Recently, Assistant Professor Duane Corpis presented to his fellow faculty members an overview of the Tempel Anneke witch trial that took place in 1662-1663 on the outskirts of modern day Braunschweig, Germany. The following exchange grew out of that discussion.
What led you to devote yourself to this story? Is it a metaphor for something we need to better understand today? Is there a connection to the fact that you are teaching a generation who grew up on Harry Potter?
My interest in witch trials, like the one in which Tempel Anneke became embroiled, emerged out of my teaching and research interests in the ways that the history of crime — how crimes got defined and who got to define them — can tell us a great deal, not just about formal law and its policing, but also about broader social structures and processes in the past. The European witch trials in particular are rich sources that tell us a great deal about popular culture and religion, gender relations, and the relationship between state authority and communal life.
I’ve always thought that the figure of the witch in Europe and the United States has been a metaphor that gives shape to a variety of anxieties, both in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as today in our modern popular culture. Harry Potter hints at contemporary questions about race and ethnicity, while the witches in Buffy the Vampire Slayer became storylines to talk about drug addiction and same-sex sexuality. My favorite example, however, is Samantha in the TV series Bewitched from the 1960s, where Samantha’s struggle as a witch trying to live like a normal human woman revealed deep anxieties over domesticity in the modern consumer-driven household.
Witch trials seemed to be emblematic of a particular chapter in European history. What was going on? Are these trials a reflection of a societal resistance to change?
The context in which the witch trials emerged was complex. Women’s roles within and access to the formal economic sphere were in decline. New ideas about what it meant to be Christian had led to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation. Rulers had begun centralizing their authority, which changed how commoners interacted with the state. And the so-called “Little Ice Age” may have disrupted weather patterns, creating agricultural instability. I think that the witch trials were responses to or reflections of the social tensions that these historical changes generated, but it is hard to say that the trials are forms of societal resistance to change. They were responses to the increasingly competitive social pressures that impacted communities and those who ruled them, as well as the men and women living within those communities.
Most people might think of these trials as religiously motivated. But you seem to think otherwise. How is that?
Well, I think that religion played a crucial role in popular beliefs and anxieties about witches, but not in the simple way we might think. Our modern perspective often views the witch hunts as the last gasp of primitive religious superstitions, which the growth of rationalism and science stamped out. But the way I see it, the witch hunts are not the end of pre-modern European religion, but stand at the beginning of a range of modern anxieties about gender relations and hierarchies and about social competition in societies with scarce resources. For example, the buying and selling of magical services which involved healing, divining, or fortune telling suggests how implicated these activities were in the society, in what I like to call a “black market in black magic.” Magical practices and witch accusations were, in this sense, often fueled by dynamic power relations and socio-economic competition within local communities. Of course, religion played an important role, since witches in continental Europe were, by legal definition, heretics who had abandoned Christianity and made a pact with the devil. Also, many of the spells and incantations used by women and men in magical practices often drew on religious tropes and even Biblical texts.
Why did you decide to specialize in early modern European history?
The early modern period — roughly 1450-1750 — is so interesting because it is a period of massive structural reconfiguration, at the level of institutions like the church and state, but also at the level of the individual. How individuals thought, and even how they imagined themselves as individuals or as members of collective communities, changed dramatically in this period.
I see that you are also interested in the history of senses. What can you say about that?
I am working on a project currently that looks at the history of “noise” before industrial factories and machinery. We often take for granted that how we experience the world through our sensory perceptions today is physically the same across all of history, but the senses are mediated by our historically changing cultural understandings of our bodies and minds, as well as our relationship to others and our environments. When thunder was understood the be the voice of God, it meant something very different than today, when we explain it as the sound of air rapidly expanding and then contracting onto itself to fill the vacuum created when lightning’s electrical charge superheats air molecules.
Teaching in Asia seems to have taken you further away from your area or study. Or has it?
I’ve always been a strong advocate of world histories that situate disparate local contexts into broader trans-regional and even global networks and processes. To that end, I’ve been working on a research project that examines how religious, colonial, and commercial networks linked Christian missionaries with local communities in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. But more importantly, I think the broader themes I research and teach are ones that many scholars working on Asia are also tackling — the history of gender norms, of social hierarchies, of socio-economic structures. And to the extent that my interests in noise is part of a larger project to understand how sound shapes society, I’m very excited to explore the urban soundscapes of Shanghai!