The Beginning of the Witch Trials in Poland: The period of ecclesiastical courts
Guest blog written by Łukasz Hajdrych
On 24 May 1511 vetula combusta [est] in campo extra oppidum Valishewo – A witch was burnt on the field outside the town of Waliszewo”. This is probably the most renown sentence which relates to the Polish witch-trials – the very first information about the execution of the witch in Poland. It is not by any means the oldest reference about the Polish witch-trials – those were known in Poland for over 100 years before, but since before 1500s they were conducted exclusively before the very mild bishop’s courts which limited their verdicts mostly to penance and financial fines, we don’t know about any witch’s execution that happened in Poland before the 24 May 1511.
OK, but what exactly happened that day? We do not have much information about the trial itself – the record of it unfortunately did not preserve to our time (if it was written at all). Although the trial was conducted by the town court of Waliszewo, the information about it can be found in the books of the ecclesiastical court in nearby Poznań. Why, some may ask? It is so because the information about the trial reached Poznań as a rumor – a citizen of Waliszewo had told a canon of the Poznań cathedral about the recent burning of the witch who had been charged of spoiling the beer in the town. The latter responded that this was not enough and that one should burn all the townspeople in Waliszewo. Quickly the clergyman found himself before the ecclesiastical court accused by the citizens of Waliszewo of defamation, where he tried arguing that his statement was merely a joke. The court must have acknowledged his explanations, because the case was closed without even his admonition.
Though we do not know much about it, this trial itself is a very important point in the history of witch-trials in Poland – it symbolically marks the shift of such cases from bishops to the secular courts. Contrary to popular belief witch-trials in Poland (for the most part) were not the matter of the ecclesiastical courts – those ones held such cases almost exclusively in the 1400s and started to rapidly lost their jurisdiction over them in the first years of the 1500s. Before the second half of that century the control of bishop’s courts over witch-trials were basically none existent.
We cannot say much about ecclesiastical witch-trials in Poland, but thanks to the extent query made by Joanna Adamczyk in the early 2000s, we have at least some information about it. We know for the fact that between 1400 and 1550 no fewer than 79 people in Poland were accused of being witches before the bishop’s courts – most of them (70%) belonged to the lowest strata of contemporary Polish society, while others were either clergymen or their affiliation to the specific strata is impossible to define today. There is one exception from this rule – a single noble (szlachcic) who was posthumously accused of practicing the witchcraft before the consistory court of Płock. There is an easy explanation why there wasn’t more accusations in Poland made against nobles – the rule applied in Poland since 1430s stated that the nobles cannot be charged against any crime as long as there is not well-documented evidence against them. Moreover, contemporary Polish society was very strongly hierarchical and it is hard to imagine that a peasant or a local parish priest were able to make up their minds to accuse their suzarain – his or her response could be deadly.
What may be shocking today is that in the majority of instances from the ecclesiastical courts from 1400s and 1500s the witchcraft itself was NOT the main charge against the accused persons. Mostly the theme of practicing witchcraft appeared at some point during matrimonial disputes that occurred frequently before those courts – charging one’s wife of bringing impotence by witchcraft was often the good strategy of getting a marriage annulment. Just before them were placed cases of defamations – in the world where banishing from a home town or village could at best result in declassification, keeping a good name was nearly the matter of life and death. Many people who had found themselves in the situation where they were more or less directly accused of witchcraft, often decided to act ahead of time and charge her or his slanderer of defamation before he or she was able to make an official accusation before the court (as we have seen, for example, in the case of the anonymous townsman from Waliszewo). In many cases this not only prevented the start of the witch-trial, but also resulted in the official – somewhat humiliating for her or him doing so – apology that slanderer had to make before the church gate, stating that his or her accusations were unjust and unfair.
Most people who were accused of witchcraft before the Polish ecclesiastical courts were women, though the gender ratio was not at that time as bad for them as it became later – about 47% of them were accused of witchcraft but the trial itself never happened, while another 25% of them were charged and indeed trialed. About 72% of those accused of witchcraft before bishop’s courts were therefore women, while in the following centuries the percentage of women accused before the secular courts of being witches could go as high as 90% or even 95%.
As I stated before, those few people who were indeed charged and trialed for witchcraft before the ecclesiastical courts could expect very mild treatment. Many of the convicted persons were simply obliged to pay a fine to the church and / or make an official oath that they won’t practice witchcraft in the future. Torture was not in use, and more severe punishments (excommunication, incarceration or even death) were reserved only for the most unrepentant recidivists. We do not have, however, any information about death sentences that happened before any Polish ecclesiastical court between 1400 and 1550 – though ecclesiastical judges often threatened convicted persons that they should expect death if they would not improve their behavior in the future, they were not in a hurry to enforce such penalties, mostly because they involved the secular courts (the ecclesiastical ones did not have an executioners and therefore were not able to perform so called “bloody punishments”).
The witch-trial that happened in Waliszewo in 1511 marked, however, the new era of Polish witch-trials – much more frequent, bloody and deadly secular ones. But this is another story to which we will return someday in the future…
Łukasz Hajdrych is completing his PhD at Adam Mickiewicz University, with a dissertation on The Vision of the World of the Inhabitants of Kleczew as Revealed in the Kleczew Criminal Register,1624-1738. It investigates witch trials in the region of Kleczew.
Currently, he is involved in several funded research projects, including Archiwum Kobiet. Piszące – Kontynuacja [The Archive of Women. Writing – Continuation] (Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw), The Polish Witch–Trial Database (Arizona State University, Tempe Arizona), and Nie tylko Sarmacja. Dzieje mityczne i fantazje w skandynawskiej historiografii nowożytnej [Not only Sarmatia. Mythical History and Fantasy in Early Modern Scandinavian Historiography] (University of Białystok).