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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In England, during the persecutions, a confession alone carried little weight. As evidence of witchcraft guilt, the English courts sought concrete proof, such as devil's marks. But in Continental Europe, confessions were a major part of the prosecution process. Indeed, obtaining a confession was in many cases of primary importance, since there was frequently very little in the way of concrete evidence. But exactly how the confession was obtained was irrelevent.

The Malleus Maleficarum of 1486, by the two monks Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, presumed the guilt of anyone charged with witchcraft and advocated torture to obtain a confession. Part Three of their infamous work dealt with "how the trial is to be proceeded with and continued, whether the witch is to be imprisoned; what is to be done after the arrest; points to be observed by the Judge before the formal examination in the place of detention and torture; how she must be questioned; the continuing of the torture; how they are to be shaved in those parts where they use to conceal the Devil's marks and tokens; various means of overcoming their obstinacy in keeping silence and refusal to confess; the trial by red-hot iron; the manner of pronouncing sentence. . . ." Torture was a necessary part of the investigation and the "continuing of the torture" was to ensure a full confession.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, Friedrich von Spee tried to slow the hysterical persecutions. A German Jesuit, he wrote Cautio Criminalis (Cologne, 1632) in which he said that even the healthiest of witches had "affirmed that no crime can be imagined which they would not at once confess to if it could bring down ever so little relief and they would welcome ten deaths to escape repetition." He further stated "a single innocent person, compelled by torture to confess guilt, is forced to denounce others of whom she knows nothing; so it fares with these, and thus there is scarcely an end to accusers and accused, and, as none dares retract, all are marked for death."

During the Salem witch trials in New England, torture was not supposed to be applied. Yet there were varying degrees of duress, such as keeping the accused awake for many days and nights without sleep, starving her, and beating her. Confession was important to the authorities. If the accused pleaded (whether guilty or not guilty was immaterial) they could lay claim to all personal property and possessions. No trial could proceed until the accused had pleaded. Giles Cory, an eighty-yearold farmer, was aware of this point and consequently, when he was charged, he refused to say a word. His wife, Martha, had been charged and found guilty. To try to make Giles talk, the court subjected him to the peine forte et dure (literally, "a penalty harsh and severe," the only time in American history that this punishment has ever been inflicted). This entailed laying him on the ground and piling rocks on his body. But Giles held out until he was finally crushed to death under the weight of the rocks.

An immediate confession to a charge of witchcraft was no guarantee against torture. The accused would be tortured anyway, to confirm the confession. Having obtained a confession, the authorities might then allow the victim to partially recover before repeating their questions. This second confession allowed them to say that it had been obtained without duress, even though it was invariably made out of fear of further torture.


Rousseau (1712–1778) reveals details of an erratic and rebellious life. [Fr.Lit.: Benét, 218]
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