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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Johann Wilhelm Meinhold (1797–1851)

IN the year 1843 appeared from an important Prussian publishing house a small volume, which was received with the liveliest interest by literary Germany. Its title was ‘Maria Schweidler, the Amber-Witch: Being the most Interesting Trial for Witchcraft yet Known: Taken from a Defective Manuscript, made by the Father of the Accused, the Reverend Abraham Schweidler, of Coserow [Usedom Island]; Edited by Reverend W. Meinhold.’ Within its pages was brought up from the superstitious past of the rural life of North Germany, in 1630, a grim yet absorbingly interesting picture and personal drama. Rev. Johann Wilhelm Meinhold, in editing the relic, stated that he had discovered its yellowed and torn pages by merest accident among some literary rubbish in the choir of the old Coserow church. The writer of it, the Reverend Abraham Schweidler, a godly and simple-minded man, had almost lost his only child Maria through a villainous plot on the part of a rejected suitor, aided by an evil and jealous woman of the neighborhood,—the latter confessing herself an actual servant of Satan. After a formal trial, and the beginnings of those direful tortures to induce confession that were then the ordinary accompaniment of German criminal processes, the unfortunate young girl, wholly innocent of the preposterous charge, had confessed it. She had found herself conquered by sheer physical agony, and by her inability to endure the torment of the executioners. Sentenced to the stake, Maria had prepared herself to meet her undeserved doom; and not before she was fairly on the way to the pyre was she rescued by a courageous young nobleman who loved her, and not only made himself her deliverer, but anon her husband and protector for life. The whole narrative was given with a simplicity of accent, and with a minuteness of detail, that precluded doubt as to its being a genuine contribution to the literature of the witchcraft delusion in Europe,—to which Massachusetts furnished an American supplement.

In offering to the public his interesting treasure, the Reverend Pastor Meinhold particularly stated that he had kept the connection between the fragments of Pastor Schweidler’s old manuscript by interpolating passages of his own editorial composition, “imitating as accurately as I was able the language and manner of the old biographer.” The careful Meinhold noted that he expressly refrained from pointing out the particular passages supplied, because “modern criticism, which has now attained to a degree of acuteness never before equaled,” could easily distinguish them.

The work met with the most complete success. ‘Maria Schweidler, the Amber-Witch’ was received with high commendation, as a mediæval document most happily brought to light. Not only did its dramatic treatment attract critical notice: a sharp argument soon arose among those reviewers especially keen in dealing with curious mediæval chronicles, as to the extent of Pastor Meinhold’s “editorial” additions; and as to whether this passage or that were original, or only a nice imitation of the crabbed chronicle. The discussion soon became a literary tempest in a teapot. Meinhold observed for months a strict silence: then he abruptly announced that ‘Maria Schweidler, the Amber-Witch’ was a total fabrication; that he had written the whole story; that no part of it had ever been found in Coserow Church or elsewhere; and further, that he had not been inspired to perpetrate his brilliant fraud by merely the innocent vanity of a story-teller or antiquarian. He had desired to prove to the learned Biblical critics of the date (it was the time of the attacks of Strauss and Baur on the authenticity of certain books of the Scriptures) how untrustworthy was their reasoning, from purely internal evidence, as to the sources of the Canon. If a contemporary could deceive their judgment with a forged romance, how much more might they err in their Biblical arguments! ‘Maria Schweidler, the Amber-Witch’ was thus a country parson’s protest against inerrancy in the “higher criticism” then agitating German orthodoxy. It is interesting to know that Meinhold’s confession was at first rejected; although he soon proved the story to be indeed the result of his scholarship and quaint imagination. Its reputation grew; and the acknowledged imposture only added to its circulation.

Of Meinhold’s life and career, except as the author of ‘Maria Schweidler, the Amber-Witch,’ there is little to be said. His father was a Protestant minister, eccentric almost to the degree of insanity. Wilhelm was born at Netzelkow, Usedom Island, February 27th, 1797. He studied at Greifswald University, was a private tutor at Uekermunde and a curate at Gutzkow. On his marriage he settled first at Usedom, later at Coserow. His literary success attracted the favor of King Frederic Wilhelm IV. of Prussia; but after taking a pastorate at Rehwinkel, in Stargard, Meinhold remained there almost to the close of his life, although he inclined to the Roman Catholic theology as he came to middle years. Another mediæval romance of witchcraft, ‘Sidonia von Bork, the Cloister-Witch,’ is by some critics considered superior to ‘Maria Schweidler, the Amber-Witch’; but it has never met with the popularity of the less pretentious story that gave the Usedom clergyman his wide reputation. It is of interest to add that not only has the translation of the tale by Lady Duff-Gordon been recognized as one of the very best examples of English translation of a fiction,—the translation that does not suggest the conveyance of a tale at second-hand,—but that on the appearance of her version she was credited with the authorship of the story, and the likelihood of a German original denied. From first to last, the drama of Maria Schweidler’s peril and romance seems to have been destined to deceive better even than it was planned to deceive.

The ‘Amber-Witch’ belongs in the same category of “fictions that seem fact” which includes Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ or his ‘History of the Plague in London’; where the appropriate detail is so abundant, and the atmosphere of an epoch and community is so fully conveyed, as to bar suspicion that the story is manufactured. As Mr. Joseph Jacobs happily remarks in his excellent study of Meinhold, and of the history that has kept his name alive among German romanticists:—

  • “Who shall tell where Art will find her children? On the desolate and gloomy shores of the Baltic, the child of a half-crazy father, unfriendly and unfriended as a bursch,—a Protestant pastor with Romanist tendencies,—who would have anticipated from Meinhold perhaps the most effective presentation of mediæval thought and feeling which the whole Romantic movement produced? And the occasion of the production of ‘The Amber-Witch’ was equally unexpected. Meinhold went forth to refute Strauss, and founded on his way a new kingdom in the realm of Romance. It is a repetition of the history of Saul.”