Witch Hunts in Poland

Cole Malizia
November 22, 2014
The Age of Witch Hunts
Professor Brock


Witch Hunts in Poland: Political Unrest, Economic Issues, and Social Structure

            Between the fifteenth century and the end of the eighteenth century, men and women across Europe were being persecuted under the accusation of witchcraft and association with the Devil. Poland was no exception. However, Poland’s social system was organized in levels that differentiated from typical western European countries. The political unrest combined with the decreasing value of the currency led to an increase in anxiety amongst the upper class and likewise witch accusations against the serf classes.

After a time of peace and prosperity, the beginning of the seventeenth century ushered Poland into an age of economic decline and national turmoil. This century first witnessed the Zebrzydowski rebellion from 1606-1608, then the First Swedish War from 1617-1629 as well as the First Turkish War from 1620-1621.[i] This time of political unrest also witnessed a period of economic turmoil when the currency was depleted and grossly inflated. Then the nation endured “the Deluge,” during which time the Polish countryside was ravaged by invading foreign armies as well as serf uprisings within the state. They were embattled with Chmielnicki’s rebellion from 1648-1657, The First Northern War from 1654-1660, the Muscovite War from 1655-1667, and Lubomirski’s Rebellion from 1665-1667.[ii] The capital fell during this time, but the Poles emerged from the Deluge victorious over the Swedes, but their country was in a state of disrepair after experiencing years of insecurity against “near-continual war, looting, famine, and disease.”[iii]

The unrest and insecurity that the Poles experienced during this time caused many to question what could have brought such misfortune upon their country. The easiest explanation for the country to understand was witchcraft. These accusations were supported by Catholic majority of Poland. After the protestant Swedes invaded Poland in 1655, the majority of Poles rallied behind him because they did not like their current king.[iv] However, the protestant Swedes looked down on the primarily catholic Poles and levied heavy taxes on them. So, the elites and the peasants began to wage a guerilla war against the Swedes and the Polish king took control of the rebellious fervor and declared the state “Catholic” and began destroying protestant institutions and ousting all protestants from the country.[v] After the Swedes were ousted in 1660, Poland retained its anti-Protestant and anti-Christian views and remained a highly Catholic country. However, Catholics couldn’t only pin the misfortunes of this era on protestants, so they also used witches as a scapegoat. That is why “several cities that experienced large cycles of witchtrials were hit especially hard [by the Deluge].”[vi] The seventeenth century ended with the Second Turkish War in 1672 and the reign of King Jan Sobieski from 1674-1696, who was incredibly unpopular amongst the upper class. This is because he threatened their social and political power by paralyzing the Sejm, or lower house of the government, which the elites controlled.[vii] In order for the elites to assert their dominance over the serfs, many elites would accuse them of witchcraft in order to reaffirm their own power.

During the eighteenth century, Poland also experienced troubling times. During most of this time reigned two Saxon kings: August II ruled from 1697-1704 and 1709-1733, while August III ruled from 1733-1764.[viii] August II also defended Poland against the Swedes during the Great Northern War from 1700-1721. However, this war left the nation in shambles grappling with anarchy, a useless government, and a ruined domestic and international economy.[ix] The political and economic turmoil from 1675-1725 helps explain the social unrest and gives clues explaining the record number of witch trials during this time. The elites were grappling for power as their wealth was declining with inflation, their power in the government was being compromised by the rule of King Jan Sobieski, and their revenue was decreasing as less wheat was being produced on their war-ravaged farms while less food was being produced for their tables. A minimum estimate of 2,000 witches were burned at the stake between 1511 and 1776, but there are only rudimentary numbers (867 trials with 558 accused) for witch trials existing due to the Nazi’s burning of the Polish Central Archives.[x]

The aforementioned social system was structured with the nobles at the top and the serfs on the bottom. Within the class of serfdom there were levels: the serfs supported the komornicy. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the nobles were purchasing the peasant’s fields and appropriating the common lands.[xi] The lands that they purchased were known as “the folwark or manorial farm,” and the peasants obligated under serfdom farmed these lands. The resulting grain produced was exported to the Western markets.[xii] As the serfs labor on folwarks became more time-consuming they lacked the time necessary to cultivate their own crops necessary for survival, so they began employing the komornicy.[xiii] These individuals worked on the folwarks in order to emancipate the serfs and allow them the time they needed to farm their own lands. In return for their services, the serfs supported the komornicy as lodgers in their own houses and at their tables. However, as time passed, the grain prices were declining and the inflation rate was rising due to the political unrest and invasions the country was experiencing. The peasants’ crops were selling for less at market while their cost of living was increasing. Their cost of survival was increasing; their woes were increasing too as the nobles refused to increase their tax rate thus the financial burden of the government had fallen upon the serfs.[xiv]

Combined with the effects of the Deluge, now the serfs were truly living in immense poverty and starving. Tensions were high amongst members of the lowest class, so it is easy to understand how allegations of witchcraft can occur when someone’s precious milk was spoiled. Oftentimes, accusations against the serf class were by serfs of equal social standing. The Deluge destroyed the countryside therefore limiting the amount of food they could produce, while it also increased the amount of work that the serfs were required to perform on the szlachta’s farms. As grain prices decreased, the serfs were making less money and were not capable of surviving financially. For the serfs that supported members of the komornicy, this presented an interesting dilemma. In order to save their family they had to release their workers. Accusing a worker of maleficium, witchcraft used for mischievous activities, was a reason for termination because no member of society would want to employ an individual who wanted to harm their superior. These accusations were based in their relief of guilt. Alan Macfarlane writes that people may feel guilty for denying aid or economic assistance to others, but depicting them as an aggressor who was unworthy of the support would help individuals rid themselves of the feeling of guilt.[xv] This projection of guilt is shown in the serfs accusing members of the komornicy of maleficium.

On the other hand, the szlachta were the noble class, and they controlled nearly every aspect of the country. The szlachta amounted to roughly six to ten percent of the population yet they each had a vote in the elections and owned 60% of the land while the other 40% was owned by the Church and the Crown.[xvi] Their control was further emphasized by the control they had over the monarch. The king could not introduce legislation, establish taxes, or summon the military (levée en masse) without the szlachta’s consent.[xvii] They also solidified the primacy of the Sejm, or Lower House of the government, over the Senat, or Upper House of the government.[xviii] Their power in the Sejm ensured the szlachta’s power in a branch of the government. Not only did this power translate into financial and political power over the members of the lower class, but it also gave the szlachta power to protect their own interests using the law.

Socially, the szlachta had extensive power over the serfs. Serfs could not leave the village without their landholders’ consent, nor could they appeal in the Royal Courts if the case was against their lord.[xix] Also, a serf could not defend allegations of witchcraft in the courts without their lord’s consent.[xx] Interestingly, this means that the lord must believe the allegations of witchcraft if they were to allow a worker to take a leave from working on their lands to stand trial. In Poland the szlachta was the supreme social class – the peasant class was not provided an ounce of freedom. Under the rigid social structure that was in place, accusations of witchcraft were sometimes a superior accusing an inferior. This can be a szlachta accusing any member of the serf class or a member of the serf class accusing a member of the komornicy. This is possibly due to the all the misfortune the country was enduring; the superiors were using the inferiors as scapegoats to take the blame for storms destroying crops, dairy spoiling, or any ill-fortune. It also provided the superiors an opportunity to reassert their dominance in a world where their wealth was diminishing and their government was insecure and susceptible to invasions.

The szlachta’s monopoly of lands also encompassed towns. Towns were either “owned by the king, the clergy, or the szlachta.”[xxi] The ownership factored into where the town’s legal jurisdiction resided. Therefore, clerical towns likely utilized ecclesiastical courts whereas privately owned towns utilized secular town courts while royal towns used secular royal courts. However, the Crown began to notice the injustices in the non-royal towns and attempted to reform the judicial system. The Crown declared in 1673 that “small-town courts could not hand down capital sentences in serious cases, but must refer them to the more expert magistrates of larger towns.”[xxii] This was a sly way of the Crown attempting to regulate the courts because the Crown owned the majority of large towns. During 1673, the Crown was still wary of internal threats to its power. The Zebrzydowski rebellion was successfully quelled in 1608, but it affirmed the szlachta’s power – the Crown wanted to limit that power and one way to do this was by limiting the szlachta’s power in the small-town courts. Now, many small towns were relegated to forms of “restorative justice”.[xxiii] They issued sentences ranging from small fines, oath of expurgation, and court-enforced to floggings ore even banishment – pending the serf’s lord’s permission.[xxiv]

However, many villages ignored this royal decree and chose to continue issuing capital punishments instead performing acts of restorative justice. And, because the manorial lords of the szlachta class paid for the magistrate, scribe, and executioner involved in their serf’s trial, the lords often received the verdict they were expecting – the death of the witch. These changes in the law began happening during a time when the memory of serf uprisings still was fresh in the minds of the elites thanks to the Chmielnicki’s rebellion (1648-1657), so the szlachta remained fearful of the serfs becoming restless and revolting against the government and social structure. As time passed and the memory became more distant, the government’s changes to the law were aimed at creating equal treatment in courts for the serfs. However, the szlachta feared the services gaining power. The restorative justice the szlachta and village courts were using kept the serfs under the szlachta’s control. It made the serfs fearful of the elite’s power.

In the courts, the members of the szlachta used their financial standing to control the outcomes. They dominated the lower-class in this arena. Not only did they have the ability to send their serf to court to face trial for witchcraft, but they also funded all aspects of that case. In a sense, the judicial system was indebt to the nobleman and, in order to stay in his good graces, often convicted the serf of witchcraft. And, since the government was terribly weak after the Deluge and other invasions, the village courts were ignoring the Crown’s rules pertaining to witch trials. In fact, we know the village courts were, “withholding proofs from the accused, denying them counsel, and torturing them without restraint to obtain their confessions and names of accomplices.” This power in the court system reaffirmed the szlachta’s dominance over the serfs and kept them obedient to their control.

In Poland, the persecuted witches were primarily peasants, although 40% of alleged witches were townsfolk.[xxix] However, political power and provisions in the legal code prevented noblewomen of the szlachta class from being accused of witchcraft. In the towns and villages, the courts employed the Magdeburg Law, which was based on the medieval German “Saxon Law,” differed greatly from the official Polish law practiced in the royal courts especially because it decreed death at the stake for the conviction of maleficium. It also provided the magistrates with no jurisdiction over the noblewomen.[xxx] This is likely because the szlachta did not provide the courts this power when they implemented a legal system – they did not want to provide the common folk any power that would threaten their standing.[xxxi] This manifested itself in the noblewomen’s immunity from imprisonment without due process and immunity from interrogation under torture. It also translated in the noblewomen’s frequent use of witches’ services or their own dabbling in the brewing of love potions.[xxxii] Therefore, a double standard existed in the legal system and it favored the noblewomen. These women, if they felt threatened or angry with anyone from the lower class, could accuse them of witchcraft without fear of retaliation – for them witchcraft accusations were a weapon against the lower classes.

Polish witches differed from most other European witches because these women were typically middle-aged, “in the prime of their life,” and married, whereas most European witches were middle to elderly aged women who were widowed.[xxxiii] Another difference between the witches of Poland and witches of Europe is that Polish witches were “not always, nor even usually, from the margins of society.”[xxxiv] Most Polish witches were from a household with strong craftsmen ties – not from households of field hands. Nor were Polish witches comprised of members from the vagabond class – rarely were transients and wanderers tried for witchcraft.[xxxv] It was common for alleged witches to be from the social levels of the komornica, field hand and lodger in a peasant household, or dziewka, house-servant for a szlachta family.[xxxvi]

Women in these classes were vulnerable to their masters and had unlimited access to all facets of their superior’s life – this provides a motive and a means for subjecting the victim to the witches’ maleficium or love magic. Oftentimes, members of the noble class would sexually exploit their female houseservants. Thus, when the male was accused of adultery he could blame her with accusations of love-magic. This can be supported because she may have an emotional attachment to him after such an experience.[xxxvii] Likewise, members of the dziewka and komornica were easily blamed for maleficium when the serfs’ milk spoiled, livestock became ill, or beer was ruined because they were often in direct contact with the foods and animals. If a family was in hard financial times or was in an argument with the lower class individual, accusations of maleficium could easily explain these phenomenons. Lastly, just as in other parts of Europe, folk-healers were accused of witchcraft. However, there are not many cases of this occurring.[xxxviii] Rather, folk healers were often sought out to cure victims of maleficium of their enchantments. Under the Magdeburg Law, these acts of maleficium were punished by death at the stake.

The witch trials occurred later in Poland due to the declining state of the country. Witchcraft posed a logical outlet for the frustrations of the elite because their wealth was diminishing and they needed a means of reaffirming their power over the serf classes. For the serfs, witchcraft provided an outlet for explaining their poverty and hunger. It was means for relieving the members of the komornicy that they were employing as well as justifying any misfortune that occurred as the result of food shortages. The 1776 abolition of capital punishment marked the end of the witch hunts in Poland, but this came after the death of roughly 2,000 citizens found guilty for witchcraft under a variety of reasons.



[i] Wanda Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 1500-1800 (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 8.

[ii] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 8.

[iii] Michael Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host: Imagining Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 23.

[iv] Wiktor Weintraub, “Tolerance and Intolerance in Old Poland,” Canadian Slavonic Papers (Spring 1971): 26.

[v] Weintraub, “Tolerance and Intolerance in Old Poland,” 27.

[vi] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 23.

[vii] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 9.

[viii] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 9.

[ix] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 9.

[x] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 319.

[xi] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 22.

[xii] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 22.

[xiii] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 22.

[xiv] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 22.

[xv] Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt In Early Modern Europe (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 115.

[xvi] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 7.

[xvii] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 7.

[xviii] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 7.

[xix] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 7.

[xx] Michael Ostling, “Witchcraft In Poland: Milk and Malefice,” In The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft In Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, ed. Brian P. Levack (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 325.

[xxi] Wyporska, Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 9.

[xxii] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 57.

[xxiii] Ostling, “Witchcraft In Poland,” 324.

[xxiv] Ostling, “Witchcraft In Poland,” 324.

[xxv] Ostling, “Witchcraft In Poland,” 325.

[xxvi] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 58.

[xxvii] Ostling, “Witchcraft In Poland,” 326.

[xxviii] Levack, The Witch-Hunt In Early Modern Europe, 231.

[xxix] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 28.

[xxx] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 46.

[xxxi] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 28.

[xxxii] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 28.

[xxxiii] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 30.

[xxxiv] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 31.

[xxxv] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 31.

[xxxvi] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 32.

[xxxvii] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 32.

[xxxviii] Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host, 34.



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