Published 2003, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-765-31430-4, 462 pages.
Set in Cologne in 1665, The Witch of Cologne commences with one of the central characters, Ruth bas Elazar Saul, a midwife delivering a child for a Catholic woman, a very risky endeavor. The Jewish community is tolerated, barely, in a quarter outside the city.
Canon Detlef Wittelsbach, born into a aristocratic family, believes his piety is of the mind, not the body, and, therefore, indulges in carnal pleasures. In addition, he is a free thinker who, while outwardly adhering to the Roman Catholic Church, has differing beliefs for which he could be deemed a heretic.
The Spanish Inquisition is in full swing and Monsignor Carlos Vicente Solitario arrives in Cologne with warrants for three merchants and the midwife, Ruth. The Dominican's interest in Ruth emerges from her mother's rebuttal of his attempted affections. Although Ruth's mother is long dead, the Dominican harbors a need for revenge and seeks it in the death of Ruth at the stake as a witch.
Ruth herself has more than dabbled in current philosophy regarding religious tenants, having lived in Amsterdam disguised as a boy. Fortunately, for her, the Dominican is unaware of her past exploits. Unfortunately, for Ruth though, he is still determined to burn her as a witch. She is put to torture and is rescued by mere chance by Detlef who, once he sees her, requests that he take over her inquisition.
Unable to deny himself, Detlef meets secretly with Ruth upon her release and they become lovers. Thus, begins the saga of their sacrifices for the sake of their love and child. They flee to Holland for relative safety, but betrayal hounds them. While Ruth and Detlef's love is a main feature of the novel, I would not label this novel as a historical romance.
Hierarchy within the Church, political alliances with opposing European counties, betrayal, family loyalties all play a part in the plot of this historical fiction novel. The result is an engrossing tale in which Learner is not afraid of exposing the world in all its ugliness, nor does she tie everything up with pretty little bows.
Several of the characters (not the main protagonists) are actual historical figures of the time. Learner has deftly interwoven the factual with the fiction, leaving the reader with a real feel for the times.
Bonus points for the list of characters (there are plenty) and power structure of 17th century Cologne at the beginning of the novel.
Cautionary note: There are many graphic erotic scenes.
Rating: *** (Good)