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Father confessors and clerical intervention in witch-trials in seventeenth-century Lutheran Germany: The case of Rothenburg, 1692

Rowlands, Alison (2016) 'Father confessors and clerical intervention in witch-trials in seventeenth-century Lutheran Germany: The case of Rothenburg, 1692.' English Historical Review, 131 (552). 1010 - 1042. ISSN 0013-8266

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Abstract

In 1692 a woman named Barbara Ehness was awaiting execution for attempted murder by poison in the Lutheran imperial city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. She requested spiritual solace, and three Lutheran clerics duly visited her in gaol. As a result of their intervention, Barbara was, at first, persuaded to admit she was a witch, and that she had attended witches’ gatherings where she had seen several other (named) Rothenburg inhabitants. However, Barbara soon retracted these denunciations, telling the city councillors that she had been forced into making them by one of the three clerics who had visited her in gaol, the territory’s chief ecclesiastical official, Church Superintendent Sebastian Kirchmeier. This article offers a close analysis and contextualisation of this richly detailed trial (which included a lengthy defence of his actions by Kirchmeier), exploring Kirchmeier’s motivations, why the councillors refused to follow his witch-hunting lead, and how the case fitted into the wider context of urban politics. The potentially abusive role of father confessors had already been identified by some seventeenth-century critics of witch-hunts (beginning with Friedrich Spee in 1631), but the confidentiality of the confessor–sinner relationship has usually meant that no record of it is left to us in specific cases. The exposure of Kirchmeier’s intervention in the Ehness trial thus gives us a unique insight into how one father confessor tried (and failed) to use his relationship with a prisoner to influence a trial outcome, and to start a witch-hunt, based on the denunciations of alleged sabbath-attenders whom he suggested to her.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DD Germany
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities > History, Department of
Depositing User: Jim Jamieson
Date Deposited: 06 May 2016 11:05
Last Modified: 04 Dec 2018 15:15
URI: http://repository.essex.ac.uk/id/eprint/16572

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