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Friedrich von Spee (1591-1635)

Written and compiled by George Knowles

During the early 17th century at the height of some of the worst atrocities being perpetrated against witches in Germany, Friedrich von Spee a German Jesuit theologian and poet, was one of the first people in that country to effectively speak out against the witchcraft delusion.  A trained and respected theologian, Spee’s book Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors), published anonymously in 1631, was one of the first major attempts by a German to call a halt the tidal wave of terror being unleashed against witches.

Spee was born on the 25th February 1591 in Kaiserswerth near Dusseldorf on the Rhine in Germany.  He was educated at the Jesuit Collage in nearby Cologne where he entered the novitiate in 1611.  To complete his education he studied philosophy at Würzburg (a centre of the witchcraft persecutions) and theology at Mainz (another hot bed location for witchcraft) before being ordained a priest in 1621.  By this time Germany had entered into the turbulent times of the Thirty Years War, a series of conflicts lasting from 1618 to 1648 caused mainly by Protestant and Roman Catholic factions during the Reformation. 

Religious hatreds though out Europe and most particularly in Germany and France had been smouldering for a long time, as evidenced by the horrific witch-hunts conducted by the Inquisition.  By the start of the Thirty Years War in Germany, these witch-hunts were still climaxing.  Following two bad harvests in 1626 and 1628 the population of Germany sought to release their frustrations with increased persecutions against witches.  In the following years 600 witches were condemned in nearby Bamberg and a further 900 witches burn alive in Würzburg, places where the Prince Bishops of both were particularly zealous about hunting down and burning witches.

It was into such an arena that Spee spent much of his early priesthood working as a missionary teacher and preacher, during which time he visited some of the worst hot spot areas affected by the witch hunts, including:  Trier (Eng. Treves), Fulda, Speyer (Eng. Spires), Worms, Mainz, Paderborn, Cologne and Hildesheim.  As a priest it was part of his main duties to act as “witch confessor” for those condemned.  In 1627 he was sent to Würzburg as professor of theology, and there witnessed some of the worst atrocities of the witch trials.

Asked by a young Johann Philipp von Schönborn, a later Archbishop of Mainz, why had his hair turned prematurely grey?  Spee replied:  “Grief has turned my hair white, grief on account of the witches whom I have accompanied to the stake”.  Spee goes on to explain:  “Not only grief at such inhuman punishments, but grief at the malice and stupidity of the whole procedure of the witch hunts raging throughout Franconia and Westphalia.  He had personally and diligently investigated many prosecutions, and after considering the charges and confessions, never once had he found anything about the accused that would make them guilty of witchcraft”.

While working in Peine on the 20th April 1629, Spee was a target of an attempted assassination and was seriously wounded.  During his months of convelescence and rehabilitation, he penned his most famous work Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors 1631).  Having recovered sufficiently to resume his duties, in 1630 he returned to Paderborn as professor for moral theology, and later in 1633 he took up the same position at Trier.  Two years later in March 1635 during the storming of Trier by the imperial forces, Spee devoted himself to the care of the soldiers in hospital, many of whom were suffering with a plague like illness.  As a result Spee himself became infected, and soon after died on the 7th August 1635.  He was just 44 years of age.

Spee was later buried in the crypt of the Jesuit Church in Trier, the common burial chamber for Jesuit priests in those times, and where after him more than one hundred others found their last resting-place.  In 1980 Dr. Anton Arens, rector of the old Jesuit Church in Trier, allowed archaeologists to excavate the old crypt.  There they found the remains of Spee, which the Institute of Anatomy in Frankfurt confirmed by comparing his jawbone with known living descendants of the Spee family.


During the last few years of his life Friedrich von Spee wrote and published two books of lyric poetry, both when published posthumously gave him a minor place in German literature.  The first “Goldenes Tugendbuch” (Golden Book of Virtues), was a book of devotion highly praised by Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, a leading German philosopher, mathematician and Statesman.  His second book Trutznachtigall” (In Disregard of Nightingales) is a collection of fifty to sixty sacred songs that gained a prominent place among 17th century religious lyrics.

His most famous work, for which he obtained a well-deserved and worldwide reputation, remains his Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors 1631).  This was a stinging indictment against the German Princes, Judges and legal profession in general, who encouraged the atrocities perpetrated against witches.  In his fifty-one “Doubts” and “Questions” into which he devided the book, he exposes the methods by which convictions were obtained:  “Once a whisper of witchcraft was heard against any man or woman, the foregone result was death by burning”.

Written in Latin during his convelescence after an assisination attempt, it was first printed and published anonymously and without his permission, although he was widely known to have been its author.  Among the members of his own Jesuit order “secretly” his book seemed to have received a favourable reception.  However, because it was published without official sanction, and since many of the Princes and Judges he attacked were benefactors of the Jesuits, its not surprising he would be called to task.  One member of his order a Father Roestius, even tried to have him put on the Index of Prohibited books.

His worst critic was an anti-Jesuit Judge called Dr. Heinrich von Schultheis, who in an attack on the Cautio complained of “the horrible abuse he poured out regarding the Inquisition and authorities who were taking action against the witches”.  The General of the Provincial Jesuits of the Lower Rhine, Father Mutius Vitelleschi, offered him only a mild rebuke, and expressed his suspicion that while Spee himself did not have his name on the book, he at least allowed it to be published and “must earnestly guard his manuscripts better in the future”.

That Spee’s book had an effect can be seen in the preface of the second edition written by Johannes Gronäus, where it is noted that after the first publication of the Cautio, Johann Philipp von Schönborn the Archbishop of Mainz, and the Bishop of Brunswick both abandoned all further persecutions.  While the atrocities continued for many years after Spee’s death, the popularity of the Cautio among both Protestants and Catholics certainly helped to diminish the delusion.  By 1731 one hundred years after its first publication, over 16 editions had been printed and translated from Latin into German, French, Dutch and Polish.  Disseminated throughout all Europe, its message of reason and humanity continued to light a way out of a dark age.





The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology - by Rossell Hope Robbins

The Encyclopedia of Witches &Witchcraft  - by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

Website Sources:


To be Added.


First published on the 23rd March 2007, 12:46:38 © George Knowles

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Many of the above biographies are brief and far from complete.  If you know about any of these individuals and can help with aditional information, please cantact me privately at my email address below.  Many thanks for reading  :-)



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