The church and town chronicles of 17th and 18th century Poland contain a rich collection of testimonies given by local witches and their victims. One disturbing account tells of an alleged witch, Bartłomiejowa Pilecka, who is said to have cast spells to turn here neighbour’s butter rancid; another, more humorous testimony from 1685 recounts the case of a shepherd girl named Katarzyna, who was accused of “casting a demon into cheese”, thus bringing abundant gastric suffering down upon Wojciech Rosa and his wife (who happened to be an exceptionally vile couple).
Among the testimonies is one impressively imaginative and richly detailed account found in the town annals of Kalisz. The demanding reader will surely be gripped by the colorful, uncouth style employed by the narrator, interspersed with the Latin phrases added by 17th century scribes. The end result is something one might describe as a “documented fairy tale”. It is astounding that this piece of prose has yet to take its rightful place in Polish historical literature.
Hans Baldung Grien, Witches,
wood engraving from 1508“Ligata et tracta parum. She said nothing. […] Tracta ulterius: ‘In God’s name, I beg you, release me.’” These Latin phrases make the source of Dorota’s inspiration glaringly obvious: “Bound and hoisted”, “hoisted higher”. The muse in this story, as Truman Capote would write three hundred years later, is a “cruel mistress”.
Dorota, who by this time was well distenta (stretched), her lips candelis (burnt by candles), revealed to her torturers the uncanny truth about the demonic orgies she attended in the swamps one Thursday night, far from her home village: “The devil snatched me from my home on Thursday and took me to the swamps, where he dropped me on a clump of grass, wearing only the shirt in which I sit before you. I spent two hours there, during which time three devils played: one on the bagpipes, another on the fiddle, and a third on the drum, and a small devil danced with me. The others called out: Dance with her, and dance with me he did, spinning me round and round for about an hour.”
The story of this Sabbath — or a party with dancing and drinking — is reprised several times throughout Dorota’s account, each time more interesting and sumptuous than before, to the great interest of the tribunal, who must certainly have asked her repeatedly to tell them how those infamous demons feasted. “And the devils danced with us and gave us beer to drink and meat to eat. It had the taste of dog meat, and the beer was not delicious either. Our table was covered in black and two little devils waited on us.” The beer might not have been delicious, but there must have been a lot of it, as the festivities were soon in full swing. Dorota cast off her shirt and “turned into a cat”; a great uproar was heard, and demons arrived carrying more novices of the black arts whom, to their great misfortune, Dorota listed by name.
It should be added that Dorota’s story is more than just a great fairy tale; it is a document to human nature, a story of great denunciation. The themes of jealousy and vengeance are central to every testimony about witchcraft-practicing neighbours and demonic peddlers who were regarded as too successful (and thus surely assisted by the unholy hand of the devil). The first to join Dorota at the Sabbath was Klimerzyna, to the dismay of the tribunal, as this would require another pyre to be stoked. Said Dorota: “What I say of Klimerzyna, so help me God, is true; I have no remorse in saying this, nor shall I till I die. May she suffer the same death as I. This I ask of the Lord God and All the Saints.” It is here that, despite our true appreciation of her literary talent, we lose all sympathy for Dorota. But that’s not all: Klimerzyna, who had also been brought before the court, reveals yet another name, to the despair of the monks: “Dorota, the miller, and I both turned into cats; first I, then Dorota, and after Dorota the miller also turned into a cat.”
A quarrel thus ensued between the women:
“Dorota said to her: ‘Tell them.’
She replied: ‘You tell them. Tell them everything, and we both shall atone for our deeds.
And so Klimerzyna said: ‘Tell them about the miller, as she accompanied us wherever we went.’”
The tribunal was given no choice but to try, torture, and ultimately burn all the involved women at the stake. The sin of witchcraft, after all, was the gravest of all sins.
In his 1769 legal treatise titled Praktyka kryminalna (Criminal Practice), Jakub Czechowicz writes that the offense of magic is “greater than mariticide, adultery, and theft.” What the sorcery pertained to was irrelevant; what mattered was the very fact that the accused had resorted to magic, and had thus enlisted the help of a demon. Czechowicz offers the following remarks (which he likely read elsewhere) concerning the magical skills of witches: “They wreak havoc between man and wife, ruin their relations and fertility, dry up the milk of midwives, cause mothers to miscarry and animals — even entire flocks — to lose their fetuses (…). They can evoke and bring down rain, hail, lighting, wind, and thunder.” And all of this thanks to the help of Satan. “The demon”, wrote Father Benedykt Chmielowski in 1754, “is a great naturalist, one who knows the powers and skills of nature.” None of this, of course, was concocted by the Polish authors themselves.
A Polish translation of the popular treatise by the Dominicans Kramer and Sprenger was published in Kraków in 1614. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), which electrified European readers after its first edition in 1489, was a hateful manifesto filled with terrifying and uncanny stories that blamed witches for just about everything. It was this book that created witches as we know them today.
The authors’ main strategy was to convince the reader that witches were everywhere: in every village, town, convent, and royal court, or precisely where they had not been expected. Never before had there been such strong ties between witches, satanism, crime, and demonic landscape: “So also there is not even the smallest farm where women do not injure each other’s cows, by drying up their milk, and very often killing them.” The 17th century Polish translator of the text, lawyer Stanisław Ząbkowic, was so distraught by the Malleus Maleficarum that he reiterated the treatise’s main theses in his own introduction without even a hint of doubt as to their veracity.
A decade or two after the publication of Ząbkowic’s translation, Poland followed in the footsteps of Western countries, where the pyres had been set ablaze long before. No wonder, considering how suggestively the translator described the witches’ practices. The readers must have been alarmed to learn that witches would “make certain unguents from the bones and limbs of children, especially those who have been baptised”.
We know that Dorota and her companions used the unguent before turning into cats, eliciting an enthusiastic response from the devils. “All the devils were hairy”, Dorota explained, ”and had long fingers on their hands, and their fingers had long, sharp, black claws. We lay with them until the cock crowed.” Father Benedykt Chmielowski would have been very satisfied with Dorota’s confession. Drunken debauchery is one thing, but sexual intercourse is a serious matter.
Physical relations with the devil were the crowning point of a witch’s career; they were also the culmination of the accusation leveled by medieval theologians against the female sex. While men were regarded as spiritual beings, women (in binary opposition) were seen as carnal beings subject to sensual desires. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “the image of God is present in man as it is in no woman”, and where the image of God is indistinct or vague, there must be another image, the negation of God: the devil. Confessors, who debated the question of women for centuries, were particularly bothered by the number of disturbing orifices found in the female body. These orifices were seen as unclean and attractive to the devil as well as men, who, by experimenting with them, entrusted their manhood to the devil. A cursory glance at medieval guides for confessors shows just how many ecclesiastic restrictions were placed on sex, even within marriage. For example, the penitential issued by the bishop of Worms in the early 11th century instructed the confessor to ask a husband whether he had “copulated with his wife from the rear, as dogs do”. Were the man to answer in the affirmative, the confessor was to give the sinner a “penance of ten days on bread and water”. And while it may seem hard to imagine anything worse than that, the very same penitential mentions a sin that entails an even harsher penance. The confessor is instructed to warn the wife against drinking her husband’s sperm “so that he will love her even more thanks to her diabolic manipulation.” The punishment for breaking this rule was seven years of penance. There’s nothing truly surprising about these prohibitions; as Father Chmielowski wrote, “the devil, when he enters a man, has access to him through a number of channels, usually the mouth and per secessum (through the anus), and exits through these same orifices.” The oral and anal regions are thus most susceptible to diabolic attacks. Yet none of these compare to what awaits in the vagina. It is an unclean place, potentially dangerous, and its tissue is capable of absorbing even the most vile ideas of theologians. In some guides for confessor, the vagina is quite literally described as a witch’s cauldron. Women are said to slip a fish inside “and keep it there until it dies, after which they boil and fry it” and serve the dish “to their husbands, so that they may burn with even greater desire for them.”
As far as sex goes, Dorota doesn’t speak in general terms. Having spun around with the devil and eaten and drunk her fill, she kisses and lies with the Evil One until dawn. Whether she did so under her human or feline shape, we do not know. She describes these kisses in rather crude terms: “I kissed him, and his snout reeked of dog shit.” We also know that the suitors escorted the ladies home at dawn.
This demonic party with beer and dancing would even be funny if it weren’t for the fact that these three women, as we learn from the very same town chronicle, were burned alive on the main square in Kalisz just a few days after their trial. So much for the myth of Poland as a country where no pyres burned.
translated by Arthur Barys