Friedrich vonSpee (1591–1635) was a German Jesuit and poet who, in the course of serving as confessor to witches during the trials in Würzburg, became revolted by the torture and execution of innocent people. Spee wrote and anonymously published Cautio Criminalis, an exposé of the fraud in witch trials, which may have influenced the decline of witch-hunts in subsequent years.
Spee was born in Kaiserwerth. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Cologne and entered the order in 1611. Further studies included philosophy in Würzburg and theology in mainz. In 1624 Spee was sent to Paderborn as a preacher; in 1627 he was sent back to Würzburg, where he worked as a professor.
During the 1620s the witch hysteria was reaching its peak in Germany, especially in the communities of Bamberg, Würzburg, mainz, Cologne, Baden and Brandenburg. The prince-bishops of Würzburg and Bamberg were particularly zealous about hunting down and burning witches and, encouraged by the Jesuits, they executed about 1,500 persons between them (see Bamberg Witches).
It was Spee’s duty to serve as confessor to the condemned in Würzburg. He began his job believing that real witches, servants of the Devil, did exist. But in the course of watching one after another victim be condemned with no hope of a fair trial, Spee began to change his views. While he continued to believe that a few witches did exist, he became convinced that none of them had been found in Würzburg. The flimsy evidence and brutal torture sickened him. By the time he was 30, his hair was nearly white—”through grief,” he explained, “over the many witches whom I have prepared for death; not one was guilty.”
Spee observed that the slightest hint of witchcraft was sufficient to condemn a person to death and that once the accusation was made, there was no hope of escape. If the accused had led an unpious life, she was certainly a witch; if she had led a good life, she also was a witch, because witches deceived others by appearing to be virtuous. If the defendant broke down readily under torture, it was proof of witchery; if she didn’t, that was proof, too. If she died under torture, it was said that the Devil broke her neck, and that also was proof. Spee said:
Often I have thought that the only reason why we are not all wizards is due to the fact that we have not all been tortured. And there is truth in what an inquisitor dared to boast lately, that if he could reach the Pope, he would make him confess that he was a wizard.
Spee also was concerned about the ever-widening ripple effects of the trials. Victims were always forced to name accomplices, and Spee feared that, as the trials mounted, “there is nobody in our day, of whatsoever sex, fortune, rank, or dignity, who is safe, if he have but an enemy and slanderer to bring him into suspicion of witchcraft.”
On 1631 Spee anonymously published Cautio Criminalis (“Precautions for Prosecutors”), in which he savagely attacked the witch-hunters and exposed their methods. He pointed out that there was great incentive among the inquisitors to condemn as many persons as possible, since they were paid a fee per witch burned, plus whatever they could confiscate from the victims’ assets. He exposed the claims of confessions without torture as lies; “no torture” in fact meant light torture, and while that in itself was severe, it was nothing compared to the torture that would follow if a victim persisted in a claim of innocence. Spee wrote:
She can never clear herself. The investigating committee would feel disgraced if it acquitted a woman; once arrested and in chains, she has to be guilty, by fair means or foul. meanwhile, ignorant and headstrong priests harass the wretched creature so that, whether truly or not, she will confess herself guilty; unless she does so, they say, she cannot be saved or partake of the sacraments.
Although Cautio Criminalis was published anonymously, Spee’s authorship was generally known within Jesuit circles, and the book was denounced by many of his order. Despite attempts to suppress it, the book was translated into French, Dutch and Polish and disseminated throughout the Continent. Witch trials continued at a fevered pace for some 30 years after the book’s first appearance, then began to abate. Spee was sent to Treves as a parish priest. He died on August 7, 1635, just 44 years old, a victim of the plague.
- Midelfort, H. C. Erik. Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562–1684. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972.
- Trevor-Roper, H. r. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & row, 1957.
The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.