Introduction: A Witch's Chair?
In October 2011, the State Museum in Braunschweig, Germany, opened an exhibit to celebrate its 120th anniversary. On display were 120 objects from the museum's collections, each meant to spark a dialogue between the viewer and a particular moment in the region's past. Among the objects was an ornate iron chair said to be from the sixteenth century. With a curved back, decorative ironwork, a swivel, pedestal stem, and five wheels (only one of which remains), the chair's elegant design hints at lofty origins, perhaps in a patrician's home or at a princely court. It may have been a work chair, originally a kind of Renaissance office chair. The 2011 exhibition's wall text, however, suggested a far more unsettling history for this object. It is "Purportedly A Witch's Chair," ostensibly the chair in which a woman named Anna Maria Zieglerin was executed in nearby Wolfenbüttel on February 7, 1575, for numerous crimes, including sorcery, poison, fraud, theft, adultery, and infanticide. For these offenses, according to local lore, Zieglerin was led to the public site of execution, her skin was torn six times with red-hot tongs, and then she was executed by fire, strapped to this iron chair and suspended over the flames by chains attached to the loops under the armrests.
What sort of connection are we in the twenty-first century to make to this object? According to the museum's exhibition catalog, Zieglerin's execution in 1575 was "one of the most gruesome and sensational cases in Wolfenbüttel," and indeed, the chair certainly prompts revulsion. Whatever Zieglerin's crimes may have been, this was a ghastly way to die, and it is all the more chilling that she was executed legally at the hands of the state after a rigorous and procedurally correct trial. Nevertheless, the museum tells us, during her trial, Anna Zieglerin stated that "she confessed to everything but didn't do everything; she said these things out of fear." The chair, then, is first and foremost a disturbing artifact of an early modern legal system that not only sanctioned torture but also depended on it in exceptionally serious cases to produce confessions. The chair vividly reminds us, too, of the carefully choreographed and public nature of early modern state-sponsored punishment, which was meant simultaneously to punish and dishonor criminals' bodies, to restore the communities they had violated, and to communicate the precise nature of their offenses to onlookers. Although each of the crimes to which Zieglerin confessed warranted its own punishment, in the end, the chair suggests, state authorities chose to execute her by fire, the punishment reserved for the most heinous crimes: heresy, sorcery, poison, and sodomy, as well as crimes related to fire, such as arson. Fire was meant to completely obliterate the early modern criminal's body, preventing a burial and functioning almost as a purifying ritual to purge the community of his or her offenses. By choosing this particular form of execution, then, the Wolfenbüttel officials would have intended to send a very clear message: Anna Zieglerin had violated not only the laws, but also the spiritual community of the Duchy of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. As a relic of execution by fire, finally, the chair also evokes the witch hunts that proliferated in Europe during this same period, condemning tens of thousands of men and women to their deaths. As we gaze upon this chair today, we are faced first and foremost with a spectacular death and the brutality of early modern justice, leaving us unsettled but perhaps also oddly comforted, glad that we live in a different era.
And yet, in the exhibition wall text next to the chair, the State Museum encouraged viewers to ponder Zieglerin's life as well as her death. A Lutheran woman who spent her entire life in proximity to three German princely courts, Anna Zieglerin (ca. 1545-1575) was wife, courtier, and alchemist before her arrest and conviction in 1574. For a time, in fact, her alchemy earned her the support and patronage of Duke Julius of the northern German territory of Braunschweig-Lüneburg (1528-1589). Julius was drawn to Anna's recipes for a golden oil she called the lion's blood, which was said to possess the extraordinary ability to stimulate the growth of plants, make gemstones, and even transform lead into the coveted philosophers' stone, a precious secret in its own right that could transmute metals and promote health. Equally intriguing was the way Anna framed her alchemy as a tool for addressing a matter that weighed heavily on the minds of pious Christians in sixteenth-century Europe: the rapidly approaching end of time. Anna claimed that she and an enigmatic adept named Count Carl von Oettingen were to fulfill a prophecy, using the lion's blood to conceive children whose alchemical bodies would help prepare the world for its end. Anna and those close to her drew parallels to the Virgin Mary, likening Anna's extraordinary generation of life, as well as its profound implications for sacred history, with the virgin birth of Christ. The real promise of the lion's blood was not simply gold and gemstones, but nothing less than the redemption of the world in its final moments. As riveting as it is, therefore, the iron chair on display in Braunschweig turns out to be a red herring. It misdirects our attention toward early modern witchcraft, a brutal justice system, and a narrative of modern progress away from that pitiless era, obscuring a far more interesting story about the intersection of alchemy, gender, and belief in the era of the Reformation.
The iron chair is a red herring in another sense as well, for upon closer scrutiny it begins to fall apart as a stable historical artifact. The sixteenth-century documents related to Zieglerin's case are oddly silent about this detail of her execution, in fact—a surprising omission, given how unusually extensive the records surrounding her trial otherwise are. The Lower Saxony Regional Archive in Wolfenbüttel contains thirty-one folders pertaining to the case, including letters, recipes, supply orders, and various other items written before her arrest, as well as transcripts of interrogations and other legal documents generated during the trial itself. The record of the final judgment (Urteil) has not survived, unfortunately, but a summary of the legal judgment and sentences recommended by two panels of jurists (Schöffensprüche) has, and we can assume that these guided Duke Julius's court in issuing the final sentence. The jurists recommended that Zieglerin be punished "with fire," but we find nothing here about a chair, nor do any contemporary sixteenth-century sources bear witness to Zieglerin's execution in this manner. This silence is telling, because such a punishment would have been highly unusual in the sixteenth century and certainly would have sparked comment. Nor does the chair as a material object offer any conclusive evidence of either its use in Zieglerin's execution or its origins in the sixteenth century. The catalog entry from the Braunschweig State Museum notes that the chair bears white "blooms" on its surface, suggesting that at some point it may have been in a fire, but when the marks were created is unknown. The design and condition of the chair, meanwhile, are equally puzzling. Both its capacity to swivel and the small wheels at its base are striking, seemingly out of place for a sixteenth-century chair. And yet, swivel chairs were already in use in the fifteenth century in the German lands in work or study settings, nor were early modern medical wheelchairs unheard of (most famously, a wheeled, reclining chair that King Philipp II of Spain used because of his gout). Such hints suggest that this iron chair was possible to imagine in the sixteenth century, but even the language of the catalog entry reveals how little is known about this specific chair's origins. It is "purportedly" Zieglerin's chair. Prior to her execution, it "could have belonged" to her patron Duke Julius, who was disabled and who might have used it as either a wheelchair or (an extremely heavy, it must be said) sedan chair before repurposing it for Zieglerin's execution. These conclusions, while intriguing, remain speculative. In the end, there is no contemporary evidence confirming that Zieglerin was executed in any chair, let alone this chair, nor even that this chair was made in the sixteenth century.
The fact that this iron chair stands in a museum today as an artifact of Anna Zieglerin's execution, despite the uncertainty about its origins, offers a powerful reminder of both the influence still exerted by nineteenth-century historical narratives about early modern Europe and how careful we need to be in accepting them uncritically. Modern Braunschweigers' interest in Zieglerin is rooted in the nineteenth century, when a handful of articles and one major book on the case, the jurist and historian Albert Rhamm's 1883 The Fraudulent Goldmakers at the Court of Julius of Braunschweig, According to the Trial Records, appeared alongside a painting of Anna Zieglerin's execution, and, of course, the identification of "her" chair at the Wolfenbüttel castle. The story had evidently circulated locally for centuries, but in the nineteenth century historians were drawn to the historical episode anew for a variety of reasons, ranging from the compelling triad of alchemy, witchcraft, and torture and the titillation of a good scandal to, in Rhamm's case, the opportunity to demonstrate rigorous, modern, professional historical research. The modern scholars who first wrote about Zieglerin and her fellow alchemists were, in part, interested in what their story had to say about their patron, Duke Julius, who was a crucial figure in Braunschweig's history. Not only did Duke Julius stabilize the territory after decades of confessional warfare, but he also declared the state officially Protestant, founded the University of Helmstedt, and launched numerous projects to develop and modernize the infrastructure, commercial economy, and mining industry in the region. Julius was, in other words, the founding father of the modern Duchy of Braunschweig, which in the nineteenth century made his pursuit of alchemy particularly complicated to explain. In grappling with this issue, some authors resorted to age-old polemics, caricaturing alchemy as doubly tainted by folly and fraud. As one scholar wrote in 1857, for example, in the sixteenth century, the study of "chemistry and physics . . . was the shoals on which common sense foundered very easily. Even Julius did not know how to avoid these shoals. He became an adept." Others offered a more nuanced view, recognizing that alchemy was a respected pursuit among scholars, princes, and artisans alike in the sixteenth century. As the legal scholar Johannes Merkel put it in 1896, "It would have been a wonder if a prince drawn to the study of mineralogy in that period did not possess his alchemists. No court, not even the imperial court, was without them at that time." These historians also differed in their views of Julius's support for Zieglerin's fellow alchemist Philipp Sömmering, who also became an influential adviser on church matters at Julius's court. Some saw Sömmering as the consummate duplicitous adviser, who used fraudulent promises of alchemical success to captivate and take advantage of Duke Julius. Others presented Sömmering as initially well intentioned, but eventually forced to resort to desperate measures as his alchemical projects inevitably failed.
Despite differences of interpretation regarding Duke Julius's support for alchemy or Philipp Sömmering's motivations, one thing that all of the nineteenth-century historians who wrote about this case agreed on was Anna Zieglerin. She was "a crafty, shrewd, and seductive woman"; "radiant and robust, wanton and cunning," an "uneducated courtesan" able to seduce Julius and thereby deafen him to the warnings of his "lovable, pious, and prudent wife" and skeptical advisers; "a wily schemer with a disarming manner." Even Albert Rhamm, generally the most evenhanded and historically sensitive of this generation of historians to write about the episode, compared Zieglerin to a spider: "She lured poor Philipp [Sömmering] deeper and deeper into her web, no less with her promises than with her personal charm, until he saw that he was caught in her threads and recognized, too late, that he was a cheat who had been cheated." The nineteenth-century historians who wrote about Zieglerin, in other words, could only describe her as a dangerous blend of sexuality, intelligence, charisma, and ambition. In doing so, they drew on both age-old classical and Christian stereotypes that had long associated the acquisition of knowledge by women with unbridled sexuality, and the image of Zieglerin produced during her own trial, as we shall see. To the nineteenth-century historians who wrote about her at all, Zieglerin was terrifying, sexually voracious, and powerful—a perfect confirmation of the witch stereotype; beyond this, however, she was uninteresting.
Much has changed since the nineteenth century, of course. Anna Zieglerin has largely (although not entirely) faded from view and from historical memory in Braunschweig, even as the iron chair still sits in the Braunschweig State Museum. Meanwhile, more than a century of scholarship on the history of alchemy, gender, and Reformation Germany makes it possible to move beyond her execution and the distorted image of Zieglerin as witch and, instead, use her life to raise a new set of questions. Above all, Zieglerin refocuses attention on the religious, gendered, and political meanings of early modern European alchemy in the wake of a generation of revisionist scholarship. In the past two decades, the "new historiography of alchemy" has explored the contributions of alchemy to science and medicine, firmly and importantly establishing its central, if complicated, role in the development of new ways of understanding nature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The history of alchemy is not coterminous with the history of science and medicine, however, for it also extends into the history of Christianity, gender, politics, commerce and political economy, material culture, art, literature, and even music in early modern Europe. Following Zieglerin's life and ideas makes many of these connections visible in new and surprising ways.
From the time of alchemy's arrival from the Islamic world, its promoters in Europe had attempted to forge connections between alchemy and Christianity. Alchemists articulated an analogical relationship between the production of the philosophers' stone and the life of Christ, for example, likening the dissolution and reconstruction of matter in the furnace and flask to Christ's suffering on the cross; both stone and Christ emerged from their ordeals with the power to redeem. Alchemy had also long been a resource for imagining and understanding the peculiar qualities of biblical bodies, whether of Adam and the long-lived patriarchs, or of the millennial or resurrected bodies at the end of time. Anna Zieglerin pulled on all of these threads in her engagement with alchemical tradition, but she came to focus especially on how alchemy could help her explore, if not manipulate, the vexed relationship between matter and spirit in early modern Christianity. Zieglerin understood alchemy primarily as a powerful technology for generating unusually subtle matter, whether gemstones, plants, gold, or human bodies. This view led her to draw analogies not between the philosophers' stone and the crucifixion, as had so many alchemists before her, but rather between the alchemist and the Virgin Mary, whose own paradoxical body made possible the incarnation of Christ. Ultimately, Zieglerin proposed that alchemy could help her enact another pivotal event in sacred history, using the alchemical lion's blood and her own body to transcend ordinary generation and produce subtle alchemical bodies, thereby bringing about the end of time. The fact that Zieglerin, who seems to have encountered only a few alchemical texts, could nonetheless draw on alchemical ideas and practices to forge such a creative and sophisticated view of Christian eschatology is striking, underscoring the fact that alchemy was as entangled with the Reformation as it was with science or medicine during the turbulent sixteenth century in Europe.
Zieglerin's preoccupations also point to the importance of the body in the early modern period. The fact that she situated her alchemical process in her own body, ultimately conflating the blood that ran through her veins and the generative space of her womb with the elixirs and vessels at the center of the alchemist's art, was in some ways idiosyncratic and deeply personal. In another sense, however, Zieglerin merely typified much broader understandings of the body as a site of both knowledge and piety in medieval and early modern Europe. Pamela H. Smith, for example, has drawn attention to the ways that the "body of the artisan" was central to the ability to know nature in the early modern period; it was an instrument for knowing, manipulating, and transforming matter. At the same time, the body was also a site of piety. As Caroline Walker Bynum's work has demonstrated, it was a highly charged "locus of the sacred," particularly for medieval holy women, who often demonstrated their piety through bodies that "displayed unusual changes, closures, openings, and exudings," or who attributed "religious significance" to pain and illness. Zieglerin's body, too, bore signs of her spiritual purity, and was crucial to her articulation of her own piety and authority. The fact that she was a Lutheran might make this surprising; in some ways she calls to mind medieval Catholic holy women more than the sober Lutheran Hausmütter, and the fact that she chose to model herself on the Virgin Mary at the court of a recently converted Lutheran prince underscores the longevity of medieval modes of piety even for all of the dramatic ruptures of the Reformation. Although we often imagine alchemists producing precious metals in a laboratory, Zieglerin highlights the fact that the human body was also a primary object of alchemical technologies. Alchemically produced elixirs, tinctures, quintessences, and balsams, whether ingested or applied externally, held out the promise of transforming the body to make it healthier, more productive, and long-lived. Some alchemists also extended their art far beyond medicine, aiming to produce especially subtle bodies that straddled the divide between the worldly and divine, continuing to exist in this world, while accessing qualities and gifts that were beyond it. Anna Zieglerin's alchemical practice sat at the intersection of all of these corporeal engagements with her world. She used her own body to demonstrate her piety, authority, and expertise as a holy alchemist, promising to manipulate the entanglements of body and spirit that vexed and inspired early modern Europeans.
Zieglerin also brings the history of women and gender to the fore in this period. Historians continue to add to our understanding of the many ways in which women produced, consumed, and contributed to knowledge of nature in the early modern world. Like their male counterparts, women were patrons and practitioners, and engaged with science and medicine in the court, as well as in the household, library, laboratory, workshop, and Republic of Letters. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find Anna Zieglerin among the ranks of women who drew, read, and wrote about nature and tested, collected, sold, and exchanged their knowledge. Studies of these women have expanded, deepened, and also complicated older narratives about what was at stake in understanding and manipulating nature in early modern Europe, as well as where and how knowledge of nature was produced and consumed. They have drawn attention to the household as a site of knowledge production, to the gendered dimensions of publicity and credit, and forced us to redraw the social boundaries of science and medicine in the early modern period.
The records of Zieglerin's successes and failures in Wolfenbüttel are unusually voluminous, offering a rare opportunity to examine how, and on what terms, a woman could claim plausibly to be an alchemist in the sixteenth century. Most practitioners of alchemy still had to rely on wealthy patrons to support their work in this period, and this plunged many alchemists into the dangerous world of the early modern court. Zieglerin's career in Wolfenbüttel demonstrates the peril and the opportunity that courts could offer any alchemist, but it also highlights the particular challenges that she faced as a female courtier. In attempting to secure a place at the ducal court in Wolfenbüttel and to assert her own authority as an alchemist, Zieglerin creatively navigated extremely dangerous terrain, including the formidable opposition of the ranking woman at court, Duchess Hedwig. In the end, Zieglerin (like her male companions but for different reasons) was unsuccessful. Even her downfall is instructive, however, for it makes visible a set of associations between alchemy and poison, sorcery, and political sabotage that pulsed through the courts of the Holy Roman Empire, revealing the instability and fear lurking at the heart of the nascent centralizing state.
When Anna Zieglerin imagined herself to be a new Virgin Mary, with the alchemical lion's blood in hand, she made a surprisingly bold claim not only to being a court alchemist, but also to playing a central role in bringing about the last days. Zieglerin wove together her biography, her body, her piety, and her alchemy in sometimes startling ways, suggesting that alchemy was, for her, deeply personal and constitutive of self. More than just a good story, however, Zieglerin's life and ideas reveal how tightly alchemy was entwined with the political, religious, social, and intellectual culture of Reformation Europe. In her encounters with networks of Lutheran pastors searching for the philosophers' stone or with princes trying to pry secrets out of angels and alchemists, as well as in her own extraordinarily creative explorations of the relationship between matter and spirit, Anna Zieglerin found in alchemy a powerful way to engage, manipulate, and interrogate her world.
How Zieglerin came to construct, believe, and convince others of her ideas makes for a dramatic narrative, not least because some of them seem to defy belief today. She was not the only person in her circle of companions, patrons, and foes to put forward claims that some modern readers may find outrageous, implausible, or simply ridiculous, however. Such stories and contentions challenge us to take Zieglerin and her contemporaries on their own terms, to explore the cultural logic of their assertions. We must seek to understand why seemingly preposterous claims might have seemed reasonable to early modern ears, as well as the standards that they used to evaluate them and to determine whether they were plausible. At the same time, Anna Zieglerin asks us to acknowledge and consider the productive role of fantasy, aspiration, and invention in the sixteenth century (and in subsequent centuries as well). In one way or another, most of the figures in this book were engaged in spinning tales, both about themselves and others. Zieglerin, too, may have reinvented herself and her past repeatedly, both in response to very real events and to less tangible rumors and matters of reputation, and it is sometimes difficult to know how to make sense of her claims. We might wonder whether her tales were improvised or strategic, knowing dissimulation or self-fashioning. Anna Zieglerin and the Lion's Blood begins with a proposal, however—namely, that it is more productive to set aside the question of what really happened and to ask not only how Zieglerin and her contemporaries negotiated the middle ground between self-narration and outright lying, but also how fantasy both propelled and limited politics, faith, and knowledge in Reformation Germany.