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Shaman of Oberstdorf

Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night
Wolfgang Behringer. Translated by H. C. Erik Midelfort


BUY Paper · 203 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813918532 · $27.50 · Jun 2000

Shaman of Oberstdorf tells the fascinating story of a sixteenth-century mountain village caught in a panic of its own making. Four hundred years ago the Bavarian alpine town of Oberstdorf, surrounded by the towering peaks of the Vorarlberg, was awash in legends and rumors of prophets and healers, of spirits and specters, of witches and soothsayers. The book focuses on the life of a horse wrangler named Chonrad Stoeckhlin [1549–1587], whose extraordinary visions of the afterlife and enthusiastic practice of the occult eventually led to his death—and to the death of a number of village women—for crimes of witchcraft.

In addition to recounting Stoeckhlin's tale, this book examines the larger world of alpine myths concerning ghosts and other spirits of the night, documenting how these myths have been abused by German political movements over the years. As an introduction to modern German witchcraft research, as a study of the local impact of the Counter Reformation, and as a historical investigation into popular culture, Behringer's book has the advantage of telling a compelling individual story amidst larger discussions of peasant raptures, magical healing, and unfamiliar alpine notions such as the "furious army," the "wild hunt," popular bonfire festivals, and eerie echoes of pagan Wotan.

Wolfgang Behringer is one of the premier historians of German witchcraft, not only because of his mastery of the subject at the regional level, but because he also writes movingly, forcefully, and with an eye for the telling anecdote. Reminiscent of such classics as The Cheese and the Worms and The Return of Martin Guerre, Shaman of Oberstdorf is an unforgettable look at early modern German folklore and culture.

Reviews:


Behringer's book is one of the most vivid and dramatic pieces of microhistory I have ever read.... The fluent and fast-moving narrative will appeal to many readers with its human interest aspect. The author places this story in its historical contexts, from folklore to the Counter Reformation, so that the fate of Chonrad Stoekhlin illuminates rural life in early modern Germany.

Peter Burke, Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

This story is better documented, more sophisticated in interpretation, and in some respects better told than that of the Italian miller, Menocchio, that Carlo Ginzburg presents in his justly famous The Cheese and the Worms. Behringer is the premier historian of the witchcraft panic in this part of Germany and has a vast command of local knowledge that enables him to cotextualize this gripping story in an extemely concrete and colorful way.

Thomas A. Brady, Jr., University of California, Berkeley

About the Author: 

Wolfgang Behringer teaches at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn and is the author of numerous books on German history and witchcraft.

H.C. Erik Midelfort is Julian Bishko Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the author of Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany [Virginia].

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