Witch hunt in Bamberg, Germany (1623-32)



1609 - Frederick Forner becomes Vicar General of Bamberg

1616 - 19 - First wave of witch-hunting under Johann Gottfried von Aschhausen

1623 - John George II Fuchs von Dornheim becomes Prince-Bishop of Bamberg

1627 - Bishop's Vice-Chancellor accused

1628 - Mayor of Bamberg accused and tortured

1630 - Imperial pressure reduces the witch hunts + Death of Frederik Forner in Bamberg

1633 - John George II Fuchs von Dornheim dies

1637 - Death of Ferdinand II

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Why Germany?

In Germany a number of factors led to more panic spreading and becoming widespread:

  • The fact that political and judicial authority was fragmented meant that panics could easily take hold
  • The context of the Reformation and Counter Reformation is important - led to Germans fearing the Devil's work all around them
  • Germany had a limited legal framework to use against witches - The Carolina law stated justice should remain a local matter (Cited as justification)

Witch hunts followed different patterns:

  • In some areas, no witches were executed at all
  • In others a handful of witches would be executed each decade
  • Some regions, mass hunting took place with hundreds and sometimes thousands, losing their lives

Over the course of 9 years, as many as 900 accused witches were executed in the small state of Bamberg.

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Religious context

Bamberg was an important centre of Roman Catholic Church + created to aid the spread of Christianity in Germany

Von Aschhausen and the first witch trials

  • Became prince-bishop of Bamberg in 1609
  • Prioritised conversion of protestant churches to Catholic
  • Sanctions caused further resentment between Catholics and Protestants
  • Had around 300 suspected witches executed
  • Persecution of Protestants not as widespread as his successor von Dornheim
  • His predecessor von Thungen had initiated the first persecutions in 1595
  • 1610 - new ordinance - ordered an investigation, any person found practising magic would be severely punished
  • 1611 visitation report - revealed blasphemous practices still taking place
  • 1612 Trial of Lena Pantzerin - no knowledge on how to persecute witches, brought in outsider led to more accusations

Counter Reformation led by zealous prince-bishops from across Holy Roman Empire and gained momentum through influence of recently established Jesuit Orde (churches which were fiercely anti-protestant)

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Economic context

Impact of weather + crop failure

  • Trial of Lorentz Seebauer's wife in 1629 - freezing conditions mentioned throughout trial
  • Confession of Katharina Merckhlerin in 1626 - admission she had been part of a plot to freeze and destroy all of Bamberg's crops.
  • Little ice age = period of colder and unsettled weather in Europe peak 1560-1660
  • Hans Langhans - mayor of Zeil, executed for sorcery - petitions produced after the frost for eradication of witches triggered some trials.

Inflation + economic crisis

  • Gold florin reduced in gold content from 79% to 77% in 1626 (money losing value but prices increased)
  • People had little/no understanding of economics no ability to form rational interpretation - blamed witchcraft instead as only rational solution.
  • Kunigudta Rindterin + Margaret Gussbacherin confessed to be in league with the devil to ease their poverty and suffering.
  • Example that economic poverty led many to make 'pacts' with the Devil.
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Political context

Thirty Years' War

  • Origins religious divisions found in Northern Europe + ambitions of Habsburg monarchy
  • Concerned with expanding territory through marriage but caused resentment in Moravia and Bohemia where protestants bitter at Counter Reformation (defenstrations in Prague)

Impact on Bamberg

  • Famine caused as a result of soldiers requisitioning food 
  • Villages and towns were plundered (stole from) for supplies (misfortune seemed to be everywhere, increased scepticism)
  • Bamberg Catholics who fought for counter-ref more fanatical than ever - those who deviated from Orthodox Catholicism deemed to be heretics and suspicion laid upon devil.
  • Those targetted: women who's sexual behaviour deviated from expectations of Church, people with views opposing Catholics, people known for healing/ fortune telling /sorcery, members of the upper class.
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Numbers and social groups affected by the witch hu

Gender - Women made up 72.7% of those brought to trial from 1623-1631 + Rose to 81.1% in the major wave of 1616-1622

Social groups - Stereotype of old and poor uncommon in Bamberg. Most of marrigeable age and small number of widows (average age of 300 women tried was 33.5 yrs). Most men were middle aged - one child of 9 years old who confessed without torture

High-status  individuals - Those from higher social groups targetted due to opposition to trials which was 'aiding the devil'. Widespread belief that public officials who failed to persecute were themselves witches. Financial advantages for prince-bishop from property confiscations

Hereditary  Guilt - A pattern emerged where a father was initially accused and was executed along with his wife or a daughter. George Hann - questioned the trials, arrested following the execution of wife and daughter (benefited authorities as helped convince others of his guilt)

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Prince Bishop von Dornheim

  • Elected prince-bishop in 1623, along with Förner he was responsible for burning at least 600 people between 162-1633.
  • Known as the hexenbischof (witch-bishop)
  • Champion of the Counter-Reformation, he was determined to create a godly state in Bamberg and believed the Devil was at work. 
  • Took personal responsibility for the investigations, and hired a number of people to help him.
  • In 1627 he had a witch prison built to hold 30-40 suspects at a time. The walls were covered with biblical texts. Suspects could be tortured with his personal approval.
  • His vicar, Frederick Förner, aided him and his legal advisor acted as an interrogator. 
  • Property confiscations allowed von Dornheim’s wealth to increase considerably due to the hunts.
  • Von Dornheim died in 1633. 
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Frederik Forner

  • Vicar general and deputy to von Dornehim
  • Advocate of the Counter-Reformation, pursued witches relentlessly
  • At the funeral of prince-bishop von Aschhausen, Förner blamed the thirty years’ war on the rise of Protestantism.  
  • In 1625 Forner published 25 sermons on witchcraft and magic
  • He believed that: Calvanism was detestable, calvanist preachers were false profits, no better than magicians, Areas were occult practices were being set up also harboured protestant preachers, Witches and protestants both threatened to undermine social and political order, The thirty years’ war caused witchcraft to increase, This was the finial stage in the confrontation between God and the Devil


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Importance of von Dornheim and Forner

Importance of the two

  • Förner provided an intellectual, theological framework for the hunts.
  • Both Förner and von DOrheim believed strongly that obedience was central to a well-functioning society. Forner was able to link disobedience to sin, idolatry and witchcraft.
  • Forner believed that the Devil had always preyed on man’s disobedience to tempt him with false promises and false religions. For Förner the struggle with the Devil was a historical one, that had been going on since the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
  • Von Dorheim and Förner both believed that the closer one came to the final defeat of the Devil, the more violent the Devil would become.
  • If the Devil uses violence, then violence was justified on suspected witches.
  • The fact that more witches were discovered during the thirty years’ was meant that the Counter-Reformation was a success as the Devil was resorting to desperate tactics.
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What ended the craze?

  • In 1632 the Swedish army, led by King Gustavus, entered Bamberg. 
  • The invasion marked a decisive victory in the Thirty Years’ war, a politically and religiously charged war that had been waging since the 1618 defenestration of Catholic representatives in Prague.
  • The arrival of the Swedish army resulted in an abrupt halt in the witch craze, as the invasion brought with it social and political consequences that negated the forces that had been driving the hunt.
  • However there had also been mounting criticism of the trials that had existed prior to Sweden’s involvement, with forces such as Emperor Ferdinand, the Imperial Chamber court and the individual testimonies of Dorothea Flock, Barbara Schwartz, George Wilhelm Dulmer adding to the pressure to end the hunts.
  • However it must be noted that the number of executions had already begun to decline by 1630 - falling from 192 trials in 1629 to only 63 the following year - and the causes behind this decline do not originate from the involvement of King Gustavus.


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