Isha Biswas is a Lecturer in the Department of English in Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis Mahavidyalaya, West Bengal. She is pursuing her Ph. D from the Department of English, Vidyasagar University in West Bengal.
Witch trials in Continental Europe had overrun societies at large throughout Western civilizational history. The speculation about the existence of what basically boiled down to harvesting the occult and invoking the paranormal- an idea that resuscitated itself every century since the Classical Antiquities with resurgent waves of public paranoia- ultimately culminated into intermittent incidents of genocide of the paradoxically “accused victims”. While maintaining an inextricable connection with sorcery- associated with men of learned scholarship- witchcraft was viewed as a predominantly women-centric practice of the supernatural, which came to be pejoratively presented in patriarchal, Christian sociocultural discourse as more malicious and actively detrimental than helpful or wise. The scarlet letter of witchcraft accusations were mostly geared towards a) Wise Women in the margins of society- women who exhibited knowledge and skill in medicine, herbal remedies and midwifery, b) women either stepping outside parameters of “acceptable” (sexual or otherwise) behaviour or going beyond sexual control by men due to age /infertility, and c) women connected with potential rivals in the game of political clout. The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch and The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman transact with all three tiers of vicitimizable candidates, in the national as well as religious background of German anti-witch discourse, which had been predominated by Kramer and Sprnger’s Malleus Maleficarum, set in the time when fanaticism and Catholic fear-mongering had formed the bedrock of the German witch trials. Alongside inspecting the authenticity of representation of continental German (associated with the Holy Roman Empire) witch-lore and historicity of the trials, the paper shall investigate the inescapable link between Church-backed patriarchy’s delusional fear, jealousy and consequent scapegoating through physical/sexual violence towards the economically and socio-sexually marginalized.
Keywords: Germany, Witch, Misogyny, Rape, Violence, Scapegoating
“Because in these times this perfidy is more often found in women than in men […] since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.”
“She is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”
Heinrich Kramer, and Jacob Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum (Summers 101-2)
The hunts for the w(itch)-people were set in motion with the initiation of the Inquisition in the late Middle Ages in Europe, which had practically “invented the witch doctrine: the idea of the diabolic witch who had forged a pact with the Devil and sealed it with her flesh, who flew through the night to the witches’ sabbath, was the sworn enemy of ordinary society” (Stokes 1), essentially imagining a non-Christian and hence heretical organization which supposedly acted in malevolent opposition to the Church, or metonymically, the still-powerful Holy Roman empire. In order to buttress and solidify fearful adherence to religious orthodoxy (Reineke 4) and later to the state machinery as well, a formidable Satan-inspired and -associated enemy was created when the presiding force had further extended to secular authorities in order to curb the apparent destruction of public order via witchcraft.
To say that Germany had been the epicentre of frenzied genocidal tendencies towards the alleged “witches” is undercutting it. The country was rife with political tension “during mid- fifteenth century, [when] in many parts of the German- speaking Alpine regions, banishment began to give way to execution as the standard punishment for sorcery and witchcraft” (Stokes 15). Thousands were killed in a travesty of public justice, many more tortured before release, or forever stigmatized by their community. The socio-economic and socio-sexual status of the accused who were mainly women (particularly those who were either old enough to have outlived the time frame of their reproductive “duty”, or who lacked the presence of male guardianship in the form of a parental, filial, or spousal figure) was prime reason behind victimization and prosecution. The Middle Ages had thereby painted a sordid picture of how patriarchy tried to rid itself of women it considered disposable ‘debris’ beyond sexual dominion. The Holy Roman Empire, which comprised of present day Germany, Switzerland and Austria, saw in the aftermath of the Reformation a rise in public disillusionment in orthodox Catholicism and consequently, a massive surge in Protestant adherents (Doward n.p.), which led both warring sects to choose widespread witch trials as the tried-and-tested procedure to ascertain their salvatic monopoly via consolidation of positive public opinion from ruling ideologues of patriarchal societies.
Reinforced by the superstitions of God-fearing Europeans of 16th to 17th century, the perpetuation of this particular brand of misogyny stemmed from a multitude of anti-witchcraft tracts – and one specific treatise took the communities by storm. Shortly after the Gutenberg Press was implemented and the sociolinguistic arena of publishing would be revolutionized, 15th century Dominican Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger spawned the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of the Witch in 1487. Built on extremist hypotheses about essentially non-Christian, pagan religiosity and its Devil-inspired, Godless, heathen maleficia laid out by preceding ecclesiastical texts such as Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (1475) and Thomas Aquinus’s Summa Theologica (1485), Kramer and Sprenger’s text became a highly-recommended directive for juries supervising witch trials in the Continent regarding identification and execution of potential practitioners of witchcraft, partaking in a “gynocidal ritual” (Levack 451) that specifically targeted vulnerable women who deviated or appeared to deviate ever so slightly from iron-clad rules about expected, accepted feminine conduct.
While contemporary critique and authorship have multifariously dealt with the influence of standardized evidence of trials and anti-witch discourse on Early Modern to postwar historical fiction on witchcraft, Erika Mailman’s The Witch’s Trinity and Oliver Potzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter set the acrimoniously misogynist phenomenon in Renaissance and Reformation-era Germany, both proving resolution in a message of hope and wish-fulfilment through vengeance against politico-religious aggression and ultimate rescue of some of the key victims, thus ending distinctively differently from the expected result of actual trials.
Incidentally, both Potzsch and Mailman are descendants of people directly involved in witch trials of transatlantic history, their fiction being liable to be considered part of or at least adjacent to the genre of genealogical/family history writings. Heavily influenced by the story of her Salem–born foremother’s experience as a victim of false allegations of witchcraft, Erika Mailman superimposes her interest in her own kin onto a temporally and geographically separate territory without discounting the universally applicable significance of the witch-scares. In her story, Salem is replaced by Tierkkindorf in Germany – possibly a fictionalization of the city of Trier “between 1587 and 1593 where at least 368 people were executed at the stake” (Nash 37 )- and the 1690s Puritan America gives way to the Catholic control of Holy Roman Empire in early 16th century Central Europe. While one may argue about the possible reasons behind such anachronistic distantiation of the author from exploring something intimate to her own ancestral past, it does equip Mailman with the ability to investigate the immediate and direct effects of European anti-witch commandments like the Malleus Maleficarum on Continental witch trials, long before diluted versions of the same would cross over the Atlantic. While Mailman’s novel refers to her family history in passing in the endnotes, the Germany-based writer Oliver Potzsch’s occult thriller is structured as a memoir. He constructs a parallel history of his personal maternal ancestry of Bavarian executioners who had worked closely at the heels of the infamous Schongau witch trials of late 16th century (Guilford n.p.) and the Thirty Years’ War. Embroiled in affairs of the state, Potzsch’s forefather, the “hangman” Jacob Kuisl, strives to strike a balance between two “necessities”: on the one hand, he must comply to the city jurisprudence’s orders to curb the unexpected restart of public suspicions by making an example out of putting a local midwife and healer to death; on the other, he is deeply affected by the prospect of any unnecessary and morally reprehensible act of violence towards the same defenseless victim of witchcraft allegations.
Kuisl’s strong desire of non-cooperation with the local officials who issue orders of subjecting the woman to painful torture, and his objective of bringing to justice the actual perpetrator(s) of the multiple orphan-murders wrecking the city, are primarily part of the imaginative reconstruction of the historicity of executioner clans operating in the continental Europe. However, the elements of forcefully wringing out a confession to the crime through brutal violence towards the accused, and the methods and instruments for State or Church-sanctioned persecution are part and parcel of the documented data available about the trials.
The confessions exacted through torture set off a “chain-reaction” of witch-hunts, “in which confessing witches, subjected to or threatened with additional torture, named their alleged accomplices. All these offenders were referred to as witches” (Levack 2). This predictable trope was subverted in both Potzsch and Mailman’s writings. The Witch’s Trinity’s protagonist Gude Muller, an aging, weak-bodied widow who was labeled witch soon after the burning of Kunne Himmelmann (one of her contemporaries and significantly, a Wise Woman/healer), proved herself to be a quick-witted and tenacious woman who successfully prolonged the time of the trials and in extension her life and the lives of her female family members, staving off further executions. The Hangman’s Daughter presented the primary accused Martha Stechlin, a sexagenarian apothecary, as someone able-minded and resilient enough to keep her integrity and honesty consistent throughout the plot. She refused to break under suffering to falsely confess either her own association or tattle about other innocent women to have them indicted. It is worth noting how the primary accused in both novels, old healers Himmelmann and Stechlin, had been the sole repositories of autodidactic yet advanced herbal knowledge, thus inspiring the distaste and disbelief of those who were trained in the ways of the Malleus Maleficarum which scoffed at the probabilities of women possessing legitimate medical skills. The existence of any such woman would have rung alarm bells in their collective myth of university-education of medicine being a male-only domain, where women were barred entry (Allen 10).
The gender-based discrimination which heavily penalized women was mostly inconspicuous until late 15th century. Even Pope Innocent VIII’s papal bull of 1484, where he strictly and explicitly condemned witchcraft, did not draw any distinction between men and women in their motives or usage of supernatural faculties (Zimmerman et al. 18). However, according to sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda:
Evidence indicates that the majority of the witch craze's victims were women. In one specific area in southwest Germany, females constituted 85% of all victims. [Historian Henry Lea claims in his] reports that in Switzerland “almost every woman was considered a witc” and in “(Weisensteig and Rottenberg), we find overwhelming proportions of women (98-100 per cent).” (6)
Mailman’s world-building in Tierkkindorf kept close to this archetype in the accusations levelled against Kunne Himmelman and Gude Muller, with the former being charged with maleficia (as opposed to beneficia, Kallestrup 200), having apparently “[played] havoc with fertility…[and wreaked] vengeance” against those who menstruate, out of envy for her own inability to “partake in the cycle of birth” (Mailman 48). Societal demonization of menopausal women is a longstanding tactic of domination which reduces female-presenting bodies to the sole functionality of reproduction and carrying on the males’ progeny, and the same had been at play behind the overwhelming number of aging (or supposedly infertile) women being easier and fetidly “justifiable” targets to kill. Muller on the other hand, had several allegations to fight off, including airborne movement and secret, sexual rendezvous with the Devil and his minions; these beliefs were hammered into her to the extent that she began questioning her own sanity and identity after hallucinating having committed the exact acts even though her rational mind knew them to be impossible. Many women’s internalization of witch-lore as absolute truth (Goff 46), and subsequent unnecessary and irrational self-flagellation were useful in extracting false confessions.
In The Hangman’s Daughter, Martha Stechlin was not the lone suspect in the minds of garrulous gossip-mongers. Kuisl’s own daughter Magdalena, an apprentice healer herself studying under her father’s tutelage, was extremely well-read and a quick learner of healing techniques who often proved herself far better than the town physicians, while additionally being physically attractive. She further possessed necessary skills for midwifery and abortions- a skill both respected and degraded as sacrilegious: “witches who are midwives in various ways kill the child conceived in the womb, or if they do not this, offer new-born children to devils” (Summers 144). Magdalena’s existence provided a place of jealousy from not just the university-educated male doctors but even female neighbours, owing to which Magdalena became prime prey of intense mistrust, and any violence towards her was held back only because of her father’s fearsome authority and popularity. From her thought processes presented by an omniscient narrator, the audience realizes that Magdalena was well aware of her identity being one misstep away from disrepute that would ultimately be a satisfactory enough reason to life-threatening torture particularly constructed for “deviant” women:
A woman who buried her nose in books was regarded with suspicion by the men. If she was the hangman’s daughter on top of that and liked to flirt with the lads, then she wasn’t far from the pillory and the scold’s bridle. More than once, the hangman’s wife had prophesied in the darkest tones how her husband would have to clap his own daughter into the shrew’s fiddle and lead her through town at the end of a rope. (Potzsch 23)
‘Scolds’ and ‘shrews’ generally referred to any woman who strayed from the parameters of “womanly”, stereotypically submissive femininity that rejected any show of intellect, quick-wittedness or independence, all of which came to be either associated or interchangeable with sexual promiscuity and practice of maleficia or harmful witchcraft. The bridle, also known as the “witch’s bridle”, would pierce the tongue and rob her of speech and the ability to even eat, drink or express her pain if the wearer moved her head within the helmet structure (Sollee 154); while the fiddle would clasp her throat and her arms to restrict her motion completely (Rublack 75), enough to be at the mercy of anyone who wished to harm her. The torture instruments were specifically designed to make good on patriarchy’s promise to inflict severe damage on the abilities of communication, sustenance and movement (both physically and metaphorically) of accused women. The very first victim of witchcraft allegations in The Hangman’s Daughter, decades before the events of the novel, had been subjected to piercing of her breasts with flaming pincers (Potzsch 17): which was another instance of the inherently sexist and most definitely sexual, rape-adjacent nature of punishments for women. Stechlin herself goes through periodic bouts of torture to gouge a confession out of her- that she heroically tolerates- including multiple male juries strip-searching her for potential “witch’s marks”, and embedding thumbscrews under her fingernails (Potzsch 37). Both methods had been prescribed in the Malleus Maleficarum (Summers 20) as foolproof ways of extracting information from women. Old Himmelmann in The Witch’s Trinity would have to suffer through intense “trial by ordeal” which required her to retrieve pebbles from under boiling water in a dubious assessment of her innocence, combined with shaving off of her body hair in front of a gawking, lecherous crowd; while her friend (and hence the victim of allegations of being an accomplice) Gude Muller finds fate testing her perspicacity when she is faced with impending brutalization at the hands of the Dominican friar. He shows her an instrument called the “Pear of Anguish”, a weapon specifically designed to penetrate and rip women’s reproductive tract to pieces. Malevolent, violent misogyny and the imagery of rape seep through the religious man’s words, who (unsurprisingly) invokes the Malleus Maleficarum and explains the mechanism of the weapon with evident relish, as a ploy to corner Muller into falsely confessing out of fright:
The Malleus Maleficarum suggests showing the instruments of torture and then giving the witch a night to think about whether she will confess. So I am showing it to you […] Think about the part of your woman’s body, that is most sensitive. The place where temptation and lust reside […] It is easily pressed into that part of you, when it is closed up and solid. It is not much wider than a man’s prick and certainly far smaller than a babe’s body. We can push it up, up, until you think, you whore, that you are rutting again […] when I twist the pin at the bottom, you will feel these blades press against the walls of your woman’s chasm. And the walls shall resist, so far as they are able. And then, after a point, they will begin to tear. And I will continue to twist the pin. I will twist it until the device is completely flattened, as you held it in your hands a moment ago. Your whore’s passage will be in shreds.” (Mailman 163, emphasis mine)
Using rape as punishment or a manipulation tactic during the witch hunts in Germany had its roots in Continental witch-lore which had vivid, explicit “warnings” about female sexuality as fearsome, aberrant and abhorrent: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable […] the mouth of the womb, wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with the devils” (Summers 114).
This was out of extreme fear and perhaps envy at women’s power of reproductive creation- a characteristic also attributed to divinity, and it was something that patriarchal systems needed to dominate in order to perpetuate a semblance of phallocentric societal control. The standardization of such torture was both deployed by secular courts as well as Church-ordained trials; critic Stephen Currie points out in Medieval Punishment and Torture:
‘The official should obtain from all heretics he has captured a confession by torture,’ reads a mid-1200s directive from Pope Innocent IV. Under these circumstances, a suspected witch or heretic could expect to be tortured, often brutally, if [she] would not admit guilt right away—regardless of the validity of the charge. (25)
Both Gude Muller and Martha Stechlin suffered- yet they withstood it and lived to tell the tale. Their knowledge of medicine came to significant advantage, even though it was ironically the governing reason behind their incarceration. Muller’s friendship with the murdered Wise Woman Kunne Himmelman, and Stechlin’s position as a self-taught woman-healer herself, had equipped both with enough familiarity of herbs and concoctions with anaesthetic properties that could significantly immune the user to excruciating pain even for a short while. Even though Muller, fortunately, did not need to use the tranquilizing “pille” she procured from Kunne’s home, but could secretly pass some of it on to her friend before Kunne was immolated and killed (Mailman 107). Stechlin had Jacob Kuisl – the hangman himself- as a sympathizing support system, who slipped her sedatives she had supplies of back home, right before her torture began (Potzsch 32). The skill of prescribing and administering medicines was unacceptable in a woman, which further led to disbelief at the possibility of women-healers’ ability to withstand torture and ward off attempts to extract confessions, to the extent that it was determined as merely another indicator of her cavorting with Satan. Hans Peter Broedel points out the inquisitor Heinrich Kramer’s (Latinized as Henricus Inistoris) treatment of such “power”, which had been touted in the Malleus Maleficarum:
To [Jacob] Sprenger [co-author of the Malleus], witchcraft depended upon this intimate bond between woman and demon, close even to the point of identity. In the Malleus, the account of Institoris’ prosecutions of witches in Ravensburg describes precisely how this relationship was determined. They report that about twenty-eight miles southeast of the town, a very severe hailstorm had damaged the fields and vines in a swathe a mile wide, so that for the space of three years scarcely anything would grow there. The people of the town suspected witchcraft, “and clamored for an inquisition.” Institoris was duly summoned, and, after careful investigation, he seized two suspects, a bath-woman named Agnes and Anna of Mindelheim, whom he imprisoned separately. Agnes was interrogated first, but she stoutly proclaimed her innocence through “very light questioning.”This clearly showed that Agnes, like many witches, was provided by the devil with maleficium taciturnitatis, the preternatural ability to withstand torture in silence, so it was undoubtedly due to the miraculous intervention of God that Agnes confessed, and Institoris happily recalls that when she “was suddenly freed and released from her chains, although in the place of torture, she laid bare all of the crimes which she had perpetrated.” (Broedel 53)
Early modern Germany was fraught with year-length famines, intermittent bouts of the Black Plague and desperate, bloody wars which relentlessly reduced communities to smithereens, allowing recuperative time to neither the afflicted populace nor the economy. The city of Schongau in The Hangman’s Daughter had found itself at the tail-end of major agrarian catastrophes of multiple famines conjoined with lingering tensions in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War, influenced by evidence of:
[…] Climatic variations which hit the [Bavarian] region during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, causing harvest failures…and a marked decrease in the population of between one and two thirds. These agrarian and demographic disasters must be understood against the background of the Catholic Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War. The effects of an unusually adverse climate may have exaggerated the anxieties experienced by both the population and the authorities during this period […] that such natural occurrences may have influenced the course of the witch persecutions in Germany. (Durrant 15)
Tierkkindorf in The Witch’s Trinity was hit by extreme famine post-Plague, and hunger forces people to lose the faculty of charity and rational thinking very quickly. At their wit’s end, with less to none assistance from nearby well-off municipal areas, the starving villagers turned to the only avenue they felt was available to them: debridement of defenseless, unemployable older women who had outlived their reproductive abilities, in return for food and resources. This was provided by the Dominican Inquisitor who had arrived with a purpose of his own: to settle his authority as a revered, powerful religious figure and earn the praise of the higher Church officials by sweeping out anyone he could remotely connect to devilry. The promise of a paltry meal was enough to persuade Gude Muller’s starving daughter-in-law Irmeltrud to plot her murder, or at the least be an accomplice to it by preparing the wooden stake for Gude’s burning even before her arraignment. Unfortunately enough, Irmeltrud was unaware of the impending suspicion towards herself because of her proven betrayal of a close relative:
Irmeltrud was staring into the fire […] She muttered to herself. “The friar [has food]. He brought some store with him when he came. We have to please him.” The children had fallen asleep on the hearth. I would have carried them to bed but was too frail to lift them. Irmeltrud could have managed but was lost in reverie. “Cut the wood for him,” she whispered. In the half-light, her head moved not, but her eyes slid over, smoothly as the door creeping open, until she stared at me from the corners of her eyes. (Mailman 135)
Upon investigating similar strains of situational coercion and manipulation in Oliver Potzsch’s novel, there seem to be two specific reasons behind the witch-cry of terrorized townspeople who repeated the age-old cliché of scapegoating the most disenfranchised subjects when they could not find a rational solution to their poverty, suffering, and the unprovoked, grotesque murder of their heirs. Previously unrecorded allegations of atmospheric magic and element-manipulation were added to the imagined repertoire of witches in Central European lore in 15th century, reflecting the fear stemming from regions affected by severe weather turbulence during the “Little Ice Age” (Behringer 159), which is adequately represented in the description of Schongau ravaged by harsh climate conditions:
In the last four years, crops had twice been practically annihilated by hailstorms. In May of last year, a terrible rainstorm had caused the Lech to flood, and the town mill had been washed away. Since then, Schongauers had to take their grain to [nearby city] Altenstadt or even more distant towns to be ground, which, of course, was more expensive. Many fields in the nearby villages were left fallow, and farms lay abandoned. A third of the population had died of the plague or hunger in the past decades. Those who could, kept livestock in their houses and lived on cabbage and turnips from their own kitchen gardens. (Potzsch 27, emphasis mine)
When the buildings near the trading posts in Schongau were burned down, Stechlin found herself being blamed once more for apparently manipulating elemental fire, even though she had already been imprisoned with no access to the outside.
Secondly, witchcraft had always been a politico-religious weapon to pressure public adherence to dominant social groups which are under pressure from any form of potential defiance that may prove to be a barrier in their way of sustaining their exploitative, avaricious schemes. In “Witch Hunt as Cultural Change Phenomenon”, Thomas Schoeneman theorizes such fear to exist in direct causation of ‘reorientation and the development’ of emergent demonologies:
The conservative mazeway change of reorientation involves an altered perception of self, environment, and culture that seeks the causes of misfortune outside of established social institutions. Reorientation occurs in individuals deeply loyal to and/or actively involved in those institutions that are threatened (by loss of credibility, challenging movements, etc.); it is a gradual and nondeliberate change and is probably the course that is most natural and least destructive to individual and corporate Gestalts. Threatened groups gradually evolve explanations of misfortune (demonologies) and remedial proposals (witch hunts), which are then submitted to the public and actively promoted. (Schoeneman 537)
The Hangman’s Daughter shows the exact orchestrations of “threatened groups”- namely the political placeholders who fear impending loss of property and power in the face of public ire. Working to manipulate peoples’ sense of righteous anger into vindictiveness against a soft target, they would move the focus away from either the failure of the city administration in either preventing the killings or providing justice to the aggrieved, or to cover up the involvement of influential officials in the murders. Another purpose would have been to stem the snowballing effect of witchcraft accusations which, if left unchecked, would not stop before multiple innocent women were penalized for it, as it had been decades ago in the historic Schongau trials of 1589-92:
Nearly seventy years ago during the famous Schongau witch trial, dozens of women had been burned at the stake. What had started as an angry outburst and a few unexplained deaths had ended in mass hysteria, with everyone accusing everyone else. Back then, [Kuisl’s] grandfather Jörg Abriel had beheaded more than sixty women, and afterward their bodies were burned. This had made [certain aldermen] rich and famous […] The people would keep looking for signs. And even if there were no more deaths, there would be no end to the suspicion. A wildfire that could lay the whole of Schongau in ashes. Unless someone confessed and agreed to take the blame […] : Martha Stechlin. (Potzsch 46, emphasis mine)
Witchcraft accusations were often used to corner rivals in the game of political supremacy, as in the years preceding James I’s reign in England in early 17th century, when the incumbent monarch himself had authored the infamous Demonologie (1599) to foreground his targeted execution and imprisonment of women associated with highly influential people he considered to be impediments to a smooth annexation of the Scottish and English thrones (Tyson 5). The Hangman’s Daughter specifically deals with multiple confrontational situations created between Schongau merchants and Augsburg traders: situations that escalate to the point of potentially disrupting many councilmen’s avenue of amassing and maintaining their fortune. To the amoral officials, the only way out is to cut losses: to direct the guilt wrongly upon an unsuspecting, easily eliminated patsy in order to pacify an increasingly hysteric, rebellious crowd who had already begun questioning the competence of town law enforcement in their task of bringing the murderer(s) to justice. The Schongau officials were keenly aware of the wildfire-effect that accusations might have if not nipped at the bud, as the present scenario had brought to their mind the previous witch trials when even a high-society landowners’ and judges’ wives weren’t spared: it had been “the shame of Schongau”(Potzsch 52). This seems to closely parallel the account of the city of Ellwangen in southern Germany in 1611:
Beginning with a woman of 70 who was tortured into confessing to witchcraft, many people were condemned and executed after being forced into naming accomplices in a savage process which reached further and further up the social ladder. Once some priests had been condemned, it was no 'longer clear who could and who could not be a witch; some people even seem to have made spontaneous confessions of their own guilt. In 1611 some 100 were executed, then a further 160 in the following year. A judge who protested after his wife was accused and executed was himself tortured and executed in November 1611. (Scarre and Callow 27)
Potzsch and Mailman’s ancestral connections with transnational witch-hunts played a significant role in their attempt to conceive a semi-optimistic closure for the main accused, making them survive unbearable misery and outlive it, marking their steadfastness and quick-thinking. Potzsch’s main objective was to characterize his forefather Jacob Kuisl as a sympathetic man who tries his best to help solve the murder cases in order to protect the “witch” he was supposed to kill. He tries to question the stereotype of the hangmen’s work which had required nigh zero empathy to quickly and unthinkingly execute legalized killings. While doing so, the author (intentionally or not) brings to light the plight of well-read women and double standards operating in society when the reverent attitudes towards university educated male doctors and even towards the hack remedies that Kuisl himself provided, had turned into disgust for women who were and did the same. Mailman, on the other hand, being the descendent of a Salem victim, proceeded to deal with her grief in a slightly removed manner. She reimagines a wholly different setting with completely new characters ensconced in the same circumstances of extreme poverty, hunger, scapegoating and loss of reason- because witch-hunting is a cultural gyric motion that has consistently repeated itself over and over again across civilizations and across time.
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