May 28, 1956 |
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Lyndal Roper is an Australian historian. She was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford in 2011. She is a fellow of Oriel College, an Honorary Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and author of a variety of ground-breaking works on witchcraft.
Roper was educated at the University of Melbourne, the University of Tübingen, and King's College London, and was previously a fellow and tutor at Balliol College, Oxford. She is editor of the historical journal Past & Present. She is married to the historian Nicholas Stargardt.
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In 2004, Roper wrote Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany, a study of the period of persecution of people as witches in Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries. The study tries to understand why it took place then, why it was not geographically universal, and what kinds of fears, fantasies and confessions were apparent at the time. As she points out any historical explanation should, in part, explain "why the witch hunts were so heavily concentrated in the German speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, why so many of the victims were women" (around 80%) with - in Germany "a shocking preponderance of old women", which given the life expectancy of the time, meant over forty. "Global religious persecutions will not work: in Germany, Catholic prince-bishoprics were the most fearsome witch-hunters, but in Catholic Italy, Portugal and Spain, the number of deaths were comparatively small. Calvinist Scotland suffered a very serious witch hunt and Lutheran Sweden had a very late outbreak of witch-hunting in which many children were involved."
Roper, in this study, suggests various ways of making sense of the historical record. As she says, she was surprised because she began the study expecting to look at confessions of sex with the devil, flying to the sabbath, or satanic rituals, and while these facets were there, they did not predominate: "what surprised me most when I began to read the detailed trial records of women who were accused of witchcraft was that they talked not about sex and forbidden desire, but about birth, about breastmilk that dried up, about babies who sickened and died, and about the room where the women spent their 'lying in', the period of six weeks after the birth of a child." In fact, as she discovered "the fears that surrounded witches were not just about the deaths of infants and the early weeks of motherhood, but featured animals and crops, in short, fertility itself". The society in which these people lived was one at subsistence level, with a precarious economy, and years of poor harvests. "Marriage often had to be postponed, and many could never afford to wed. To be a fertile wife with plenty of children was to be honoured and respected. To be an old woman frequently meant poverty, infirmity, and humiliating dependence on the young." The image of the witch across Europe was remarkably consistent: "she was an old woman, and she attacked young children".
During this period, Europe was recovering from "the little 'ice age'", from the late 16th century to the mid 17th, "a combination of perishingly cold winters and wet summers and autumns which brought bad harvests as the grain rotted". Everywhere there was "hunger, disease and death". Apocalyptic visions of a society "under assault from the devil made sense". The peasants had "fears of sick cows, outbreaks of hail, mysterious insects and various diseases". To try to stem the problem of a greater population than food supply, it was now that governments enacted regulations forbidding marriages unless couples could support themselves, and introducing legislation to control marriage.
How could the old woman support herself, in a society where women's status was closely tied to their reproductive capacity? Invariable, the old women acted as midwives, helped the mothers with the infants, and could also milk cows; in these capacities, they were placed in the worst possible place when children died, and milk went off; if men were impotent, it was felt that this came from the baleful presence of the infertile woman. And fears of fertility also come into the pictures of the time, where a common theme of the fantasy links the post-menopausal woman with a young man, she sexually desiring him, even though she cannot give him children; there is a terror about failure in fertility, and this is one of the forces driving the persecution, which merges with the fantastic confessions under torture of satanic rites.
Kathryn Hughes, reviewing the book, noted that Roper's "particular triumph is to find a way of bridging an anthropological analysis rooted in the kith and kin networks of the 17th century and a psycho-analytical one forged in the bourgeois household of the 19th".
In her book Oedipus and the Devil, Lyndal Roper examines the actions of both accusers and accused during the witch hunts, examining the historical actors through the use of psychological and psychoanalytic examination of their actions (an approach known as psychohistory).  In the book, Roper asserts that “historical interpretation... nearly always depends at base on the assumption of a measure of resemblance” between ourselves and historical actors and that recognizing some enduring universal human qualities of the mind stands to strengthen interpretations of those people’s world.
- "Witchcraft and the Western Imagination," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 16 (December 2006), pp. 117–41.
- Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. (London, 2004), ISBN 9780300103359. 362pp.
- Dreams and history: The interpretation of dreams from Ancient Greece to Modern Psychoanalysis. (London, 2004) 276pp. (ed. with Daniel Pick).
- Religion and culture in Germany 1400–1800. (Posthumously collected essays of RW Scribner) (2001).
- "Evil imaginings and fantasies: Child-witches and the end of the witch-craze," Past and Present, Vol. 167 (May 2000), pp. 107–39
- "Witchcraft and fantasy in early modern Germany," Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief (Past & Present Publications) (Cambridge, 1996) edited by Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts.
- Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, sexuality and religion in early modern Europe. (Routledge, 1994)
- The holy household: Women and morals in Reformation Augsburg. (Oxford, 1989)
- Lyndal Roper, History Faculty Website
- Lyndal Roper, Balliol College Website
- Review by Katryn Hughes
- Luther: Sex, Marriage and Motherhood by Lyndal Roper(subscription required)
- Discussion with Melvin Bragg as panelist on In Our Time - Witchcraft
- "Nicholas Stargardt Author Biography". Bookbrowse.
- Roper, Lyndal. Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality and Religion in Early Modern Europe (London, 1994).
- Roper,Oedipus and the Devil, 228.