The Wiesensteig Witch Trials
The Protestant Reformation led to religious turmoil in sixteenth-century Europe, as Catholics and their reforming opponents vied for supremacy over the hearts and minds of the people. This rivalry often occurred in settings of political and social uncertainty. Suddenly, the witch craze that had been slowly building momentum across Europe exploded. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, Germany, in particular, was the setting for some of the most extensive and devastating witch trials. The Wiesensteig witch trial of 1562-63 was the first.
Wiesensteig was a relatively unremarkable town in Southern Germany. Founded around a Benedictine Abbey in the ninth century, the town remained staunchly Catholic until 1555. Then, the town’s overlord, Count Ulrich XVII of Helfenstein introduced Lutheran Protestantism. Thus, Wiesensteig became divided into those who embraced the new religion and those who clung to the old Catholic ways. At the same time, the town suffered some misfortunes, which culminated on August 3, 1562. A huge hailstorm hit Wiegensteig, causing extensive damage. This storm was the last straw for Count Ulrich. He announced that, in his opinion, Wiesensteig was the victim of witchcraft.
Ulrich acted immediately. With the full support of Wiesensteig’s Lutheran Leader Leonhard Culmann, he had several women arrested. The women were tortured and confessed to being part of a malicious coven. They also implicated citizens from nearby Esslingen. As a result, the authorities arrested three Esslingen citizens. However, they equally quickly let them go. Outraged at this laxness, Count Ulrich stepped up the investigations in Wiesensteig to compensate.
Wiesensteig’s Lutheran authorities immediately arrested and executed a further forty women. In December 1562, Ulrich approved the execution of twenty more. The events at Wiesensteig were so unprecedented that they inspired a snappily entitled pamphlet “The True and Horrifying deeds and Activities of Sixty Three Witches who have been executed by Fire in Wiesensteig” However, this book was answered by another; Johann Weyer’s “Of the Tricks of Demons.”
Weyer used the trials in Wiesensteig as an example of why witchcraft persecutions were erroneous. The book became a sixteenth-century best seller, reaching six editions by 1583. However, it did nothing to stop the persecutions, by both Protestants and Catholics. The trials at Wiesensteig were part of a Europe-wide trend and the first of four significant witch trials in Germany alone.
Nor was Wiesensteig the only trial to make the popular press.