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I want to introduce an obscure figure who can serve as a heroic example in today's fight against the scourge of torture. His full name is Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld (1591-1635) and he was a 17th century German Jesuit priest during the dark days of the 30 Years War that ravaged Europe from 1618 to 1648, resulting in the death of about one third of the population of Germany. Friedrich von Spee, as he is often called, was stationed at various universities and monasteries in the Rhineland. He was also one of the prominent poets of the Baroque period of German literature.

The princes of the region were not only engaged in fighting for the Catholic cause against Protestant forces (primarily the Swedish armies under King Gustavus Adolphus); they were also actively combating what they perceived to be the plague of witchcraft.

At that time, witchcraft was taken as a serious threat to society equivalent to the present fear of terrorism. In this case, however, the threat of witchcraft was entirely fictional. Nonetheless, it was taken seriously by the powers of the day--and was ruthlessly persecuted. Confessions were routinely extracted by means of torture and upon confession, the accused witch was irrevocably condemned to death at the stake. In fact, the way the process worked, for a practical matter simply being accused of witchcraft set the accused on an irreversible path to death by fire.

Friedrich von Spee witnessed many such trials and by virtue of his Jesuit training concluded that the process of denunciation, interrogation, torture, confession and execution were unjust. He was, of course, very cautious about expressing his opinions because he knew that opposition could be fatal for him as well. Nonetheless, his superiors strongly suspected him of disloyalty. In fact, at one point as a vindictive move he was appointed to be the confessor to women who had been condemned to the stake and to hear their last confessions. Someone once said to him, "It must be terrible to accompany someone to the stake." He replied, "It is not nearly as terrible as coming back alone."

Spee in 1631 finally anonymously published a book titled, "Cautio Criminalis" or "A Book on Witch Trials." While he does not deny the possibility that witchcraft could exist (this was the 17th century), he points out that the methods used to root it out were intrinsically and profoundly unjust. It contains a systematic critique of the entire process of prosecuting witchcraft, but there are some compelling passages dealing with torture that could have been written today.

For one thing, today we often hear defenders of "harsh interrogation" claim that these detainees are such vile terrorists that such methods are justified. Witness the recent blather fest between Bill O'Reilly and Christopher Hitchens. To this Spee replies:

To immediately presume that the prisoners are just guilty, and therefore one may do to them those things which it has been said some priests do do to them, is completely intolerable.

Somehow, the idea that anyone accused could possibly be innocent was completely foreign to the powers of the day--just as it appears that some prisoners swept up and deposited in Guantanamo could possibly be innocent, yet they continue to be kept there wihtout charges and with no indication as to how they will be processed. Some of them were innocent victims of denunciation by neighbors in exchange for the $5,000 bounty the US was offering. In just the same way, innocent women, once denounced by a jealous or vintictive neighbor, found themselves in a system with no way out. Spee echoes the assessment of current experts on the efficacy of torture:

The tortures customary everywhere are by their very nature great and cause grievous suffering beyond measure. However, it is the nature of the greatest suffering that we do not fear meeting even death itself in order to avoid it. Therefore there is the danger that many women, in order to extricate themselves from the agony of the rack, might confess to crimes they have not committed and fabricate any crimes for themselves, either whatever the inquisitors suggest or what they themselves have previously planned to confess.

It was known by a thinking person in the mid-17th century that torture does not work, that it is inhumanly cruel. But the scourge went further. Once a woman had confessed under torture to the crime of witchcraft, she was compelled to reveal her accomplices. Under torture, she would inevitably blurt out names. These women would then be arrested and find themselves in the same implacable apparatus of condemnation and eventual execution as their predecessors. Spee again:

Therefore if, as I have seen happen more than once, a woman must enter prison and undergo torture because of this one denunciation combined with her disrepute, and then once subjected to pain in turn begins to name her accomplices, who cannot see that within a very short time there will be no end to the denouncers and the denounced, especially if the judge is cruel and follows the opinion of those authors who insist that in expected crimes a single or several denunciation by accomplices supported by no other evidence suffices for torture and even for a conviction.

Spee's book was the first glimmer of a coming enlightenment in an age beset by savagery, war and religious hatred, a war that ravaged the continent of Europe. It stands today as an example of rational thought applied to a barbaric practice.

Today's discussion of torture has that savage fiend Dick Cheney defending it on its supposed effectiveness. But that is a perverse argument in itself. Torture is a crime. It has always been a crime and we must cleanse ourselves of its stench by prosecuting those who have perpetrated it in order to restore our status as a civilized nation. There is no useful purpose for torture and even to argue from that perspective is perverse.

Actually, there is one purpose for torture. The purpose of torture is the gratification of the torturers.

Originally posted to Cardshark on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 08:19 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Those who cannot remember the past . . . (8+ / 0-)

    Thank you. Gladly tipped and recced.

  •  Thanks for writing this up (9+ / 0-)

    We need to not forget, ever, that torture doesn't work.

    Alonso de Salazar Frías


  •  Rec'ed for 17th century. (13+ / 0-)

    So much going on then.

    You might also be interested in looking at Johann Weyer, who opposed witchtrials in the sixteenth century.  He's interesting, because he doesn't fit the standard narrative of scientific advancement being the force that did away with witch trials.  Weyer had a distinctly premodern view, and his basic argument was that because the Devil was so powerful, any contract someone went into with Him in becoming a witch was null and void because it was a contract between unequal partners.

    There's also a study of the role of the Spanish Inquisition in combating witchtrials in seventeenth-century Basque, The Witches' Advocate. It shows that inquisitors, who were in the shady business of rooting out heresy, defended people accused of witchcraft, showing them to be simply confused and unstable and not in league with Satan.  

    There are also various studies that show how the emerging scientific method in the seventeenth century was more closely related to witch trials than the retrospective Enlightenment understanding of scientific progress suggests.  Brian Easley, Witch-Hunting, Magic, and the New Philosophy, for one.

    •  That is very interesting and I will look into it (8+ / 0-)

      There is a 3-volume German-language historical novel by Wolfgang Lohmeyer on the life of Spee. The second volume is interestingly titled "Der Hexenanwalt," which translates as "The Witches' Advocate."

      Also, you are correct about the "scientific" treatment of witch hunting. There were numerous learned treatises and conferences on the subject reminiscent of today's scientific meetings where papers were presented, panels held, etc. The infamous "Malleus Malifacarum," by Spengler and Kramer is but one example of these.

  •  Thanks very much. (9+ / 0-)

    The one point I think I would disagree with is about "The purpose of torture is the gratification of the torturers." It may well be that the ones who put the torture into practice find perverse pleasure in it, but I suspect that the policy itself, and therefore the occasion for torture, is more often grounded in fear and lack of empathy. If you are cripplingly afraid, and don't know in your bones that other people are also people, then torture looks like a reasonable policy.

  •  Precisely (7+ / 0-)

    Actually, there is one purpose for torture. The purpose of torture is the gratification of the torturers.

    It is this same mindset that allows us to continue to practice capital punishment through the use of the so-called "painless" (it's anything but) process of lethal injection.

    Countless studies have shown that lethal injection subjects the condemned to a lingering, horrifying death - but the method is "preferred" over the more visibly barbaric execution practices - hanging, shooting, gassing or electrocuting.  Why?  It's not to spare the defendant.  We (a societal "we") don't really care if a killer feels pain.

    It's to spare the witnesses.

    Society gets its revenge, its gratification.  But we don't have to look at anything unpleasant.

    Excellent diary, well-researched, thoughtful and well-written.

    Our promises are made in proportion to our hopes, but kept in proportion to our fears.-LaRouchefoucauld

    by luvsathoroughbred on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 09:04:59 AM PST

  •  I'm really hoping (9+ / 0-)
    that all the talk from P-E Obama and Joe Biden about "looking to the future" is simply to lull the current POTUS into thinking he doesn't need to issue blanket pardons at the last minute.

    'The votes are in, and we won.' - Jim Webb, 11/07/2006

    by lcork on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 09:05:19 AM PST

  •  Ironies of history... (10+ / 0-)

    Prior to the Reformation, pursuing witches had been the job of the Office of the Doctrine of the Faith (aka the Inquisition).  Many princes successfully resisted the Inquisition, not because of any qualms about the reality or danger of witches, but because they resisted the immense power the Inquisition gained once it had established itself - under skilfully guided torture, the accused could be relied up on to denounce individuals close to the prince, thus establishing the "need" for salutary "guidance" by the Church...

    After the Reformation, the prosecution of witchcraft transferred to the secular authorities, and it is here that the prosecutions were on one hand formalised, on the other hand degenerated into pure sadism.  The Inquisition had at least notionally cared about the accused's soul; the secular authorities didn't.

    Friedrich von Spee was the church-appointed confessor to many "witches", and he firmly believed that the power of the sacrament of confession was stronger than anything else - so when the "witches" essentially recanted the confessions made under torture, Friedrich weighed up the two and came out in favour of the sacrament.

    I do think there is some similarity between the witchcraft hysteria and the terrorism hysteria.  Not that terrorism doesn't exist, but the hysteria being willfully generated for the purpose of extending state power is very comparable.

    γνωθι σεαυτόν

    by halef on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 09:34:52 AM PST

    •  Also, it is assumed that persecution of witches (9+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      alizard, vcmvo2, kurt, Zydekos, mofembot, BYw, MizC, allep10, halef

      by religious authorities was done only by the Catholic Inquisition. The Protestant church and clergy went about it viciously as well. In almost all cases they were supported by the secular authorities. One very horrid place was the Bishopric of Bamberg. where the Bishop became a very rich man through the confiscation of propert belonging to the accussed and condemned.
      the general history of witch trials has been treated extensively. The point here is a parallel between a 17 century reasoned critique of torture and the "debate" that is being carried on today--as if there were and point in civilized people even debating such a foul practice.

      •  let not the witch hunters of Salem slide (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        away unnoted. Cotton Mather and his cohort were a horror on the land.

        John Edwards:"One America does the work, another America reaps the rewards. One America pays the taxes, another America gets the tax breaks."

        by BlackSheep1 on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 09:57:46 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  It's presumptious to call witchcraft "fictional." (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    feebog, dirkster42, mofembot

    I'm not saying witches are real, but I think it's arrogant to say that the threat of witchcraft is completely imagined.  There's actually strong evidence that witchcraft scares are the result of ergot poisoning.

    Ergot is a mold which grows on rye grains in wet seasons.  It is also the mold from which LSD is derived.  The symptoms of ergot poisoning are very similar to having a bad LSD trip, only more so.

    Imagine someone you love suddenly staying awake for days at a time, often screaming deleriously.  Imagine they describe to you seeing demons and ghosts wherever they look whether their eyes are open or shut.  In these cases the victim is not only tripping, their also poisoned, so they are slowly dying as well.  The hallucinations affect animals as well.  In one case a dog gnawed on a rock until it bled to death.  In another case, a family was trying to determine if a person suffered from demon possession, so they soaked a piece of bread in that person's urine and fed it to a dog, causing the dog to go insane as well.

    If you were in those circumstances, and you didn't have the understanding we have now of how psychadelic chemicals can affect the brain, how would you explain what was happening?  A seemingly superhuman force compelling the normal people around you to stay awake for days on end spouting evil sounding nonsense about demons and evil?  

    I know this is mostly tangential to the point of your diary, but this is just a pet peeve of mine.

    •  It's the ergot poisoning that is real (6+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BlackSheep1, vcmvo2, kurt, Zydekos, mofembot, BYw

      Thinking that it is demonic possession or witchcraft remains fictional.
      Thinking that the Sun revolved aorund the Earth, no matter how many elaborate schemes had been posited to support the notion, remains fictional as well.
      I really don't see your point and you are correct. It has very little to do with mine.

    •  most of the time (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Those who were affected by contaminated wheat THOUGHT they were seeing demons, it wasn't people who were the "witches"

      That being said, there were herbal practitioners, and people who still held on to the old Pagan beliefs of their ancestors.  Some of them were considered "witches" because they could cause cures that might seem "magical".

    •  so are you saying that most people (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      vcmvo2, BYw, MizC

      accused of witchcraft were so afflicted by the mold?  My understanding is that it was mostly single women, especially older ones who were accused. And often, the church was after their property.

      •  bluegrass50, it was usually (0+ / 0-)

        women, and the church (or the office of the Inquisition, especially the Spanish variant) always got the property of the accused.

        Warlocks were not un-heard-of in the time, though.

        But I seem to remember ergot more as a matter of a cause of some plagues (particularly in what we know now as Germany) in the 1500s and 1600s, and possibly as a cause of the "death of the firstborn of Egypt".

        John Edwards:"One America does the work, another America reaps the rewards. One America pays the taxes, another America gets the tax breaks."

        by BlackSheep1 on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 10:05:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  That was probably one of the greatest problems. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          ...and the church (or the office of the Inquisition, especially the Spanish variant) always got the property of the accused.

          The whole "court system" dealing with alleged witchcraft relied on their victims confiscated property for money and continued existance.

          IIRC I read that one (skeptical) duke ruling a principality in Northern or Central Germany dealt with it by simply putting the whole system under state control. As in, the court officials were now state officials and paid a fixed wage independent of their "success rate". As a result witch trials declined dramatically. Unfortunately only in his state.

          •  this is, I think, why "pro-lifers" want (0+ / 0-)

            control over women's bodies.

            The body you live in is the most fundamental property you can have. If you can't even have a say in how it is controlled -- and make no mistake, that's the aim of the anti-choice movement: their adversarial stand on all forms of birth control is less secret every day -- how are you supposed to be taken seriously on any other matter?

            It's a fundamental infantilization, a power play as naked as rape.

            John Edwards:"One America does the work, another America reaps the rewards. One America pays the taxes, another America gets the tax breaks."

            by BlackSheep1 on Wed Jan 14, 2009 at 10:02:28 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  great post. Thanks. Another point (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    devtob, vcmvo2, BYw, MizC

    is that the tortured person would often implicate others, equally innocent, just to end their own suffering. This produced a vicious cycle.

    This stuff is difficult to read about.  I remember the first time I read Sam Harris' The End of Faith - I almost could not take the sections on the Inquisition.

  •  Thank You, and No Thanks to Cheney and Co. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    devtob, ybruti

    This shows how little we have learned.  It is shameful.  

    I am happy to learn of von Spee's writing.  Surprised I never heard of him before, despite a minor in German Lit.

    Bush hijacked the US with lies about 9/11 and crashed it into Iraq, killing over 500,000 human beings. So far, he's avoided arrest and prosecution.

    by Zydekos on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 09:25:58 PM PST

  •  but...but... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It seems so totally awesome when Jack Bauer does it!

  •  The Burning Times (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    devtob, BYw

    is an unforgettable 1990 Canadian documentary about witchcraft and the trials in Europe. Link

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