the great philosophical ideas of the past century - the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psychoanalysis - had their beginnings in Hegel." This was the thesis, widely accepted these days, of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A German contemporary of Hegel, Johann Adam Weishaupt, preferred the antithesis: “Unlike Kant, who makes sense only in German, this man doesn't make sense in any language.”

Hegel and Napoleon in Jena (Harper's Magazine 1895)

One of Hegel's observations that I like occurred on the day before the battle of Jena when he saw Napoleon ride through and thought him a Weltseele, a world soul:: “It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.” Jacques-Louis David's imagining of Napoleon crossing the Alps perhaps catches some of that sensation.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps – the second version in the Charlottenberg Palace, Berlin

Unfortunately, we discovered that the Bamberger Zeitung was first published only in 1791, so we needed to look for other archives on our quest today - the Bamberg Witch Trials of 1626-31.

The early seventeenth century was not the best time to be around in Europe. The Thirty Years' War was in full swing - a muddled conflict that saw eight million people die partly from the fighting but also of starvation and plague. Germany, which had only in the previous century recovered population numbers after the Black Death, lost a fifth of its people. It was also cold. This was the era of the so-called Little Ice Age which succeeded the Medieval Warm Period: a somewhat indeterminate era, but, by the time of the Thirty Years' War, there is evidence of the European glaciers growing, and in Britain, the Thames freezing over.

The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy like a most powerful spear (c)wikicommons

The fluctuations in temperature at critical points in the farming year caused crops to fail and starving people looked for scapegoats. The obvious answer was to blame witchcraft and they did so all over Germany. Between 1581 and 1593, 1,000 people were burnt as witches at Trier; from 1603 to 1606 another 250 were burnt at Fulda; and in Wurzburg, which in Tilman Riemenschneider's day had been rational, 157 people were burned at the stake (though here they were humanely beheaded first). Across Europe, between 1560 and 1630, the peak years of the hysteria, an estimated 50,000 people were executed for witchcraft – 80% of them women over the age of 40. Witches were identified primarily by denunciation - but the key to guilt was confession and confession was obtained under torture. We have records of the trial of Johannes Junius, a former Mayor of Bamberg, who told his accusers a convoluted tale of seduction by a witch and her threat to kill him if he did not renounce God – which he did when his flesh was torn at by ravening demons. After accepting the Devil, his reward was to be taken through the air to a witches' sabbath, riding on the back of a huge black dog . But this was simply an invention to stop the torture. Junius was a literate, educated man and in a letter that, remarkably, has survived, Junius tells his daughter: “Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head.” His accusers brought in witnesses who swore to having seen him dancing with demons and, when he still refused to confess, they “put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere ... Thereafter they stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the torture. Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony ....Then I had to tell what people I had seen...” and in his telling, he denounced another twenty nine people as witches and sealed their fate. Eventually the trials stopped: support began to fade, even among the starving peasantry, because everyone realised that anyone could be denounced. So they effectively slowed the persecutions by refusing to bring in wood for the burnings, though the trials only stopped finally with the approach of enemy troops - given the horrific nature of the Thirty Years' War, a worse threat than even witchcraft. Tomorrow we leave Bamberg for a fifty kilometre push westwards to Schweinfurt and a childhood hero. But tonight there is opportunity to enjoy another Bamberg speciality - knuckle of pork in smoked beer and ground caraway seed.

Here is Hegel seen through the prism of The Sopranos - And this is Haxan, the full version (1 hour 45 mins) of a silent film restored by the Swedish Film Institute which is partly based on the highly influential Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German treatise on witchcraft that equated witches with heretics and therefore proper subjects for persecution - And here to sing about Aristotelian causality is Joe Nichols -

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