This year, the Historical Association conference moved online, with mainly pre-recorded lectures available for several weeks before the conference and live Q&A sessions during the conference week itself. This meant that I could not only flit about between lectures much more, but also access them in an order that suited me. This is the first in a short series of posts about the conference.

Because I was chairing some of the live sessions, I prioritised the lectures for those! The first lecture I listened to was The trial of Michael Würth, a 17th century male ‘witch’ by Alison Rowlands of the University of Essex. This was a fascinating paper on the case of Michael Würth, a wheelwright from the city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber who was accused of murder by witchcraft in 1662.  One of the reasons the case study is so interesting is because it challenges the stereotype of witches being women: in fact a significant minority (24%) in Germany were male.  Würth wasn’t one of the elite, although he was a master craftsman so a man with some status, not least because making wheels involved a high level of mathematical ability as well as craftsmanship.

The case is particularly interesting because we have letters from Würth to the city council which give us a sense of how he tried to portray himself.  It was an imperial free city and had no territorial overlords although it owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor, it was in fact run by the city council, who also constituted the highest criminal court.  it was a Lutheran Protestant city.

Rowlands argued that Würth was lucky in that he lived in a city where witch persecution was relatively restrained.  He was one of 65 people  from Rothenburg who were caught up in witchcraft allegations between 1549 and 1709, of whom 36 were arrested and 12 were questioned under torture. 3 women were executed, 11 people were banished and 21 released unpunished.  As only one person had been executed prior to his arrest, he would have been aware that the accusation didn’t necessarily mean a death sentence.

Würth worked closely with his next-door neighbour, the master blacksmith Georg Leupold, but when Leupold lay dying in 1662 from a mysterious and debilitating illness, he accused Würth of giving him a bewitched drink.  When Leupold died, his wife Appolonia made a formal accusation of witchcraft to the council – she appears very energetic in pursuing the case as she would have been at risk of a counter-allegation of slander, but also a death-bed accusation meant that the accuser was confident enough in the allegation that they were prepared to go to meet their maker without retracting it.  But murder wasn’t the only thing he was accused of – other accusations of maleficum went back several years – nor was his wife immune from suspicion, although it would appear that she is dragged into the case rather than being the source of the problem.

The suspects were questioned at the town hall but not taken to the gaol.  This might have been pragmatic, because they were hesitant of torturing craftsmen who had skills that they needed, or because they as citizens also have some legal rights.  When they moved to arrest and interrogate under threat of torture, Würth fled Rothenburg for neighbouring Ansbach, leaving his wife to be arrested and to admit all the charges against her husband.  They were tried and sentenced to banishment.

His letters show admissions of what is known as weapons magic – the idea that they could improve their shooting or protect themselves from harm – which appears more frequently during the 17th century because of the ongoing tensions of the Thirty Years War.  He also admitted to owning two booklets of magical arts, although he was keen to point out that he didn’t use it and he handed it in.  Rowlands suggested that he was probably less than honest in this claim, and noted that weapons magic could be construed as harmful witchcraft. But she also pointed out that none of this would be enough without other historical accusations of antisocial behaviour which gave him a poor reputation.

Next I listened to David Paterson, of the HA’s Nuneaton Branch, give a paper entitled Father of a genius: Robert Evans and the making of George Eliot. David pointed out that although Robert Evan’s influence on his daughter’s novels, it came as a surprise to him just how influential he was even though he died long before the novels were written.  For example, David argued that the rural crafts such as the scenes in carpenters’ workshops were based on her experience of her father’s trade rather than book-learned descriptions, since Robert was skilled in a variety of rural crafts, used innovative agricultural methods, and, through his various jobs and roles, came into contact with a wide variety of people from all sorts of social backgrounds.  Despite a limited education, he managed to rise socially, through hard work, to be a land agent. As a child, Mary Ann (aka George Eliot) often travelled with him.

Scholars have often noted that Robert bought unusually large amounts of alcohol. David put forward the proposition that it was Robert, rather than his wife Christina as some have suggested, who was an alcoholic, since his death certificate cites liver disease as the cause of death, not to mention that land agency involved collecting rents, sometimes in people’s homes (which might have ended with dinner) but often in inns. George Eliot’s novels depict many characters who are heavy drinkers but nevertheless managed to carry out their jobs effectively, and David suggested that this might therefore have been modelled on her father. His lecture essentially covered the topics of land agency, rural poverty, agricultural developments, education and politics.

I also listened a really interesting lecture on Old Age Care in the Time of Crisis given by Christine Fox of Utrecht University. She talked about the key results from her project on how care for the elderly in sixteenth century London changed because of the Reformation.  She described a system of care that started with the family, but also included religious institutions, almshouses, parish fraternities, chantries and hospitals, and she went on to describe the impact of the dissolution of monasteries and chantries on this system.  For example, more than 800 monasteries and 20,000 fraternities were lost in the Reformation. Only a handful of London hospitals survived, but two more were founded.  She pointed out that this meant the city’s hospitals could no longer cope with demand and the poor were forced to turn to the parish for help.  She concluded that this was a crisis for the poor which turned institutional care on its head, putting the pressure on the parish to support their community.  Parish taxes to support the poor moved from being voluntary to being compulsory, and the Tudor system of poor relief was the backbone of national strategies for more than 200 years.  She therefore argued that this was the beginning of a public health policy for England. But actually, what I found really interesting about this lecture was that it showed how the medieval system of old age care lasted well into the sixteenth century…