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Between the Devil and the HostImagining Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland$

Michael Ostling

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199587902

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199587902.001.0001

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At the Crossroads

At the Crossroads

(p.xvi) (p.1) Introduction At the Crossroads
Between the Devil and the Host

Michael Ostling

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This Introduction situates the imagination of witchcraft in early modern Poland using the image of the crossroads: the witch combines elements taken from elite culture and from local folklore, from the center and periphery of European culture. The chapter also locates this study in time and space: it is a study of witchcraft and witch-trials in the Korona, the Polish part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

Keywords:   center and periphery, early modern Poland, witchcraft, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, crossroads, folklore, elite culture, sixteenth–eighteenth centuries, continuity and change, witch-trial

On the eve of Rogation Sunday, 1511 (May 24), ‘vetula combusta [est] in campo extra oppidum Valischewo’—a witch was burnt in the fields outside the town of Waliszew or Chwaliszewo, suburb of Poznań. Thus is described the earliest known execution for witchcraft in Poland. We have no record of the trial itself, and very few details of the accused witch’s crime. We do know that she stood accused of having ruined several breweries through her craft—presumably by causing the fermenting mash to spoil. This information comes down to us through the records of a defamation suit in the Poznań ecclesiastical court: a citizen of Chwaliszewo had told a canon of the Poznań cathedral about the recent witch-burning; the clergyman responded that all the burghers of Chwaliszewo should be similarly burnt. In court, the canon explained that he had only been joking, and the case was closed (Waliszew 1511).1

In 1761, two and a half centuries after the burning of the nameless Waliszew woman, one of the last witch-trials in Poland paints a starkly different picture of witchcraft. The court of the tiny, privately owned town of Kiszkowo was invited to the village of Gorzuchów at the request of that village’s owners, the noble Szeliski brothers. The Kiszkowo wójt or magistrate, three town-counselors, the court scribe, two executioners, and an apprentice executioner roomed and boarded in Gorzuchów, at the Szeliski brothers’ expense, while they heard the accusations against five women of the village. By the end of the trial, ten women stood condemned of a long list of outrages and abominations, ranging far beyond maleficent magic. According to the court’s verdict, the accused witches had ‘forgotten the Fear of God’, renounced their baptism, and ‘bound themselves to the devil’, with whom they engaged in ‘association’ (that is, sexual relations); they had met at ‘Bald Mountain’, had ‘stolen the Most Holy Sacrament from various churches, burnt it to make a powder which they sprinkled in pig-sties and various dishonourable places, and had shed a second time that Most Holy (p.2) blood, shed once for the ransom of the human nation by the Saviour of the world’; they had made bewitchments from the head of a mare, from vipers, snakes, the paw of a wolf, and buried these in various places to destroy people and cattle; they had, worst of all ‘buried two Eucharist hosts in a mare’s skull under the stairs of the manor, and another two under the threshold of the dining room’, in order to destroy the health and household of their feudal masters. Accordingly, all ten were burnt at the stake at the border of the village (Kiszkowo 1761).

During the 250 years separating the Waliszew trial of a single woman and the Kiszkowo trial of ten, the character of Polish witchcraft, and, more drastically, of Polish witch-trials, had changed. A rare crime in the early sixteenth century had become, by the mid-seventeenth century, a topic on everybody’s mind: according to the polemical pamphlet The Witch Denounced, ‘one hears about witch-trials more than about any other subject’.2 From being a matter of divination, herb-craft, the preparation of amulets and love-charms, and at worst the magical spoiling of beer or milk,3 it had become a much more nefarious business. Instead of semi-professional cunning-women whose power to heal implied power to harm, accused witches were now ordinary women in villages and small towns who came to be suspected of, and to confess to, the wildest crimes: spiteful and gratuitous malefice against cattle, humans, children; the raising of storms to destroy crops in the field and cause famine; feasts at Bald Mountain, with dancing to music played on a hoe or a plough or a foxes’ tail; pacts with the devil consummated sexually; theft and desecration of that defining emblem of triumphant post-Tridentine Catholicism, the Body of Christ incarnate in the Eucharistic host. Instead of trials of a single woman for a specific crime of malefice, one finds trials of two or four or more: the crimes, the criminals, and the victims multiplying through the injudicious application of judicial torture. By the late eighteenth century, the carefully defined and circumscribed vetula of ecclesiastical-court procedure had been replaced, entirely it seems, by the terrifying czarownica of the popular imagination.

But these transformations of the imagined witch, and the attendant transformations in the consequences borne by those accused of witchcraft, should not blind us to deep and pervading continuities. In some contexts, such as the peasant-run village courts of southern Małopolska, trials remain similar over centuries: early and late, they mediate perennial anxieties about the health of children and cattle, the churning of butter, and brewing of beer (e.g. Wara 1582; (p.3) Klimkówka 1702b). Even trials before town courts, which form the main subject of the present study, changed less in character than is sometimes appreciated: right through the whole period, most trials involved one or two accused witches, and most began with relatively straightforward accusations of malefice. In the eighteenth century as in the sixteenth, a witch was above all a woman who could harm through magic; above all, she stole milk and ‘profit’ from the udders of her neighbors’ cattle. This close association of witches with milk-theft or milk-spoiling continued even into the twentieth century, when one still finds peasants driving milch-cows over a hatchet, whipping them with Easter palms, or hanging blessed herbs in their stalls to protect them from witchcraft.4 Judicial practice has changed, but the fears, social interactions, and folk cosmology underlying witchcraft accusation have remained remarkably stable over time. The present study concerns itself with both the transformations and the continuities in this Polish imagination of the Polish witch—and in the judicial treatment of women to whom the label of ‘witch’ came to be ascribed.

In an insightful if polemic passage of his early exploration of Polish witchcraft beliefs, Ryszard Berwiński exploited the image of the crossroads—that place where the village meets the world, where you might encounter anyone and anything: a hanged criminal; the crucified Christ or the Virgin Mary in a roadside shrine; a fairy or devil peeking out from a hollow tree—to express his understanding of the Polish witch as a European import.

Witches are not characters developed from our own, national imagination; rather they are cosmopolitans, not born or raised in this or that country, but conceived at the cross-roads between this temporal and the everlasting world; their father the church militant, ignorance their mother.5

Like Berwiński’s witch, this book stands at the crossroads: of Polish cultural and religious history; anthropology of religion and witchcraft; and the amorphous interdiscipline of witchcraft studies. But each of these fields, itself, is a crossroads discipline: each has been recently interested in the interplay between international and local, center and periphery, metropole and hinterland, cosmopolitan and indigene.

A trend of recent Polish historiography has stressed its reintegration with general European history, as against earlier emphases on Polish exceptionalism. Although some historians have wanted to maintain and highlight Polish difference, others have worked to establish the basic comparability of Polish history to the history of Europe as a whole. Janusz Tazbir, long-time editor of Renaissance and Reformation in Poland (Odrodzenie i Reformacja w Polsce), stands as an ambivalent example of both trends: in monographs spanning a long career he (p.4) champions particularly Polish achievements such as religious tolerance;6 yet through numerous articles on the Polish reception of western notions and the western reception of Polish notions he has also sought to demonstrate inextricable links between Poland and Western Europe.7 Within political and economic history, the late Antoni Mączak rejected traditional insistence on the unique trajectory of the ‘noble democracy’. Instead, he consistently sought points of comparison between Poland and such states as Scotland or Denmark, and he developed pan-European models to understand systems of informal power.8 Within religious history, a central theme of the publications associated with the East-Central Europe Institute has been the degree to which Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia, and Hungary were shaped by medieval Catholicism, Protestantism, and Counter-Reformation—experiences these regions shared with Western Europe but not with the Orthodox East.9 In most of this recent work, the point has not been to insist on the identity of Polish historical trajectories with those of Western Europe; rather, it has been to resituate Polish history as a variation on a theme, as one of the many permutations of general Western European history, to be studied and taught alongside other such other permutations as the history of Spain or Scotland or Sweden. In other words, Polish and neighboring historians across a wide array of subdisciplines are beginning to concentrate on the ways in which local concerns, notions, and movements interacted with, integrated with, assimilated to, but also opposed or reacted to more general trends of European history.

Recent cross-cultural witchcraft scholarship displays a similar tension between the international and the local, and between the general and the particular. This tension inheres in the nature of the project: to what degree does the term ‘witchcraft’ denote a generalizable category made of commensurable practices and ideas across time and space? Within the anthropological literature, a tendency to reject the category of witchcraft as a colonial imposition10 seems to be giving way to a renewed interest in commonalities and commensalities. An important trend of contemporary anthropological scholarship on witchcraft has been to move beyond the supposedly functional ‘magical equilibrium’ of tribal witchcraft beliefs, focusing instead on use of the imagined witch to negotiate between local (p.5) and international systems of power.11 As happened in Europe in the early modern period, cosmopolitan, learned, and often textual imaginations of witchcraft have come together with local, usually oral understandings, and the results have often been an intensification of witchcraft fears and persecutions. However, as also in Europe, the results have also been intensely local, with major variations between regions; and they have been replete with unintended consequences. A suggestion coming out of this recent work is that intense witchcraft persecution occurs not at the center or the periphery but in the ‘hinterland’, the interactive and conflicting area—the spatial, social, economic, and conceptual crossroads—wherein a cosmopolitan, modern system comes into contact with local and traditional communities.12 Although most of this recent work lacks a strong comparative element, it does provide a model for thinking about witchcraft beliefs as at once local and global, and about the problematic interaction between these two registers.

Within the field of European witchcraft studies more specifically, there has in recent years been considerable interest in the ways that ‘canonical’ assumptions about witchcraft and witch-trials played out on the margins of Europe. Since the publication of Ankarloo and Henningsen’s influential Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centers and Peripheries,13 historians of European witchcraft have also been taken up with problems of the interactions between center and periphery, metropole and hinterland. The studies in that volume from such marginal areas of Europe as Iceland, Sicily, Hungary, or Estonia challenged monolithic accounts of the witch-persecution by demonstrating extreme regional variety both in belief and practice: to mention just one example, they showed that a majority of the ‘witches’ in many of these areas were male. At the same time, the volume offered a unifying model of center and periphery, under which what we take to be typical of European witchcraft is, instead, characteristic of a central core (more or less France, Switzerland, and Germany), with greater and greater variation on theme as one proceeds into the political, cultural, and economic periphery. Moreover, these peripheral variations tend to decrease with time, so that, although they arrive late, ‘typical’ witch-persecution and ‘typical’ beliefs such as the sabbat-complex of devil worship and orgy do eventually make their appearance in the periphery. Witch-trials and demonology may be seen as part of a hegemonic (p.6) colonizing discourse that reaches out from the European center to influence the borderlands; but this discourse is also modified and indigenized in the process.

Ironically, it is sometimes difficult to decide at which level of discourse, the ‘elite’ or the ‘folk’, one finds a more uniform imagination of witchcraft. On the one hand, elite literary discourse shared assumptions drawn from a common heritage of classical texts. Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons, an unparalleled inquiry into the pan-European discourse on witchcraft, has shown its surprising stability across confessional lines, legal systems, and political regimes. Polish elite demonology, though comparatively undeveloped, fits well into Clark’s model, absorbing western tropes and topics with only minor changes. The anonymous Polish Witch Denounced is almost certainly independent of a work such as Friedrich Spee’s Cautio criminalis, but its arguments are similar because its concerns, its assumptions, its theology are similar, and because it draws on the same western sources for its discussion.

On the other hand, local folklore could also exhibit strong uniformity at the folk level. One need not follow Carlo Ginzburg’s tracing of the witches’ sabbat to a pan-Eurasian shamanistic complex to note the very wide similarities in the cross-cultural motif of the witch. In Rodney Needham’s useful phrase, the imagined witch is a ‘synthetic image’ drawing on pan-human fears, inverting pan-human values.14 The imagination of the witch as a naked, night-flying, child-stealing corpse-eating insatiable over-consumer of limited goods ranges right across the world. Indeed, nearly every feature of the Polish imagined witch can be found elsewhere: desecration of the host, the preoccupation with milk, the attacks against children, the burial of vermin under the threshold to cause illness. The use of treasure-hauling demons to steal grain from neighbors explored in Chapters 9 and 10, which seems to be a typically Slavic or Balto-Slavic motif, was already reported by Virgil in his Eclogues a few decades before Christ, and receives discussion in Augustine.15 Even so specific and local a practice as the use of fetus-ghosts for malefice or to find treasure, a practice and belief seemingly so dependent on Christian understandings of baptism, finds close parallels in the sorcery of present-day northern India.16

In this book, I have wanted to integrate discussion of the Polish imagination of the witch into the wider European and, indeed, world context. Against a historiography emphasizing Polish exceptionalism, tolerance, and ‘mild’ witch-hunts, I will show that the Polish village quarrels which led to accusations, the Polish trial process, and Polish sentencing habits were fully comparable to the rest of Europe. Against the countervailing assumption, that Poland experienced an exceptionally (p.7) intense period of witch-trials and witchcraft fears, I intend to show that this too is incorrect: as elsewhere, most trials concerned malefice and turned on everyday concerns and fears. With the recent multiplication of excellent studies from all over Europe it is becoming increasingly difficult to point to any region as ‘typical’. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Polish state of affairs—with infrequent trials in most places, and a few areas of intense witch-persecution; with local persecution despite the attempts of central authorities to rein it in; with clerical misgivings about the abuses of witch-trials despite the Christian basis of the imagined witch—fits comfortably into trends found elsewhere in Europe.

A few words may be in order concerning the temporal and spatial scope of this study. In time, it covers what I have loosely called the ‘witch-trial era’, that is to say the two and a half centuries between the Waliszew trial of 1511 and the abolition of witchcraft as a crime in 1776. Most of the material (both trials and texts) comes from the shorter period, approximately 1610–1750, which spans the height of witch-trials and of intellectual interest in witchcraft in Poland. However I have not hesitated, where necessary, to range far out of this temporal range. In Chapters 5 and 9 especially I have made considerable use of anti-superstition literature from the early and middle fifteenth century, while in several chapters I have supplemented the fragmentary evidence from witch-trials by making reference to folklore and ethnography from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This latter move has its dangers, but these are outweighed by the benefits. A passing reference to elderberry in a trial from 1650, for example, can only be interpreted in the context of folkloric materials from the late nineteenth century and theological texts from the early fifteenth century. In this as in many comparable cases I have made the reasonable assumption that practices attested centuries before and centuries after the witch-trial era might have existed in similar form during that time-period itself.

In space, the study encompasses the territory of the Kingdom of Poland, the so-called Korona or Crown. From the late fourteenth century this kingdom was in dynastic union with the Grand-Duchy of Lithuania, while from 1569 until their partition and absorption into the empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the two states were constitutionally joined together as the ‘Most Illustrious Commonwealth of the Two Nations’. The territory of this vast country included, through most of the witch-trial period, the lands of present-day central and eastern Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus, and portions of Latvia. On the other hand, much of what is now western and north-western Poland (Silesia and western Pomerania) were not associated in any way with the Kingdom of Poland since medieval times. Despite the presence in these territories of large populations speaking Polish or related Slavic dialects, these territories are not considered (p.8) in the present study.17 Similarly, I do not consider the territory of Ducal or East Prussia, a fief of the Polish Crown through much of the sixteenth and seventeenth century which, however, exercised nearly total independence over most of this period.18

Recently Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian scholars have rediscovered the history of the multinational Commonwealth as something distinct from and larger than the national histories which have dominated over the last two centuries.19 Nevertheless, in this book I have concentrated on Poland alone, in isolation from Lithuania, and to a lesser degree, from Ukraine. Although the political culture of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility was singular, the legal history, and even more the social history and folklore, of the various regions remains distinct.20 The legal history of witchcraft in the two Nations of the Commonwealth really only comes together at the moment when witchcraft ceased to be a crime: the declaration of the Sejm in 1776 abolishing witchcraft as a capital crime in Poland was immediately extended to include Lithuania.21

Anthropologists have long been used to studying backwater communities of little international influence, assuming that the habits of any human group anywhere will be of interest to everyone everywhere. Historians are still expected to show that studies of peripheral regions will prove relevant to centers of culture or power. I find such an expectation disheartening—for me, at least, the imagined witches of early modern Poland are interesting in themselves, and my central task has been to understand them as themselves—nevertheless, I do think the findings of this book will be relevant to the understanding of witchcraft and magic in England and Germany, France and Spain. The crossroads where a Polish witch meets her devil leads both into her own village with its local folklore, and out into the whole wide world.


(1) Witch-trials included in my database (the great majority of the witch-trials discussed in this book) are cited by place and year of trial: e.g. Waliszew 1511, Kiszkowo 1761. See the Appendix for the published and, where known, archival records of these trials.

(2) Czarownica powolana, abo krotka nauka y prestroga z strony czarownic (Gdańsk: Jan Daniel Stoll, 1714 [1639]), f.3.

(3) Karol Koranyi, ‘Czary i gusła przed sądami kościelnymi w Polsce w XV i pierszej połowie XVI wieku’, Lud, 26(1927), 17; Stanisław Bylina, ‘Magia, czary w Polsce XV i XVI w’, Odrodzenie i Reformacja w Polsce, 35(1990), 41–2, 45; Joanna Adamczyk, ‘Czary i magia w praktyce sądów kościelnych na ziemiach polskich w późnym średniowieczu (XV-połowa XVI wieku)’, in M. Koczerska (ed.), Karolińscy pokutnicy i polskie średniowieczne czarownice (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo DiG, 2007).

(4) See Jan Słomka, Pamiętniki włościanina. Od pańszczyzny do dni dzisiejszych, 2nd edn. (Kraków: Towarzystwo Szkoły Ludowej, 1929), 205; Urszula Lehr, ‘Wierzenia demonologiczne we wsi Obidza (region sądecki) w świetle badań empirycznych’, Lud, 66 (1982), 140.

(5) R. Berwiński, Studia o gusłach, czarach, zabobonach i przesądach ludowych, 2nd edn., 2 vols. (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1984 [1862]), ii. 181.

(6) e.g. Janusz Tazbir, A State without Stakes, tr. A. T. Jordon (New York: Kosciuszko Foundation, 1973).

(7) e.g. essays collected in Tazbir’s Sarmaci i świat (Kraków: Universitas, 2001).

(8) Antoni Mączak, ‘Jedyna i nieporównywalna? Kwestia odrębności Rzeczypospolitej w Europie XVI XVII wieku’, Kwartalnik Historyczny, 100/4 (1993); Money, Prices and Power in Poland, 16th–17th Centuries (Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995); ‘Patron, Client, and the Distribution of Social Revenue. Some Comparative Remarks’, Studia Historiae Oeconomicae, 23 (1998).

(9) e.g. J. Bartmiński and M. Jasińska-Wojtkowska (eds.), Folklor—Sacrum—Religia (Lublin: Instytut Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej,1995); Jerzy Kloczowski (ed.), Christianity in East Central Europe (Lublin: Institut Europy Srodkowo-Wschodniej,1999); Hubert Łaszkiewicz (ed.), Churches and Confessions in East Central Europe (Lublin: Instytut Europy Srodkowo-Wschodniej, 1999).

(10) Berel Dov Lerner, ‘Magic, Religion and Secularity among the Azande and Nuer’, in G. Harvey (ed.), Indigenous Religions (New York: Cassell, 2000), provides a good brief overview of the issues at stake in exporting European notions of magic, witchcraft, and religion.

(11) Peter Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1997); Maia Green, ‘Witchcraft Suppression Practices and Movements: Public Politics and the Logic of Purification’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 39/2 (1997); Paul Clough and Jon P. Mitchell (eds.), Powers of Good and Evil (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001).

(12) Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, ‘Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South Africa Postcolony (The Max Gluckman Memorial Lecture, 1998)’, American Ethnologist, 26/2 (1999); Bonno Thoden van Velzen and Imeka van Wetering, ‘Dangerous Creatures and the Enchantment of Modern Life’, in Clough and Mitchell, Powers of Good and Evil; David Frankfurter, Evil Incarnate (Princeton: PUP, 2006).

(13) Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen (eds.), Early Modern European Witchcraft (Oxford: OUP,1993 [1987]).

(14) Rodney Needham, ‘Synthetic Images’, in Primordial Characters (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1978).

(15) Virgil, The Eclogues, tr. David Ferry (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1999), 8.98; Augustine, The City of God, tr. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 8.19.

(16) Graham Dwyer, The Divine and the Demonic (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 63–4.

(17) On the witch-trials in Silesia, see Karen Lambrecht, Hexenverfolgung und Zaubereiprozesse in den schlesischen Territorien (Cologne: Bohlau, 1995). Poland experienced nothing comparable to the mass-panic at Neisse in Silesia in 1651–2, in which 188 people were executed in less than two years.

(18) On Ducal Prussia, see Jacek Wijaczka, Procesy o czary w Prusach Książęcych/Brandenburskich w XVI–XVIII wieku (Toruń: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika, 2007). Wijaczka found 359 trials and a total of some 511 accused (of whom 86% were women), with a peak in intensity of witch-trials in the last quarter of the 17th cent. These proportions and this chronology, together with similar folkloric conceptions of the devil, demonstrate very considerable overlap between the Polish and Prussian trials.

(19) See esp. Andrzej Kamiński’s programmatic account: Historia Rzezczypospolitej wielu narodów 1505–1795 (Lublin: Instytut Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej, 2000).

(20) Although the Third Lithuanian Statute of 1588 listed witchcraft under noble palatinate-court jurisdiction, private manorial courts presided over most witch-trials in Lithuania. The literature on witchcraft in pre-partition Lithuania (which includes modern Belarus) remains scanty. For a survey of what little is known, see Malgorzata Pilaszek, ‘Litewskie procesy czarownic w XVI XVIII w’, Odrodzenie i Reformacja w Polsce, 46 (2002). Pilaszek found 97 trials between 1552 and 1771, 28 of which included death-sentences.

(21) Jerzy Michalski, ‘Jeszcze o konstytucji sejmu 1776 roku ‘Konwikcje w sprawach kryminalnych’, Kwartalnik Historyczny, 103/3 (1996).