It is hard to understand many of the events of past centuries relating to the accounts of witchcraft, although academics propose various theories. Some believe the phenomena were delusions; some that the phenomena really occurred; some that the persecutions arose from social tensions and that people used witchcraft as an excuse to rid their communities of unwanted individuals.
What is known is that there are very strange accounts of events that members of that society took seriously, seriously enough to shed blood regardless of actual proof for the alleged crimes.
According to many records, very few, either among Christian believers or natural philosophers, spoke out against or tried to curb the hysteria and enthusiasm of those who made accusations. In some ways, the treatment of alleged witchcraft seems to be an almost unifying theme between believers and non-believers, Protestants and Roman Catholics. All believed in its existence, and all believed it should be rooted out.
Anton Praetorius believed this as well, just not how it was executed in practice.
Anton Praetorius studied theology. One of his early jobs was as the principal of a Latin school in Westphalia (Germany). He married a woman named Maria, who bore him one son, Johannes. Maria died of the plague shortly after their marriage. Praetorius’ next position was in Dittelsheim, where he bore the distinction of being the first Calvinist pastor to that parish. In 1597 he received the prestigious appointment of pastor to Wolfgang Ernst, the Earl of Ysenburg, Budingen and Birstein.
During his time as pastor for the Earl in his castle at Birstein, Praetorius witnessed the torture of four women accused of witchcraft. This event greatly impressed itself upon him and affected his future work.
A court record states, “As the pastor has violently protested against the torture of women, it has therefore been stopped at this time.”
But by the time the torture had been stopped, only one of the women survived. Praetorius’ interference incurred the wrath of the Earl, who dismissed him from his post as pastor within a year of his arrival.
Records that exist show the brutality often used during these trials. It is hard to imagine witnessing such events. Imprisonment and torture could last for days, and it is no wonder Praetorius was moved by the condition of the women.
In the case of one mayor of the city of Bamberg, there exists both the record of his torture and confession and of a letter he wrote to his daughter explaining that his confession was falsified. He bribed one of the jailors to smuggle out the letter to his daughter. In heart wrenching language, he tells her that regardless of his protestations, his accusers will not relent in their torture. He tried to bear the torture as long as possible. When he chose to confess in hopes of ending the ordeal, they continued to torture him until they convinced him to accuse other townspeople of witchcraft as well.
After his dismissal by the Earl, Praetorius moved to a parish in Laudenbach, which was near Heidelberg. Here he wrote his book “Thorough Report about Witchcraft and Witches.” When he first published the book in 1598, he wrote under the name Johannes Schulze, but when he republished it in 1602, he published it under his own name. It was published again in 1613 and posthumously in 1629. In it, he denounced the use of torture to extract confessions.
He wrote, “In God’s Word one does not find anything from torture, embarrassing cross-examines [or] confession by force and pain.”
Praetorius clearly condemned witchcraft as a practice, but he was wary of the mania of witchcraft accusations. He was not driven by the hysteria surrounding him, the hysteria that had been going on and off since the early 15th century, where neighbors were quick to attribute any personal trouble or calamity to the alleged witches around them.
The Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, the criminal law decreed by Charles V in 1530, was the law the courts were required to follow. Article 109 of the code stated that only witches who used magic to cause harm could be burnt, and witches who did not cause harm could not be punished by death but could be punished with other penalties. While the article limited the amount of torture that could be used in a trial, it did not do away with it. The laws were often ignored, however, in much of Germany, particularly the smaller territories. More witch hunts, persecutions and executions took place in Germany than in any other European country.
Anton thought the appropriate response to witchcraft was preaching, exhortation and prayer. He believed in the punishment of crimes, but not if those crimes could not be proven. He objected to the disparity that often occurred in the treatment of men and women when it came to punishment for witchcraft crimes. And, above all, he thought that the administration of justice should never be based on torture or hearsay. For these beliefs, he was willing to risk his worldly good and renown.
To read more about Anton Praetorius and the torture of “witches,” please visit Leben’s website.