The Witch Persecution at Trier
The height of the European witch trials was between 1560 and 1630, with the large hunts first beginning in 1609. During this period, the largest witch trials were held in Europe, notably the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Basque witch trials (1609–1611), the Würzburg witch trials (1626–1631), and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631). Those of Trier in Germany were perhaps the most expansive witch trials in European history. The persecutions started in the diocese of Trier in 1581 and reached the city itself in 1587, where they were to lead to the deaths of about 368 people, and as such it was perhaps the biggest mass execution in Europe during peacetime.
It was during this persecution at Trier that Cornelius Loos, a scholar of Dutch birth who held a professorship in the university of that city, dared to protest against both the persecution itself and the superstitions out of which it grew. Failing in his appeals to the authorities, he wrote a book to set forth his views; but the manuscript was seized in the hands of the printer, and Loos himself thrown into prison. Thence he was brought out, in the spring of 1593, and, before the assembled church dignitaries of the place, pronounced a solemn recantation. This recantation has been preserved by the Jesuit Delrio in the great work which in 1599-1600 he published in support of the persecution. Thus Delrio tells the story:
And, finally, as I have made mention of Losaeus Callidius, who tried by a thousand arts to make public the book which he had written in defense of the witches (and some fear that even yet some evil demon may bring this about), I have brought for an antidote the Recantation signed by him.
I, Cornelius Losaeus Callidius, born at the town of Gouda in Holland, but now (on account of a certain treatise On True and False Witchcraft, rashly and presumptuously written without the knowledge and permission of the superiors of this place, shown by me to others, and then sent to be printed at Cologne) arrested and imprisoned in the Imperial Monastery of St. Maximin, near Trier, by order of the Most Reverend and Most Illustrious Lord, the Papal Nuncio, Octavius, Bishop of Tricarico: whereas I am informed of a surety that in the aforesaid book and also in certain letters of mine on the same subject sent clandestinely to the clergy and town council of Trier, and to others (for the purpose of hindering the execution of justice against the witches, male and female), are contained many articles which are not only erroneous and scandalous, but also suspected of heresy and smacking of the crime of treason, as being seditious and foolhardy, against the common opinion of theological teachers and the decisions and bulls of the Supreme Pontiffs, and contrary to the practice and to the statutes and laws of the magistrates and judges, not only of this Archdiocese of Trier, but of other provinces and principalities, I do therefore revoke, condemn, reject, and repudiate the said articles, in the order in which they are here subjoined.
- In the first place, I revoke, condemn, reject, and censure the idea (which hath in words and writing I have often and before many persons pertinaciously asserted, and which I wished to be the head and front of this my disputation) that the things which are written about the bodily transportation or translation of witches, male and female, are altogether fanciful and must be reckoned the figments of an empty superstition; [and this I recant] both because it smacks of rank heresy and because this opinion partakes of sedition and hence savors of the crime of treason.
- For (and this in the second place I recant), in the letters which I have clandestinely sent to sundry persons, I have pertinaciously, without solid reasons, alleged against the magistracy that the [aerial] flight of witches is false and imaginary; asserting, moreover, that the wretched creatures are compelled by the severity of the torture to confess things which they have never done, and that by cruel butchery innocent blood is shed and by a new alchemy gold and silver coined from human blood.
- By these and by other things of the same sort, partly in private conversations among the people, partly in sundry letters addressed to both the magistracies, I have accused of tyranny to their subjects the superiors and the judges.
- And consequently, inasmuch as the Most Reverend and Most Illustrious Archbishop and Prince-Elector of Trier not only permits witches, male and female, to be subjected in his diocese to deserved punishment, but has also ordained laws regulating the method and costs of judicial procedure against witches, I have with heedless temerity tacitly insinuated the charge of tyranny against the aforesaid Elector of Trier.
- I revoke and condemn, moreover, the following conclusions of mine, to wit: that there are no witches who renounce God, pay worship to the Devil, bring storms by the Devil’s aid, and do other like things, but that all these things are dreams.
- Also, that magic (magia) ought not to be called witchcraft (maleficium), nor magicians (magi) witches (malefici), and that the passage of Holy Scripture, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Maleficos non patieris vivere), is to be understood of those who by a natural use of natural poisons inflict death.
- That no compact does or can exist between the Devil and a human being.
- That devils do not assume bodies.
- That the life of Hilarion written by St. Jerome is not authentic.
- That there is no sexual intercourse between the Devil and human beings.
- That neither devils nor witches can raise tempests, rain, storms, hailstorms, and the like, and that the things said about these are mere dreams.
- That spirit and form apart from matter cannot be seen by man.
- That it is rash to assert that whatever devils can do, witches also can do through their aid.
- That the opinion that a superior demon can cast out an inferior is erroneous and derogatory to Christ.
- That the Popes in their bulls do not say that magicians and witches perpetrate such things (as are mentioned above).
- That the Roman Pontiffs granted the power to proceed against witches, lest if they should refuse they might be unjustly accused of magic, just as some of their predecessors had been justly accused of it.
These assertions, all and singular, with many calumnies, falsehoods, and sycophancies, toward the magistracy, both secular and ecclesiastical, spitefully, immodestly, and falsely poured forth, without cause, with which my writings on magic teem, I hereby expressly and deliberately condemn, revoke, and reject, earnestly beseeching the pardon of God and of my superiors for what I have done, and solemnly promising that in future I will neither in word nor in writing, by myself or through others, in whatsoever place it may befall me to be, teach, promulgate, defend, or assert any of these things. If I shall do to the contrary, I subject myself thenceforward, as if it were now, to all the penalties of the law against relapsed heretics, recusants, seditious offenders, traitors, backbiters, sycophants, who have been openly convicted, and also to those ordained against perjurers. I submit myself also to arbitrary correction, whether by the Archbishop of Trier or by any other magistrates under whom it may befall me to dwell, and who may be certified of my relapse and of my broken faith, that they may punish me according to my deserts, in honor and reputation, property and person.
In testimony of all which I have, with my own hand, signed this my recantation of the aforesaid articles, in presence of notary and witnesses.
CORNELIUS LOOSAEUS CALLIDIUS.