Elizabeth Lorentz was a young maid servant in early modern Germany who believed herself to be tormented by the devil, and who was eventually brought to trial in 1667. We invited Peter A. Morton and Barbara Dähms to discuss their new book, The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorentz, and how they give the reader the opportunity to grapple with Elizabeth’s testimony for themselves.
Written by guest blogger, Peter A. Morton
This book is the second translation of trial records from the city of Brunswick in the seventeenth century that Barbara Dähms and I have published with University of Toronto Press. The first was The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663. Both trials involved an accusation of a pact with the Devil. A question that naturally arises is what this trial offers that distinguishes it from that of Tempel Anneke. The short answer is that Lorentz’s testimony reveals some of the richness and complexity of early modern ideas of the Devil and his relations with human beings.
The first point to make about the trial of Elizabeth Lorentz is that it was not a witch trial. Although she was accused of making a diabolical pact, no one involved in the case suspected that Elizabeth was a witch according to the picture that drove the witch trials. And this raises the question, why not? It would not have been difficult for the court officials to interrogate Elizabeth about the common aspects of witchcraft, especially the use of harmful magic and attendance at the sabbat. The use of torture was an option open to them, if they had wanted to force such confessions from her. The same court did just that in the trial of Tempel Anneke just a few years earlier. Yet, according to the records, both the court and the legal faculty at the University of Helmstedt accepted fairly readily that Elizabeth was a troubled soul, and that her pact (if there was one) did not derive from a desire to harm others as was commonly assumed of witches. A second point is that the stories of the Devil came from Elizabeth herself, not from the questioning of the court officials. The officials based their questions on what Elizabeth said of her own experiences.
There is here, I believe, a valuable lesson about early modern European beliefs concerning human relations with the Devil and his demons: There was not a single template applied universally to every suspicion of involvement with the Devil. As Stuart Clark long ago emphasized in his book, Thinking with Demons, despite the degree of uniformity in demonological thinking, the concept of human interaction with demons served a myriad of purposes and could be adapted to many circumstances. In the introductory essay to The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorentz I tried to convey some of the variety of ways in which concourse with the Devil was conceived of between the medieval and early modern periods. As I emphasized there, fitting Elizabeth neatly into any of these categories is problematic. These trial records will hopefully underscore the importance of not rushing to conclusions when we find the Devil appearing in historical documents.
With regard to understanding Elizabeth’s testimony, the reader of these documents is in somewhat the same position as that of the court officials. We have Elizabeth’s behavior as it was reported by the family and servants of her employer, Hilmar von Strombek, and we have her own descriptions of her experiences. What we don’t have is her presence before us, and so we must use the documents we have as best we can. The objective in preparing this book, as it was with The Trial of Tempel Anneke, was to present the reader with the documents as much as possible in the same manner as they would be encountered in the archive reading room. The opportunity is there for the reader to sift through the evidence so as to determine how best to make sense of the rather extraordinary tales Elizabeth tells.
Readers in the twenty-first century are of course not likely to take Elizabeth’s descriptions of the Devil as literally true, and so they will perhaps look for psychological origins of her testimony. This is an option the court considers as well. But understanding the trial records requires us to recognize that Elizabeth’s testimony conformed with a belief in the reality of the Devil that was universally accepted. There was at that time no reason to reject the truth of her testimony of demonic temptation without some kind of strong evidence against it. For the court, the possibility that Elizabeth was “not of sound mind” was fully consistent with the truth of her stories of spiritual torment by the Devil. We cannot, therefore, simply label or explain away her claims of demonic encounters; to gain a sympathetic reading of the records we must, rather, “think with demons.”
Much the same can be said for the supplementary reading of the book, the preface to a book of prayers for Appolonia Stampke, a girl who believed herself to be possessed by the Devil. There are dramatic ways of imagining cases of possession: violent behavior, strange preternatural powers, and so on. Some of these ideas have their origins in the history of possession. But there is little of this in the behavior of Appolonia, although some of the scenes in the church must have been startling. The story presented to us by her pastor, Melchior Neukirch, is that of a pious girl struggling to maintain her faith against doubts implanted by Satan. Like the attacks on Elizabeth, Appolonia’s actions need to be read carefully against their social and religious background.
The editor and translator of this book hope that the records will offer a chance for the reader to work directly with the complexities and nuances in the responses of ordinary people in early modern Europe to evidence of the Devil in their world.
Peter A. Morton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Humanities at Mount Royal University and author of the newly-released book The Bedivilment of Elizabeth Lorentz.
Barbara Dähms is a translator.