Strasse ins Feuer (Highroad To The Stake)
AGONY AND APOSTASY
by Wendy Doninger O'Flaherty
The New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, Sunday, Page 14
HIGHROAD TO THE STAKE A Tale of Witchcraft.
By Michael Kunze. Translated by William E. Yuill.
Illustrated. 424 pp. Illinois: The University of Chicago
The Pappenheimers were Bavarian vagrants who made their living emptying privies: Paulus, 57: his wife, Anna, 59; and their three sons -Gumpprecht, 22, Michel, 20, and Hansel, 10. In February 1600 they were arrested on vague suspicion of petty crimes. Unfortunately for them, the Duke of Bavaria had just decided to make a public example of someone to scotch a spreading plague of highway robbery and murder, and they were questioned under torture. When Hansel invented crimes redolent ofwitchcraft, their misdemeanors were magnified into heresies. Eventually the little boy was made to watch as his parents and two older brothers were burned alive; later he was burned too.
''Highroad to the Stake'' is Michael Kunze's novelistic presentation of the Pappenheimer case. Mr. Kunze, who is possibly the most popular songwriter in West Germany as well as being a translator and screenwriter, based his book on his dissertation in legal history, and the story he tells draws on trial records, diaries and letters, legal and theological treatises, including the notorious ''Hammer of Witches.'' Mr. Kunze carefully distinguishes the records from his own ingenious constructions of what might lie behind them. The result is a vivid story of a witch trial, delivered here in a powerful translation. (When I received this book for review, I was delighted to discover that the press at the university with which I am associated had undertaken such a lively work on such a controversial topic.) Witch trials, Mr. Kunze points out, were phenomena not of the ending of the medieval world but of the beginning of the modern one. Prosecutors were arguing against the centralintellectual principle of the new age - doubt. They understood its value as a way to knowledge, but did not want so much of it abroad that it would cause public disorder; and considering themselves emancipated from emotions, they carried out appalling interrogations and twisted trials with easy consciences. Not all lawyers approved. Many protested against violations of legal process, humane procedures and common sense in the trials, and many learned men argued that witchcraft was nothing more than illusion or superstition, certainly not a capital crime.
But prosecutors and theologians coined a surreal logicto prove their cases. They knew that terror or malicemight inspire accused people to invent imaginary crimes and conceal real ones. But if a number of suspects told the same tale, they argued, it must be true. And, of course, they found that suspected witches tended to tell the same tales in all countries - of initiation into the craft through intercourse with an ice-cold Devil (everyone knew he had no warm circulatory system), midnight orgies of witches and demons, spells cast on unsuspecting victims, the whole familiar catalogue. This was the stuff of common gossip and scary storytelling, and under torture it poured out. And the lawyers, adopting a kind of proto-Jungian universalism, concluded that 40 million witches couldn't all be wrong. They might even help them to get the details right; as Mr. Kunze shows from the interrogation records of the Pappenheimers, the power of suggestion was crudely employed, often by forcing one family member to watch another being tortured for making divergent statements.
Some of the common statements made by witches werefounded on something more fundamental than scuttlebutt, too. That is certainly true of one of the most persistent confessions - flying through the air, something Mr. Kunze says comes from the ''mythical, primeval abyss of our being.'' He cites parallels from Egyptian, Greek and Norse sources. Anna Pappenheimer's testimony about flying is particularly vivid because she was expressing a deeply rooted longing: ''The dream of flying astride a stick, hair flowing free, was a female sexual fantasy with which even Anna was familiar,'' he writes. ''One does not need to be a depth psychologistin order to recognize the staff as a phallic symbol.''
One of the more stupefying aspects of the trials was the suspension of the principle of corpus delicti; evidence that a crime had been committed was not needed, even though the investigators of the Pappenheimers conducted some bizarre searches to find such things as witches'ointments made from the powdered fingers of unborn children. And, as the Pappenheimers discovered, if an accused person admitted more than was originally charged, the corpus delicti could be produced retrospectively. There were other legal twists: while ''the Devil's mark,'' made by a demon's finger on a woman's body, was certain proof that she was a witch, a woman with no such mark might be even more suspicious, her spotlessness being ''evidence that she enjoyed a position of special trust in the kingdom of evil.''
Theologians were not to be outdone by lawyers. Bavarian Catholics produced justifications that surpassed those advanced in the many Protestant countries where witches were tried. St. Thomas Aquinas had taught that people who thought they were carried through the air by devils were merely victims of a diabolical illusion, and even in Germany in 1600, many people agreed. Even Anna in her testimony said she at first thought such a night flight was a bad dream and was convinced it was real only when the Devil assured her he had carried her through the air. Most theologians of the time said witches really did fly; after all, if the Gospel of Matthew said the Devil carried Jesus up to the summit of the temple, it would be easy enough for him to transport humans. Mr. Kunze traces this line of thinking back to St. Augustine, who argued that the pagan gods were real - and servants of the Devil. ''Suddenly it was no longer a sin to believe in the deposed pagan gods; on the contrary, it was heresy to question the existence and the power of demons.''
The conclusion was that witches were not dreaming; they were really in the power of the Devil. That was a comforting conclusion: ''Once the witch had thus been deprived of her power,'' Mr. Kunze says, ''the dream lost its emancipatory challenge, which is probably what had subconsciously provoked the theological scholars. . . . If the witches' flight was deprived of its symbolic character, there was no need to fear another reality.'' Mr. Kunze's rich data suggest some hypotheses he does not advance. Given the strong evidence that the prosecutors inspired the witches to invent their sadistic sexual fantasies, we may view these fantasies as projections from the prosecutors onto the innocent women, whom they regarded in any case as the source of all lust and hence of all evil. The sexual nature of much of the witch mania is patent and, while it may well have been true that witches dreamed of flying and fornicating with the Devil, it is equally likely that theologians dreamed that witches dreamed those things. And they dreamed in most imaginative detail. For instance, a demon could not produce semen. Aquinas solved that problem by conceiving what must be the prototypical artificial insemination: the demon, as female succubus, seduced a man and took his semen , then turned into a male incubus and flew to a woman whom he impregnated with the still-warm fluid.
Mr. Kunze notes that witches were thought to be initiated by fornicating with their demon lovers lying on top of consecrated Communion wafers. While he does not point it out, that is an act of complex sexual blasphemy, a travesty of the Communion symbolism of the union of Christ with his bride, the church. But witches' crimes blasphemed generally.
Paulus Pappenheimer confessed biting into a consecrated Host until it bled; the Devil's mark on a witch's body was an inversion of the sacred stigmata or marks of Christ's wounds given to some saints; at their orgies, witches and warlocks gave public accounts of their evil deeds that mocked not only the confessional, but the Inquisition and even the witch trials. Witches' fantasies were based on the religion of the community (which is one reason for their mutual corroboration); their individual dreams derived from a collective myth based upon a collective ritual. Just as their flights were thought to prove the existence of the Devil, their black masses proved the sanctity of the true mass and the bleeding of the desecrated wafer proved it was the body of Christ. It is significant that witches had to be Christians, betraying from within. ''Apostasy was an essential feature of witchcraft,'' Mr. Kunze says, ''and this was the reason that 'infidels' - unbaptized Jews, for instance, or gypsies - could not be culprits.'' The incestuous relationship between witchcraft and religion was reflected in the twisted logic of torture. The accused were hoisted up on the strappado by a rope so that the weight of their bodies, sometimes augmented by dead weights, dislocated their joints. Imperial law forbade the use of torture twice for a single crime, but the witchcraft prosecutors argued they could use it again if they found new evidence. What was new evidence? The fact that the accused had withstood the first torture, since it was so terrible it could not be borne without the use of magic. Long before the witchcraft trials, torture had been used on armed robbers on the ground that they were being treated the way they treated their victims, whom they tortured, Mr. Kunze says, ''as though they were eager to burn witches.'' Robbers and witches' judges did the same thing; they all moved inside the same nightmare. As Mr. Kunze remarks, the torturers of the Pappenheimers were not blind, stupid or cynical. ''They saw themselves as acting the part of exorcists. In their view, torture was the most efficacious means of casting out the Devil from the person they were questioning.''
The logic of torture applied also to executions. Before Anna was burned, her breasts were cut off. Mr. Kunze notes the Devil took a scrap of skin from Anna's left breast as part of her pact with him, and that women were thought innately lustful because Eve was formed from a curved rib taken from Adam's breast ''and, as it were, turned against the male creature.'' He adds that a manual of the time notes that cutting off the breasts ''used to be practiced in the days when Christians were being persecuted.'' It is clear enough that witches functioned as black martyrs, inversions of true ones. The fires that burned the witches prefigured the fires of hell, from which such earthly catharsis would presumably save those thus executed. (Of course, in this looking-glass world, that logic was supremely perverted when the authorities would ignore any last-minute recantations; they did not want the validity of the trials questioned, but their refusal of the confessions denied the dying prisoners salvation.) On the way to the stake, prisoners were offered wine by spectators, either to mute the agony or to prolong it by strengthening the victims. Mr. Kunze notes that this custom ''goes back to reports of Christ's crucifixion.'' The fact that Christ had been given vinegar, not wine, suggests that even the founding event of the Passion was in its own way a cruel travesty of the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb, a black mass, a prototype for the witch trials. All the gory details of the torture and execution may be seen as elements of a black mass of crucifixion, a grotesque act of positive religious meaning, like the inverted black mass of the witches, which proved the existence both of Satan and of Christ.
We may sigh in relief that the Enlightenment woke us up from that nightmare. But there are disturbing parallels between the suspension of the law of corpus delicti for witches and current proposals that would deny bail to criminals regarded as ''likely to be dangerous.'' And even now, 30 years after Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the followers of Lyndon LaRouche have accused some enemies of witchcraft. As George Bernard Shaw wrote about Joan of Arc at the stake, ''Must then a Christ perish in torment in each generation to save those who have no imagination?'' The realization that we still apply witch trial logic to our secular heretics makes the story told by ''Highroad to the Stake'' more deeply moving, fascinating and repellent.
Wendy DonigerO'Flaherty, the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, is the author of many books, including ''Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts.''