full text File Size: 67 K bytes | Add this to my bookbag



When, in the autumn of 1878, George Lincoln Burr -- still a sophomore at Cornell -- was entrusted by Cornell President White with the care of his historical library, the collection was allready well under way. White saw the witch-persecution as a particularly interesting form of fanaticism preceding the Enlightenment. He was a firm secularist, and, since his 1869 speech on "The Battle-Fields of Science," the promoter of the so-called "conflict thesis" which postulated an intrinsic conflict between science and superstition, "scientific conclusions" and "theological control." In this never ending war of ideas, university libraries were viewed as arsenals. White used historical books and manuscripts in his history classes as early as 1872, and offered them to the curiosity of researchers. The period 1881-1895 proved the most fruitful for the expansion of the collection, with an increasing number of original and complete witch trial records (see for example, box 5, folders 1 and 8). When White was appointed as the first U.S. ambassador to a unified Germany (1897-1902), he found himself in a good position to buy from German booksellers. While witch hunts were seen all across early modern Europe, the epicenter of the phenomenon was Southwestern Germany and Thuringia. The peak years of witch hunts were from the 1560s to the 1670s, with more than 10,000 trials ending in executions. With family money and the proceeds from sales of his book "The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom" (1896), A. D. White could afford outstanding documents, such as records of the witch-trial of Sister Maria Renata Sänger (or Singerin) von Mossau, charged with bewitching her fellow-nuns, whose execution was the last notorious witch burning in 1749 (box 5, folder 3). Her tragic case undermined the witch-hunt in Europe, and White commented upon it in chapter XVI of his book, "From Diabolism to Hysteria." He paid particular attention to the role played by jurists in fueling or denouncing the repression, for example in Rinteln, where Friedrich von Langenfeld wrote his "Cautio Criminalis" in 1631 (cf. box 4, folder 24), or in Ingolstadt, where the law faculty was particularly active (cf. 4620 Bd. Manuscript 35 ++).

In his effort to build a unique collection for Cornell Library, White could count on Burr, who once described himself jokingly as "a witch-hunter in the book shops." Burr had been captivated by the subject since he read an essay on the history of torture by Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909) at age fifteen. In 1885, while in Trier, he made a paleographic transcription of the trial of Dietrich Flade, ex-rector of the University and chief judge of the electoral court , who opposed the trials and especially the use of torture, and was arrested, tortured, strangled and burned for that reason in 1589 (Box 2, folder 8, and for the trial record, Bd. Manuscripts 4620 21++). Dietrich Flade, "the most eminent of the German victims of the persecution," became an icon to both White and Burr: he was a scholar who earned his fate through his attempt to check rationally and challenge the beliefs of his time. Having improved his paleographic skills in University of Leipzig and at the Ecole des chartes in Paris, Burr even started a doctoral dissertation on Dietrich Flade, and later published an article titled "The Fate of Dietrich Flade" (1891), conceived as a chapter of his never-written "History of Intolerance." In 1900, Burr initiated a correspondence with Joseph Hansen, the director of the Koln Stadtarchiv and a witchcraft historian who stood squarely within the positivist tradition. A Unitarian and a progressive thinker, Burr was convinced that witch hunting was not "the people's fault," and that clericalism -- more than "religion" -- bore the main responsibility for persecutions. Until his own death in 1938, he purchased original documents - though at a slower pace - and commissioned transcriptions of German manuscripts for the Cornell Library.