Midwives and Witchcraft
On 20 September 1587, an old widow named Walpurga Hausmännin was publically tortured and executed in the Bavarian town of Dilingen. The old woman was paraded through the city, being mutilated on the way to her pyre, and then burned at the stake as a witch. Walpurga had been working as a midwife for almost twenty years when she was accused of witchcraft and arrested by the local authorities. Under torture, she confessed to a long list of maleficia, acts of black magic, most of which were – unsurprisingly – related to her profession: Walpurga admitted to murdering 41 newborn babies and two mothers in labor.
During Walpurga’s age (or more broadly from 1400 to 1700), the profession of midwife was shrouded in superstition because it dealt with childbirth, an important rite of passage for both the mother in labor and the newborn child. It was normal for midwives to be associated with one form of magic or another, but these women were mostly seen as benevolent or benign forces. In our day, the popular misconception that all magical practices were condemned by the Church still persists. This is not true; only maleficia, magic which harmed and caused death, was condemned and only its practitioners – malefici/maleficae – were executed.
People from all social classes and professions, men and women alike, were accused of maleficia and put to death. Those whose profession implied the use of some magical abilities (i.e. midwives) were much more susceptible to such accusations. Walpurga Hausmännin is a good example. Perhaps it was a very high rate of infant mortality that contributed to her eventual and ultimate destruction. Yet, Walpurga also confessed to hexing and attacking five citizens of Dilingen, including a small child. In addition to the destruction of human life, the midwife supposedly killed at least nine cows, a horse and a large number of pigs and geese. She also used black magic to destroy crops by causing hailstorms “once or twice a year.”
Sex with the Devil
The most unsettling and prominent feature of Walpurga’s case is its recurrent theme of fornication with demons. Walpurga confessed that in 1556 (31 years before her trial and 19 years before her first alleged murder), just after her husband died, she seduced a man named Bis im Pfarrhof and invited him to her house, “there to indulge in lustful intercourse.” On the appointed night, Walpurga sat “meditating upon evil and fleshly thoughts” until Bis arrived and the two had sex. After they were done, Walpurga discovered – much to her horror – that the man was not Bis and not even a man, but a demon.
Apparently, the creature she had sex with was the Devil himself disguised as Bis, wearing “his guise and raiment.” Walpurga knew this because she noticed that one of his feet had transformed into a cloven hoof, while one of his hands started looking “as if made of wood.” Terrified as she was upon making this realization, Walpurga invoked the name of Jesus, which caused the demon to vanish and confirmed that it was the Devil. Despite her initial shock, however, Walpurga received the demon again on the very next night and surrendered to him entirely, both body and soul. The Devil inflicted a wound under her shoulder and made her sign a contract in her own blood, to sell her soul.
Since Walpurga did not know how to write, the Devil took her hand in his and guided it across the paper, thus sealing her fate. After this, Walpurga supposedly lived in perpetual debauchery and sexual degeneracy with this unclean spirit. There is some confusion regarding the true identity of Walpurga’s demon lover; her trial record suggests that the witch initially confessed to having sex with the Devil himself, but later changed her mind and stated that her demon lover was just an ordinary devil. In her confession, Walpurga referred to him as “the Devil”(der Teufel) and“the Evil Spirit” (der böse Geist), but she also stated that she met “the Great Devil” (der große Teufel) later.
Confession and Execution
Walpurga met this “Great Devil”, presumably the true Satan, at a witches’ Sabbat which she attended with her demon lover. She described him as “a big man with a gray beard, who sat in a chair like a great prince, and was richly attired.” The Great Devil then forced Walpurga to renounce God and dedicate herself entirely to Satanism: “Thereupon the Great Devil baptized her afresh, naming her Höfelin and her paramount-devil Federlin.” From then onwards, Federlin made Walpurga commit heinous blasphemies and crimes such as mocking Christ and calling the Virgin Mary an “ugly hussy”, trampling crosses and sacramental bread, despoiling holy water by urinating in it, destroying its receptacles and so on.
Before long, Federlin convinced Walpurga to murder infants before they could receive baptism, and offer them to the Devil. She did this by pressing on their brains, or sucking the blood from their bodies. After her arrest, Walpurga confessed to murdering no less than 41 infants, exhuming some of them and using their bones and hair to concoct magic salves and create other demonic paraphernalia, which she used to cause more harm. For example, Walpurga supposedly used the infants’ remains to conjure devastating hailstorms “once or twice a year” to destroy crops and livestock. The witch also admitted to eating some of the corpses of the infants she exhumed, sometimes with Federlin and other maleficae.
Upon hearing her full confession and seeing her unwillingness to repent or reconvert, Walpurga’s judges confiscated her property and sentenced her to death. On 20 September 1587, the town officials threw the witch in a cart and paraded her on the streets of Dilingen to the place of execution. Along the way, the procession stopped five times to torture Walpurga: at the first stop, the executioners tore her left breast and flesh from her right arm, using red-hot irons. At the second stop, they tore her right breast. At the third, flesh from her left arm, and at the fourth, she had her left hand chopped off. Finally, at the last stop, her right hand was cut off (symbolizing her broken trust as a licensed midwife) after which she was cast to the pyre. Walpurga’s ashes were unceremoniously dumped in a nearby river so any memory of her would be washed away forever.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Pavlac, B. A. (2009). Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. Greenwood Press.
- Stephens, W. (2002). Demon lovers: Witchcraft, sex, and the crisis of belief. University of Chicago Press.
- Wilson, S. (2000). The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe. Hambledon Press.
- Levack, B. P. (2006). The witch-hunt in early modern Europe. Pearson Education.
- Harley, D. (1990). Historians as demonologists: The myth of the midwife-witch. Social History of Medicine, 3(1), 1-26.