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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".

2Those trials were perceived in a slightly different way by the then Bishop of Wroclaw, Charles Ferdinand Vasa, who decided to convene a committee, which aim was to investigate the sentences, because the trials began to be surprisingly profitable venture for the judicial committee. Evidence of which is the government of Nysa, at one point, earned 425 Thalers by execution of 11 people from Zlaté Hory. According to the preserved original recipe from Zlaté Hory, the sum was divided in the following way: Mayor – 9 Thalers 6 Groschen, council in Nysa – 9 Thalers 6 Groschen, council in Zlaté Hory – 18 Thalers 12 Groschen, Village Mayor – 18 Thalers 12 Groschen, the judges – 18 Thalers 12 Groschen, city chronicler – 9 Thalers 6 Groschen. The rest was to be accrued to the bishop.

Interestingly, executioner was not on this idiosyncratic "payroll". The contract with him was signed only a year later. According to it, for one convicted person he was to get 6 Thalers, weekly meals and 2 bushels of oats. Whereas his lackey, for one victim received 2 Thalers and a skin of wine.

We will probably never be able to really know how many victims was taken by the second wave of trials in the years 1634-1648. Protocols with vague information say about 26 victims, which is likely to be only a small part, since only in 1641, during four trials in Nysa, 16 "witches" were sentenced.

Preserved trial documents shed some light on the increasing of that spiral of violence and cruelty. The years 1651-1684 were the most terrible period of witch trials in the Duchy of Nysa. A lot of interesting documents concerning the third period of witch trials have preserved in the Opava Land Archives. That is 21 convictions, from which 15 preserved in the original and 6 copies.

Again, at the beginning, there was an unfounded accusation. This time it was a boy from Široký Brod near Mikulovice, who was accused of the participation in Sabbath with a local witch. At that point, probably the first capital punishment was pronounced in Nysa on 23th May, 1651, when a twenty-year-old Urszula Schnurzel from Široký Brod. The ruling says that "she heavily sinned against God's commandments, turned away from God, his Mother and all nice saints, and gave her body and soul to the infernal spitfire, Roland with whom she had intercourse, libelled venerable holiness and harmed many people by her witchcraft. The execution took place in Jesenik, although the date of the execution was not specified in documents, executions usually were carried out after three days. Another five women quickly shared the fate of Schnurzel and were burnt on 19th of June in Jasenik. Two of them also came from Široký Brod, one from Jasenik, the provenance of the other two is unknown. An interesting fact about the sentence in that case is the lack of giving any example of damage caused to people or their possessions. Indicated is only a religious nature of committed crime without specifying it. Trials has grown to such extent that again mass executions occurred. On 19th of June, another seven women were burnt (three from Jesenik, two from Mikulovice, and one from Dolní Lipová and one from Adolfovice).

10 days later, another eight were sentenced to death, practically from the same places. Only in July, in total, 20 people were burnt. In August, in two trials, 13 people were sentenced. However, September turned out to be the most tragic, when after four trials, 32 people lost their lives. In the In September trials we see for the first time a record, which says that 24 people were first beheaded, and then their bodies were burnt at the stakes. Apparently, "sincere repentance" was to be the reason. On 12th of December in Jesenik, in one execution, 9 people were burnt alive. It was the largest, and last execution of such type, at least there. From then on, the stakes were erected only for individual victims, who, in the act of grace, were beforehand beheaded. Despite the fact that the sentences were executed in Jesenik, all judgements were given in Nysa.

During this period, we encounter for the first time the name of Jindřich František Boblig from Edelstadt (Zlaté Hor), the inquisitor of Velké Losiny and Šumperk. He was a member of tribunal, but also a diligent and active student of inquisitor of Nysa, Ferdinand Zacher. However, he had his most bloody stage of his career not in the Duchy of Nysa, but on the other side of Jesenik, at prince Žerotin, at the moment when trials in the Duchy of Nysa were virtually discontinued. During the most intense witch-hunts, like years before, Bishop Charles Ferdinand Vasa returned to the stage. He warned in writing the Count George of Hodice about "too thorough and dangerous trial conducting", "it seems to us... that too much happened to one or more persons, as if they were only too frightened and tormented". Unfortunately, the Bishop did not managed to stop anything with his warning, and the trials continued unchanged.
Among the death sentences between November 1651 and February 1652, we will find several cases that differed from previous ones. It comes to the executions of sentenced children, what was described in the literature on the subject years ago. However, as later researches have shown, the sentences with given records at their sequence, like it was for example on the pronounced sentence in Nysa in 13th of December, 1651, where we read: Barbara Kronasser from Velké Kunětice two years, Urszula Jones from Písečná a year and a half, etc., thankfully, do not say about the age of the convicted, but about the period during which given person was supposed to be "in the service of the devil". The explanation of this phenomenon can be found in the efforts of the inquisitors to prove to the bishop that it is necessary to persevere in conducting the trials against the long-standing allies of the devil. Therefore, during the visit of the bishop in Jesenik in 1651, the inquisitors came to the conclusion that although all citizens of the town are Catholics, half of them probably indulges in illicit practices. In the European press of the time Silesia has been described as a country crowded with witches and evil spirits. Only in Zlaté Hory reportedly 8 executioners "had their hands full with beheading and burning, and they were able to burn 6 - 8 witch chaffs at a time". Only when in Nysa during confession, tortured women gave the name of bishop's confessor, many people figured out what meant confessions forced by torture. Immediately after this event, the emperor issued a ban on carrying out the witch trials. Most of the information about that tragic year literature cites after John Felix Padewitz, who in 1698 described it in "The history of St. James' Church". He mentions there, by the way of the trial of 42 women from Nysa, about special oven built near the gallows. Although we do not have any further information about how it looked like, we also do not have any of its remains, and therefore, functioning of the oven can be questioned, however, it remains today the most drastic symbol of witch trials in the area of the Duchy. However, it should be emphasized that nearly half century after the tragic year 1651, priest Padewitz, in his work, said publically and unequivocally, that the greatest sin is to force confessions through torture.

3Last known sentences of death at the stake in the land of Duchy of Nysa comes from the years 1683 – 1684. 25th of November, 1683, a sentence against Kacper Gottwald was pronounced, and on 19th of February against Anna Stenzel and her daughter Rozyna. All three came from Domašov. The first trial concerned a person, who was supposed to participate in Sabbaths, which likely took place at Petrovy Kameny (Peter's stones), near the highest peak of Jesenik – Praděd (Grandfather). This place, however, is not given in the sentence, but it was assumed that that is where all "witches" from Silesia and Moravia flew to. However, it has been recorded that Gottwald gained knowledge by which he could, with only thought, kill cattle and allegedly did it to... one cow, and what is more, with his own blood he signed in in a special "black book", in which only the closest associates of the devil appeared.

In the second protocol, there is a record, which says that Rozyna Stenzel during three interrogations, pled guilty "voluntarily", saying that with her mother "deceived by the horrible felony she gave herself to the black magic, flew through the chimney on pitchfork, arrived at the devil meetings in pasture lands, where in accordance with the tradition of witches she danced". Watching today in Museum of Jesenik preserved instruments of torture, it is not difficult to understand protocols absurdity of such interrogations, and the word "voluntarily" totally departs from the truth.
The last trial in Silesia took place in 1740, in Ścinawa on the river Oder. Still in 1775, the residents of Nysa and surrounding areas tried to trigger a new wave of persecution of women accused of witchcraft, but the attempt was later discovered as simple denunciation and slanders.

It is hard to state it unambiguously, but the end of witch trials can be attributed to one of the most enlightened dukes of Nysa, the Bishop Francis Louis of Neuburg. Being prepared from the very early age, he received a very good education, both intellectual and religious and moral. The Bishop only in 1684 began his ruling in the bishop's duchy. From the beginning, he introduced a number of reforms to improve the position of the poorest class of the society that after half century still felt the effects of the Thirty Years' War. He put the greatest emphasis on medical care. An important role in its early days, in the Duchy of Nysa, was performed by a midwife or more obstetrix. She was called not only for a childbirth, but she also advised in other medical problems. People interested in herbal medicine, that is those who not so long ago lost their lives at the stake, were usually chosen. They were often folk healers, what sometimes aroused vigilance and concern of church inspectors, although at the times of the Bishop of Neuburg, nobody dared to accuse them of witchcraft. For the conclusion, a very important summary of the total amount of victims of a witch-hunt. Detailed information probably will never be found, but on the basis of the most accurate evaluation, the trials in the Duchy of Nysa, and especially in its southern part in the years 1622 – 1684, claimed lives of at least 250 people. However, the real number will be much higher. Only in selected cities of submontane part of the Duchy of Nysa, nearly 200 victims were counted: in Zlaté Hory – 85, in Jesenik – 102, in Głuchołazy – 22 (including two men). What is interesting, unlike the rest of the cities, in Głuchołazy, people accused of witchcraft were not burnt at the stake, but hung on the hill outside the town. The remains of the gallows that stood there were to be burnt by Napoleon's soldiers in 1807. Nonetheless, today the hill is officially called the Gallows Mountain, and related with the trials is also the name of the cliff situated several dozen meters further, called Czarcia Ambona (The Devils Pulpit). At the Gallows Mountain, ashes of the victims were also buried. The victims were interrogated in the basement of the local, non-existent today town hall, built in the south part of the main square. So called "witches throne" (a chair bristled with nails); torture lasted no longer than 8 days. Commissioner Schoenwitz and Pascal Nase were the judges, who received 90 Thalers for the 12 day stay in Głuchołazy. The role of the executioner was performed by Georg Hillebrand, called Mistrz Jerzy (Master George), who for his service received 138 Thalers and a lot of barrels of wine. General expenses of the trials are 748 Marks, and from the confiscation of victims' property an income of 622 Marks was obtained.

In addition to the Gallows Mountain of Głuchołazy, other preserved names also relate to the tragic events of the seventeenth-century trials, e.g., Witch Grave between Szyndzielowa Kopa and Zamkowa Góra (Castle Mountain) in Opawskie Mountains, Čertovy kameny, that is the Devil's Stone over Jesenik, Čertovy Kazatelny (Devil's Pulpit) near Javornik, or Hexen Berg, a pre-war name of the hill, northwest of Nysa, just beside the railway line to Brzeg.

Paweł Szymkowicz


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