The Weekly Witch – Zofia of Lękno and Barbara of Radom (Kalisz 1580)

Zofia of Lękno and Barbara of Radom were tried in 1580 and the records give a surprisingly full account of their lives prior to the case. Zofia had lived in Poznań for ten years, producing beer. However it was recorded that she had lived in disorder, lost two children and begun travelling around markets after the death of her husband a year previously. She met Szymek, a fence, and had stolen goods from Kościan selling them on to Jews in Wrześien. She had operated with a few other women, stealing at fairs, as well as in Toruń, Wieluń and Kościan and she supplemented her income by prostitution, relieving her clients of a talar or two at the same time. When tortured, she stood by what she had confessed, while the court, having heard both Barbara’s and Zofia’s confessions, and having tortured them, decided nevertheless to subject them to swimming. Zofia had not admitted to witchcraft and there was no mention of it in the record relating to her. However, she drowned during the ordeal, thus paradoxically proving her innocence.

Barbara of Radom floated during the swimming ordeal, thus earning the right to face further torture. She had already admitted to a career lasting at least five years as a thief in Starogard, Gdańsk, Bydgoszcz and Łęczyca and was another one of Szymek’s acquaintances. Many of the band had been punished already, one sat in jail whilst another had already hanged. Barbara denounced a whole host of her acquaintances, including ‘fat Dorota’. Her speciality was stealing material or dresses which she then sold on to Jews. After her water ordeal, she confessed to witchcraft, claiming she had previous form and had been whipped at the whipping post in Gdańsk for theft. Herbs were found about her person, which she claimed were there for good luck. However an interesting aspect of this trial is her description of what appear to be similar to black magic rituals, which are rare in Polish confessions and perhaps sprung from the judges’ imagination, rather than Barbara’s.

She confessed that when she had been a servant in Gdańsk, she had killed a black hen and carried out rituals with its blood on St Thomas’ Eve aimed at stealing milk and cream. She confessed that she had learnt from her mother to mix together a little of all the dishes served on Christmas Eve and give it to cattle, as an offering to witches, so that they would not harm them for the next year. Another of her rituals was to mix milk, pitch, white mustard, and garlic and rub it between the cow’s horns, saying, ‘witches and little witches, don’t take my threefold profit, because you will smell and be as ugly as the white mustard mixed with other things’. These incantations are very much more secular than those found in trials in Poznań and Gniezno and based much more on the principle of warding off by use of certain ingredients thought to repel witches – garlic is a typical substance used to ward off the supernatural. It is an excellent example of analogous magic. She also confessed that a certain Urszula had asked her for an abortifacient, but she had refused – could this be regarded as a desperate ploy to try and claw back some respect? She also spoke of a visit to a countrywoman who kept a devil in a mirror. When they conjured up this devil on a Thursday evening, the woman used the words ‘Devil, show yourself, by the power of God, bring me what has been lost’. Clearly commanding the Devil to appear through God’s power is somewhat paradoxical, although it prompted no debate on theodicy from the judiciary in the case. She admitted to conjuring up the Devil and admitted that when in Gdańsk, she and five other female witches had smeared themselves with ointment and flown off to a named location. She does not call it Łysa Góra, but admits that she swore oaths there, offered a black hen, thistle, and a brush. She told of how they gave themselves to him and no one could harm them and she obtained the noose from the gallows. She had confessed this to a priest, who, unsurprisingly, refused to absolve or forgive her, but ordered her to do penance, which she said she carried out. She had also sprinkled cows on a Thursday with washing-up water in order for their milk to come to her.

Rather illogically the bench asked her what witchcraft she had used to escape the water ordeal and she replied that she had appealed to the Devil, saying she had more war to wage in the world, and the Devil had promised that she would not drown. After further torture, she admitted that she had secreted the herbs about her body in order not to drown. The sentence was passed and she was burnt at the stake.

 

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