Review: M. Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host: Imagining Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, Oxford, 2011

This review is reproduced with the kind permission of Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

Michael Ostling, Between the Devil and the Host: Imagining Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, Past and Present Publications, ed. Alexandra Walsham. Pp. 279.

The past thirty years have seen a renaissance in witchcraft studies in lands variously contained within Poland or the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. This is all the more important considering the dominance throughout a large part of the twentieth century of Baranowski’s erroneous statistics, in the French resumé of his 1952 Procesy czarownic w XVII i XVIII w. (Witchcraft Trials in the XVII and XVIII Centuries). His oft-quoted 10,000 judicial executions, plus 5,000-10,000 lynchings for the territory of post-war Poland were anachronistic and methodologically unsound. Despite corrective articles published by both me and others, some historians persist in citing this figure long after Baranowski had revised it down to a few thousand in 1971.
However, by the end of the year, three major new studies of Polish witchcraft will have appeared. Pilaszek’s magisterial Procesy o czary w Polsce w XV-XVIII w, (Witchcraft Trials in Poland in the XV-XVIII Centuries) was published in 2008, my own Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland (1500-1800) is forthcoming, and Ostling’s Between the Devil and the Host: Imagining Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland appeared in 2011. In contrast to the first two works, Ostling focuses very much on the “imagining” of the title. This makes for fascinating reading, and will certainly raise eyebrows among more traditional scholars. His framing of the wider question of what constitutes Christianity as an approach to reading witchcraft trials turns our attention to the margin between culture and self. His multi-disciplinary approach (using comparative ethnology, folklore and anthropology of religion) seeks to prove the very piety of the Polish Catholic peasant women accused of consorting with the devil through the motifs of diabolic copulation, host desecration and invocation. He seeks to understand “how witches imagined themselves” – an ambitious task, when one takes into account the hundreds of extant trials.
In the first section, “History,” Ostling provides a basic historiography, a brief overview of vocabulary and the demographics of the accused witches. He discounts Pilaszek’s 558 known executions (based on a database roughly two and a half times the size of his) as too low, suggesting at least 2,000. He also posits an execution rate of between 54 and 65 percent and suggests the number of female accused ranged between 92 percent -94 percent. Here he introduces his reading of witchcraft as an overconsumption or destruction of moisture, suggesting Roper’s focus on milk and fertility as areas of female anxiety and power fits Polish material well. Selected Polish literature and legal writings are examined as well as the contested importance and/or temporary nature of the 1543 Constitution and German legal influence. The mitigating but rare effect of expurgatory oaths, dismissal, appeals and intercession are mentioned, and he demolishes the previous emphasis on the exponential effect of denunciation on the number of trials by illustrating the fates of women caught up in the 1665 Chęciny case. “Mechanisms of Justice” explores the effects of the mixed inquisitorial and accusatory system, expenses, judicial dependence, the deputation of trials and state formation.

Part two – “Religion” – showcases Ostling’s specialism in religious history, through his examination of the ambiguities inherent in healing and harming, and the Christianization of the use of herbs. His interpretation of religious invocations mentioned in confessions makes links to the circulation of moisture, drawing heavily on Freudian theories of orality and consumption. This leads him to speculate that “witches were above all those who stole moisture,” based in some part on witches stealing and burning fat, juicy babies – a relative rarity in Polish trials.
The chapters on Christianity are excellent on the synodal decrees protecting sacramentalia, host-stealing cases, the increased importance of Eucharistic worship, and the link between secondary-crime host-theft trials and accusations against Jews and witches. “Piety in the Torture Chamber” reveals Ostling’s theory that “only by accepting the possibility that accused witches thought of themselves as good Christians, can we understand their action as something other than ignorant superstition; only then can we catch a glimpse of what they thought themselves to be doing.” He goes on to claim that witchcraft trials featuring host-stealing primary crimes “are some of our best sets of data to show a deep, committed, if not fully orthodox, Christianity among the early modern commoner Polish woman.”
The final section, “Demonology”, runs the gamut from the ludic comic devil to diabolic copulation, and it is through the latter that Ostling seeks to “trace the negotiation of self and culture,” emphasizing how the accused women tried to defend what was left of their honor by mostly claiming the sex they had with the devil was normal, yet unenjoyable, and within conjugal norms. The final chapter continues an in depth discussion of the various supernatural creatures such as latawiec (closely related to the incubus) viewed through comparative ethnographical and semantic approaches.

Although this is a well-written and cogent work, the database of 254 cases is based on secondary sources, with relatively few references to original archival manuscripts. Why include nine or so of the Kleczew trials (the transcriptions obtained from Wiślicz), when the archival book contains over 50? Why refer to the Grodzisk Wielkopolski trials on the basis of a few paragraphs in Mikołajczyk’s article, when one can read the rich original trials at Warsaw’s Central Archive (AGAD)? However, Ostling does include the Płońsk cases, for which there are no verifiable original records. The lack of reference to primary archival research in a work of this nature is a rather puzzling methodological choice.

Thus it is more difficult to have confidence in conclusive statements, containing no disclaimers, such as “witches, were above all, thieves of milk” or the accuracy of graphs purporting to show lists such as “Witch-trials featuring sexual relations with a demon or devil” knowing that claims are being made on the basis of a database clearly lacking many trials. For example, tables showing “Witch-trials featuring theft of the Eucharist”” and “Witch-trials featuring sexual relations with a demon or devil” omit trials. There are some excellent translations, but the book would have benefited from more attentive editing – “hobo” and “ass-wriggler” are jarring, as are some typos and omissions of diacritics. The introductory maps give a good sense of the geographical distribution of the database, but no indication of the territorial fluctuations of the period. The bibliography and the appendix listing trial sources are useful up to a point, because, as Ostling admits, he has not updated the archival references and many have changed. More reference to the multi-confessional nature of the Polish lands, some contextual history and a little more attention paid to male witches would also have been welcome.
This work raises many valid points and Ostling’s approach to the subject is fascinating in that he is deploying the very binary inversion beloved of demonologists to read witchcraft trials as models of piety. The overriding concern must be that the claims made for witchcraft in Poland, as a whole, should be modified to reflect the selective nature of the database. For example, the statement, “I find Kiszka’s brief statement to be among the most interesting texts from the entire corpus of Polish witch-trial testimony,” rings somewhat hollow, when we know that trials have knowingly been excluded from the database.

Wanda Wyporska

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