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Friedrich von Spee

Poet, opponent of trials for witchcraft, b. at Kaiserswerth on the Rhine, February 25, 1591; d. at Trier, August 7, 1635

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Spee, FRIEDRICH VON, poet, opponent of trials for witchcraft, b. at Kaiserswerth on the Rhine, February 25, 1591; d. at Trier, August 7, 1635. On finishing his early education at Cologne, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1610, and, after prolonged studies and activity as a teacher at Trier, Fulda, Würzburg, Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, was ordained priest in 1622. He became professor at the University of Paderborn in 1624; from 1626 he taught at Speyer, Wesel, Trier, and Cologne, and was preacher at Paderborn, Cologne, and Hildesheim. An attempt to assassinate him 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 Trier by the imperial forces in March, 1635, he distinguished himself in the care of the suffering, and died soon afterwards from the results of an infection contracted in a hospital. He was one of the noblest and most attractive figures of the awful era of the Thirty Years’ War. His literary activity belongs to the last years of his life, the details of which are little known. 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 the “Trutznachtigall”, a collection of fifty to sixty sacred songs, which, though not free from the weaknesses of the day, take a prominent place among religious lyrics of the seventeenth century, and have been in recent times repeatedly printed and revised. But the assumption that the author in this work applied the metrical principle independent of Opitz, is at least doubtful. His principal work, through which he obtained a well-deserved and world-wide reputation, is the “Cautio Criminalis”, written in admirable Latin. It is an arraignment of trial for witchcraft, based upon his own awful experiences probably principally in Westphalia, for the traditional assumption that he acted for a long time as “witch confessor” in Wurzburg has no documentary authority. This work was printed in 1631 at Rinteln without Spee’s name or permission, although he was doubtlessly widely known as its author. He does not advocate the immediate abolition of trials for witch-craft, but describes in thrilling language and with cutting sarcasm the horrible abuses in the prevailing legal proceedings, particularly the inhuman use of the rack. He demands measures of reform, such as a new German imperial law on the subject, liability to damages on the part of the judges, etc., which, if they had been conscientiously carried out, would have quickly put an end to the persecution of witches. Many a generation passed before witch burning ceased in Germany, the classic land of these outrages; but at all events the “Cautio Criminalis” brought about its abolition in a number of places, especially at Mainz, and led the way to its gradual suppression. The moral impression created by its publication was very great. Even in the seventeenth century a number of new editions and German translations appeared, Protestants also eagerly assisting in promoting its circulation. Among the members of Spee’s order his treatise seems to have usually found a favorable reception, although it was published without official sanction, and its publication led to a correspondence between the general of the Jesuits, the provincial of the order on the Lower Rhine, and Spee himself. The general wished more exact information as to how the printing took place and expressed the suspicion that Spec, even if he, perhaps, did not directly cause it, at least allowed it, and wrote him a mild rebuke.


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