Poland - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

For centuries, Poland was a bastion of European liberalism and tolerance. A rich herbal and magical tradition was preserved in the country. Russians once viewed Polish magicians with the same awe with which ancient Greeks viewed Thessaly. Alchemists flocked to Polish courts, hoping for patronage and protection. The University of Krakow developed a reputation as a school for sorcery.

However, when Poland came under Russian and, especially, Swedish control, this era of tolerance ended. Poland, too, suffered witch panics. Witch trials were abolished in Poland in 1787 although witches were still burned. Poland is significant in the history of the Burning Times as the case of two women burned in Posen in 1793 is frequently cited as the last legal European witch-burning.


Treatment of those accused of witchcraft during the Burning Times was not random or arbitrary. Legal procedures dictated the entire process from accusation to punishment.

Typically a judge, Inquisitor or witch-finder arrived in town and posted a general summons on public buildings demanding that everyone report any knowledge or suspicion of witchcraft. Everyone was welcome to tattle or settle scores: criminals, children, those bearing grudges. In general, however, no one was punished if accusations didn’t pan out or were later discovered to be false.

The Inquisitor would preach a sermon against heresy and witchcraft, explicitly describing what sort of activities should be immediately reported. All local heretics were invited to present themselves as if they voluntarily confessed, they would usually receive penances and/or fines rather than death, although this was not guaranteed.

Once someone was accused, an order was given for immediate arrest. Generally the accused witch was immediately jailed. Their residence was searched for signs or instruments of witchcraft. Friends, servants or anyone who happened to be present in the home might be seized too. Anyone accused was interrogated; no one was above suspicion.

The accused was presumed guilty. She was not asked “if” she had committed her “crime” but “why” she committed it.

Many Inquisitors, witch-hunters, and judges feared witches and were cautioned to wear bags of consecrated salt as protection. An accused witch was typically led into interrogations backwards as it was believed if she entered face-first and made immediate eye contact with her interrogators, she could cast a spell over them that would cause them to be merciful.

Any hair on the accused witch’s body (including eyebrows and sometimes eyelashes) was often immediately removed, not only to facilitate the search for witches’ marks but also to lessen her power. “Bleeding the witch” (letting small amounts of blood, usually from the face) was also believed to weaken her power and enable a successful prosecution of witchcraft.

Accused witches had fewer legal rights than other defendants, whether in secular or ecclesiastical court, allegedly because it was believed they already had a powerful advantage over judge and jury: they had witchcraft, magic, and the devil on their side! The only perceived way, so witch-hunters claimed, to level the playing field was to deprive witches of all rights. Witches were typically denied attorneys and the right to call witnesses. Witnesses against them were granted anonymity, so no discussion of possible motivation was possible.

Prosecutors could call as many witnesses as desired; these witnesses could also be tortured or intimidated. Children were frequently called as witnesses because they were considered innocent and thus more likely to be truthful than adults.

A suspect’s inability to cry on command was considered an incriminating sign of witchcraft as witches were believed incapable of shedding tears. Some still hold this belief; it is among the themes of the romantic comedy film Bell, Book and Candle. Of course, being able to cry on command didn’t prove that you weren’t a witch.

When a witch was arrested, it was recommended that she be taken away in a basket or atop a plank so that she was unable to touch the ground. It was believed that her power was weakened by loss of contact with Earth.

In general, witches could not be condemned unless they had “freely confessed.”

So they were tortured to confess but then they had to confess again without torture; they had to affirm that they would have confessed without torture before they could be killed.

The accused witch might be promised mercy, which usually meant life imprisonment. However, sometimes judges who promised mercy in exchange for confessions or extra information then turned the witch over to another judge who, having made no such promise, sentenced her to death.

Families of the accused or their estates were typically held liable for all trial, torture, and execution costs.

Witch-hunters’ manuals offered guidelines for the administration of torture and appropriate punishments. Questions used to interrogate witches eventually became so standardized that court clerks often designated them by number in official transcripts rather than writing the entire question out. In other words, if the clerk designated “Question 4,” for instance, other witch-hunt professionals would understand the reference.

Witches were killed by burning because it was believed that this was the only way to rid the world of the “witch’s evil.” From the late fourteenth century to the early eighteenth, burning was the most popular form of execution for convicted witches. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, burning took the form of cremation. Witches were executed first, usually by strangling or hanging, and then burned.

In the latter part of the fifteenth century in continental Europe, Scotland, and Ireland (but not England) killing the witch prior to burning became more unusual. Witches were more typically burned alive, usually tied to a stake in the public square.

There was also a spiritual aspect to burning a witch: she was effectively denied Christian burial rites.

In England and her North American colonies, burning witches alive was not legal procedure, no matter how many movies tell you otherwise. Witches were typically executed by hanging. In England, witches were burned alive only if also convicted of treasonous murder or attempted treasonous murder. Treasonous murder was defined as either a man or woman attacking the monarch or women killing their husbands. Punishment by burning for this crime continued as late as the eighteenth century.

If a witch confessed, she was usually strangled first (by hanging or garroting) then burned after death. Once someone was convinced of their eventual doom, this was a tremendous incentive to confess. Uncooperative witches—those who either protested their innocence or recanted confessions—were burned alive, frequently on pyres laid with green wood to prolong their agony. The incentive for not confessing was that theoretically one’s property might not be forfeited.

Death was rarely private. Witch burnings were considered local entertainment. Crowds were encouraged to come out and witness the deaths. Those who avoided these scenes or expressed sympathy or compassion for the witch increased their own vulnerability to charges of witchcraft.

Witches were usually transported to their execution sites in wagons. They might be bound or chained and were usually placed backwards, to decrease their magic power. Crowds were encouraged to throw things at the witch and insult her. They were encouraged to look upon the witch in horror: indeed by the time they saw her on the way to her death, having been starved, beaten, tortured, and raped, terrified and denuded of all her hair, odds are she was genuinely a frightening sight.

The witch might be brought to the execution site naked or in special clothing. In Northern Europe, this uniform was frequently made from nettles, which destroyed the age-old tradition of nettle fabric as it became associated with a convicted witch’s garb. If dressed, the convicted witch’s clothing might be stripped off before the crowd before execution. Among those forced to appear naked during their execution was the fiercely modest Joan of Arc.