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Thursday, June 5, 2014

“The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village”, by Thomas Robisheaux

432 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393065510

The Last Witch of Langenburg is a fascinating look at the mechanics of witch trials, as well as an interesting account of one of the latest convictions of a woman for witchcraft in Europe. A blessing for readers is how well-documented the trial is and author Thomas Robisheaux delivers this bounty of information in a very engaging narrative. While it is historical non-fiction, it reads, at times, like an historical thriller.

Robisheaux makes the smart move of diving immediately into the story, beginning with the miller’s daughter, Eva Küstner, traveling around her village delivering small cakes for Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras’ tamer cousin). From court testimony, we learn of her neighbor’s deep suspicions about the delivery of the cakes, which would help lead to the accusation of witchcraft, while the sudden death of villager Anna Fessler the evening after eating one of these cakes seals the deal. It is only then that Robisheaux goes into some of the more dry background details of the holiday of Shrove Tuesday, the tradition of baking cakes for it, and why witchcraft, rather than simple murder by poisoning, was Küstner’s neighbors’ conclusion. A wise decision, I think, to begin with the dramatic, involving the reader before moving on to some of the more academic material.

Robisheaux continues in this vein, giving the reader a bit of the story and a bit of the background as the town’s leaders and citizens become embroiled in the investigation of witchcraft. Most fascinating to the modern reader is the contrast between the rising notion of justice, fair trials, forensics, and the consultation of scientific experts, versus the almost medieval notion of witchcraft. How the contemporary town leaders reconciled the two makes for a great narrative and one that Robisheaux explores to its fullest. Luckily for the reader, it is also this commitment to the proper legal process that produces all the documents that make this account such a full story. Rather than relying on speculation and reconstruction based on typical attitudes of the time, we get to hear the opinions and statements of the persons involved in their own words, a treat not often found in accounts of persons not royal of very famous in their times.

I also appreciate that Robisheaux mostly sticks to information relevant to the case. Although some of the information about the Thirty Years’ War, for instance, was a little dry, it was also very necessary background information. However, because of this, I would not recommend this book to anyone who does not usually enjoy reading historical non-fiction. While as a reader of both historical fiction and nonfiction I appreciated the narrative portions of the story and the attempt to create a more dramatic development, this book is firmly rooted in the world of practical, academic information. For those who are interested in history, witchcraft, the justice system, or simply looking for a great history book, The Last Witch of Langenburg is a very satisfying story that will certainly fit the bill.

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