Witches Get Academic Scrutiny in Georgetown Classroom
October 31, 2011 – In a way, visiting assistant professor of German Astrid Weigert celebrates Halloween every other semester, teaching Georgetown’s “Witches in History, Literature, and Film” course.
Students in the course read excerpts from a 1478 book by German Dominican priests called The Hammer of Witches, which Weigert calls the “definitive medieval handbook on how to discover, try and punish witches.”
They also read Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700; The Crucible; the Brothers Grimm fairy tales; Salem Witch Trial documents, Shakespeare and watch films about witches.
“Students are generally most fascinated with the trial transcripts,” Weigert says. “They see how leading questions are asked, how words are twisted in the mouth of the accused, how dehumanizing the entire legal process was, and this touches their sense of justice.”
It makes sense for the German department to be offering the humanities and writing class, the professor says.
“The history of witches has strong connections to Germany, especially in cities such as Würzburg and Trier,” Weigert says, “which were a hotbed of witch persecutions and trials.”
In the late 16th century and early 17th century, Weigert explains, intellectuals and high-ranking clergy members began to protest witch hunts.
One of them was a German Jesuit who had been assigned as a confessor to “witches” condemned to death.
In an article in 1631, Weigert says, Friedrich Spee, S.J., concluded “There is nobody in our day, of whatsoever sex, fortune, rank, or dignity, who is safe, if he have but an enemy and slanderer to bring him into suspicion of witchcraft.”
Plays and Films
The professor recently took her students to see The Crucible performed at Washington, D.C.’s Keegan Theater.
Despite Georgetown connections to The Exorcist (the book was written by alumnus William Peter Blatty, C'50, G'54, who also wrote the screenplay), Weigert says her students often haven’t seen that film or other classics such as Rosemary's Baby.
“A few years ago, I had them watch The Witches of Eastwick, which I still think is a hilarious movie, but it fell completely flat with this generation of students,” she says.
Weigert holds a Doyle Faculty Fellow Grant for the course.
The grants are funded by board of directors member William J. Doyle (C’72) to infuse courses with themes of tolerance and diversity.
“I restructured the first part of the course, the historical part,” Weigert says, “by linking it more closely to issues relevant today and in particular to religious difference on our campus.”
She says students are often able to connect the medieval past with such issues as forced confessions or torture that come up in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The most surprising thing to me about the course so far,” says student Mia Towle (C’15), “is the ignorant nature of some humans and their quickness to judge…”