A voice of reason in the midst of the European witch hunts

James M. Wood

Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials. By Friedrich Spee yon Langenfeld. Translated and with an introduction by Marcus Hellyer. University of Virginia Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8139-2181-3. 288 pp. Hardcover, $49.50.

When the great European witch hunts were at their height, skepticism could be risky. Citing the biblical injunction “You shall not suffer a sorceress to live” (Exodus 22:18), most Catholic and Protestant theologians endorsed the punishment of individuals who had supposedly made pacts with the Devil. Anyone who questioned these persecutions risked being labeled as a heretic for opposing scripture and might even be accused of witchcraft. The penalties could include imprisonment or death at the stake.

Despite these dangers, a few intrepid skeptics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries spoke out. One was Johann Weyer, an internationally famous Rhineland physician who contended in his De Praestigiis Daemonum that the old women convicted as witches were suffering from mental disease or had been foolishly tricked by Satan into believing they had magical powers. A second dissenter was Reginald Scot, a learned English gentleman who derided belief in sorcery as ignorant superstition and wrote a debunking tract, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, that was ordered burned by the witch-hating King James I of England.

One of the most outspoken opponents of the witch hunts was also a deeply religious believer, the German priest Friedrich Spee, who had served as a prison chaplain to convicted witches before they were executed. Counseling these women as they awaited death by fire, Spee became convinced that, although all had admitted being witches during their trials, they were in fact innocent. “I will state under oath,” declared Spee, “I have not yet led any woman to the stake who, with all things considered, I could prudently state was guilty.” In Cautio Criminalis, published in 1631, this eloquent and passionate Jesuit directed his finely honed skills as a theologian and logician against the witch trials, which he attacked as contrary to established law, rationality, and Christian morality.

Originally written in Latin, Spee’s book has been unavailable in English until recently, except for a few excerpts. Now, however, Marcus Hellyer, historian of science at Brandeis University, has produced a complete English translation of Cautio Criminalis with an introduction that provides historical background on Spee and the witch hunts. Published by the University of Virginia Press, Hellyer’s translation will be of interest not only to scholars but also to general readers who are curious about one of the most disturbing episodes in the annals of Western civilization. Nearly four centuries after it was written, Spee’s book is still impressive, at once a passionate outcry against the witch hunts and a clear-sighted appraisal of the political and legal factors that made them possible.

In analyses foreshadowing the conclusions of modern sociologists, Spee argued that the witch hunts started because of superstitions among the common people, but that the persecutions continued and spread because of lax legal procedures in the German courts. Specifically, Spee contended that in their zeal to root out the influence of Satan, witch-hunting judges routinely relied on uncorroborated rumors and statements extracted under torture–forms of evidence that, even in the 1600s, were recognized as unreliable. Spee saw clearly that when torture or the threat of it was used, then the accused witches would say whatever their questioners wanted to hear in order to avoid pain. Thus, the use of torture in the witch hunts guaranteed that there would be abundant “evidence” of evil-doing and numerous “confessions” by women who had purportedly made pacts with the Devil. As Spee said, “The only reason we are not all sorcerers is that torture has not yet touched us.”

Spee also understood that when supposed witches were tortured into naming their accomplices, they would inevitably implicate an ever-widening circle of innocent people. For instance, Cautio Criminalis tells the true story of a prince who sought the advice of a learned priest. What should be done, asked the prince, if ten different witches had all named a certain man as participating in their Satanic sabbaths? The priest replied that no mercy should be shown to the accused man, but that he should be instantly seized and put to death. I’m sorry to say that you have just condemned yourself, answered the prince, because fifteen different witches have all named you as participating in their evil ceremonies.

Spee’s book can be read as a classic defense of due process–a reminder of what a legal system can be like without a Bill of Rights and protections against torture, self-incrimination, and secret trials. In recent years, since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, some zealous individuals have argued that the U.S. government and its allies can forestall future attacks by using torture to extract information from suspected terrorists. A reading of Cautio Criminalis raises doubts about the practicality of such advice. As Spee well knew, torture can generate a vicious cycle of misinformation, as those who are tortured tell lies to satisfy their torturers, and the torturers in turn believe these lies because the falsehoods correspond so well with what the torturers expected to hear.

Spee was not only a moral theologian and priest but also a talented poet and song writer. His powers of expression are evident in Cautio Criminalis, which is exceptionally well written and eloquent, with many interesting anecdotes about the witch hunters and their victims. However, prospective readers should realize that the book is written in the style of a scholastic disputation, organized as a series of “questions,” each followed by pro and con arguments, counter-arguments, and extended rebuttals. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas used the same style in his famous Summa Theologica. While this type of writing allows for a thorough and systematic presentation of arguments, at times it may strike modern readers as repetitive and tedious. Nevertheless, the new translation of Cautio Criminalis is generally fascinating and thought-provoking. This landmark text in the history of skepticism will be of interest to many readers because of the unexpected insights it provides into current affairs as well as the witch-hunts of four centuries ago.

James M. Wood is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso. Wood can be contacted at jawood @utep.edu.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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