Child Murderers within the wider Visual Culture of Infanticide and Cannibalism

Keywords: Der Kinderfresser, Wild Man, Witchcraft, Midwives, Cannibalism

This Christmas, did your children make it to the naughty or nice list?

The image of sixteenth-century Der Kinderfresser (‘the child eater’) is not dissimilar to the modern idea of Santa with large belly, large belt over a long coat, and large black boots, carrying a large sack. However, in Der Kinderfresser’s bag are not toys for good children, it is full of naughty children to be eaten. Der Kinderfresser was used to scare children into behaving and to show obedience to their parents. For example, Lorentz Schultes’s Der Kinderfresser, published in Augsburg, c.1600 reads: ‘If you will not be still, I will give you to this man, Therefore be quiet, and come inside, so that he will not find you outside whining.’ (‘So du dann nit wild schweigen eben/So will ich dich dem Mann auch geben/Drumb schweig sein still, komb in das Hauβ/Das er dich nicht find greinend drauβ.’ (Translation and transcription by Margaret Brannan Lewis).

Abraham Bach the Elder, Der Kinderfresser, 1651/1654
Woodcut,  29.1 x 37.4 (sheet),
Germanischen Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg. Source: Wikimedia

Der Kinderfresser was sometimes depicted with wild hair and bushy beard which also recalls the mythological hairy Wild Man who was also described as stealing and eating unbaptised babies (Colin, 1999, p. 8). Their legendary malevolence throughout the Bavarian Alps would have presented a formidable threat to those in the region. This threat was used to control small children’s behaviour and to deter them from entering dark forests where they could be abducted or killed (Husband, 1980, p. 5). The mythology of Saturn eating his children appears to have contributed to the model for representations and folklore surrounding child abduction and cannibalism (Zika, 2007, p. 214).

Georg Pencz, The Seven Planets: Saturn (‘Die Sieben Planeten: Saturn’) Detail
 c. 1530-1550, 34.8  21.8 cm,
The British Museum, London.

Prints about children being abducted, murdered, and eaten were popular in sixteen-century Germany. They reflected the wider visual culture. The obsession with infanticide during this period was further reflected in stories and pictorial representations of Jews drinking the blood of baptised children, witches, werewolves, Turks, and others abducting and killing children and sometimes eating them or cooking them for magical potions (Grössinger, 1997, p. 131; Wheatcroft, 1993, p. 25). The Jewish community were previously used as a scapegoat for the murder of children and were even accused of eating them. After the Jewish community was decimated within the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire, a new conspiracy was created by targeting other marginalised individuals as a scapegoat. Authorities including law-makers, magistrates and churchman created the idea of the diabolical plot against society caused by witches in the service of the Devil.

An anonymous seven-page pamphlet published in 1589 Cologne describes the acts of sorcery in that year in the German territories. The pamphlet includes stories of witches murdering many children. A witch in Mergenthal, eastern Germany, was said to have killed eighty children over forty years (p. 3). Although she was not said to be a midwife, the text read: ‘there were no pious midwives to be found around Mergenthal for ten miles, for they all were witches.’ (‘es were keine fromme hebamme umb Mergenthal/ auff zehen meilen zu finden/ dann es alle hexen weren.’) (p. 4). The pamphlet further stated that eight witches were executed in Swabia for the murder of over a hundred and forty children. Again, the pamphlet mentions two of the witches were midwives (p. 4). The link between midwives, witches and the murder of children had at least been established by the time Malleus Maleficarum was printed in 1486 (Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, p.27). However, David Harley argued that the number of midwives accused of witchcraft was minimal (Harley, 2001, p. 49). This is not to say that there was not a connection made between midwifery and witchcraft amidst the popular imagination.

The prints of infanticide may have also been inspired by the real fears of cannibalism and infanticide heightened during times of famine (Aberth, 2013, p. 33). The connection between famine with fears of cannibalism of children was further illustrated in a broadsheet of the Livonian War of 1558-83, where the foreground depicted a man devouring a small baby. As this print highlights, children were repeatedly portrayed being consumed whole to accentuate to its audience that an innocent child was being cannibalised and thus emphasising the depravity of the act. Therefore, the fear surrounding infanticide was fuelled by the wider preoccupation of cannibalisation.

Anonyous, “Ein Erschröckenliche doch Warhaftige grausame hungers nott und Pestilenzische plag so im Landt Reissen vnnd Littaw furgangen im 1571 Jar” (A frightful but nevertheless truthful cruel emergency of hunger and pestilential trouble which happened in such a way in the country of the Russians and Lithuania in year 1571), Augsburg,
Zentralbibliothek, Zürich, Source: wikimedia

The high child mortality rate during this period possibly explains the interest in such narratives. On average, half of all children would die by the age of ten (Spierling, 1989, p. 124). However, these numbers reflect European wide child mortality rates and therefore is not enough to explain the fears and fascination experienced in sixteenth-century Germany. Larry S. Milner stated that infanticide became a serious crime in Germany in comparison to other countries (Milner, 2000, p. 92). The introduction of the 1532 criminal code, Constitutio criminalis Carolina, resulted in an increase in infanticide persecutions and became punishable by execution by beheading or drowning (Harrington, 2009, pp. 54, 68). However, infanticide similarly became punishable by death across Europe (Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 277; Hsia, 1989, p. 145).

The fear of violence against children also outstretched reality. Margaret Brannan Lewis argued that the fear of violence towards children was further fuelled by crime literature and illustrated broadsheets. Publishers sought to monetise on stirring fears and their publications increased infanticide persecutions (Lewis, 2016, p. 84). These publications would have created the perception that there was an increase in crime during this period. Publishers of broadsheets played on the emotions of their audience by portraying the most vulnerable as victims. Victims were often babies portrayed naked to emphasise their vulnerability as seen in Lucas Cranach’s print (Lewis, 2016, p. 86). Therefore, Germany’s printing culture played a role in stirring fears of child murder while at the same time creating a record of such fears. While the murder and cannibalism of innocent children were abhorrent it equally fascinated as indicated by the sale and presumably purchase of the gruesome images.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Werewolf,  c.1510-1512,
Single-leaf woodcut,
16.1 x 12.5 cm,
London, British Museum.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Despite the timelessness of the genres of ‘true’ crime and monsters, they reflect the different cultural anxieties of time and place. Prints of gruesome violent attacks against children channelled the fascination and fears of the most sensational crimes where there was an increasing appetite for the morbid as a way of processing the hostile and frightful world. Marina Warner, noted that confronting the ‘bogeyman’ and extreme violence was used to deal with fear during times of anxiety in early modern Europe (Warner, 2000, p. 16).


Aberth, John, From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague and Death in the Later Middle Ages, London: Routledge, 2013.

Anonymous, Warhafftige und erschreckliche beschreibung von einem zauberer (Stupe Peter genandt) der sich zu einem wehrwolff hat können machen welcher zu Bedbur vier meilen von Cölln gelegen ist gerichtet worden den 31. October dieses 1589. jahrs was böser thaten er begangen hat. Auch wei man hin und wider viel zäuberschen verbrandt hat in diesem 1589. jahre was sie getrieben und bekandt haben männiglich zur trewen warnung geestellet, Köln, Nikolaus Schreiber, 1589.

Colin, Susi, ‘The Wild Man and the Indian in Early 16th Century Book Illustration,’ in Christian F. Feest (eds.), Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, pp. 5-37.

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Harley, David, ‘Historians as Demonologists: The Myth of the Midwife-witch,’ in Brian P. Levack (ed.), Witchcraft, Healing, and Popular Diseases: New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic and Demonology, Volume 5, Witchcraft, Healing and Popular Diseases, New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 49-75.

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Husband, Timothy, The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism, exh. cat., New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.

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Lewis, Margaret Brannan, Infanticide and Abortion in Early Modern Germany, London: Routledge, 2016.

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Spierling, Karen E. ‘Baptism and Childhood’, in Peter Matheson (ed.), Reformation Christianity: A People’s History of Christianity, volume 5, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, pp. 120-43.

Warner, Marina, No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock, London: Vintage, 2000.
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Wiesner-Hanks, Merry, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Zika, Charles, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe, London: Routledge, 2007.

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