Daniel Snowman meets the historian of witches and witchcraft in Early Modern Europe.
Religious fundamentalism, mass hysteria, mysterious poisonings, coded messages, the subjugation of women, the demonisation and slaughter of outcasts and a struggle for hearts and minds between opposing ideologies – and that’s just seventeenth-century Augsburg! But it would not be surprising if Lyndal Roper’s subject matter also suggested messages for our own troubled times.
I sometimes think there are two Lyndal Ropers. The first writes vivid and often searing accounts of the experiences of women accused of witchcraft in southern Germany in early modern times. Thus Regina Bartholome was tried and incarcerated for (among other things) confessing to having had intercourse with the Devil, while Catharina Schmid, it seems, caused a young girl to be possessed and also used mysterious means to bring about the deaths of the wife and children of a neighbour. Anna Megerler, a supposed healer and sorceress, claimed to have given occult and astrological advice to the great Augsburg banker Anton Fugger. Roper Mark II, meanwhile, operates on the more elevated level of theory, examining the links between the social and the psychological, penetrating the arcana of Weber, Elias and Klein, and struggling to advance and integrate the latest insights of feminist history, psychohistory and cultural studies.
The two come together in a string of stimulating essays and a pair of pioneering books which, between them, suggest a major reassessment of the history of early modern Europe and, thereby, of the world to which we are heir. This connection between our forbears and ourselves is important to Roper. Although she is Professor of Early Modern History at Royal Holloway (University of London), and obviously devoted to her craft, she protests quite unselfconsciously that ‘I’ve never really thought of myself as primarily a historian!’