It is the 25th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1591.
Today, let’s talk about witches. Oh, sure, you don’t believe in witches. Ok. Or maybe you think that 1591 is a little late to be talking about witches. After all, they seem pretty medieval.
Point # 1: You can believe whatever you want about witches. A few tips: A) don’t disbelieve in witches because you don’t believe in the possibility of unexplainable or supernatural events. Embrace the weird stuff. But B) don’t believe things just because they are weird or incredible. Remain critical but not cynical.
Point # 2: If you want to develop an outline of the history of witches or witchcraft, you can. But be careful with translated words. Take, for instance, the reference to a witch in the book of Exodus. Or maybe it’s better translated as “a woman who practices evil magic.” The so-called “witch of Endor” is better understood as a medium. “Witch” in English doesn’t always correspond to the same thing historically.
But why would we be in the 17th century talking about a medieval phenomenon? Because the so-called witch craze wasn’t medieval at all. It had more in common with the Renaissance and Enlightenment than the Middle Ages. Fun fact: church law forbade belief in the existence of witches in the Middle Ages. You can’t kill what you don’t believe in.
The study of Early modern witchcraft might best be understood as a pseudo-enlightened approach to calamity as well as part of the post-reformation confessional battles.
How was it at all “enlightened?” Your philosophy professor perhaps taught you about the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy. That is, just because something happens beforesomething does not make it the cause of something. But the earliest inquiries to lousy weather, failed crops, and the unexplained still clung to explanations that veered into “Post Hoc” fallacy territory. It was undoubtedly “bad science” by our standards, but an attempt to understand the natural world, nonetheless.
But how was it related to post-Reformation confessional battles?
Consider the 1990s American political obsession with being labeled “tough on crime.” Images of drug busts and incarcerated pushers were used as political tools in the same way that a church could show its own “tough on witches” position with public hearings and hangings. Protestants and Catholics attempted to outdo each other with regards to being tough on witchcraft. Much of the witch craze was more Post-Reformation than “Pre-Reformation.”
The European witch craze began in earnest in the mid 15th century and ended reasonably abruptly in the 18th century. However, its demise did not come about from external pressure but voices coming from inside the church. We remember Friedrich Spee, not a household name today, but one of the critical churchmen involved in abolishing the witch trials. Friedrich Spee, professor, pastor, poet, and author of the Cautio Criminalis, was born on the 25th of February in 1591.
Spee was born in Kaiserswerth on the Rhine and was educated at Cologne. He joined the Jesuit order in 1610 and lived a life mainly under the radar. Near the end of his life, a few little devotional books and a hymnbook made him a well-respected priest, but his Cautio Criminalis made him stand out from a historical perspective.
The Cautio Criminalis of 1631 contains a few novel ideas. While Spee himself was responsible for escorting women to their trial and death, he was sure that several were innocent. Furthermore, he remarked that the “authorities” on witchcraft were books with flimsy historical arguments and fairytales. His most famous dictum from the work was that “Torture has the power to create witches where none exist.” This modern-sounding argument was remarkable for a time when the specter of witches was considered, then, a very modern problem.
Spee continued to pastor during the 30 Years War and, in 1635, was working in Trier during the Imperial sack of the city. Spee ministered to the injured at the hospital where he contracted the virus that would lead to his death in that year. Friedrich Spee, pastor, and author of the Cautio Criminalis, which argued for an enlightened approach to charges of witchcraft, was born on the 25th of February in 1591
The last word for today comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lenten Prayer.
O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before men.
Lord whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 25th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man whose favorite witches include: Samantha, Sabrina, Melisandra, and Broom Hilda. He is Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.