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The history of witch trials on the border of Nysa - Jeseník

1The origins of belief in the existence of the devil and his allies – sorcerers and witches – can be noticed already in ancient times. However, the biggest wave of persecution of people accused of witchcraft, especially women, comes in the Middle Ages and early modern times. Among defenders of belief in demons and witches were famous personalities such as the founder of scholasticism, Thomas Aquinas, King James I or the founders of Protestantism, Martin Luther and John Calvin.

The document, which is etched in the history of the so-called witch trials, was a papal bull "Summis desiderantes" by Innocent VIII, 1484, which led to writing one of the most horrific book in modern world "Hammer of Witches" (Malleus Maleficarum).

It was first published in 1478, and its authors were experienced Dominican inquisitors, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. "Hammer..." quickly became an essential manual for the interrogation and trials with potential witches. It is understood that in the atmosphere of belief in the devil and his allies, only a few were able to officially protest against the witch-hunt. To the best-known opponents of trials we can include a Dutch physician Johann Weyer, an English gentleman Reginald Scot and a Czech founder of modern pedagogy J. A. Comenius.

Stakes with suspected "servants" of the devil burnt mostly in XVII century in German lands, Scotland, France, while virtually ceased in Spain, Italy or the Netherlands. The least affected by the trials countries were northern countries, such as Denmark, Norway, and to some extent Sweden, and eastern Europe (Orthodox) and the Balkans, which were then under Turkish rule. Also in Silesia, until the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War, witch trails occurred only in rare cases. In the years 1456-1503 several trials were held near Wroclaw.

In the case of witch trails first described in the literature two women, which allegedly tried to endear themselves to men using black magic, were drowned in the river Odra by the judgement of the court. A year later, a woman was banished from the city, because there were objects that were to be used in magic found in her flat. In 1458, a church thief was burnt at the stake, who, as he testified at the trial, was given by some woman from Opava herbs, which magical power were to open cathedral locks. During this period, in Wroclaw, women were virtually not burnt at the stakes. However, the literature states the first trial in Nysa already in the second half of thirteenth century, that is two centuries earlier than in the capital of Silesia. One of the local monk's sister was to be accused of seducing other monks in her house. It is doubtful whether indeed it is true, because in the letter the bishop says that "she was old, hunchbacked and quite ugly". Nonetheless, the then Duke of Silesia, Henryk Probus, ordered to burn her at the stake, outside the city walls. However, generally this would be an isolated case, even in the scale of whole Silesia, and especially in the scale of the Duchy of Nysa that was just being formed. In addition, in the light of subsequent events, it seems that this trial can be treated completely separately, because witchcraft is mentioned nowhere, especially when the Office of Inquisition in Nysa was established only in 1341.

A true witch-hunt took place in the seventeenth century and reached massive dimensions. Those events should be attributed to the Thirty Years' War atrocities, as well as to tragedies that indirectly associated with military operations in the area of the Duchy of Nysa, such as numerous epidemics or famines. Hence, it seems clear why the trials concerned mainly the southern part of the Duchy (now within the Czech Republic). Submontane or even mountain areas were economically less developed, and therefore poorer. Gold mining, thanks to which local cities have been developing, became no longer profitable, and mountain climate did not allow for good harvest. All this was in the favour of atmosphere of mutual suspicion and slanders becoming heavier. Witch trials in the episcopal duchy of that period can be divided into three stages: 1 – year 1622, 2 – years 1634-1648, 3 – year 1651 and subsequent years until 1684.

Year 1622 – the first of the victims was a wife of Jesenice shepherd, Barbora Schmiedová, who was accused of being a witch by her lying on his deathbed husband. Poor woman was immediately arrested and interrogated. Tortured Schmiedová was to tell in details how she cast a spell on cows, induced fires, and gave her husband poisoned cheese. In those circumstances, a court meeting was convened, headed by bishops lawyer Johann Grosser and municipal judges: Kacper Schmitz and Melchior Wilden. The accused, tormented, accused five other women who were supposed to be in the service of the devil.

Among them was Urszula Heger, wife of Jesenice councillor and Eva Brasler, the local shopkeeper. The example of Marta Wetzel, who was found on 21st of August in prison with twisted neck, demonstrates the brutality of conducted interrogation. First woman accused of witchcraft, Barbara Schmied, was burnt at the stake on July 3, 1622 in Nysa, and other suspected witches in late August in Jesenik. Since then, all sentences were issued in the court in Nysa, and were executed in hometowns of the accused. On the basis of court records protocols, we know that in the first stage of the trials 35 people were interrogated.

Years 1634-1648 – the second wave of those horrible crimes came in 1636 and dominated mainly in the areas of Zlaté Hory and Nysa. We do not know the direct impulse, which resumed the trials, but we know the main instigator of the new inquisitorial wave. It was the bishop's prosecutor, Martin Lorenz from Nysa. In 1634, one of the sentenced to burning at the stake was a woman named Singel from Zlaté Hory. Continuation of that tragedy took place in 1651, when in the same town, the woman's eighteen years old daughter was convicted of witchcraft. She was accused solely on the basis of conjecture that since if her mother at the moment of giving birth was in contact with the devil, hence under his influence was the child itself. Later, the trials became so common that in 1636 the government of Nysa issued a building permit for special furnaces burning "justly convicted followers of the devil, witches and evil spirits".

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