... and they did so at considerable risk to themselves.
As Halloween approaches, many people will enjoy themselves by dressing up as witches. But, outside of Halloween festivities, there is nothing enjoyable about being labeled as a witch.
As fears and obsessions about witchcraft spread across Europe in the late-16th and early-17th centuries, countless thousands of persons found themselves falsely accused of being witches and subjected to torture and execution.
At the forefront of combating this lethal paranoia were three priests who contended that most “witches” were actually hapless victims facing horrific deaths due to baseless accusations.
1. Fr. Cornelius Loos
Born in 1546 in the Dutch city of Gouda, Cornelius Loos came from a distinguished family who had to leave their home city amid anti-Catholic hostilities. He was ordained as a priest after graduating from the University of Leuven. He later received a doctorate in theology from the University of Mainz, where he would also serve as a professor.
In the mid-1580s, Loos relocated to Trier, a western German city steeped in witch-hunting hysteria. Consecutive years of inadequate harvests in the region had presented the need for a scapegoat. Soon enough, people were preoccupied with tracking down “witches.”
As one observer of the period described, “From court to court throughout the towns and villages of all the diocese, scurried special accusers, inquisitors, notaries, jurors, judges, [and] constables, dragging to trial and torture human beings of both sexes and burning them in great numbers.”
Almost no one accused of witchcraft in Trier would escape this grisly fate, and the intensity grew so maniacal that even persons of political influence fell victim. At the same, a certain segment of the population – such as copyists, notaries and, of course, interrogators and executioners – profited considerably from the cycle of arbitrary accusation and agonizing punishment.
Dismayed by what he saw, Loos endeavored to publish a manuscript, De vera et falsa magia (True and False Magic), criticizing witch-hunters. When word circulated about this project, he was incarcerated before his manuscript could see publication.
The imprisoned priest knew that witch-hunting was a dangerous sham, and he sought to point out that confessions made under torture were inherently unreliable. Of course, numerous people these days would agree, but in that era even privately entertaining such a viewpoint required some genuine independence of thought, and expressing such a viewpoint required serious courage.
As his views were so unpopular at the time, Loos would find himself coerced into recanting his statements about witch-hunting. He eventually obtained his release from prison, but authorities would place him under ongoing surveillance (and imprison him again on several occasions) for the rest of his life. He died of the plague in 1595 at Brussels.
2. Fr. Alonso de Salazar Frías
Known as “the witches’ advocate,” Alonso de Salazar Frías was born to a high-ranking family in the northern Spanish city of Burgos in 1564. He obtained degrees in canon law from the University of Salamanca and the University of Siguenza. Along with becoming a priest, he had a successful career as a lawyer and eventually held the position of “inquisitor.”
Though inquisitors tend to get a bad rap, de Salazar Frías managed to do a lot of good in this role. Specifically, he insisted that witchcraft accusations must require some form of supporting evidence other than simply relying on coerced confessions.
In a remark that captures the absurd barbarity of the period, de Salazar Frías once stated, “I have not found one single proof nor even the slightest indication from which to infer that one act of witchcraft has actually taken place.”
Due to his influence, many people in 17th- and 18th-century Spain were able to emerge unscathed from accusations of witchcraft.
3. Fr. Friedrich Spee
Friedrich Spee (often referred to as Friedrich von Spee) was born in the German city of Dusseldorf in 1591. He joined the Jesuit Order at age 19 and – after an extended period of studying and teaching – he became a priest. He also became a professor at the University of Paderborn.
Spee wrote dozens of widely-circulated religious hymns, but his most influential work was Cautio Criminalis (published in 1631 without his name or permission), which showed the cruel abuses of justice taking place at witchcraft trials. One of the book’s most striking statements was, “Torture has the power to create witches where none exist.”
Cautio Criminalis was so highly regarded that even Protestants (in an era not far removed from the Reformation) endeavored to circulate it. Quite simply, the book’s urgent humanitarian benefit outweighed any religious rivalry.
Though Spee’s work “created an immense sensation,” the practice of accusing and abusing “witches” was so ingrained that eradicating it would take many more years.
Meanwhile, Spee served as both professor and priest at Cologne, before relocating to Trier. There, amid the tumult of the Thirty Years’ War, he attended to wounded soldiers. While performing this service in 1635, he contracted the plague and died at age 44.
Spee, along with Frías and Loos, knew the grim truth: Far from being demonic, the accused “witches” were innocents needlessly consigned to an awful fate. Moreover, the only demonic manifestations were the deeds of the witch-hunters themselves.
Though persons in western countries are inclined to view witch hunts as belonging to the past, such practices have persisted to the present day in various parts of the world. And there are concerns that all the recent pandemic-related death and illness has intensified this problem. After all, people still seek scapegoats.