Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Chair of Early Modern European History

Arndt Wille, M.A.

Arndt Wille M.A.
Doctoral candidate
willearn (at)


Under the Skin. On the Shape and Function of Phantasmatic Body Images in Anti-Jewish and Witchcraft Discourses during the Long Sixteenth Century (1470-1630)

The project investigates the form, function and context of certain discursive and (almost entirely) fictional attributions by the Christian dominant society in the German-speaking world, which, in analogous ways, devalued and demonized early modern Jews and people defamed as witches. Both were regularly associated with blasphemy, pacts with the devil, (symbolic) skin and body anomalies, anti-Christian conspiracies, harmful magic, ritual infanticide and even cannibalism – to name just the most common overlaps. Despite the strong analogies between the two groups, there has been little comparative research on the demonizing fantasy complexes and no systematic analysis of the similarities and differences in terms of content and function.

This is the gap which this dissertation project seeks to fill. It proceeds from the hypothesis that the aforementioned fantasy complexes, far from being insignificant or inexplicable by-products of social conflict and crises, need to be understood as constitutive of ‘reality’. Contributung to the reduction of contingency and the orientation of action, they stabilized fragile identities and ideas of order and were thus deeply embedded in the mechanics of social change. The long sixteenth century offers the opportunity to contextualize the use, effect, and transformation of sometimes centuries-old attributions in processes of social transformation (printing, population growth, state-building processes, the reformation, etc.). On the one hand, ideas of the ‘endangered’ bodies of Christians (through enchantment, poisoning, sucking of blood and other bodily fluids, disease, dismemberment, or desecration) are at the heart of defamatory attributions. On the other, the body of the ‘sinister other’ was perceived as the site of an ‘unbearable pleasure’ in the form of behaviours and feelings considered taboo (and therefore likely projected onto the accused). Bodies were staged as signifiers from which degrees of purity and signs of depravity could be read. The project thus examines the construction of imaginary and fictitious ‘others’ by Christians in order to analyze the consequences for the ‘real’ study groups, combining broader discourse-analytical perspectives with close readings and detailed case studies. In doing so, it draws on a multi-perspective theoretical approach (including cultural anthropology, sociology, social psychology and the history of emotions) to provide a more complex and precise picture of early modern processes of Othering.



Articles and book chapters: