Skeptics and Dissenters

Even as the standard canon on witchcraft gained ascendancy, some critical voices questioned both the reality of witches and/or the methods used to persecute hapless souls. Due to official censorship, most critical works were suppressed or confiscated. King James I ordered all copies of Reginald Scot’s book burned. Thus surviving copies of the literature of dissent are now exceedingly rare.

It took real courage to speak out, and those who did were often attacked. Prominent demonologists, such as Heinrich von Schultheiss, warned that “he who opposes the extermination of the witches with one single word cannot expect to remain unscathed.” Some critics delayed publication (Johannes Meyfart, Herman Löher) or first published anonymously or under a pseudonym (Friedrich Spee and Hermann Witekind). Others were punished for their efforts, such as Balthasar Bekker, who was defrocked and expelled from the Dutch Reformed Church. Johann Weyer was forced into exile when the Catholic Church placed his book on the Index of prohibited books. Cornelius Loos, a Dutch priest, had his manuscript De Vera et Falsa Magia (On True and False Magic) confiscated. He was imprisoned, exiled, forced to recant his beliefs, and died in prison awaiting more severe punishment. His manuscript was rediscovered three hundred years later by A.D. White’s personal librarian, George Lincoln Burr. A handwritten copy is in the Cornell collection.

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