A Jesuit and the Witch Trials

from Neil

Some of you might have come across Ronald Modras’ new book, Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the 21st Century (you can read a review here). I’d like to look at a very interesting chapter on the seventeenth-century Jesuit, Friedrich Spee (which can also be read as the September 2003 issue of Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits). A subtitle for this post might be: How to avoid killing people.

Who was Friedrich Spee? Spee wrote a 1631 Latin treatise entitled Cautio Criminalis, in which he described contemporary witch trials. He wrote, “I confess that I myself have accompanied several women to their deaths in various places over the preceding years whose innocence even now I am so sure of that there could never be any effort and diligence too great that I would not undertake it in order to reveal this truth … One can easily guess what feelings were in my soul when I was present at such miserable deaths.” One can’t so easily guess what feelings were in the soul of the auxiliary bishop of Paderborn when he wrote to a fellow prelate about a “liber pestilentissimus” (most poisonous book) written anonymously by a certain Jesuit priest named Spee who dared to compare burnt witches to Christian martyrs.

But we should try to understand the feelings of Bishop Johannes Pelcking. He could read about the frighteningly effective “secret arts” of Pharaoh’s magicians (Ex 7:8-12), and God’s command, “You shall not permit a witch to live” (Ex 22:17), would seem rather clear. The first trial conducted by priest-inquisitors for witchcraft ending in an execution took place in 1275. These trials had continued, killing St Joan of Arc along the way and reaching a peak in number between 1580 and 1630. By then, most inquisitors were laymen. Professor Modras figures that 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft. The fear of witches was an ecumenical dread; Luther spoke of the Teufelshuren (devil’s whores), who rode through the air and created storms. It was worst of all in Pelcking and Spee’s Germany, where war, famine, and epidemics, in Modras’ words, “certainly promoted widespread anxiety and a collective sense of being delivered over to mysterious evil powers.” In Würzburg, 1639, the Prince-bishop’s chancellor wrote that no less than “four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex” had been accused. But most of the scapegoats were women. After all, women were more likely to be morally weak and driven by carnal lust. Or so it was thought.

Many great Christian minds had thought about witches. St Thomas Aquinas clarified at least some of the details of sexual intercourse between demons and men, but the greatest thinkers were two Dominicans, Sprenger and Kramer, who wrote the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch-hammer). In the Malleus, you could read more about demon-sex, and how witches transport themselves from place to place. You could also read about proper judicial procedure, including the application of torture, which had been allowed since 1252 to uncover heretics. And you could read that women are more susceptible to witchcraft – even the very word femina, our Dominican authors tell us, comes from fe (faith) and mina (less). Modras writes, “Page after page, the Malleus betrays an obsession with the idea of sexual intercourse with the devil, going on at length on how witches deprive men of their sexual organs.” Next to the Malleus on the witch-hunter’s bookshelf was the French jurist Jean Bodin’s De la Demonomanie des Sorciers (1580), which suggested that women are more vulnerable to the devil than men because of their increased “force of animal desire.” Most unfortunately, according to Bodin, evil women also happen to know fifty different magic knots that render men impotent.

Enter Friedrich Spee, who was born in 1591, and entered the Society of Jesus. He was ordained in 1622. His career was largely marked by disappointment, even before three of Spee’s colleagues (including the college rector) requested that his Cautio be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. The Jesuit secretary general wondered if Spee should be allowed to remain in the Society – and, if he were expelled, left without the Society’s protection, he might have been brought up on charges of sorcery himself. Nothing ultimately happened to Spee. Perhaps he had a protector in a certain provincial. He was transferred to Trier, which was invaded by French soldiers in 1635, becoming the scene of horrific hand-to-hand combat. Through the fighting, Spee showed remarkable charity, collecting food and clothing for even the French prisoners of war. He visited military hospitals, crowded with the wounded, and became sick himself. He died at the age of 44 in 1635.

Spee’s Cautio began by claiming that witches did exist. But Spee thought that the number of witches was rather small and blamed judicial procedure for most executions. He accused religious men who refused to make themselves aware of the corruption of the public courts, lawyers who found prosecuting witches to be a lucrative business, common people who took revenge on their enemies by accusing them, and inquisitors who often seemed to accuse one another. Spee also noted, “It is incredible what people say under the compulsion of torture, and how many lies they will tell about themselves and about others; in the end whatever the torturers want to be true is true.” He was thus ahead of our own time. Spee then attacked the circular reasoning of the so-called demonologists, many of whom never visited the dungeons or talked with the accused.

An accused woman, Spee said, would be brought to the prison. If she were frightened, this was evidence of bad conscience. If she were not, this too was evidence, because witches were said to possess a certain self-confidence. And, because she was charged with an “exceptional crime,” she did not receive defense counsel. If the woman failed to answer the accusation, she was stripped and shaved of all her hair (including her public hair) and then tortured. She could not be found innocent by withstanding the torture, because that would embarrass her inquisitors. The judge could then keep her imprisoned for an entire year. And if she finally broke and confessed, she would be pressured to name names, some suggested to her. If those denounced fled, it would be evidence of a guilty conscience; if they remained, it was evidence that the devil was holding them fast. In the face of this travesty, Spee refused to be a dog that did not bark (Is 56:10), and his writing caused Bishop Johann Philipp von Schönborn to put an end to witch trials in Würzburg and Mainz. Spee influenced even more Protestants, including Queen Christina of Sweden and the great Protestant jurist Thomasius.

Why did Spee risk so much to defend accused witches? Perhaps the best answer is because he was assigned to hear their confessions. Modras speculates that his experience of having to console condemned women and overcome their despair affected the treatment of faith in his posthumously published Güldenes Tugend-Buch. There Spee described faith as trust, opening the section by asking rhetorical questions – Would you dare to doubt God’s mercy, if you were the world’s greatest sinner? Spee cited Isaiah (49:15), “Can a mother forget her child?” – and described God as a “mighty empress” who loves each of us like a favorite child. Later, the censors would remove his chapter on purgatory, because Spee emphasized trusting God’s mercy and grace so much that he said nothing about doing penances. Instead of thinking about works and merits, Spee told his reader to simply place herself in the hands of a God who is “a thousand times more gentle and generous than we imagine.” One could say the Lord’s Prayer, said Spee, in three simple words – “Dein Wille geschehe.” Modras thinks that Fr Spee told the condemned woman heading to the stake, “Put your trust in God’s love and mercy. Imagine yourself a martyr dying for Christ. The heavens are opening for you. Make your suffering and death a martyrdom.” Perhaps he himself came to regard these women as holy martyrs. And that’s why he risked everything for them.

And so Karl Rahner, in his essay, “Ignatius of Loyola speaks to a Modern Jesuit,” placed Friedrich Spee next to Peter Claver and Francis Regis as a role model for Christian discipleship. He shows us, one might say, how to avoid killing people.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Church History, Neil. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Jesuit and the Witch Trials

  1. Paola says:

    Sorry it was not the french who took Trier in 1635 but the Spaniards.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Paola,

    Thanks for writing and I apologize for taking a day to get back to you. You’re right – the Spaniards took Trier in 1635, the elector having accepted French protection in 1631. Stupid mistake: I wrote this too quickly. I am grateful for the correction.

    For Modras on Spee at Trier, see


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