Witch Trial

“Question I. Whether witches, hags, and sorcerers really exist?

I answer, they do. Even if I know that many doubt it, even Catholics and scholars, whose names are not relevant here; even if some men seem to suspect, not without reason, that there were times in the Church when people did not believe that there were physical witches’ sabbaths; even if, when I myself frequently and attentively, not to mention curiously, ministered to various women accused of this crime in prison, my own mind was often so overwhelmed that I hardly knew what to believe in this matter. Nevertheless, when I finally gathered together the essence of my perplexed thoughts, I concluded that one must believe completely that there really are some sorcerers in the world.

Question II. Are there many witches or sorcerers in Germany and elsewhere?

I answer, this question deals with a matter of which I am ignorant. However, I will state briefly, in order to avoid idle words, how it appears to me. There do at least appear to be, and there are thought to be, more witches in Germany than elsewhere.”

(Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld. Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials. Currently Necessary for THE RULERS of Germany but also very useful for the Princes’ COUNSELORS AND CONFESSORS, Inquisitors, Judges, Lawyers, Prisoners’ Confessors, Preachers, and Others to read. 2nd ed. Frankfurt: Johannes Gronaeus, 1632.)

SpeeFriedrich Spee, a Jesuit priest, published his treatise on witch trials, Cautio Criminalis, in 1631 as the Würzburg witch trials drew to a close. Between 1626-1631 the Würzburg authorities condemned 157 men, women and children in the city to execution by burning. Throughout the Prince-Bishopric an estimated 900 were killed, including the Prince-Bishops nephew and nineteen Catholic priests. The Würzburg witch trials occurred during a peak in the trial of witches in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries which saw tens of thousands of people executed. Though earlier claims that millions were killed are now considered a gross exaggeration, modern estimates provide a figure of between fifty and a hundred thousand executions for witchcraft from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century. Perhaps half of these deaths occurred in the territories making up the Holy Roman Empire.

Friedrich Spee was born in the castle of Kaiserwerth near Düsseldorf on February 25, 1591, to noble parents. In 1602 he began studying at the university of Köln, winning the first prize for Latin in 1604, and receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1608. On leaving university he entered the Society of Jesus as a novice, training first at the Jesuit novice house in Trier, but later moving to Fulda following the outbreak of plague. From 1612-1616 Spee attended the Jesuit college at the university of Würzburg, where he completed the standard three year course in philosophy, studying logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics. Following this Spee taught at the Jesuit colleges in Speyer, Mainz, and Worms. Denied the opportunity to work overseas by the general-superior of his order, Muzio Vitelleschi, on the grounds that there was as much good work to do in Germany, Spee completed his theological studies at the university of Mainz between 1619-1622, and was ordained as a priest at the age of thirty one in March, 1622.

A talented scholar, Spee was sent to the Jesuit university of Paderborn where he combined teaching with pastoral work, visiting prisons and hospitals, preaching, taking confession, and teaching the catechism at the Church of St Pankraz. In 1626-27 he completed his novitiate training and was sent, in 1628, to Peine near Hildesheim to make converts for the Catholic faith among the Protestant inhabitants. During one of his trips through the countryside Spee was attacked by an unknown assailant whom he managed to escape, though badly wounded. After his recovery Spee returned to Paderborn to teach moral theology, in which he was a particularly skilled teacher. In November 1630 he was dismissed from teaching duties by the rector of Paderborn college, Hermann Baving, who disagreed with Spee’s ascetic interpretation of the vow of poverty. It is most likely at this time that Spee wrote Cautio Criminalis, which was published anonymously in 1631 in the university town of Rinteln.

Spee was quickly identified as the author and found himself subject to criticism. He had written, “a most pestilent book”, claimed the Suffragen Bishop of Paderborn, Johannes Pelcking. In the Cautio, Spee had written a powerful criticism of the witch trials and their excesses as overseen by the Catholic princes of Germany. The Jesuit General Vitelleschi accepted Spee’s claim that the book had been published without his knowledge or permission and in 1631 the local provincial, Goswin Nickel, appointed Spee professor of moral theology at the Jesuit college in Köln. The publishing of a 2nd edition in 1632 convinced Vitellschi that Spee was responsible for publication and he requested his expulsion from the Society. Nickel remained constant in his support of Spee, though moving him from Köln to Trier. In 1635 Trier was besieged during the Thirty Years War and suffered an outbreak of plague. While attending to wounded soldiers Spee caught the disease and died on August 7, 1965. The last mention of him in Jesuit records refers to him as a pastor to hospitals and prisons.

As Spee himself stated in Question I and II of the Cautio he believed in the existence of witches. However irrational this may seem to us today it must be remembered that he, together with those who brought charges of witchcraft, those who prosecuted, passed judgement and carried out sentence, and the victims themselves, were part of a culture that believed in the reality of witches and the malign influence of the Devil in the world. As horrendous as they appear to our eyes the witch hunts, even at their most extreme, were consistent with the prevailing contemporary worldview of intelligent, educated people. Even though the trials were conducted by secular authorities, contrary to modern popular understanding that the trials were carried out by the Church or the Inquisition, these officials shared the view that witchcraft was a spiritual crime against God and, by extension, an act of treason against the divinely sanctioned political and social order.

Spee’s concern was not that witches existed, but a recognition that innocent people were being sent to the stake, the block, or the hangman, as a result of the trial process itself. Since few would voluntarily confess, inquisitors had to prove that the accused was a witch and used a trial by torture to achieve this. Contrary to established practice and law the use of torture in witch trials was often unrestricted, with defendants subjected to repeated torture until a confession was made, thus inevitably leading to false confessions and denunciations that in turn led to yet more trials. At Trier (1581-1593), Fulda (1603-1606), Würzburg (1626-1631), and Bamberg (1626-1631), this led to mass panics in which hundreds were executed as more and more people were implicated by forced confessions and denunciations under torture as the trials spread.

Defendants in witch trials, Spee argued, should be subject to the same judicial procedure as those charged with other crimes. Through the careful conduct of trials innocent people would be spared. Spee answered his fundamental question, “whether the princes of Germany act well when they proceed harshly against witchcraft?,”  by arguing that trials should not be conducted in a manner that endangered innocent people. Like other defendants those accused of witchcraft were entitled to due judicial process, the presumption of innocence, the right to a lawyer, and the right to mount an effective defence.

Spee recognised that torture, the use of rumour to justify arrest, and the use of denunciations made by confessed witnesses for arresting and torturing yet more suspects set the conditions that allowed the trials to spread. Once the limitations on torture were removed no-one can uphold their innocence. As Spee wrote, “Who can bear this? Who not prefer to die and ransom himself from such pain with six hundred lies?”  Likewise, Spee recognized that denunciations made under torture could not be trusted. Often they were the result of leading questions by judges who mentioned suspects by name; under torture the innocent would say anything to escape the pain. “If I were brought in to be interrogated I would not hesitate right at the beginning to declare myself guilty of any witchcraft whatsoever and embrace death rather than such torments,” wrote Spee.

The Cautio Criminalis was not the only work criticizing witch hunts. Spee drew on a number of other contemporary writers such as his Jesuit fellows Adam Tanner and Paul Laymann who both argued that the use of torture inevitably led to the death of innocent people and that torture should not be repeated. The Cautio continues to stand out to this day as the most compelling of the works criticizing the trials for its clear arguments, its concise and relentless logic, its skilled rhetoric, for Spee’s stern criticism of those in power, and for his concern to save the innocent who were being persecuted without reason. It remains a cogent argument against the use of torture and for the paramount necessity of a fair judicial procedure and reminds us that, whatever the severity of the alleged crime, we should not relax the standards of proof required to secure conviction, or allow our authorities and their agencies to carry out immoral and improper acts, regardless of the reasons that may make such acts seem appropriate under the circumstances.

One comment on “Witch Trial

  1. Pingback: ‘The Apprehension of Sundrye Witches’ : The Prosecution of Witchcraft in Scotland, 1590-1727 | Europeenses

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This entry was posted on January 6, 2014 by in Early Modern, Germany, History, People and tagged , .

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