Behringer, Wolfgang 1956–

views updated

Behringer, Wolfgang 1956–


Born 1956, in Munich, Germany. Education: Ludwigs-Maximilians University, Munich, Germany, M.A., 1981, Ph.D., 1985.


Office—University of the Saarland, D-66041 Saarbrücken, Germany. E-mail—[email protected]


Historian, educator, and author. Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University, Bonn, Germany, researcher, 1991-96; Max-Planck Institute for History, Göttingen, Germany, researcher, 1998; Ludwigs-Maximilians University, Munich, Germany, instructor, 1998; University of York, York, England, instructor, 1999; University of the Saarland, Saarbrücken, Germany, instructor, chair of early modern times department, 2003—.


German History Society.


DFG Fellow, 1986-88, 1996-97; VW Fellow, 1993-96.


Hexenverfolgung in Bayern: Volksmagie, Glaubenseifer und Staatsräson in der frühen Neuzeit, R. Oldenbourg (Munich, Germany), 1987, 4th revised edition, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag (Munich, Germany), 2000, translation by J.C. Grayson and David Lederer published as Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria: Popular Magic, Religious Zealotry, and Reason of State in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Mit dem Feuer vom Leben zum Tod: Hexengesetzgebung in Bayern, Hugendubel (Munich, Germany), 1988.

Thurn und Taxis: Die Geschichte ihrer Post und ihrer Unternehmen, Piper (Munich, Germany), 1990.

Löwenbrau: Von den Anfängen des Münchner Brauwesens bis zur Gegenwart, Suddeutscher Verlag (Munich, Germany), 1991.

(With Constance Ott-Koptschalijski) Der Traum vom Fliegen: Zwischen Mythos und Technik, S. Fischer (Frankfurt am Main, Germany), 1991.

Chonrad Stoeckhlin und die Nachtschar: Eine Geschichte aus frühen Neuzeit, Piper (Munich, Germany), 1994, translation by Erik Midelfort published as Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1998.

Die Spaten-Brauerei, 1397-1997: Die Geschichte eines Münchner Unternehmens vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, Piper (Munich, Germany), 1997.

(Editor, with Bernd Roeck) Das Bild der Stadt in der Neuzeit, 1400-1800, Beck (Munich, Germany), 1999.

Im Zeichen des Merkur: Reichspost und Kommunikationsrevolution in der frühen Neuzeit, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Göttingen, Germany), 2003.

Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History, Polity Press (Malden, MA), 2004.

(Editor, with others) Kulturelle Konsequenzen der "Kleinen Eiszeit," Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Göttingen, Germany), 2005.

Kulturgeschichte des Klimas: Von der Eiszeit bis zur Globalen Erwärmung, Beck (Munich, Germany), 2007.

Contributor to books, including Zeit der Postkutschen: Drei Jahrhunderte Reisen, 1600-1900, G. Braun (Karlsruhe, Germany), 1992; Kommunikation im Kaiserreich: der Generalpostmeister Heinrich von Stephan, Edition Braus (Heidelberg, Germany), 1997; Melancholie: Epochenstimmung, Krankheit, Lebenskunst, Kohlhammer (Stuttgart, Germany), 2000; and Kartenwelten: Der Raum und seine Repräsentation in der Neuzeit, Primus (Darmstadt, Germany), 2006. Coeditor of series "Hexenforschung" (title means "Witch Research") and Encyclopedia of Witchcraft. Also contributor to scholarly journals.


Wolfgang Behringer has spent most of his career documenting the history of witch persecutions in Europe. He has written numerous books on the subject, several of which, including his Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria: Popular Magic, Religious Zealotry, and Reason of State in Early Modern Europe, have been translated into English. The leader of numerous research projects about witches and the legal proceedings against them in early modern Europe, Behringer was first inspired to study this subject after he had a glimpse into the state archives of Bavaria while he was a university student in Munich. There he discovered for the first time the sordid historical record of the persecution inflicted on those unfortunate enough to be accused of witchcraft.

Behringer's first book, Hexenverfolgung in Bayern: Volksmagie, Glaubenseifer und Staatsräson in der frühen Neuzeit, was published in Germany in 1987; its English translation, Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, appeared a decade later. Building on the work of others in the field, such as Sigmund Riezler's History of Witchcraft-Trials in Bavaria, published a century earlier, Behringer attempts to examine the persecution of witchcraft without the benefit of modern hindsight. Instead, the author endeavors to place the reader in the mindset of the later Middle Ages to explain how such persecutions were possible. Behringer focuses his study on the Duchy of Bavaria and surrounding regions, which developed the most comprehensive witchcraft legislation in Europe. Many critics at the time the work was published in Germany found Behringer's book groundbreaking, especially for its close detailing of all known persecutions—torture, drownings, burning at the stake, and the like—between 1300 and 1800 in the region. However, as Behringer goes on to show, witch hunting was not a continual occupation during these centuries; a full seventy-five percent of such persecutions occurred between 1586 and 1630. Additionally, Behringer's work examines political and social implications of these witch persecutions, and he delves into the complex religious and spiritual debates between believers in witches and witchcraft and those who were skeptical.

Ulinka Rublack, reviewing the English edition of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria in the Economic History Review, reflected that Behringer's "study was indisputably groundbreaking in the 1980s, [and] is still a model of an integrated approach to the study of witchcraft in a particular region, which few dare to attempt, and even in its English translation is a joy to read." The critic further stated that "Behringer's key finding is that the persecution of witches was strongly linked to agrarian crisis, but not inevitably so." Thus, though harvest failure during the late sixteenth century did lead to some of the persecution recorded in his book, these were not the only factor. Rublack further commented: "The first cluster of executions in the 1590s split court officials lastingly into anti-persecutionists and zealots, each group presenting its argument with equal force." As Edmund M. Kern noted in the Journal of Religion, Behringer demonstrates in his work that "the political debates surrounding witchcraft and its prosecution in the Bavarian state … really had very little to do with causing trials for witchcraft." Kern further explained: "The great strength of the book is its potential for putting to rest simplistic explanatory theories rooted in the superstitious church, misogyny, religious reform, social disciplining, or state building." Instead, Behringer substitutes a multiplicity of causes, including folk culture, agrarian unrest, religious differences, demographic changes in society, and economic and social reorganization. Writing in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Geoffrey Scarre appreciated the author's research techniques: "Behringer's integrative approach to his topic produces an analysis of exceptional depth and richness which overturns a number of previously received ideas about the causes, the chronology and the geographical incidence of witch-prosecution in Germany." One surprising conclusion for Behringer was that, in contrast to the popularly held notion that the Duchy of Bavaria was very aggressive in its prosecution of witchcraft, it was in fact quite moderate as compared to some of its neighbors. Indeed, even the legislation passed in the seventeenth century detailing witchcraft offenses was the subject for great debate within the Duchy. Regarding the victims of such persecutions, Behringer points out that though older women were the primary targets initially, this changed sharply in later times, with social superiors becoming increasingly the target during the 1590s. In later witchhunts, young males of no fixed status were targeted, and children were often the ones to launch an accusation.

Praise for Behringer's witchcraft study came from many quarters. Kern observed: "Widely and justly hailed in the years following its publication in German in 1987, Wolfgang Behringer's book has become the standard work on witchcraft in Bavaria and has, more broadly, redirected scholarly understandings of trials for the crime." Though Kern found fault with the translation, he nonetheless concluded: "An edition in English of this important book is most welcome." Scarre, though, found the translation not only "readable," but also "amply worth the wait." For Scarre, Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria is a highly admirable book: "Well-nigh definitive as a study of witchcraft prosecutions in south-east Germany between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century, Behringer's work also throws dazzling light on the religious, cultural and socio-political background of continental witch-hunting as a whole." Similarly, Gary K. Waite, writing in the Canadian Journal of History, felt that the translators of the English edition "have mediated Behringer's research in clear and forceful English, reinforcing Behringer's reputation as a major contributor to the debate on witchcraft beliefs and persecution in early modern Europe." Further praise came from History reviewer John E. Weakland, who considered Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria both "groundbreaking" and "excellent." Rublack concluded that "Behringer's argument that the precise causes and dynamics of persecution were highly variable and can only be studied at the local level has helped to pave the way for microhistorical approaches."

Behringer himself carries out such a microhistorical approach in Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night, the story of a sixteenth-century mountain village caught in a self-inflicted panic. The Bavarian alpine town of Oberstdorf was filled with legends and rumors of prophets, healers, spirits, specters, and witches. The book focuses on the life of Chonrad Stoeckhlin, who lived from 1549 to 1587 and whose visions of the afterlife and practice of the occult led to his own death, as well as the deaths of a number of village women, for witchcraft. Behringer narrates this story against the backdrop of Alpine myths about spirits of the night, also documenting the misuse of such myths by various German nationalist political movements. Writing in the American Historical Review, Trevor Johnson reported: "In twenty crisp chapters, [Behringer] demonstrates the importance of the Stoeckhlin case for the development of witchcraft prosecution in the region and deftly unpacks the nuances of Alpine legend-motifs from the often careless and naive, if not designing, assumptions of nineteenth and twentieth-century nationalist folklorists." Johnson declared the title a "fascinating book."

In Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History, Behringer moves beyond the borders of Germany to survey the phenomenon of witchcraft past and present. He not only looks at the history of European witchcraft, but also demonstrates how witch-hunts continue to pose a major problem in Africa and among tribal people in other areas of the world, such as Asia and Australia. Behringer attempts to explore the idea of witchcraft as an anthropological phenomenon, discussing how, in the modern world, witch persecutions could still exist. Julian Goodare, writing in Church History, found Witches and Witch-Hunts to be "a compellingly important, profoundly learned, and intensely frustrating book." For Goodare, the frustration came from what he saw as a lack of organization of Behringer's material. However, beyond that, Goodare felt "the book is packed with brief insights for those readers with the patience to search them out," and that "patient readers will find it a fascinating and encyclopedic compendium of detailed information about witch-hunting."



American Historical Review, April 1, 1989, Donald Christopher Nugent, review of Hexenverfolgung in Bayern: Volksmagie, Glaubenseifer und Staatsräson in der frühen Neuzeit, p. 468; April 1, 2001, Trevor Johnson, review of Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night, p. 664.

Canadian Journal of History, April 1, 1999, Gary K. Waite, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria: Popular Magic, Religious Zealotry, and Reason of State in Early Modern Europe, p. 96.

Central European History, January 1, 1999, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 95; January 1, 1999, H.C. Erik Midelfort, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 95; January 1, 2000, review of Shaman of Oberstdorf, p. 425.

Choice, September 1, 1998, R.B. Barnes, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 207; December 1, 1998, review of Shaman of Oberstdorf, p. 748.

Church History, June 1, 1999, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 458; September 1, 2000, review of Shaman of Oberstdorf, p. 666; June 1, 2006, Julian Goodare, review of Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History, p. 476.

Economic History Review, February 1, 1999, Ulinka Rublack, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 179.

English Historical Review, April 1, 1989, Bob Scribner, review of Hexenverfolgung in Bayern, p. 412; April 1, 2005, Ronald Hutton, review of Witches and Witch-Hunts, p. 458.

History, September 22, 1998, John E. Weakland, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 32.

Journal of Ecclesiastical History, July 1, 1999, Geoffrey Scarre, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 578.

Journal of Religion, April 1, 2002, Edmund M. Kern, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 337.

Sixteenth Century Journal, June 22, 2000, Georg Modestin, review of Shaman of Oberstdorf, p. 483.

Social History, October 1, 1999, Craig Koslofsky, review of Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, p. 333.


University of Saarland Web site, (April 13, 2008), faculty profile.

Zeitenblicke, (August 7, 2002), Klaus Graf, "A Virtual Conversation with Wolfgang Behringer."

About this article

Behringer, Wolfgang 1956–

Updated About content Print Article