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Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland 1500-1800 by Wanda Wyporska

Here follows an extract from Wanda Wyporska’s new book Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland 1500-1800:

witchesIn 1613 the good gentlemen of Kalisz’s municipal court arrived in the village of Kucharki to try Dorota of Siedlików and Gierusza Klimerzyna. Listening to a wide range of testimonies, they heard tell of sex with the Devil, ruined beer, stolen milk, a visit to the sabbat, and the involvement of both priests and the local nobility. What they heard was typical of many accusations and confessions recorded in witchcraft trials throughout the area of Wielkopolska in Western Poland and would have been familiar to those trying cases either in the middle of the sixteenth century or as late as the eighteenth century. When Dorota, the miller’s daughter, was arrested at the Kucharki tavern, she claimed that her mother (some five years dead) had taught her witchcraft, in this case to sprinkle cattle with holy water. Furthermore, she freely admitted that on the advice of Little Casper, her black and hairy devil, she had located stolen objects. Her catalogue of misdemeanours did not end there, and she confessed that she had buried spells to harm Lord Szkulski’s cattle, given someone a concoction to improve bread-making and marital harmony, and worked magic to ensure a man sold all his bread at market (through sprinkling holy water, invoking the power of the Virgin Mary, and then genuflecting). Male witnesses testified that when Maciej Gorczyca had accused Dorota of stealing flour, she had threatened him that he would ‘come to ruin’.

During torture Dorota admitted that a few Thursdays previously she had uttered the words, ‘Oh dear God, maybe I will give myself to the Devil like the others so that I can have a good life.’ That very night, the Devil, whom she recognized by his cold hand, visited her, but she resisted him by making the sign of the cross. Only when Dorota was later stretched in the torture chamber did she confess to sleeping with the Devil — seduced by the promise of butter, money, a black cow, and an escape from poverty. The torture also drew a denunciation from her and she accused a female miller of having sex with her devil, Little Martin. Despite his promises of a better life, Little Casper the devil had bruised and beaten Dorota, which she had complained about to two priests in Kościelna Wieś. Unable to exact revenge upon her devil, she turned her wrath instead Peldowa in a classic case of charity-refused, because she had refused to give her bread and had called her a hag. Peldowa subsequently fell ill when a powder made from herbs, earth from a grave, and human bones was somehow administered to her.

The details of Dorota’s confession were typical of many of the Wielkopolska trials and included attending Thursday sabbat, dancing with devils, and eating vile food. One of the most important details to emerge is the role of revenge — a prevalent theme throughout this study. Dorota bewitched Kosmalina’s cattle because she had not paid her for a distaff and for some reason denounced Old Klimerzyna for stealing milk from the seigneur, claiming they had turned themselves into cats. When Klimerzyna appeared before the court, she admitted to nothing other than washing Gierka with herbs to rid her of a headache, which may suggest a rivalry between both women who were noted in the community as healers. When they were forced to confront each other and Klimerzyna was tortured she called upon God and the Holy Trinity, saying,

My dear Lord, have mercy on me. I will, by God, say what I know dear Lord Szkulski, for a long time you have wanted my health…By God she is lying about me. Dear Lord, forgive me in my innocence. Because she denounced me, I am denouncing the miller’s wife because she harmed people with that Dorota.

From Dorota’s confession we learn that Szkulski (the local seigneur) had harmed Klimerzyna’s daughter and she had threatened him with lean times ahead. So the women buried a pot containing various ingredients under the threshold of his cattle byre and unsurprisingly, they were found guilty and sentenced to the stake.[i]

This trial is typical of those heard before the municipal courts in the Polish region of Wielkopolska (Great Poland) during the early modern period in a number of ways. On average two women were tried in each case and often they were accused by the local seigneur of harming his cattle and/or using semi-religious rituals and herbs for both maleficent and beneficent purposes. As the trial indicates, people sought out healers or ‘cunning folk’ to help them cope with illness, ensure marital harmony, increase profit, or improve domestic skills, but often turned upon the practitioners if something went awry. Dorota’s testimony also reveals multiple motives: she gave herself to the Devil to escape poverty, but harmed the seigneur out of anger. Many of the themes discussed in this work are also identified in this trial, such as fears about the domestic, charity-refused, revenge on a seigneur, and the behaviour, status, age, and motives of those involved in witchcraft trials in Wielkopolska between 1500 and 1800.

It is always tempting for the historian of witchcraft to focus solely on fascinating trials such as the one described above. However, this approach fails to fully contextualize the witch and paints a one dimensional view. One of the key aims of this study is to provide a comprehensive overview of Polish representations of the witch, from as many genres as possible, between 1500 and 1800, so as to provide a more rounded picture of the dynamics of the persecution and a more encompassing background in which accusations of witchcraft can truly be closely examined.

Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland 1500-1800 by Wanda Wyporska is published by Palgrave Macmillon and has been short-listed for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award. It is available now on Amazon.


[i] APP AM Kalisz, I/158, pp. 347-60.



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