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Witch-Hunting Trials of 1590 in Eichstätt, Modern Germany

Witch-Hunting Trials of 1590 in Eichstätt, Modern Germany
© Photograph by Mary Jane

Between 1590 and 1631 there were three phases of witch persecution in the prince-bishopric of Eichstätt: from 1590 to 1592; in 1603; and between 1617 and 1631. Wolfgang Behringer has estimated that over four hundred people were executed for the crime of witchcraft in the territory over this period. Although the records for the two earlier and smaller waves of witch persecution are incomplete, this figure would appear to be an overestimate of between 150 and 200. Sigmund Riezler’s nineteenth-century estimate of up to 274 executions based on an anonymous report by an Eichstätt witch commissioner (identified by Wolfgang Behringer as Dr Wolfgang Kolb) seems more accurate. My own estimate is that between 217 and 256 executions of witch-heretics were carried out in Eichstätt in just forty years. The inhabitants of this sparsely-populated territory in Middle Franconia, therefore, experienced a relatively intense witch-hunt and both contemporaries and modern scholars have found the events worthy of note.

In an opinion on witches addressed to Wilhelm V of Bavaria, Gregory of Valencia cited the Eichstätt interrogations, alongside those in the bishopric of Augsburg, as examples which the Bavarian authorities should follow. Gregory of Valencia’s opinion has led Behringer to conclude that the prince-bishopric of Eichstätt was a “regional motor” of the Franconian and Bavarian waves of witch persecution.

Unlike the witch persecutions in the northern Franconian prince-bishoprics, however, the Eichstätt experience has not been the focus of a detailed study. The prosecutions in Würzburg and Bamberg were certainly dramatic, even by early modern standards, and it is this aspect of them which has attracted historians and, rightly, demands an explanation. The quality and detail of the source material have also aided research into these persecutions. Although the trials in Franconia, including Eichstätt, and Swabian Ellwangen have been regarded together as “the absolute peak of persecution in south Germany”, the vast majority of witch-burnings in this region took place in Würzburg and Bamberg (about 1200 and 900 respectively). These persecutions included the dramatic interrogations and executions of the several hundred children from the Julius-Spital, the school and orphanage in Würzburg. Interest in the persecutions in Bamberg has been promoted by the trials of Georg Haan, a chancellor of the principality, his wife and two of their children, and the desperate and frequently reprinted letter written by Georg Haan’s colleague, Johannes Junius, to his daughter. To these cases, one can add several other important sources: the influential “Bambergische Halsgerichtsordnung” of 1507; Johann Gottfried von Aschhausen’s prison in Würzburg and the infamous “Druttenhaus” in Bamberg; the table of Würzburg witch-executions; Friedrich Förner’s sermons published in 1625; and perhaps Friedrich Spee’s ‘Cautio Criminalis’ (Rinteln, 1631). Some authorities, such as those in Bad Mergentheim and Wertheim in Württemberg, also looked to these two witch-hunting centres, rather than, for example, the Bavarian university in Ingolstadt (located within the see of Eichstätt), for guidance in conducting their own trials. The location of Würzburg and Bamberg along the main trading routes crisscrossing central Europe and their contributions to that trade through the production of wine and textiles has also given the two territories a higher historical prole generally and generated a significant body of contextual studies.

Studies of the Eichstätt witch persecutions have been hampered by the fragmented state of the witch-trial material, a comparative lack of drama, the narrow scope of any studies of the bishopric in the early modern period, and some errors and false impressions. Apart from Gregory of Valencia’s opinion of 1590, the principality is known for the advice given by the executioner’s assistant to the Nuremberg authorities in the same year, a witch who was never convicted (Father Johann Reichard), another who was not even brought before the Eichstätt authorities (Anna Käser), and an anonymous third, the date of whose trial has been mistranscribed and frequently reprinted as 1637, six years after the end of the witch persecutions, instead of 1627. The only substantial extant writing on witchcraft originating in Eichstätt was about a case of possession in 1582. It predated the first phase of persecution in the territory by eight years and ended with the exorcism of the evil spirit and the freedom of the alleged “witch”. The “fact” that 274 witches were executed in Eichstätt in 1629 has become well-known only because of an error, based apparently on Kolb’s report of his activities, in a minor article by Hans Christian Erik Midelfort. None of the Eichstätt witch-suspects was held in a purpose-built gaol. They were remanded, like ordinary felons, in the existing town hall which could only take a handful of suspects at any one time.

Another reason why historians may have been put off studying the persecutions in Eichstätt is the complex geography of the prince-bishopric. Whilst the bishops of Würzburg and Bamberg administered fairly coherent territories, their Eichstätt counterparts ruled a fractured one. The nineteen administrative districts of the principality were dotted throughout the wider see of the same name, nominally under the spiritual control of the prince-bishop, and the population was distributed unevenly across these disjointed units. In 1590, sixteen other temporal authorities controlled over half of the total area of the episcopate. They included powerful men who had shaped the political geography of the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth-century and who were to have a profound influence on the events of seventeenth-century Europe: the Electors Palatine, the counts of Pappenheim, the margraves of Ansbach, the councillors of Nuremberg, and the dukes of Bavaria. The communities in Eichstätt, isolated as they were from one another, were therefore vulnerable to Protestant propaganda and, in times of war, military attack. The government of the Eichstätt prince-bishops, particularly during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the period immediately prior to 1618, was consequently circumscribed by the policies pursued by neighbouring territories and by a need to maintain the protection offered by the devoutly Catholic Bavarian dukes. The emphasis of Johann Conrad von Gemmingen’s government from 1595 to 1612 had been on maintaining good relations with all neighbouring states regardless of their chosen confession to the extent of electing not to join the Catholic League when it was founded in 1609. One of the first acts of Johann Conrad von Gemmingen’s successor, Johann Christoph von Westerstetten, however, was to take the principality into the League. This act was not merely a defensive one. Johann Christoph von Westerstetten seems to have regarded membership of the League as an essential component of his aggressive policy of recatholicization. The witch persecutions in Eichstätt were also fuelled by this reformist attitude, as well as Johann Christoph von Westerstetten’s experiences of witch trials in Ellwangen and the fear of Protestant militancy (in the form of the Protestant Union) which he shared with other Catholic leaders in the region.

Given the relative lack of “interesting” material and accessible historical background, and the complexities of political and judicial jurisdictions within the prince-bishopric, it is not surprising that the persecutions in Eichstätt have been relegated to footnotes and excursions in studies of the more prominent neighbouring territories. In itself this approach is important. The Catholic Franconian principalities and the duchy of Bavaria shared common religious and political agendas, and even a natural climate, from which the witch persecutions cannot be divorced.

Not only did the earlier Eichstätt trials of 1590 precede and provide examples for those elsewhere in the south-eastern states of the Holy Roman Empire, but the Franconian persecutions were rooted in the same set of causes. Several political, theological and perhaps climatic factors seem to have precipitated the outbursts of large-scale witch prosecution in Eichstätt and contributed to the excessive number of trials in the other two prince-bishoprics. There was also a significant movement of witch-hunting personnel around southern Germany.

In return for the protection which some of their neighbours cultivated from them, the Dukes of Bavaria used the Franconian bishoprics as a Catholic buffer region of client states separating the duchy from the eastern lands of the Calvinist Palatinate as well as the territories of the other local Protestants who were potential allies of the Elector. The Dukes of Bavaria, Wilhelm V (r. 1579–1597) and Maximilian I (r. 1597–1651; prince-elector from 1623), shared with several of the Franconian prince-bishops, especially those predisposed to witch-hunting, both a zealous approach to post-Tridentine reform as the main protection against the Protestant heresy and, from the early years of the seventeenth-century, a fear of war with Protestant princes. Wilhelm V was a pious defender of the Catholic faith, and the reforming tendencies of his son Maximilian I and the Eichstätt bishops Martin von Schaumberg (r. 1560–1590) and Kaspar von Seckendorff (r. 1590–15955) are frequently emphasized by biographers and historians. In the cases of Schaumberg and Seckendorf, however, this is a misleading characterization of their reigns. Schaumberg and the cathedral chapters of his immediate successors in Eichstätt were reluctant to impose Tridentine decrees and resisted the introduction of new religious orders, notably the Jesuits, into the sea. The ailing Seckendorf was also in no condition to pursue a coherent policy of recatholicization on his own initiative, whilst his coadjutor from 1593, Johann Conrad von Gemmingen, was less interested in reform than in his garden and other “humanist” activities.

Later, during the Thirty Years’ War, the strategic benefits of strong Bavarian support for the Catholic prince-bishops became evident. Surrounded by some of the main German supporters of the Catholic Reformation, the Protestant states in Franconia were isolated from their co-religionists in the rest of the Empire. They were also neither uniformly radical in religion nor constitutionally pro-Palatine or anti-Bavarian in outlook. Gottfried Heinrich, count of Pappenheim (r. 1594– 1632) and marshal of the Imperial armies, for example, continued to support the principle of Empire throughout the difficult years of the early-seventeenth-century despite professing Lutheranism. As the war in the Empire seemed increasingly likely, however, he converted to Catholicism in 1614, under the influence of his wife and the tutelage of the Eichstätt prince-bishop Johann Christoph von Westerstetten. The Duke of Neuburg, Philipp Ludwig, broke with the Protestant Union in 1613, disenchanted with the behaviour of its more powerful members, and actively sought alliances with Saxony and Bavaria. In the same year his son, Wolfgang Wilhelm, secretly converted to Catholicism and married Duke Maximilian’s sister, Saxony, a marriage blessed by Westerstetten; Wolfgang Wilhelm acceded to the duchy in 1614. Uncertain or divided loyalties consequently prevented Protestant strategists from exploiting the geographical position of their potential Franconian allies, especially in the bishopric of Eichstätt. The political geography of the region, therefore, weighed in Bavaria’s favour, at least in 1618. It was not until 1630, after Gustav II Adolf, king of Sweden, landed in Germany, that Bavaria was threatened with invasion. In the following year, Westerstetten left Eichstätt for the Jesuit college in Ingolstadt, although it is unclear whether he was abandoning his principality for the protection of Duke Maximilian as his biographers claim. When he departed from Eichstätt it was not directly threatened by Gustav II Adolf ’s forces. He may, therefore, have had other reasons to visit Ingolstadt, perhaps in his capacity as its bishop or the president of the university there. Tilly’s defeat in 1632, however, enabled the Swedes to create a new duchy from Eichstätt and the other Franconian territories and threaten Bavaria. Westerstetten may well have been delayed in Ingolstadt and was perhaps prevented from returning to his residence by circumstance. He died in 1637 without seeing Eichstätt again.

It was against this shared fear of Protestant aggression that a demonological outlook distinctive to the Bavarian dukes, the Franconian prince-bishops and their allies elsewhere in the Holy Roman Empire emerged. The witch-hunts in the Empire formed part of the Catholic response to the increasing political influence of Lutheranism and Calvinism in Germany. The Society of Jesus and the university in Ingolstadt, in particular, appear to have exerted the strongest in uence on attitudes towards the so-called witch sect among contemporary German Catholic witch-hunters, and later also the ecclesiastical opponents of the persecution of witches in the Empire. Jesuits like Peter Canisius, Jacob Gretser, Peter Binsfeld and Martín Delrio, as well as Gregory of Valencia and Friedrich Förner, dominated demonological literature at the time of the witch persecutions in Germany. Wilhelm V, a consistently staunch supporter of the persecution of witches in the south-eastern territories, promoted the Jesuits’ role in the defence of Catholicism in Europe, and he had his sons educated by the Society’s brothers at Ingolstadt. Both his heir, Maximilian I, and younger son Ferdinand continued their father’s policy against witches and other heretics. As archbishop of Cologne, Ferdinand authorized the burning of up to 2000 people on the charge of witchcraft in his ecclesiastical territory and the Duchy of Westphalia. Other witch-hunting bishops had also been educated by the Society of Jesus including two of the most notorious, Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, prince-bishop of Würzburg (r. 1623–1631), and Westerstetten himself.

Throughout his career in Eichstätt, where he was appointed a canon in 1589 at the age of twenty-four, Westerstetten sponsored the Society of Jesus’s attempt to become established in the territory. His failure to have the Jesuits take over St Willibald’s College in the town may have contributed to his departure to become prince-provost of Ellwangen (r. 1603–1613). He was, however, able to impose them on the ecclesiastical infrastructure of Eichstätt, apparently against the will of his subordinates, when he returned as bishop in 1613. Westerstetten certainly gained the support of Jesuits who favoured witch-hunting. Friedrich Förner, for example, dedicated his sermons to him. Among his spiritual advisers in Eichstätt were several Jesuit brothers, among them Joachim Meggelin the cathedral preacher about whom Spee recounted the following anecdote in his ‘Cautio Criminalis’. Westerstetten asked Meggelin, who had been inciting the authorities to hunt out witches, how many denunciations for witchcraft he considered to be sufficient to secure a conviction; although Meggelin’s reply was apparently small, he could still have been condemned by it.

The spread of witch beliefs throughout Franconia and Bavaria may also have been aided by the movement of professional witch commissioners across the region. Dr Wolfgang Kolb left Eichstätt in 1628 to perform the same service for the count of Oettingen-Wallerstein and later in Ingolstadt and Wemding at the invitation of Maximilian I; his colleague Dr Schwarzkonz also transferred his services in 1628, in his case to the prince-bishop of Bamberg. Hans Martin Staphylo von Nottenstein, another Eichstätt commissioner, was appointed to a position within the Bavarian ducal household at around this time. The experiences of these individuals served as an alternative to manuals and reports as a means of spreading ideas and practices associated with the witch interrogations.

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