Friedrich Spee (also Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld) (Kaiserswerth, February 25, 1591 – Trier, August 7, 1635) was a German Jesuit priest, professor, and poet, most noted as an opponent of trials for witchcraft. Spee was the first person in his time who wrote and spoke strongly with arguments against torture in general, and why it is not a way of obtaining "truth" from someone undergoing painful questioning.
The often cited name "Friedrich von Spee" is incorrect.
Spee was born at Kaiserswerth on the Rhine. On finishing his early education at Cologne, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1610, and pursued extensive studies and activity as a teacher at Trier, Fulda, Würzburg, Speyer, Worms and Mainz, where he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1622. He became professor at the University of Paderborn in 1624. From 1626 he taught at Speyer, Wesel, Trier and Cologne, and preached at Paderborn, Cologne and Hildesheim.
An attempt to assassinate Spee was made at Peine in 1629. He resumed his activity as professor and priest at Paderborn and later at Cologne, and in 1633 removed to Trier. During the storming of the city by the imperial forces in March 1635 (in the Thirty Years' War), he distinguished himself in the care of the suffering, and died soon afterwards of a plague infection contracted while ministering to wounded soldiers in a hospital.
Spee's literary activity was largely confined to the last years of his life, the details of which are relatively obscure. Two of his works were not published until after his death: Goldenes Tugendbuch (Golden Book of Virtues), a book of devotion highly prized by Leibniz, and Trutznachtigall (Rivaling the Nightingale), a collection of fifty to sixty sacred songs, which take a prominent place among religious lyrics of the 17th century and have been repeatedly printed and updated through the present.
His principal work, the Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors), is a layout for the prosecution of witchcraft, based on his own experiences in Westphalia. It is thought that he acted for a long time as "witch confessor" in Würzburg, as he seemed to have knowledge of what could be considered the private thoughts of the condemned. The book was printed in Latin in 1631 at Rinteln without Spee's name or permission. He did not advocate the immediate abolition of trials for witchcraft, but described with sarcasm the abuses in the prevailing legal proceedings, particularly the use of the rack. He demanded measures of reform, such as a new German imperial law on the subject, and liability to damages on the part of the judges. If these had been carried out, they would have quickly put an end to the mass persecution of suspected witches.
Nevertheless, the Cautio Criminalis did bring about the abolition of witch-burning in a number of places, especially at Mainz, and led the way to its gradual suppression. The moral impact created by the publication was considerable. Even in the 17th century, a number of new editions and translations appeared. Among the members of Spee's Jesuit order, his treatise found a favourable reception. A memorable observation in the book suggested that Germany and England must have more witches and devils than Spain and Italy, since there were so many more stake burnings in the former. This may have been a not so subtle criticism of Protestant reform Europe, which he believed was guilty of even greater abuses than the Catholic countries. His book is still in print.
Arguments against torture
Cautio Criminalis contains 52 questions which Spee argued and attempted to answer. Amongst his more notable conclusions were:
- (17) That alleged witches should be provided a lawyer and a legal defense, the enormity of the crime making this right even more important than normal.
- (20) That there is a real risk that innocents will confess under torture simply to stop the pain.
- (25) That condemning alleged witches for not confessing under torture is absurd. Spee opposed the notion that such silence was itself evidence of sorcery, as this made everyone guilty.
- (27) That torture does not produce truth, since those who wish to stop their own suffering can stop it with either the truth or with lies.
- (44) That denunciations of accomplices by tortured "witches" were of little value: either the tortured person was innocent, in which case she had no accomplices, or she was really in league with the Devil, in which case her denunciations could not be trusted either.
Spee was particularly concerned about cases where a person was tortured and forced to denounce accomplices, who were then tortured and forced to denounce more accomplices, until everyone was under suspicion:
- Many people who incite the Inquisition so vehemently against sorcerers in their towns and villages are not at all aware and do not notice or foresee that once they have begun to clamor for torture, every person tortured must denounce several more. The trials will continue, so eventually the denunciations will inevitably reach them and their families, since, as I warned above, no end will be found until everyone has been burned. (question 15)
Spee did not dispute the existence of witches, and opened his work with a declaration that witches are real. However, he was most troubled that innocent people were being tortured and killed alongside real witches, as he strongly believed. He argued (question 13) that the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 meant that some of the guilty must be allowed freedom, so that the innocent are not condemned either.
Spee wrote the lyrics and tunes of dozens of hymns, and is still the most heavily attributed author in German Catholic hymnals today. Although an anonymous hymnist during his lifetime, today he is credited with several popular works including the Advent song "O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf", the Christmas carol "Vom Himmel hoch, o Engel, kommt", and the Easter hymn "Lasst uns erfreuen" widely used with the 20th-century English texts "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones" and "All Creatures of Our God and King".
Other prominent contemporary critics of witch hunts:
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Hermann Cardauns (1912). "Friedrich Von Spee". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. 14. New York: Robert Appleton.
- Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld: Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials (1631), translated by Marcus Hellyer. University of Virginia Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8139-2182-1. The translator's introduction (pp. vii–xxxvi) contains many details on Spee's life.
- Friedrich Spee zum 400 Geburtstag. Kolloquium der Friedrich-Spee-Gesellschaft Trier (in German). Paderborn: Gunther Franz, 2001.
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- Pamela Reilly, "Friedrich von Spee's Belief in Witchcraft: Some Deductions from the 'Cautio Criminalis'", Modern Language Review, 54:1 (Jan. 1959), pp. 51–55.