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Authors: Tobsha Learner

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The Witch of Cologne

BOOK: The Witch of Cologne
9.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

For Eva and Esther.

In lebn zeinen wir ale helden.

In life we are all heroines.

Table of Contents

Cover Page




– KETER – The Infinite

Cologne, January 1665

The Holy City of Cologne

Ruth pours the boiling water

Dear Benedict

Ruth stands outside the narrow house

The horse’s velvet nostrils flare

Ruth squats next to her winter herbs

– CHOCHMA – Revelation

Das Grüntal, The Von Tennens’ Hunting Lodge February 1665

Dear Benedict

– BINAH – Reason

Detlef stares at the globe of

Dear Benedict

Dear Benedict


– CHESED – Mercy

Müller lies on his back

Fifteen miles away

Das GrüNtal

Das Wolkenhaus, Some Miles From The Von Tennens’ Country Estate

Carlos’s hand sweeps through the air

– GEVURAH – Justice


Maximilian Heinrich

The onlookers are gathered in

The swaying of the carriage

The heavy drapes are drawn against the cold afternoon

Maximilian Heinrich wakes

The handsome young musician

– TIPHERET – Equilibrium

Deutz, June 1665

The loaf of golden challah

Carlos bravely places the morsel of stuffed pig’s intestine

Ruth and Detlef lie on the straw


Condensation drips down the grey-green stone walls

They shelter in a ditch

– NETZACH – Victory

Das Wolkenhaus, Late Winter, 1666

They say they will declare the scourge

Is there no end to the decrees

The small but ornate banquet hall

The acrid smell of amber

The only light seeps in

The point of light slowly grows

– HOD – glory

Nieuwendijk, Amsterdam, Spring 1670

Leopold bends over a tall pale pink orchid

My dear Brother

The coach rolls to a halt

A chill whistling through the crack

Gerhard, exasperated

There has to be a way!

The spy, Georges

Detlef’s body

The old woman carefully presses the gold coin

Jam waiting, my love

– YESOD – Truth-speaking

Rampjaar, The Hague, Winter, 1672

Twentieth of August, 1672

– MALCHUT – Kingdom

The Hague, Spring, 1683

The youth kneels





About the Author

Also by Tobsha Learner


About the Publisher


Although I have chosen to include real historical figures within this story, it is a fictional narrative set against a backdrop of both accuracy and exaggeration, written with the utmost respect and affection for my characters and the cities and countries they live in. I ask readers to forgive any shortcomings as they are entirely unintentional.

* Indicates real historical figures.
Midwife, 23, only child of Elazar ben Saul.
Ruth’s assistant, 15.
Ruth’s father, chief rabbi of the Jewish quarter of Deutz.
Ruth’s deceased mother.
Ruth’s old Spanish nursemaid.
Elazar’s assistant, Polish, 21, follower of the self-proclaimed Messiah, Shabbetai Zevi.
Canon to the cathedral, 33, cousin to Archbishop Maximilian Heinrich, a Wittelsbach aristocrat.
Priest, Detlef’s clerk.
Spanish Dominican, inquisitor under the Inquisitor-General Pascual de Aragon.
Carlos’s secretary.
(b 1621)
Archbishop of Cologne and Bonn, a Wittelsbach prince of the house of Bavaria.
Minister to the cathedral, spy for the French. (Arrested by Leopold I in 1674.)
Detlef’s mistress, wife to the merchant Ter Lahn von Lennep.
Birgits husband, cloth importer, powerful town councillor.
DAS GRÜUNTAL (Green Valley)
Detlef’s elder brother who has inherited the family estate.
Count von Tennen’s gamekeeper and lover.
Emperor Leopold’s errant nephew, 17.
Italian actor, 18, one of a travelling troupe patronised by the Hapsburgs.
Detlef’s housekeeper at his country residence.
Portuguese/Dutch philosopher who was excommunicated by the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam. A humanist, Spinoza was an important expositor of Descartes’ work.
(b 1639)
Doctor and a close colleague of Spinoza. (Ruth apprentices herself to him in his early years as a medical student.)
Mentor to many. A radical who ran the Latin school where Spinoza taught and where Kerckrinck (and Ruth) studied.
Councillor pensionary of Holland from 1653-72. Led the Dutch Republic after the end of its war of independence.
Holy Roman Emperor of the Hapsburg Empire from 1658-1705.
(d 1703)
Court Jew (
) and purveyor-general to Leopold I.

The structure of power in late seventeenth-century Cologne.

Etching of Cologne published in 1670 by Créspy in Paris, from a woodcut by H.R.M Deutsch (1548).

Etching of Cologne in the seventeenth century, showing the Holy Free Imperial City on the far bank of the Rhine and the area containing Deutz on the near bank.

The Infinite

‘The end is embedded in the beginning’

Cologne, January 1665

rithing in labour, the pregnant woman screams. Sweat beads her brow. In the flickering candlelight her contorted face bears a strong resemblance to the icon which hangs above the curtained bed: Saint Ursula, one of Cologne’s many saints, martyred for her virginity.

‘Breathe deeply.’

The midwife, Ruth bas Elazar Saul, daughter of the chief rabbi of Deutz, runs her fingers over the taut womb, her hands coated with a slippery ointment made of lily oil, birthwort and saffron.

‘Breathe, it will help ease the pain,’ she instructs. A strand of hair falls from under her twin-peaked damask cap, the telltale bonnet of the Jewess. The two points etch a silhouette of horns against the shadowy wall as she bends to examine the position of the baby.

Slipping her fingers into the groaning woman, the midwife feels how much the cervix has dilated. Her assistant, Miriam, a homely fifteen year old, wipes the patient’s brow and glances anxiously at Ruth. The woman has been
labouring for over twenty hours and the baby should have descended by now. Only too aware of the implications for a Jewish midwife should the birthing of a wealthy Catholic patient go wrong, Miriam discreetly nods towards the birthing hooks: three curved steel instruments by the hearth, sinister in the firelight. Used as a last resort, they are for looping around the head of the baby to force its emergence.

‘No, Miriam, not yet,’ Ruth answers the silent query.

The young woman twists suddenly. The purple veins of her huge belly strain as she grasps the bedposts behind her head. Beneath the greasy skin Ruth traces the geography of the baby, her long fingers searching for the bulge of the head, the tiny knots of the spine and the bones of the feet. Cupping her hands over the vast orb she locates the buttocks, which are pointing towards the cervix. Massaging gently, she tries to manipulate the child so that it will turn, but stubbornly it remains in position.

‘Breech,’ Ruth murmurs softly to Miriam, whose eyes widen in alarm.

The midwife steps away from her patient and opens a leather satchel. Curiously Oriental in design, it has a single letter in Hebrew embossed on the front. With her back turned deliberately away from the bed Ruth lifts out a smoky glass jar filled with a greenish-grey powder.

Crouching, she carefully begins to pour the ashes onto the floor, creating a wide circle which encompasses the writhing woman and the assistant. As she sprinkles with her left hand, she chants the Hebrew names of the three angels—Snwy, Snsnwy and Smnglf—under her breath.

Despite Ruth’s concentration, a fluttering panic begins to rise up in her. It is Lilith, she thinks, who is creeping into her fears. Lilith: the demon that strangles newborns and takes the lives of labouring mothers. The secret embodiment of all her uncertainties, all her desires; the nebulous phantom who has
haunted her since she was a young girl and witnessed her own mother perish in childbirth. Ruth imagines she feels the air shift above her; she can almost sense the invisible presence of the fiend, almost smell the sulphurous breath drifting over her left shoulder.

This is not good reason, the midwife reminds herself, and summons the cold clarity of her medical training to expel the dread that is squeezing up through her muscles. But the image of the demon persists: the undulating seductress seems to be staring at her from every corner of the dark wood-panelled room, her misty outline hovering at the edge of Ruth’s vision.

From outside comes the eerie cry of a screech owl. Looming through the grey dawn its white wide-eyed face is suddenly at the window as it thuds blindly into the glass. It is Lilith’s totem, the creature she transforms into to suckle at the breasts of young children or the dugs of goats. Crouching by the bed Miriam gasps in fear, her hand reaching up for the Magen David lying hidden beneath her robe. Ruth, holding down her terror, doggedly continues the hex against the demon.

A second later a long shadow flits suddenly across the ceiling. Shrieking, the labouring woman curls up in agony. Miriam fights to pin down her resistant limbs. Determined, Ruth grits her teeth and completes the circle, her low mantra growing in volume. Soft grey ash meets soft grey ash as the circle of protection is sealed. Sitting back on her haunches, the midwife breathes a sigh of relief. She has taken all possible precautions now, spiritual as well as medical.

She stands and rinses her hands in the washbasin, then steps out to the small chamber that leads off the bedroom.

Meister Franz Brassant rises to his feet. A large man in his early fifties, he is at least twenty-five years older than his wife, nevertheless he wears the fashionable clothes of a younger man:
an embroidered velvet waistcoat over a silk undershirt, breeches edged in lace; the uniform of an affluent bürger. Brassant sits on the town council, the Gaffeln, and is connected to the four most powerful merchant families of Cologne.

‘How is she?’ An odour of stale sweat and fear rises from his clothes, still damp from his earlier rush home through the rain.

Knowing there is no time for protocol Ruth decides to trust in the intelligence of the man standing before her. Fastening her gaze to his she pauses for a moment, reading the intensity of the flickering trepidation in his eyes.

‘I will have to cut,’ she answers bluntly.

Shocked, Meister Brassant breathes in deeply, his hands blindly searching for his wife’s coral and silver rosary which he has strung around his thick neck. ‘It is not my custom to allow a Jewess to touch my wife, or even to be permitted into my abode, but they say you are the best in the province.’

‘I am a trained midwife not a miracle-worker.’

‘To not believe in miracles is to blaspheme.’

‘I believe in
scientia nova,
Meister Brassant. Knowledge and nature. To me, these are the proven properties.’

‘Prayer and faith are the domain of man. All men.’

‘We are wasting time. If the matrix is not peeled back, the child will suffocate and your wife will perish.’

Brassant stares at the small, dark and strangely compelling figure standing before him. This is not a breed of woman he has met before and yet he is expected to surrender the life of his young wife and child to her. His eyes come to rest on a gold crescent pinned at Ruth’s neck—the mark of Spain. She must have Sephardic blood in her. Immediately his demeanour softens: he has traded with the Spanish Jews of Amsterdam and trusts them.

‘You have my permission. But if she or the child dies, you die with them.’

Ruth hardly pauses, her only concern for the patient she attends. She nods and, with a detachment that implies no servitude, curtsies.

‘I will pray anyway,’ Brassant adds as the midwife steps back through the darkened doorway. Just then the labouring woman cries out. Shuddering, the gold merchant crosses himself and kisses the rosary. He has already lost two wives and four children and he dreads the loss of another.

Sinking to his knees he prepares himself for a desperate bargain with God. After all, wasn’t it only last month that he’d paid a hundred Reichstaler for his sins, as much as he hates donating anything to Archbishop Maximilian Heinrich, whom he—like most of his fellow bürgers—regards as an untrustworthy political opponent rather than a spiritual guide. Times are complicated indeed, Brassant thinks, when you have to rely on a Jewish witch to save your wife and a trumped-up French sympathiser in a gilded vestment for redemption.

The copper surgical knife, fashioned by Ruth herself, floats in a cauldron of boiling water slung over the small fire. There is a strong smell of burning cloves. Meister Brassant’s personal medic has insisted on smoking the small bedchamber, holding fast to the Christian superstition that the aroma will ward off evil spirits who could steal the soul of the child as it enters the worldly domain. The midwife, having studied medicine in Amsterdam, a city renowned for its innovation in the new science, has her doubts. But her old mentor, Dirk Kerckrinck, has recently sent her a thesis suggesting that disease may be carried by the invisible aether that fills the air. Because of this hypothesis she tolerates the quack’s bunches of smouldering herbs that make the air nearly unbreathable. Besides, now that she has called on the old ways as a precaution, it would be a hypocrisy not to allow the medic his quirks.

Stepping into the circle of ashes Ruth again feels between the woman’s thighs. The baby has dropped further and the patient’s vulva is stretched paper-thin. If she does not cut, the woman will tear. Yet she will never survive the baby emerging buttocks first.

Ruth pauses. She has attended a breech birth like this before, in one of Amsterdam’s dockside slums with Dirk Kerckrinck. But then the patient was an unmarried housemaid, not the wife of a wealthy bürger. And while Kerckrinck, son of a nobleman from Hamburg, could afford an accident, for Ruth a mistake now means an instant death sentence.

The midwife recalls how Kerckrinck, having failed to turn the baby from the outside, decided to turn it from within. An audacious move for a student with only two years’ training. Ruth, dubious, had argued against it while both of them pored over Galen’s definitive anatomy manual,
De usu partium.
Ignoring her qualms, the young medical student had cut the skin of the vulva then slipped enough of his fingers inside to manipulate the unborn child while she assisted from outside the womb. Both the maid and her child lived. In acknowledgment of its miraculous survival, Kerckrinck had christened the baby Moses.

Abigail Brassant groans again, pleading with Ruth to end her agony. Even in extreme pain the young woman radiates a luminosity which reminds Ruth of the Nordic princesses described in Herodotus’
The young girl must have been a prize for the old man waiting anxiously in the next room. Chaucer would have called it the marriage of January and May: a transaction in which romantic love is traded for security. The thought depresses her. For all her fierce practicality and intellectual rigour, she has not been able to exorcise the tantalising possibility of the existence of a soulmate: a man who would match her in both ideals and vision. Rather than face the inevitable disappointment she
believes an arranged marriage would bring, Ruth has secretly wedded herself to a vow of celibacy.

She reaches for a crystal bottle containing an elixir of pure alcohol mixed with thorn apple and tinctured with laburnum, a concoction she has invented herself. She pours a few drops onto a handkerchief and places it over the young woman’s nose and mouth. A second later Abigail Brassant calms. With pupils large and dilated she stares up at the fresco painted on the ceiling while Miriam supports her weight. A fresco which depicts the honourable Meister Franz Brassant as a rather overweight and decrepit Perseus slaying the gorgon, the midwife notes wryly.

Remembering the diagram she studied in Soranus’ book on midwifery, Ruth takes up the scalpel and carefully makes one diagonal cut at the side of the vagina to open the vulva further. Opiated, her patient barely flinches as blood splashes her white thighs.

Midwife and assistant work together until finally the purple pasty curve of the head appears, pushing the vaginal lips out until they are almost transparent. As the baby begins to emerge Ruth realises that the pulsating birth cord is wrapped around its neck.

Knowing that the child’s death means their own, Miriam stifles a scream with her fist. But Ruth, emotionless, picks up two small copper pegs. She manipulates the slippery head, now half-hanging from the groaning woman, until she can reach the umbilical cord. Clamping it in two places, she deftly cuts the fleshy lifeline and pulls it clear from the neck. Then, carefully, she pushes her fingers inside and eases the child’s passage so that one shoulder comes clear of the vagina then the other.

‘Push,’ Ruth urges the young woman who is now delirious. The woman makes one last effort and the rest of the baby shoots out into the midwife’s hands.

The baby lies in her grasp, his skin coated in white pungent vernix, his genitals swollen and bulbous, his face blue, lifeless.

Covering the baby’s nose and mouth with her mouth, Ruth sucks the viscous fluids clear from the child’s airways then spits them into a bowl. Skilfully she swings the baby upside down, slaps it on the bottom.

Silence. Not even a whimper from the small body dangling lifelessly from her clenched hands. Abigail Brassant moans, her eyes half-open. Convinced they are both doomed Miriam falls to her knees.

Ignoring the young woman’s hysterics, Ruth slaps the baby again. This time a thin miaow sounds and a rosy hue floods the child, transforming the mauve flesh to pink. Smiling for the first time in hours, the midwife holds up the baby as it coughs then begins bawling.

‘It is a boy,’ she tells Meister Brassant who has appeared in the doorway. ‘And he is healthy.’

The merchant rushes over and gathers the child into his arms, age abruptly etching his face. Then, to Ruth’s surprise, he weeps with relief.

Suddenly exhausted, she sinks to the ground.

The town crier, a corpulent Westphalian who lost his left eye in the Thirty Years’ War, steps delicately over the stream of sewage running alongside the wet cobblestones. Curling his fat fingers firmly around the handle of a large brass horn he sounds in five o’clock morning-tide. Nothing stirs except for a large pig snuffling at a pile of icy turnip peelings and old cabbage leaves thrown against the wall of a beer hall. The town crier yawns and, stretching his stiff bones, squints up at Meister Brassant’s windows. There is a
light shining in the mistress’s bedroom and the maid has hung a garland of winter poppies over the balcony. A child has been born, a male child. The town crier smiles; with luck he will get a jug of mulled wine and a kiss if he knocks at the back gate, maybe even a little more. Whistling, he kicks aside the cabbage leaves and makes his way across the narrow lane.

While the town crier stands at the wooden shutters waiting for the maid to respond to his tapping, Ruth, her face concealed by a large hood, steps out of the servants’ quarters further down the lane followed by Miriam clutching a covered basket full of instruments of midwifery. The grey of their cloaks blends perfectly with the muted hues of the high rickety houses, precarious towers of wooden beams and plaster which seem to reach out to one another across the passageway, almost blotting out the sky overhead. The two women, painfully aware of being trespassers, fear prickling their scalps, glide across the street towards a waiting cart. Its outline is barely discernible through the hovering mist which has lingered on through the night. Both women move silently with the practice of a race which, over centuries, has learnt to survive by making itself invisible.

BOOK: The Witch of Cologne
9.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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