HIGHROAD TO THE STAKE

A Tale of Witchcraft

By Michael Kunze

Translated from the German

By William E. Yuill

University of Chicago Press. 424 pp. $24.95

I MET A White Witch a few years ago, in the waiting-room of a radio station in England. I was going to talk about Macbeth, and she was going to talk about her coven: the producer had failed to notice any connection between us. Holding a cardboard cup of coffee, it was hard to introduce the subject of ice-cold members and unbaptized infants. She was short of breath anyway, having rushed straight from hospital where she had spent the morning having her warts fixed.

I thought of her with guilt while reading this diligent tome about a witchcraft trial in early Bavaria. With guilt, because it drives me to flippancy to read of demoniacal dances lit by circles of rump-fitted candles; while accounts of burnings, impalings, smashed shins and unhinged arm sockets make me feel guilty of voyeurism, even when (or specifically when) they are hedged about with blocks of dense prose.

You cannot judge this book fully without knowing its history. The author, Michael Kunze, is a young Prague-born legal historian who makes a living as a popular songwriter in Germany. In the latter capacity he holds 52 Gold Record Awards and an American Grammy. Appositely, he has translated both Evita and Cats for the German stage. The present book began life in 1981 as Kunze's doctoral dissertation on the trial of the family Pappenheimer (the name implies privy emptiers) who in 1600 were arrested, tortured, and suffered the ultimate punishment in Munich on a trumped-up charge of witchcraft.

The trial, although not outstanding, was clearly well documented. The Munich archives and others have supplied the names of the clerks, the lawyers, the jailers and the judges who took part. Also drawn into the affair were characters from the family's own vagrant circles -- Glazier Jack, Jakob the poacher, Nine-fingers the Beggar -- the operetta-like nicknames of a type familiar to students of the Wu rzburg burnings. They lived, these friends and acquaintances, among the small towns of Lower Bavaria where the Pappenheimer sons and parents were accustomed to travel, emptying a cesspit here, patching a few pots there, as Michael Kunze and his translator tell us.

In a bout of dedicated detective work, Kunze has both studied the terrain and unearthed the public and private lives of many of these individuals. In Munich, the year after his thesis, he published Strasse ins Feuer, the story of the same trial told in semi-documentary scenes with added contextual material. It is this book, translated into English, which the University of Chicago Press has now issued in a handsome format adorned with contemporary woodcuts. We are told it was a best-seller in Germany -- as well it might be, with a popular author, a profoundly local setting and a Gothic attraction to boot. Outside Germany, it may deserve to do a little less well.

Witchcraft is a subject with hidden dimensions that require both deftness and maturity in the handling. Witch hunts of one kind or another appear in every age, and we can learn from the past, provided we demand, in our intolerant way, nothing but the highest standards of our teachers. The author's preface to Highroad to the Stake proffers the Pappenheimer case as a simple tale of humble suffering to which he, the author, has added some background material for the uninitiated; but the treatment that follows is much more ambitious than that. It includes dissertations on God and the Devil, on Jews and the Black Death, and on the course of European politics with particular reference to Spain and to Germany, as well as a general treatise on witchcraft. There is a good deal about Catholics and Lutherans, although sectarian religion played no part in the case. When loaded into the Pappenheimer material -- the arrest, the torture, the spurious confessions, the condemnation and the penalty -- these and other essays occupy a volume of over 400 pages.

On legal matters, I trust Michael Kunze's instinct entirely. But to deal authoritatively with so many other subjects of stature requires the skills of a seasoned historian. To interpret the voice of an early society is even harder, and yet here it is vital. The author must understand his central characters. When I read in these reconstructed vignettes the supposed thoughts of the jailer's wife or the prisoners, I don't feel myself in safe hands. On matters of fact, I stub my toe on other slight but surprising limitations. I don't want a monograph on impaling, but a civilized mention of Vlad the Impaler would have pleased me. It is worth noting that Master Aeneas Silvius Picolominaeus is the same man as Pope Paul II. And I am curious to know why the usual German, French (and alas, Scottish) method of breaking your limbs on the wheel should be unknown in Bavaria where instead, it appears, they tied you down and bounced the wheel off you.

I miss, most of all, an essential perspective. I am willing to learn about the young Duke of Bavaria's horror of witches but should like it at least noticed that the future monarch of England and Scotland had just published a three-volume work on demonology, which was to inspire Shakespeare. There are other matters of symmetry. Given prodigal mention of Sprenger and Bodin, there might have been some space for the views of Wier and Scot against persecution, as well as room for some elegant moderates. "After all," remarked Montaigne at the time, "it is setting a high value on our conjectures to roast a man alive on account of them."

Here, then is a carping review. This is not a book for scholars, nor is it a wise book for the uninitiated. The opus which requires a university's celebration is the admirable thesis from which it was written, suitably prefaced and with a bibliography of relevant works by international authorities. By attempting too much, Michael Kunze has not so much exposed the gallant Pappenheimers as swamped them. :: Dorothy Dunnett is the author of 15 historical and contemporary novels, including, most recently, "Niccolo` Rising" and the forthcoming "Spring of the Ram."