Stage #2: The Examination of the Accuser

by Jenny Gibbons

Stage #2: The Examination of the Accuser

This is the first stage where you see a big difference between legal theory (what was supposed to happen) and legal practice.

In theory, the next stage of a Witch trial was the examination of the accuser. The authorities realized that the mere insinuation of Witchcraft could permanently destroy a person's reputation. Even if she was found innocent, an accused Witch might never be able to live a normal life in her village again. So when someone came to a judge and called his neighbor a Witch, the first thing the judges were supposed to do was cross-examine *him*.

The accuser had to provide evidence to support his accusation, and the authorities were required to test it. If he said that a Witch made him sick, doctors were summoned to examine him. If they felt there might be natural causes for the illness, the charge of Witchcraft was dropped without trial. Only if the evidence seemed solid did the court proceed to the next stage, examining the accused.

Or, that was the theory. In reality, this stage disappeared -- it was one of the first legal safeguards dropped. Lawyers claimed that it was "reasonable" to assume that anyone accused of Witchcraft was guilty. Why would everyone say a person was a Witch if they really weren't? Religious leaders supported the lawyers. Witchcraft was such a grievous sin, they said, that God would never allow an innocent person to be accused of it. Ergo, if you were accused, you were guilty.

The Witch, of course, was given a chance to prove that she was innocent. But some of the leading lawyers of the Burning Times insisted that only the strongest of proof was sufficient. A Witch should only be acquited if she could provide overwhelming evidence of her innocence.

A few lone voices spoke out against the presumption of guilt, but they were few and far between. One was a Jesuit priest named Friedrich von Spee. Under a pseudonym, Spee wrote _Cautio Criminalis_, one of the most detailed and chilling criticisms of the Burning Times. Spee was originally a confessor, the priest assigned to hear the confessions of condemned Witches. The tales he heard, the legal abuses he saw, led him to write a scathing attack on Witch trials.

Spee pointed out that in many cases, judges couldn't even imagine what kind of evidence could prove a Witch's innocence. He wrote, "A certain religious [monk] recently discussed the matter with several judges who had lighted many fires and asked them how an innocent person once arrested could escape; they were unable to answer and finally said they would think it over that night."

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