Article: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (6/12)

April 18, 2007

* 1631: Friedrich Spee von Lagenfield, a German Jesuit, wrote an influential work on witchcraft trials (‘Cautio Criminalis’, 1631). Despite being convinced of the existence of witches, Spee believed that the standard German methods of investigation, prosecution, court procedure and punishment were grossly unjust, unChristian, and inhumane. Although his was not the first work of this kind, it had the significant effect of raising popular opinion against these abuses, and is credited with contributing to the abolition of witch trials in Germany:

‘Spee’s topics are diverse but guided by his concern over the judicial treatment of accused witches rather than the characteristics of witches themselves. Taken from the fifty-one questions Spee uses to organize his book, the following give a sense of his arguments and tone: “Question 6: Whether the princes of Germany act well when they proceed harshly against witchcraft” (pp. 16-18); “Question 12: Whether inquisitions against witches should cease if it is established that many innocent people have actually been entangled in them” (pp. 42-44); “Question 36: Whether rumor alone is sufficient for torture, at least when the crimes are difficult to prove” (pp. 141-144); “Question 49: What are the arguments of those who consider denunciations by witches to be completely trustworthy, and say they suffice for torturing those denounced” (pp. 198-212).’

‘Rather than relying on reform from within the judiciary, Spee concentrates his appeal on the reason and humanity of Germany’s princes, stressing the brutal experience and subversive nature of torture: “If we constantly insist on conducting trials, no one of any sex, fortune, condition, or rank whatsoever who has earned himself even one enemy or slanderer who can drag him into the suspicion and reputation for witchcraft can be sufficiently safe in these times” (p. 221).’

Kathryn A Edwards, ‘Review of Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials’, H-German, H-Net Reviews, August, 2005

‘Spee was engaged in Franconia as pastor, and had prepared for their death at the stake not fewer than two hundred persons accused of witchcraft. Scarcely thirty years of age, he was asked one day by Philip of Schoenborn, Bishop of Würzburg, why his hair had turned gray. “Through grief,” he said. “Of the many witches whom I have prepared for death, not one was guilty.” The reply must have burnt into the soul of the questioner, for ever after Philip of Schoenborn remained under its influence. Spee confessed to the Bishop that he was the author of the Cautio criminalis, and the Bishop did not betray the confidence of the young Jesuit.

Says Spee in his Cautio criminalis:

“In these proceedings no one is allowed to have legal assistance or defence, however honestly it may be conducted. For it is claimed that the crime is a crimen exceptum, one not subject to the rules of ordinary legal proceedings. And even if an attorney were allowed to the prisoner, the former would from the outset be suspected himself, as a patron and protector of witches, so that all mouths are shut and all pens are blunted, and one can neither speak nor write. . . . I swear solemnly that of the many persons whom I accompanied to the stake, there was not one who could be said to have been duly convicted; and two other pastors made me the same confession from their experience. Treat the heads of the Church, the judges, myself, in the same way as those unfortunate ones, make us undergo the same tortures, and you will convict us all as wizards.”

Spee did not deny the possibility of witchcraft; he was a faithful believer in the dogmas held by the Church of his age. He merely objected to the abuses of witchcraft and recommended clemency.

Philip of Schoenborn became Archbishop of Mayence and to his honor be it said that under his government no fagots were lit.’

Paul Carus, ‘History of the Devil’, pages 375-377, 1900

* 1631: The Spanish Inquisition took active steps to educate people against the belief in witches and witchcraft. In the following circumstance, the Suprema removed from office a vicar who believed in witchcraft, and ordered him to be replaced with ‘a proper person’. The Inquisitor responsible for handling the case was to ‘instruct the people as to the fallacies of witchcraft’:

‘This scepticism increased and there was a desire to train the people to disbelief, as appears from a highly creditable act in 1631. The Inquisitor of Novara reported that his vicar in ” Vallis Vigelli” had commenced proceedings for witchcraft against a woman, when she hanged herself in prison, and he asked instructions whether to continue the prosecution against the corpse or whether she had been strangled by the demon or other witches; also whether he should proceed against a girl and her accomplices who had confessed extra-judicially to have been at the Sabbat.

In reply the Congregation ordered him to send the proceedings in the case of the suicide and also the deposition of the girl; meanwhile he was to remove the vicar and replace him with a proper person and take pains himself, by means of the parish priests, to instruct the people as to the fallacies of witchcraft.’

Charles Lea, ‘A History of the Inquisition In Spain’, volume 4, book 8, chapter 9, pages 244-245, 1906-1907

There was at this time no other Christian organisation actively teaching the people to abandon the common belief in witchcraft. This remarkable decision was far ahead of its time.

Article here.


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