8.29.2008

Swiss Miss

Justice has finally been served. Today, the government of the Swiss state of Glarus, in conjunction with both the Protestant and Catholic churches, officially exonerated Anna Goeldi -- the last woman tried and executed for witchcraft in Europe.

One might ask why I have chosen to take note of this. I could say that the DNC coverage has put me in a political mood, and that speeches condemning torture have made Goeldi's story seem strangely relevant. She confessed under torture to having made a pact with the devil, who appeared to her (as he does) in the shape of a black dog.

Her testimony did not lead to the arrest of the devil. Nor, indeed, of the dog.

I could say it's because she was held on the baseless charge of feeding needles to her master's daughter by supernatural means, and subsequently tried by the Protestant Church council -- which did not have the legal authority to try her.

I could also say it's because this brings Pamela to mind. Goeldi left her home in Sennwald looking for work and found a position as a maidservant in the house of Jakob Tschudi, a physician and magistrate. According to local journalist Walter Hauser, Tschudi quite fancied her. The two had an affair, but Tschudi had to have her silenced when she threatened to go public. His prayer was answered when the church council had her beheaded by sword-stroke in the public square.

Say what you will about Squire B., but at least he didn't have poor Pamela done for witchcraft.

Of course not, you will say; Richardson published Pamela in 1740. Witchcraft had gone the way of aether, eye-beams, and decent epic poetry. Perhaps, I will say; but that didn't stop the church council from returning a conviction for the crime in 1782.

This is why I'm taking note. The court probably no longer believed in witchcraft, though it remained a crime. Officially they convicted her for poisoning, but as the act was non-lethal it shouldn't have carried the death penalty. So, really, witchcraft it was. But, according to the government that has just exonerated her, "Goeldi's execution was even more incomprehensible as it happened in the Age of Enlightenment when 'those who made the judgment regarded themselves as educated people.'" Hauser makes a similar claim: "Educated people here did not believe in witchcraft in 1782."

It's a tad difficult to tell about precisely what the officials and other folks of Glarus feel worse: the injustice committed against an innocent woman, or the idea that people will think their ancestors still believed in witchcraft during the Age of Enlightenment. They're caught between the devil (or a dog) and the deep blue sea: history can remember them as having either been evil or ignorant.

I must say I'm not entirely sure that if those were my only options I wouldn't rather choose to go down as evil.

On a separate note--I'm not sure where I stand on the subject of overdue government apologies for crimes committed ages ago by people long dead. I can see their symbolic value, I suppose, but at the same time they strike me as being a bit silly. Was anyone really waiting around for the government to speak up before deciding where to come down on Anna Goeldi's guilt or innocence? And what's this government really got to do with the one that looked the other way two and a half centuries ago?

2 comments:

Adela said...

Most definitely: being evil will always trump being stupid. I think you might find this interesting: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/17/MNMU129193.DTL

Scriblerus said...

Awful. And yours lacks the temporal distance and esoteric context necessary to make it palatably "historical." It's just plain sinister.