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Thoughts after reading Sidonia The Sorceress – Willhelm Meinhold 1848

Sidonia von Borcke was born in 1548 into one of the noblest families in Pomerania. At the time Pomerania, a territory now shared between Germany and Poland, was one of a number of semi-autonomous Duchies in the region. In the 17th century Pomerania was portioned between Sweden and Prussia, and was caught up at the centre of almost a hundred years of warfare before eventually being subsumed into Prussia in the 18th century. Since that time the breakdown of independent Pomerania and the life of Sidonia von Borcke have been closely linked in folklore and later in fiction. 

 

She lived for 72 years and for the most part very little is known about the majority of her life, with the exception of being named in a number of court cases regarding land or inheritance disputes. The most documented part of Sidonia’s life is its conclusion, in which she was first indicted, and then tried and executed for witchcraft in 1620. The status of her family in Pomeranian society making it a cause celebre which stood out even at a time when witch hunts were at their height across Europe and accusations such as those made against Sidonia were daily events.

The thousand pages of transcripts of her confession, obtained through torture on the rack, and her trial, have been the source of a number of fictional accounts of her life, the most well known being the novel Sidonia von Bork, originally written in German by Willhelm Meinhold in 1848. It was published in an English translation as Sidonia the Sorceress in 1849 by Jane Francesca Egree, later to become Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde. The early editions gained a cult status in sections of British society and were taken up particularly by members of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood; Burne Jones produced portraits of Sidonia and of her sister Clara. An ornately decorated edition of Sidonia was published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1893.

 The novel itself is divided into three books, treating the various stages of Sidonia’s life in three very distinctive styles. Book 1 covers, in brief, Sidonia’s childhood, and concentrates mainly on Sidonia’s introduction at the court of Duke Banim, then ruler of Pomerania. It is a book high in detail on court ceremonial, of chivalry and courtly romance. The descriptions of parades and court life are full of colour and detail.

 Meinhold’s subtitle for the novel describes Sidonia as “The supposed destroyer of the whole reigning ducal house of Pomerania”. In his own preface he asks that the reader “will pardon me if I do not here distinctly declare whether Sidonia be history or fiction”, however the premise of the novel is that all the eventual accusations made against Sidonia are true, and as such he uses the first book to outline the motives behind her later actions.

Kelmscott Press Edition – Sample Page 
Sidonia von Borke by Daniel Chodowicki (1726-1801)  >>

We see in Book 1 a conflict between Sidonia’s liberal upbringing outside the court, in which she is encouraged by her father to aim high and fear no one, and the rigidity of the social structure at court. At this point Meinhold conveniently overrides real history since actually Sidonia’s father died when she was three years old. Here her father is shown as the primary influence over the style her education and more importantly over her rebellion against religious puritanism at a time when Pomerania is in the process of converting to a strict form of Lutheran Protestantism. It is essentially this conflict that Meinhold sets up as the background to her later career and the motive for her supposed crimes in destroying the house of Griffin. We are shown that both her relationship with the Duke’s son Ernest and the burgomaster’s son Johann whilst inappropriate are logical in her world view. Her natural exuberance is seen as being flirtatious and eventually inappropriate, and although popular it leads to her eventually being ostracised from society and her eventual expulsion from the ducal courts. Sidonia’s constant mantra throughout the novel is that she is “a castle and land dowered maiden” and she uses this to expect and demand a certain level of treatment and respect that is repeatedly denied to her.

 Book 2 describes Sidonia’s life in exile from the court. This is probably the most fanciful of the books, having almost certainly no basis in any detail of Sidonia’s life. It sees her living “Maid Marian like” at the heart of a gang of outlaws, living wild and robbing from villages and travellers. It is set in a lawless time in Pomerania during which we 
understand that the new Duke, having spent wildly on new Palaces and now angered by the state’s unwillingness to raise further taxes to fund his extravagant lifestyle has, as revenge, shut down the courts and judiciary system. This book juxtaposes this fictional aspect of Sidonia’s life with accurate details of the history of the Pomeranian Rulers, listing dates of births, marriages and deaths and tracking the various schisms within the ruling family which resulted in two and at times three separate states forming within Pomerania. As a history book it becomes somewhat tedious and as an account of Sidonia’s life increasingly unbelievable. We need to be reminded clearly at this stage that it is a novel that we are reading rather than the biography as which it is presented.

 The final book is based on the last twenty years of Sidonia’s life, in which she enters the convent of Marienfleiss, and deals with the actions that eventually led to the accusations of witchcraft against her. Marienfleiss apparently following the Reformation was essentially an old people’s home for the maiden aunts of Pomerania. It may be supposed that this final book is based largely on her confession and trial, and thus, of the three sections, the one based most on the actual details of Sidonia’s life. The narrative in this book treats Sidonia’s confession very much as accepted fact, and portrays a convent, and later a whole region living in fear of Sidonia’s considerable magical powers over life and death.

 Her trial took place at the court in Stettin (now Szczecin). The recent unexpected deaths of several Pomeranian dukes and the then widespread superstition in the Duchy of Pomerania resulted in a public prepared to blame the dukes’ deaths on Sidonia’s alleged witchcraft. This belief was strengthened posthumously with the eventual extinction of the Pomeranian dynasty in 1637.

 The preface to Sidonia’s trial was that trial of Wolde Albrechts, who had been her maid in Marienfleiss. In 1619 she was charged with witchcraft and during five or more days of torture on the rack she confessed further accused Sidonia and two other women of witchcraft. Wolde was burned at the stake on 9 October 1619.

Sidonia von Bork – Burne Jones
 This confession was used to open the trial of Sidonia, who whilst imprisoned at Marienfliess, had attempted an escape and a suicide, both failed. In December 1619 72 charges were drawn up, the most important of which were

  • murder of her nephew, Otto von Borcke
  • murder of priest David Lüdecke
  • murder of duke Philipp II of Pomerania-Stettin (died 1618)
  • murder of Magdalena von Petersdorff, prioress at Marienfliess
  • murder of Matthias Winterfeld, gatekeeper at Marienfliess
  • consultation of soothsayers
  • knowledge of future and distant events
  • sexual contacts with the devil, who allegedly materialised in pets such as Sidonia’s cat Chim

During January, about fifty witnesses were questioned, and Sidonia was appointed a defender, Elias Pauli who drafting a defence showing that the allegedly murdered had died natural deaths. By late June, six months after the opening of the trial the court was permitted to use torture. Under torture in late July Sidonia confessed and the verdict read death by dragging to the execution site and burning. Sidonia withdrew her confession and was tortured to confess again on 16 August.

 The final verdict, announced on 1 September 1620, almost a year after her arrest was for death by decapitation followed by burning of the body. This was carried out in Stettin shortly after.  

The novel sets Sidonia up in the first book as an anti-heroine to whom we can relate and to some degree admire, she may be a victim of her upbringing, she may antagonise the establishment, but she is widely popular with her peers. She makes mistakes, although I was genuinely surprised by her affair with Appelmann, which I found out of character. It was necessary really to set up the plot within Book 2. For all her education and spirit I found her depicted as much too gullible throughout the second book. She continually allowed herself to be used by Appelmann, and the independence and self-control she shows in Book 1 vanishes without sufficient explanation. Again the explanation for her transition from outlaw in Book 2 to powerful witch in book 3 is avoided. We are led to believe that she learned witchcraft from Wolde and others, but the hows, whens and wheres are too easily glossed over. The Sidonia in Book 1 that you are able love and befriend is lost by the end as the book gradually moved from opening as a classic gothic tale to closing as the novelisation of a historical record. As it moved towards its inevitable (inevitable since we knew, a priori, the eventual outcome) I found that I really lost interest firstly in Sidonia and finally in the novel itself.  

As a contribution towards the retelling and rediscovery of the seventeenth century obsession with witches and witch finding, and curiously it was first published in the same year that Ainsworth published The Lancashire Witches it is an interesting read, however as a sustained gothic novel I have to say eventually after an excellent start it moved from flowing fiction to a mere catalogue of recorded events and overall I found it inconsistent and disappointing.

 

 

 

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