Sunday, November 15, 2020

Book Review | The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village


Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I highlighted practically the whole book as I read it, and thank goodness because it has been two years! But, I am determined to review the books I especially loved, no matter how long ago I actually read them. You might recall if you have been around a while that I had a particularly stressful teaching position a couple years ago and reading has always been my escape. I all but abandoned reviews completely as I plowed through book after book to help ease my stress and anxiety of having to go into that building every single fucking day. Now here I a on the other side, so, so thankful for my studious notetaking.

I absolutely loved this book. Through the meticulous research of the author, and surprisingly detailed accounts still in existence relating to the trial of Anna Schmieg and her daughter, life in the seventeenth century village of Langenburg is brought to life. I will warn readers straight away, however, that this is a very dense text at times and may not be as enthralling for a casual reader with a passing interest in the subject of witchery trials, German history, or both.

The book opens just ahead of the supposed crime. Shrove Tuesday, 1672, finds Eva Kustner delivering buttery cakes to neighbors made by her mother, Anna Schmieg. Within hours one of the recipients, a young mother named Anna Fessler, is dead.

What follows is one of the last witch hunts of seventeenth century Europe, which ends with neighbors and magistrates convinced that Schmieg, her daughter Eva, and their entire family have been caught in the devil's web and are all guilty of sorcery and witchcraft. But it is also so much more than that. It is a comprehensive look at the after effects of the Thirty Years' War, the movements and machinations of conducting a witch trial, as well as theology and legalities that ruled life in small villages such as this one. we also see some the very earliest stages of crime-solving. Fessler's autopsy is of special interest, given the time period. We learn so much about those connected to every aspect of the case - from Prince Heinrich Friedrich, to religious leaders and judges, as well as medical scholars at the time who were beginning to understand evidence collection and how to use it effectively.

Fessler's untimely death raised suspicions immediately - as had Kustner's delivering of the cakes to neighbors the previous night. Given Anna Schmieg's reputation, and the fact that she was the miller's wife, she and her daughter made the perfect suspects.

To say Anna Schmieg was not well-liked is an understatement. The author describes her at various times throughout the text and her aggressive and stinging personality made her an easy target.

"Hohenlohe women were distrustful and quarrelsome in the best if times, and perhaps the dire circumstances of the Thirty Years' War made them more so. But Anna Schmieg fought differently from other women. Where her neighbors might fight their enemies to a standstill, Anna stunned and overwhelmed them, if not with physical blows then with words so shocking that even seasoned state officers were stung by their violence" (24%).

Due to her husband's position as the village miller, Anna and her family were considered outsiders. Even though villages depended on millers, they were also incredibly distrustful of them. All sorts of rumors and gossip abounded when it came to a miller, and it was no different in Langenburg. Communities suspected them of crimes such as inflating prices and stealing the very grain brought to them to be ground into flour. Anna's husband, Hans Schmieg, was the personal miller of Prince Heinrich Friedrich, so he also occupied a government office, yet another reason he was not to be trusted. The author also points out that communities held onto suspicions so tightly, that millers were often associated with "magic, sorcery, and dark supernatural powers" (26%).

Furthermore, the author states, "They were rogues and thieves. Living at the edge of respectable society, along the river or stream at the edge of the village, millers acted in clannish ways and kept apart from honorable folk. The notion of mills as safe havens and sanctuaries, a holdover from medieval customary law, also fed suspicions that they were dens of criminals, heretics, and gathering places for strangers and other unsavory characters. The secrets of their craft they kept to themselves. At night the devil and demons hid out in the mills. Masking their activities behind the loud clattering and unnerving pounding of the wheels and gears, millers practiced the dark arts of sorcery. Why else did so many accidents occur around mills or along the swift-moving waters of the millrace? (26%).

Even so, despite the superstitious and distrustful nature of the villagers toward millers and their families, up to the point prior to the death of Fessler, Anna had not been recorded in court records as having disputes with any other villagers. This comes as a bit of a surprise according to the author, as he states, "One would expect a miller's wife like Anna Schmieg to have attracted a fair amount of slander and other types of conflict simply because of her husband's occupation...Despite the prominence of her position and for whatever reasons - the court did not meet regularly during the remainder of the Thirty Years' War, and when it did, records were spotty - Anna's name did not appear in any dispute over her honor" (21%).

"Say what one will about her reputation - and she knew what the gossipers said about her - Anna Schmieg had also used her few breaks in life to make her way in a violent and hostile country. Her luck in surviving the war, her connections to the Haffners, her marriage to Hans Schmieg, her position as the miller's wife, their income and resources at the mill, her combative streak and her rich vocabulary of abuse, the ties of patronage that connected her to Count Heinrich Friedrich himself, perhaps even her notorious reputation - all of these helped her to survive, advance herself, build a household, and move into a dominant position in the village. Instead of meeting threats with deference, piety, or silence, she gave in to her rages, threatening vengeance on neighbors and their property, uttering blasphemies, muttering curses under her breath, dissembling, even defying public officials. She did so with a moral compass set as firmly toward the stars that guided other Hohenlohe women as well: honor, blood, and household" (24%).

Anna appears to have had a fearsome reputation, to be sure, and that is why suspicion was upon her immediately. After all, it was her cakes that were consumed by Fessler, so she must have had a reason to want the young mother dead. And yet, the conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that yes, it is likely that Anna Schmieg poisoned the cakes, but Fessler became the victim of said poison meant for someone else - Eva Kustner.

The author puts forth the scenario in which Eva has defied her parents who were intent on making a match between their daughter and a fellow miller, but that was ruined when Eva took up with her eventual husband, Philip, meeting for secret rendezvouses whenever and wherever they could. There is so much more to this aspect of the story and I still have so much to cover, that I will leave it to any interested to seek out the book themselves and see what they make of this.

Eva stands accused with her mother, but for obvious reasons turns on her and Eva gives evidence against her mother. Their relationship is officially torn asunder and there will be no reconciliation. Eva testifies on various points and affirms they are all true statements, while Anna watches from across the 'courtroom'. When asked what she thinks of the charges against her and the evidence provided by her daughter, it should surprise no one by this point that Anna's response is dripping with disdain and sarcasm. Yet Eva testifies further than "this is not out of enmity, envy or untruthfulness against but my mother but out of obedience to the command of out merciful Lordship to prove my own innocence, so help me God and his holy Gospel" (53%). Anna would get the last word though, just as one might suspect. Staring her daughter in the eye, Anna says, "If you could swear an oath to all this, then you are lost, lost forever" (53%).

It is so important to point out here just how incredible it is that we have these words, these exchanges from the trial. The records were so perfectly preserved for three hundred years, and to read through them is almost like being there. It will surprise no one that throughout the course of the trial, not much actual evidence is presented aside from witness statements, and while the jurists in Strasbourg hearing the case stated that they could not legally prove that Schmieg had poisoned the cakes and was a witch and even when they gave their opinion on the case, Schmieg was still deemed guilty during her trial. The jurists expressed their doubts in their opinion, regardless of their concern over Schmieg's renunciation of God and her family (which to them made her the likliest suspect, but for no other reason). In the opinion, the jurists returned to the points that they found to be most troubling - for example, the fact that someone else could have just as easily poisoned Fessler's food. Additionally, there was no dispute or tension between Schmieg and Fessler that could possibly have brought about the murder. The jurists had to acknowledge the lack of evidence against Schmieg, and would not recommend execution.

There comes a point where Anna Schmieg finally confesses, but only to certain aspects of the crime. She says, "A vagabond gave her a bit of poison for the little cake...She put a bit of poison into the little cake, but it was meant for her daughter and not for Fessler...She poisoned a few cakes (but not many). They were sitting in a bowl. Her daughter may have taken one and taken it to the teamster's wife. The poisoning, Schmieg confessed, came from her 'vengeful heart'. When pressed whether the poison was meant for Eva, Anna freely admitted it" (56%). 

This was all she would admit to though, and Schmieg refused to admit to anything relating to secret meetings with the devil, or of witchcraft of any kind. She also at this point stated that her family - husband Hans, daughter Eva, and son Michel, were all innocent and had nothing to do with what she had done. Even so, her interrogators continued to press her to confess fully. Schmieg would not do so; though she said she was a witch, she would say no more than that. She was tortured once again, repeatedly, and sure enough, a confession finally came. Schmieg then went back on earlier words and said her family knew she had poisoned the cakes, and her son Michel had been there when she had done so. He continued to deny any knowledge. Another meeting with Hans saw Schmieg again claim his innocence, only for her to then accuse him of affairs. She would again later say he had no knowledge of her crime.

Anna's formal confession was approved in early November. She confessed to being a witch and agreed to the charges against her: "...her seduction by the devil when she was fifteen or sixteen, her drowning one of her own children in the millrace, her attempt to murder Eva and her son-in-law with Shrovetide cakes, but killing her neighbor instead, her harm to neighbors and their animals, as well as a life of cursing, drinking, and godless behavior, and a suicide attempt" (58%).

After Anna's execution, Hans and Michel were still held prisoner until February 16th. That night they escaped their cells and fled. The two vanished without a trace, though the villagers feared for months afterwards that they might return at any time to exact their revenge. Gossip spread like wildfire that there had been sightings of the two in the area, though they never did return. Eva was the only remaining member of the family left. She claimed they'd been working at a sawmill in Heidelberg, though the pair had otherwise completely disappeared from history. Anna herself was forced to leave her children behind with her husband and in-laws. She was banished forever from Hohenlohe and all that kept her tied to her former home was her on-going dispute in ensuring that her children received their due - the annuity from the mill. Nothing else is known of her life or fate beyond this.


There's so much more to touch on, the politics and religion and other complexities of the time, but all I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed this read and highly recommend it.


  1. I read a lot about the European Witch Craze a while back - but not this one. Crazy old times, most especially in what would become Germany. France was pretty bad too. England wasn't too bad. Apparently the judges/magistrates were too sceptical to allow most cases to proceed. Why it happened is complex though but essentially, I think, they were looking for scapegoats to explain a whole host of problems happening at the time. The chaos of the Reformation didn't help much!

    1. Yeah, the Reformation was *kind of* a problem! (Although, I am Lutheran, or 'Catholic Light' as we used to say in college.) I am going to be on the lookout for more books on the subject, because it is one that is morbidly interesting to me and I am not sure how many more books I can read about Salem that don't tell me everything I already know. I am definitely looking for more on how this played out in Europe.

    2. If you haven't already read them you should try:

      The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian P Levack
      Witches & Neighbours - The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft by Robin Briggs

    3. I have Levack's book on my TBR already and have added the Briggs book. Thanks for the suggestions!

  2. maybe the old Grecian concept of scapegoating would explain it... or maybe not...

  3. This sounds so excellent! I actually took a class during this past fall semester in university that was all about the witchcraft trials in Early Modern England (basically the mid 1500s to the early 1600s) and we read this book, Early Modern Witches by Marion Gibson, that was so interesting! Gibson basically compiled the most coherent witchcraft trials in England during that period and wrote bits of introduction on them. Anyway, I haven't had a moment to find books in that same vein but in different countries so I'm definitely going to be adding this to my TBR. Lovely review, Sarah!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

    1. Thank you Laura! This topic is of immense interest to me, beyond what I have read a million times about Salem. I am very interested in seeing how this played out in Europe and have added Gibson's book to my TBR. If you have any other suggestions I would love to hear about them!

  4. Wow, this sounds great! We have a witch, the male kind, in the White House.


Thanks for visiting my little book nook. I love talking books so leave a comment and let's chat!