Friday, February 15, 2013

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

When modern historians discuss or write about the witch craze in Europe and the Americas, very little thought - if any - is given to the people who looked after those unfortunates accused of communing with Satan. Many times, in fact to a surprising large degree, the jailors are painted as one dimensional thugs reveling in the cruel treatment of their pitiable charges. It is much easier to focus on the horrors of torture than on the inner lives of those who administered the torture.

In his brilliant analysis of the Pappenheimer family ordeal that played out in early 17th century Munich, Germany, Highroad to the Stake: A Tale of Witchcraft, Michael Kunze turns his attention to the keepers of the accused. With surprising empathy and clarity he documents what his research has shown him about ironmaster Georg, the unwitting keeper of the jail known as the Falcon Tower, and his nameless, unenviable wife. Even as he tortured the Pappenheimers as well as Agnes the miller's daughter and her family, Georg's wife kept each one in fresh straw, clean water and warm stew.

Certainly, not every inquisitorial dungeon was run like the Falcon Tower, but the little crack that Kunze opens onto the ironmaster's family's world is at the very least thought provoking. Here is an excerpt from the section entitled "A Day in the Life of a Jailor's Wife" (pp 291-292):

Very little has come down to us about the ironmaster's wife, who performed a range of lowly tasks in the Munich Falcon Tower. We do not even know her name. The prisoners, to whom she brought their meals and occasionally fresh straw for their cells, called her "the ironmaster's wife." We have to imagine a woman of about thirty, not ugly but not pretty either, not squeamish but not coarse. What with all the pain and squalor suffered by the inmates of the Falcon Tower, we are liable to forget that the jailor's wife did not have an easy life herself. The reason lay in her nature, which I believe I know something about, in spite of the meager information in our sources.

The ironmaster's wife was neither stupid nor dull nor harsh. She would have had to be all these things not to find life in the Falcon Tower hard. On the ground floor of the prison she acted as a housewife, looked after her husband and her children, cleaned and washed, placed a few flowers beneath the crucifix. On the northeast side of the building she had laid out a little garden in which a few vegetables and some wild flowers transplanted from the meadows struggled to exist, for very little sun found its way into the quadrangle between the high walls. In this way she tried to lead the life of simple, ordinary fold. But she knew that beneath her little domestic kitchen there lay a vault of horrors, while above it prisoners languished, chained to the walls of their evil-smelling hutches. She could hear the footsteps of these poor wretches on the wooden stairs as they were taken to the torture chamber for interrogation. She saw them in their pitiable condition following the torture. And when her scowling husband joined her and the children at their meagerly furnished table and said grace before the midday meal, she knew that the screams of his victims were still ringing in his ears. Was it possible to talk about the weather, the price of beef, or the Sunday picnic with the children that they had planned? Of course it was possible, and they did it, but they never ceased to be aware of the misery that surrounded them; conversation about everyday things always had an undertone of terror. The ironmaster's wife was unable to separate her official life from her private life as may have been possible in later ages, for the two were linked and interwoven. When she went shopping and did the cooking, she was doing it for the prisoners as well as her family. It was not uncommon for interrogations to take place in her living room. People in the street did not see her simply as a housewife; they avoided her as "dishonorable" on account of her husband's occupation.

He had not assumed office of his own free will. The record suggests often enough that he was no more coarse and violent of disposition than his wife was. He took no pleasure in the prisoners' suffering, but in all probability he was afraid of the power of the demons, whose presence he believed he could sense often enough as he practiced his cruel trade. What forced him to pursue his vocation? We do not know, we can only suppose that he himself had once been a prisoner and had been pardoned simply because there was need of a jailor. He was not permitted to "give notice," for, had he given up his office, he would once more have been treated as a prisoner, and possibly suffered punishment of death.

And so the horrible machine ground down both accused and jailor. And the jailor's wife as well.

Header: Prisoner by Bessonov Nicolay c 1988 via InquisitionArt (please know that Nicolay's art, while brilliant, is very realistic and very graphic; viewer discretion is advised)


Timmy! said...

That is definitely an interesting and insightful perspective, Pauline.

Pauline said...

I thought so too. I read this book cover-to-cover in less than a week in 2011 and this portion in particular has really stuck with me. There's a great historical novel in it, I think.