Review: Pilaszek, Małgorzata. Procesy o Czary w Polsce w Wiekach XV–XVIII, 2008

Pilaszek, Małgorzata. Procesy o Czary w Polsce w Wiekach XV–XVIII. Universitas, Cracow, 2008, 554 pp. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pzł44.00 (paperback).

Polish witchcraft studies, long dominated by the erroneous statistics of Bogdan Baranowski, is enjoying a renaissance. A new cohort of scholars is publishing regional studies, illuminating Royal Prussia, Lublin, Kleczew, Gdańsk and the Świętokrzyż, as well as this reviewer’s own work on Wielkopolska.

Pilaszek’s previous articles focused predominantly on the legal aspects of the Polish witchcraft persecution. This keenly awaited synthesis is a magisterial study, which urgently deserves to be translated into English, as the short English summary does not do it full justice. Her research is based on 867 lay trials between 1501–1794, including slander, and ecclesiastical cases between 1413–1551. Beginning with an excellent chapter on Polish historiography, she brings her overview right up to date, discussing Michael Ostling’s controversial interpretation of the 1543 temporary constitution, and raising concerns over his recent work. She contends that this constitution was not the turning point in the persecution that many have claimed.

Equally adept at the micro and macro aspects of the persecution, Pilaszek examines the state’s activity, post-reformation religiosity, the social dynamics of village life, the role of folk and elite culture and gender. The second chapter includes an in-depth discussion of Polish terminology, where she makes an important distinction between zabobony (superstition), which did not require contact with the Devil, and czary (witchcraft), which did.

One of her main theses is that it was the first wave of Tridentine reforms that truly christianized the peasantry and influenced the rise in witchcraft trials. Witchcraft was really just an error of belief. In her chapter, Vox Dei, she expertly navigates synodal decrees and sermons, tracing their influence on debate, along with that of key clerical sceptics. She emphasizes the power of the centralized Church in a decentralized state, which posed threats to local authority, most often in the form of the szlachta (nobility). The lesser intensity and relative lateness of the persecution she sees as the result of a lack of strong heretical movements in medieval Poland. Only in the fifteenth century did Poland see trials analogous to those of the thirteenth century in the West, which Pilaszek interprets as a result of contact with Hussitism.

Pilaszek confidently guides the reader through the complexities of the Polish legal systems, even examining the rare cases that went to appeal (sentences were generally mitigated). The subject is further complicated by the extreme loss of Polish court records and an individuated legal system, dependent upon the local seigneur’s word. She notes, as do I, the key influence of the szlachta, showing that where they brought accusations, the sentences tended to be more severe. She also regards the relationship between the accused witch and village owner as key. However, she also points out that the lower intensity of the persecution was probably due to the szlachta’s weak knowledge of witchcraft theory and gaps in legislation, concluding that they played a key role in stopping the persecution due to ‘a change in society’s general opinion about witchcraft’ (p. 226).

By the final section, the reader is fully conversant with the legal, religious and literary contexts of the persecution, ready to venture into the rich ‘world of the witches’. This section makes excellent use of trial materials to advance some wider theories; for example, larger cities were less dangerous for women than small cities and those towns with a wider reach of trading relations executed more witches. Pilaszek concludes that accusations of witchcraft against men were not so different to those made against women, but men were less likely to be executed than women. Subscribing to the ‘centre and periphery’ model of Ankerloo and Henningsen, she places Poland on the periphery, with a chronology between those of Sweden and Hungary, peaking between 1650– 1725. The last case was in 1774, when unusually, the accused was hung, from then on witchcraft cases were tried as slander. The rich trial material is further developed in the final chapter, which also features discussion on Polish representations of the Devil.

There is no doubt that this research stands as the definitive work, so far, on Polish witchcraft. However, there are minor faults. For example, Pilaszek quotes both Kramer and Sprenger as authors of the Malleus Maleficarum. Her use of ‘Western Europe’ as a comparator is somewhat jarring and often simplistic, since Poland was very much on the European continuum. These must be overlooked, as they are far outweighed by the breadth and sophistication of this work.

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