Choose period
1776

The abolishment of torture and death penalty in witch trials

Historical context

As a result of the growing belief in the existence of witches and – less often – sorcerers as those who acted against people and used the help of the Devil, many witch trials took place in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. The cases focused on two spheres of witches’ activity: the religious one (heresy through apostasy and acting for the Devil) and the secular one (acting against people, the so-called maleficia). As such, they were prosecuted by both church and secular authorities in both Catholic and Protestant countries. The courts in such cases were using the rules of the Roman Inquisition, seeking the truth through questions addressed to the defendant, where admitting the charges was a sufficient evidence of guilt. Because of the gravity of the threat posed by the witches, the courts were commonly using torture against the accused ones, believing that without them nobody would admit having committed such a serious crime (and no other evidence was available). The procedure was sanctioned for example by the legislation of Karol V Habsburg (Charles V) known as the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina and agreed in 1532. Making pacts with the Devil and sorcery were considered crimes in the Republic of Poland as well, but just as in other countries of the Western Europe, the Enlightenment shattered the faith in the possibility of making pacts with the Devil and using them to harm others. As a result of those trends, the Warsaw Sejm passed a constitution (an act) in 1776 that abolished both the use of torture during interrogations (in all cases) and the death penalty itself in witch trials. The change was a part of a greater reform meant to improve the Polish-Lithuanian judicial system.

Document text

Częstym doświadczeniem jest dowiedziono, jako używane w niektórych sprawach kryminalnych konfesaty przez tortury, jest sposób dla konwikcji winowajców zawodny, a dla usprawiedliwienia niewinności okrutny, jako prawami powszechnymi, i Naszemi krajowemi opisane manifesta, indicia, in recenti crimine deprehensio, propria oris confessio , inkwizycje, niemniej inne w tej mierze dowody, i odwody, są do konkwicji sposoby doskonalsze, sprawiedliwsze, i lepiej z wszelkimi prawami zgadzające się. Przeto wszystkim w Państwach Naszych sądowych jurysdykcjom jus gladii mającym nakazywanie konfesatów przez tortury, pod rygorem kar, tanquam pro crimine status rozciągnąć się mających odtąd na zawsze zakazujemy. Które to jurysdykcje wyżej wyrażonych prawami opisanych sposobów konwikcyj, we wszelkich sprawach kryminalnych używać mają. A jeżeliby onych było potrzebne jakowe udoskonalenie, na przyszłym blisko przypadającym sejmie poprawić, odmienić, lub uchwalić deklarujemy. Według tejże samej reguły wszystkie sądy, i subsellia sprawić się mają in causis maleficii , i czarów, w rozsądzeniu których; penalitatem śmierci na zawsze znosiemy. A ta cała Ustawa ma się rozciągać i na Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie.

 

Konstytucja sejmu 1776 r. „Konkwikcje w sprawach kryminalnych”, w: Volumina Legum, wyd. J. Ohryzko, Petersburg 1860, s. 546–547.

It has been proven that in some criminal cases torture is often used to make the accused confess, which is a fallible method of conviction and a cruel one for proving one’s innocence. Described in the universal and our national laws, manifestos, indicia, in recenti crimine deprehensio, propria oris confessio , inquisitions and other evidence are better means of conviction; they are fairer and more in accordance with all laws. Hence all of our national court jurisdictions that have ius gladii are thus forbidden, tanquam pro crimine status , to use torture to force confession, and any disobedience will be prosecuted. The jurisdictions shall use the means of conviction described above in all criminal cases. And if those need any improvement, we shall amend, alter or pass them during future Sejm gatherings. According to the same rule, all courts and subsellia in causis maleficii and in witch cases are forbidden to use death penalitatem . The Act shall apply to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as well.
 
Translated © by Jerzy Giebułtowski
Download the original text