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

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36. One can hardly say what misery this is if any woman falsely states that she is guilty because of the violence of her pain, since in most courts there are no means available by which she might escape. She is forced to accuse others whom she does not know, whom her questioners not infrequently place in her mouth or the torturer suggests, or who they have heard are already infamous, or denounced, or already arrested once and released. And those women must in turn denounce others and they in turn still others and so on. Who does not see that this must go on infinitely?

37. Therefore the judges must either break off their trials and damn their own art, or they must in the end burn their own families, themselves, and everyone else, for these completely false denunciations will eventually reach everyone, and if only torture can follow them, then it will reveal that they are guilty.

38. Thus those people who at the beginning actually shouted the loudest that the bonfires be constantly fed are themselves finally entangled. For these shortsighted fools do not see that their turn must also come. And indeed it will be GOD’s just judgment on them, for it was they who created so many witches for us with their pestilent tongues and added so many innocent people to the flames.

39. But now many more prudent and learned people have begun to see little by little and, as if aroused from a deep sleep, are opening their eyes and are using cruelty more slowly and cautiously.

40. Although the judges deny that they move on to torture on denunciations alone, I have shown above that they really do this. Consequently they deceive their own good princes when they deny it. For the rumor that they usually link to the denunciations is always invalid and null, since not one has ever been legitimately proven. As for the rubbish they talk about stigmata, I am amazed that wise men have never noticed that they are deceptions performed by the torturers.

41. But while the trials boil away and women diligently denounce others when compelled by the harshest torment possible, it soon trickles out just who has been denounced. This is the meaning of secrecy for those present at the interrogation, and it is not without profit for them because in this way they can at once seize evidence against those denounced through this dilemma: if people hear that they have been informed on, as they certainly do hear, either they then take flight so that they are not arrested, or they stay in place. If they take flight, then the judges say that this is great evidence of their guilt and fearful consciences. However, if they stay, then this is also evidence, because the devil, it is said, holds them so they cannot leave, as I recently have had to listen to more than once with a groan.

42. Furthermore, if someone goes to the investigators to ask them whether what he has heard is true, so that he may have time to defend himself and counteract his impending troubles by legal means, this is also taken to be evidence, as if someone against whom the inquisitors had not yet undertaken anything must have been motivated by his bad conscience and guilt.

43. But whatever he does, he binds the rumor to himself, which, having matured sufficiently after a year or two and combined with denunciations, suffices for torture, even though the rumor itself first arose through denunciations, for I have seen examples of this.

44. Things happen in a similar way with those people who endure some calumny that arose out of malice. For they will either defend themselves in court, or they will not. If they do not defend themselves, this is evidence of their guilt because they are silent. However if they do defend themselves, the calumny spreads further and arouses suspicion and the curiosity to find out more in those who knew nothing about it before, and soon a rumor is circulating which can never be suppressed.

45. So nothing is more likely to happen than that those who are tortured in the meantime and forced to denounce others readily denounce those about whom the rumor spread.

46. From this a particular COROLLARY follows which one should note in red. 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. So wherever I turn, the condition of our times is certainly the most miserable possible, unless care is taken otherwise. I said above, and I will repeat my words, that this plague, whatever it may be, cannot be destroyed by fire, but it can be destroyed very effectively in another way in which hardly any blood will flow. But who wants to know this? Pain overwhelms me as I try to say more, so that I cannot carefully bring this summary to a perfect end, nor can I contemplate writing a German version, which would not be without its uses; perhaps there will be those who will carefully complete it out of love for their fatherland and innocent people. Finally I entreat all learned and pious, prudent and moderate appraisers of affairs (for I care nothing for the rest), for the sake of the court of the omnipotent Judge, to diligently read through and consider what I have written in this treatise [NB in margin]. All rulers and princes put their eternal salvation in great danger unless they are willing to be as careful as possible. They should not be astonished if I harshly and boldly admonish them from time to time, for it is not fitting for me to be among those whom the Prophet calls mute dogs who are not strong enough to bark. Let our rulers take care of themselves and their whole flock, for one day GOD will require as accurate an accounting as possible for it from their hands.

Source: Spee von Langenfeld, Friedrich. Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials, translated by Marcus Hellyer. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003, pp. 198-222. © 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This material is used by permission of the University of Virginia Press.

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