Recent estimates as to the number of people executed for witchcraft put the number at around 60,000. In Germany in the early seventeenth century witch trials were particularly prevalent, and were such an accepted institution that to speak out against them was to speak out against the church itself. Friedrich Spee wasn’t afraid to bring into the light the awful crimes being committed against women during this time.
Friedrich Spee was born in 1591 in Kaiserwerth, today a part of Dusseldorf. The oldest of five children, he chose to forsake the inheritance of his father’s noble title in favour of joining the Society of Jesus at nineteen. Set on becoming a missionary and seeing faraway places such as India, Spee requested to be sent east, but was turned down as workers were needed more at home than abroad. As part of his training, he studied philosophy at Wurzberg and later theology at Mainz. After being ordained a priest in 1622, he was sent to teach philosophy in the Jesuit College at Paderborn.
At Paderborn College, Spee’s immediate supervisor was a man called Hermann Baving. Baving disliked Spee, he disagreed with his views and sent letters detailing complaints about Spee to his superiors. Spee was brought to Cologne College where he taught moral theology and in the classroom professed dissatisfaction with the trials of women for witchcraft. This didn’t help his relationship with Baving, who saw to it that Spee was moved to a small town out in the countryside. Here in 1629, Spee was attacked while riding to a nearby village to give mass. His would-be assassin shot at him with a pistol and then stabbed him several times. Spee escaped and made it to the village where he led the congregation in song, too weak to deliver a mass. The assailant was never identified, despite the best efforts of the authorities.
While convalescing after his attack, Spee was recalled to teach at Paderborn. However, in 1631 Hermann Baving was appointed the new rector at Paderborn. Almost immediately, he had Spee fired. Several months later a book was released by an unknown author entitled Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors), which detailed a proper procedure for the conduction of witch trials and condemned how they were carried out. In the book, Spee depicted the awful tortures endured by women whom he knew to be innocent, and he drew attention to the inhumane procedures of witch hunters and executioners.
When his superiors discovered Spee wrote the book, they were furious, as it hadn’t received approval for release, but he said it was published without his knowledge and against his will. However a second edition was released in 1632 with minor changes, this time with Spee’s name on the cover. This would have been cause for expulsion from the Jesuits, and indeed without the protection of the Society, it would have been likely Spee would find himself in front of a trial for heresy. However, he was just reassigned to teach at a college in Trier. It is thought that he was saved from a worse fate by a sympathetic friend higher in the Jesuits, possibly his provincial, Goswin Nickel. He wasn’t saved for long though, Trier shortly after became the site of a battle between the Germans and the French. In the aftermath of the battle, Spee spent his time volunteering at military hospitals, where in 1635, he became infected with an epidemic that had broken out among the wounded soldiers, and died.
Spee’s influence in the form of his most famous work became evident; within a decade of his death the prince-bishop of Wurzberg had ended witch trials in his territory, having read the book, and other regions followed suit in the coming years.