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A Skeptic Looks at Witch Hunting – Friedrich von Spee (1631)

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I ANSWER II. Even if our opinion clearly departs from the common opinion of the other doctors and from practice, it need not be immediately condemned as long as it does not lack solid reasons. However, it does not lack them, as I revealed above. Therefore [ . . . ]

I ANSWER III. Judges’ practice should not immediately be called the Church’s practice. That sounds like it is a matter of faith. But it is far from the case that the Church approves of every practice in common usage and wants to call it hers, since many lack reason and are bad. How long and how widely throughout the world did judges practice the trial of witches by water? Should we then call this the practice of the Church? Therefore Binsfeld groundlessly frightens us with the beautiful name of the Church.

ARGUMENT VIII. Many witches identify the same person in their denunciations. Therefore this is a sign that they are not lying. Therefore they should be believed.

I ANSWER that it is not remarkable that many witches identify the same person, and if the denunciations do not have any credibility individually then they do not when taken together, since this can occur for many reasons, as I will show. For either the denouncers truly were witches, or they were innocent people who were compelled by the violence of their tortures to name others in order to escape them. Whichever it was, it is not astonishing. For

IF THEY truly were witches,

1. Many could have maliciously conspired together against another woman, so that if they fell into the authorities’ hands their accusations would agree in all the details and they would drag her with them into ruin, as has been narrated in several examples which I shall skip over for the sake of brevity.

2. The devil could, as we said above, have represented an innocent woman at sabbaths. Since many witches assemble there, as they themselves say, many could have seen her and named her along with the same details regarding the time and place and so on.

3. The devil could have suggested, incited, or ordered them individually to accuse those whom he indicated and to add those details as well.

IF THEY really were not witches, then it is not astonishing either, because

1. Where many prisoners are tortured and interrogated, nothing is more likely than that several prisoners will attack the same person by chance, especially if very few people still remain in the village who have not yet been denounced and burned.

2. Since innocent women do not know any witches, most of them usually name women about whom there is some widespread rumor, or those who have been jailed on that charge once already or burned.

3. It happens now, as we see every day and was well noted by Tanner, that court officials frequently do not maintain secrecy if someone has been named, but spread it among the common people. Therefore, in order to free themselves from their pain, those tortured name these same women.

Certainly the rulers can in no way be excused in their consciences when they do not rectify this matter. Where I live, several women recently denounced by various people are already known almost throughout the entire city. Their names are spread around while the rumor grows. In a year a trial will be conducted on the basis of this rumor. Oh what times! This is Germany’s zeal.

4. But some malevolent men, as I taught above, inquire about particular people by name during torture. How then is it remarkable if many prisoners accuse those whose names are put in their mouths? Reread what I said above.

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