Kathryn Nuernberger



"The herein mentioned, malefic and miserable woman, Walpurga Hausmännin, now imprisoned and in chains has, upon kindly questioning and torture, following on persistent and fully justified accusations, confessed her witchcraft." Or so says the "Judgement on the Witch Walpurga Hausmännin," a court record translated by E. Wm. Monter in European Witchcraft.

The second child of Anna Kromt, the one Magdalena Seilerin delivered prematurely, a child of Stoffel Schmidt—two pages of names, 41 in all, she killed she said by rubbing salve on the children or putting something in the mother's drink or rubbing salve on the mother's belly.

Also with her ointment she brought about the deaths of Leinhart Geilen's three cows, Max Petzel's cow, Duri Striegl's cow, Hans Striegl's cow, a cow of the governor's wife, a cow of Frau Schotterin, a cow of Michael Kilnger, and Bruchbauer's horse.

She said she dug up the bones of children to make hail over the county on two separate occasions. "She confessed likewise, that the blood she sucked from the child, she had to spit out again before the devil, as he had need of it to concoct a salve."

Reading the court reporter's summary of her confessions, one wonders which parts the women believed were true. For example, when "the above-mentioned Walurga confesses that she oft and much rode on a pitchfork at night with her paramour," was she just saying anything to get that hot poker off her back or had she once stumbled into the woods tripping medieval magic mushroom balls?

The way the story of the court records goes, when she was newly widowed, Walpurga cut corn for Hans Schlumperger. In that field she made arrangements for sex with Bis in Pfarrhof. "Him she enticed with lewd speeches gestures." But instead, at the agreed upon hour, a demon named Federlin came to her in this man's clothes. After fornication she felt the cloven hoof of the whoremonger, who promised to save her from her poverty. She flew with him sometimes on a pitchfork.

For thirty years she worked as a licensed midwife, which meant induced labor, pain meds, birth control, fertility treatments, and abortion. It meant woman who gives you choices you didn't think you were allowed to have. It meant woman who knows more of death and birth than anyone else in a village in a century when everyone knew so much of both.

It's hard to resist the sense that you can hear the truth inside the confessions. More likely you've just caught an echo of something about yourself.  For example, I think Walpurga had feelings for that corn-cutter who turned out to be something else altogether. I think for a time she felt wanton and reckless and happy. And that she was sorry about it later.

She was wrong of course to feel so guilty. Our lives are so short as it is. But hers was a different sort of time and anyway what is right and wrong to a feeling?

Sometimes I think about leaving my husband. Not for any other reason than to try something new. Or to feel like I lived twice.

After they tortured and burned her, they dumped her ashes in the nearest flowing stream. This seems right to me. After absorbing every crime the village had ever known, every stillbirth, every miscarriage, every sick cow, so the inquisition of Dillingin, Germany could be snuffed out with her, she ought to be have been set free to wander the aimless drift of water down through one forest and field after another.

It was only when I came to the end of my capacity for so much pointless guilt that I understood need. Need of something floating between my legs that was not just another abyss. Need of an old forest growing wild in defiance of all reason. Need of an unreal world beyond this real one. When we are giving birth to someone, we need someone in the room who understands this is how we learn the history of dying—the father, if he is not in some other room pretending there is nothing he doesn't already know, watching all that blood pour from the mother; the mother watching the lights in the room dim to one polestar of pain; this third person to say something that sounds like "baby," to catch something in her hands she says is your baby.

We need Walpurga Hausmannin to explain that you can come back from this. Here in this chaos of honeysuckle and wild grape vines with stems as thick as your arms clamoring the pines among those invisible calls of owls and nightjars, the quivering constellations of fireflies trying to find each other—we need her to explain how you can be here and also you can be here without being here.





I started researching the lives of people executed for witchcraft during the last presidential election cycle. I thought I was doing this research for reasons related to ecopoetics and trying to live ethically here in the anthropocene, but it turns out I was really researching the torture and murder of eccentric and disobedient women throughout history for the very obvious reason that the past is never past.