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Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials.

CAUTIO CRIMINALIS, OR A BOOK ON WITCH TRIALS. By Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld. Translated from the German by Marcus Hellyer. Studies in Early Modern German History. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2003. Pp. xxxvii + 233. $49.50; $18.50.

"If I have written anything which is displeasing to the Holy Roman Church, let it be false; I damn and abhor it. Likewise anything which should unjustly offend anyone, etc." This "Solemn Declaration" accompanied the second edition of Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials by Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld.

In the late 1620s a wave of witch hunts swept across large areas of Germany. Their ferocity rivaled anything that Germany had seen, and it had already endured the worst excesses of the European witch hunts. In 1631, at their peak, S. published Cautio Criminalis, arguing that the plague of witches supposedly infesting Germany was the product of the witch trials, themselves. S., a Jesuit who apparently believed in witches, encouraged the Catholic prince-bishops to examine the conduct of the witch trials, to regulate the use of torture to elicit confessions and denunciations (or the naming of others), and even to end the trials.

The publication of Cautio caused considerable alarm. On a personal level, it jeopardized S.'s place in the Society of Jesus. His reputation within the order was eventually restored, but as of his death in 1635, he was not allowed to take his fourth vow. Beyond that, he became the most articulate voice among a growing number of skeptics, including some of his fellow Jesuits. His most important individual contribution to the opposition was his warning to the princes that unless they could ensure the safety of the innocent, they must halt the further prosecution of suspected witches or jeopardize their own salvation.

The book's publication did not lead directly to the cessation of witch trials in Germany, but it did lend significant support to the opposition that, by the late 1620s, led to the elimination of the trials' worst excesses. The book's value today lies not only in its being a moving example of "an individual speaking truth to power" (vii), but also in its relevance to our own time and our continued propensity to engage in witch hunts that jeopardize the lives of the innocent, long after we have stopped believing in witches.


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Author:Le Beau, Bryan F.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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