- Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 1500–1800 by Wanda Wyporska
Jacqueline Borsje, Wanda Wyporska, Polish Magic, witchcraft, early modern witchcraft, early modern magic, Polish witchcraft
The first thing you notice when you pick up Wanda Wyporska's recent introduction to Polish witchcraft is the arresting illustration on the cover: a witch in peasant garb stands with a huge tankard in one hand, and her other on the back of her companion, a devil, who is the spitting image of Max in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. He has the large, clumsy clawed feet, tail, and oversized ears of Max's pajamas, but in contrast to the witch, who smiles knowingly, the devil seems fretful, as if uncertain about his life choices and the wild rumpus to come. This image is apt as well as charming, introducing one of Wyporska's principal themes: that in early modern Poland, both witches and devils were complex characters who could evoke humor and sympathy as well as hatred, fear, malice, and blasphemy.
Wyporska's Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland (a revision of her 2007 Ph.D. dissertation) attempts to develop a comprehensive understanding of what witchcraft meant in early modern Poland, and of the relationships between the witch of texts, and the witch "in the flesh," as encountered in trials. To this end, after some brief but necessary historical and historiographic scene setting, Wyporska examines some two hundred and twenty-five trial records from Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) spanning roughly the period between 1500 and 1800. Although the sample is far from complete because, as Wyporska points out, many records have been destroyed or lost, as one of the few systematic surveys of Polish witchcraft, her work constitutes a major achievement. Her analysis reveals that while Polish trials share much in common with better-known European examples, they have many distinctive features. Prominent among these is the stifling influence of the petty aristocracy, the szlachta, whose dominance over the judiciary determined in large part the scope and character of the trials. Also notable is Poland's confessional diversity, for during the era of the witch trials a Catholic majority lived alongside significant Protestant, Jewish, and radical reformed communities. In keeping with Central Europe generally, Poland's period of most intense persecution came late, peaking, Wyporska estimates, in the first half of the eighteenth century, but she argues that this was not due to the venerable notion of a [End Page 113] "cultural lag" between east and west, but rather to the economic, political, and environmental crises besetting Poland at the time. Other characteristics of Polish trials are more familiar. The witches in her sample were accused of typical maleficia, such as causing physical harm, stealing milk, and abuse of the Eucharist; they were often local "wise women" whose practices became increasingly diabolized over time, as well as women with evil reputations, servants, and simply those unlucky enough to have run afoul of their local lord.
Significantly, however, ninety-six percent of the accused witches in Wyporska's sample were women, which is consistent with other studies that have shown that Poland had a higher proportion of female witches than almost anywhere in Europe, and Wyporska devotes a chapter to seeking an explanation. She shows that Polish society was oppressively patriarchal, that the socioeconomic position of poor women was undoubtedly precarious, that maleficia was most often perceived in the domestic sphere, and that witchcraft and fertility were often interrelated. But of course all of this was usually true for the rest of Europe. Then, as elsewhere, Wyporska turns to the canon of British witch scholars for guidance: the opinions of Lyndal Roper, Robin Briggs, Alison Rowlands, and Christina Larner are duly canvased and all find support from the evidence of Poland's trials (60). Although the gendering of witchcraft accusations is an enormously complicated issue, this lengthy nonanswer left this reader somewhat disappointed.
The rest of the book surveys the witch as she appears in various genres of textual sources, and looks for points of connection between the discourses of demonographies...