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Cali Owings, Published October 30 2013

Concordia professor explores witchcraft in book about German woman executed in 1629

MOORHEAD – Jonathan Clark came across the witchcraft trial record for Barbara Kurzhals as a graduate student 30 years ago.

Kurzhals was a German woman executed in 1629 for the crime of witchcraft in the small town of Reichertshofen. She confessed to killing her seven children, creating inclement weather that destroyed crops, hexing away the penises of several local men and making meals of babies.

Now a German professor at Concordia College, Clark aims to give Kurzhals a voice through a new book he’s writing on her experience and European witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“You don’t hear from the actual women themselves who were tortured and humiliated and put up on trial and executed,” he said.

Clark said teaching an inquiry seminar for first-year students on witchcraft helped ignite his interest in writing the book.

With support from the school, he started researching for the book about two years ago. He spent a sabbatical in Germany seeking out documents from Kurzhals’ life.

The trial record, while detailed, is tricky because questions were only asked to confirm what the authorities already knew.

Clark cited questions from the record like, “How many times did you fly out to this field in order to meet with other witches?” and “When you dug up babies and ate them, what did it taste like?”

If the answers weren’t satisfactory, the accused were tortured. Many of them, like Kurzhals, ultimately confessed to the crimes. Altogether, 51 people from her town and the surrounding area were executed for witchcraft.

“Maybe there’s another story behind all of this. And it’s that story that I’m trying to discern,” Clark said.

Surprises

His research into Kurzhals’ personal life led to a few surprising conclusions.

First, he found that Kurzhals and her family members attended regular meetings of about 40 people in the woods.

Her mother, who also attended the meetings and would be killed for witchcraft, encouraged Kurzhals to attend from a young age. She was also encouraged to have relationships with the men who attended.

The group met on the border between two Catholic and Protestant areas. Long-standing religious turmoil, among other issues in the area, left this group feeling disenfranchised, Clark said.

“They wanted to find some way of expressing themselves and empowering themselves,” he said. “Not necessarily through magic but through other traditions that weren’t accepted.”

They went outside of social norms, traditions and moral propriety.

While it’s possible that Kurzhals really was a serial killer or rejected the Catholic Church so much that she would commit sacrilege by destroying the communion host, Clark said he’s “hard-pressed to call it witchcraft.”

“But they believed it,” he said. “You have to start with that premise.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599