The Gardening Dispute In Innsbruck That Led To A Dramatic Accusation Of Witchcraft


Rivalries can spring up out of anything, even gardening. In witch-age Europe, a bizarre case of witchcraft erupted out of an argument between two green-thumbed women who happened to be neighbors in the city of Innsbruck. The inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, included the dramatic story in their infamous work, The Malleus Maleficarum (published 1487), a treatise on witchcraft, demons and other dark themes. Unfortunately, like most of the tales they told in their book, the story of the two gardeners was highly censored by the authors. They did not give a date for the story and referred to people embroiled in the tale only by their occupation or role. Nevertheless, even with such vital elements missing from the narrative, the tale still has enough drama to fill a soap opera plot.

As stated earlier, the incident occurred in Innsbruck. The authors did not state which Innsbruck, specifically, but Austria is probable, as an unnamed Archduke had an estate in the city. Somewhere in the municipality, there lived two women who had a shared passion—gardening. Although they both enjoyed nature, they did so in two very different ways. One of the two gardeners was a respected woman who had an equally respected husband. She expressed her love of nature by keeping a tidy greenhouse. Adjacent to this greenhouse was a large garden that was kept by a woman of ill repute who, according to rampant rumor, was in an ungodly affair with a local clay worker. By this point, it should already be apparent which of the two women would later be accused of witchcraft.

At an unknown date, the respected greenhouse owner discovered a gaudy sight. To her horror, an ugly path had been created, leading from her greenhouse into her neighbor’s garden. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum did not mention how the path looked, or how it was constructed, but the end result was unpleasant and it damaged the respectable woman’s property. As the greenhouse owner stared at the monstrous path, the woman who maintained the neighboring garden wandered over and struck up a conversation. The garden owner asked directly if she was suspected of creating the path and causing the damage. When the greenhouse owner either remained silent or replied “no,” the keeper of the garden wandered back to her own property. As the woman of ill repute left, the greenhouse owner got the impression that the garden keeper was angry about something.

A few days later, the owner of the greenhouse became seriously ill. She felt pains throughout her torso—in her abdomen, her sides and her chest. When news spread about her pitiful state, the greenhouse owner received a peculiar visitor. It was the clay worker who was known to be in an affair with the woman who owned the garden. The clay worker apparently suspected that his lover could have caused the greenhouse owner’s illness. Therefore, he arrived at the sick woman’s home with supplies with which he could determine if the sickness was natural or supernatural. The clay worker, himself, seemed to have a bit of magical know-how, so he used divination to investigate if the greenhouse woman was a victim of witchcraft. He utilized a particular type of divination, called molybdomancy, which involved pouring molten lead into a water-filled bowl. After reading the shape of metal as it fell into the water, the clay worker confirmed everyone’s worst fears—it was witchcraft.

This suspicious clay worker apparently could divine that the witchcraft was brought about by magical charms, which the woman who kept the garden had allegedly planted around the greenhouse owner’s house. The clay worker led the sick woman’s husband to the threshold of the estate, where they found an ominous hole in the structure. The husband reached his hand into the space and felt a slick, semi-solid mass. When he pulled it out, the husband found in his hand a wax figure. What immediately stood out about the macabre doll was the two pins that were stuck all the way through the sides of the figure. The husband reached back into the hole and discovered that there was still more to be found. Along with the doll, he removed several bags that were filled with eerie ingredients, such as grains, seeds and pieces of bone.

Following the advice of the clay worker, the husband piled up the bags and the doll with some firewood and set it all ablaze. After the charms were incinerated, the owner of the greenhouse began to feel better. She no longer felt the pains in her torso. Even so, she still did not feel completely well and her family was concerned over her still-present lack of appetite. When the clay worker learned of the woman’s persisting ill health, he sadly concluded that he must have missed some of the witch’s hidden charms. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum ended the tale there, not mentioning the ultimate fates of the greenhouse owner or the gardener accused of witchcraft.

The Malleus Maleficarum presented this dramatic tale as a spoken testimony supposedly delivered by the still-sick greenhouse owner to one of the inquisitors who wrote the book. If you would like to read the story in the inquisitors’ own words, it can be found in Part II, question 1, chapter 11 of the Malleus Maleficarum.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A Visit to the Witch, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846–11–1902–11), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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