On this date in 1631, an old widow and part-time vintner in the town of Bruchhausen, Anna Spee, was burned at the stake for witchcraft.
This otherwise would be a tragically unnecessary if forgettable death – well, perhaps not to Anna – were it not for the coincidence regarding the deceased husband of the condemned.
Anna, you see, was the widow of one Robert Spee, who was either the first cousin or brother of Fr. Friedrich Spee. Readers of this blog will remember that in my post Malleus Maleficarum on 9 September, Fr. Spee was noted to be one of the first ecclesiastic voices – that of a prominent Jesuit, no less – to express serious reservations about the use of torture in eliciting confessions of witchcraft from those so accused.
The same year as Anna’s execution, Fr. Spee published, anonymously at first, his work Cautio Criminalis, which took a daring stand against then-widespread use of judicial torture. Fr. Spee argued that the technique was most efficient for obtaining confessions, but perhaps not so efficient for obtaining truthful confessions.
“Why do we search high and low for wizards? I will show them to you no matter where. Torture the Capuchins and Jesuits; they will confess…. Torture the prelates and canons of the Church; they will confess…. If you want still more, then torture you yourselves, and then torture me.”
We do not know of a causal link between Fr. Spee’s writings and Anna’s fate, though we must surmise that the former would have learned of the latter’s murder, and that possibly it hardened his resolve against the practice.
Sadly, Anna’s relation to Fr. Spee did her no good. She denied at first having had sex with Lucifer, but under torture finally confessed. Her words on breaking, the title of a recent book on the history of the witch hunts, were “Sagt, was ich gestehen soll!” or, “Tell me what I should say next!”
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