'It's harrowing reading about the torture'

Wanda Wyporska, 34, is media officer for Unionlearn, the TUC's education and training branch, and is writing her DPhil on the persecution of witches in Poland, at Hertford College, Oxford

When I started my research into the persecution of witches in Poland, I thought I wouldn't find many trials. This was what the secondary literature had led me to believe - after all, Poland has a reputation for being tolerant. But while Poland's persecution might have come later than most of Europe, I have found 700 trials in the period 1511-1775, which means around 1,400 people burnt at the stake.

I started off thinking that I would compare Polish literature about witches with the court cases. But there were so many trials, I realised I had bitten off more than I could chew, so I had to narrow the thesis down to a smaller area and just 250 trials.

The trial records are still in the court archives, and they make fascinating reading. They're written in Polish and Latin, both of which I read (my grandfather is Polish, although I didn't grow up speaking it).

The period I'm looking at was when the nobility made up nearly 10 per cent of the population and had total power. Some held vast swaths of the country - they had their own villages and private towns, and each one could vote for the next king. They controlled everything, so if there was a witch trial then the noble (usually a man) decided the outcome. The vast majority of those put on trial as witches were peasants, and 90 per cent were women.

Some of the accusations were the result of some kind of problem at the lord's manor. For example, someone might bring him meat, his child might become ill, and that person would be suspected of witchcraft. But most of the time it was neighbours accusing other neighbours. Life was so precarious, they couldn't afford for a pig or a cow to die, or the crops to fail, and if it did happen, they blamed someone else.

During the trials, there was liberal use of torture, people were stretched on the rack and had candles burnt under their arms. The subsequent confession was taken as truth - there was no proper judicial procedure in Poland.

Reading about the torture and people being burnt alive is harrowing. Sometimes, you find mothers and daughters on trial together (witchcraft was believed to be hereditary), or 12-year-old girls being beheaded before being burnt.

My research is the first big study in English, and the first scholarly assessment of early modern Polish witch persecution. I have a contract with Palgrave Macmillan to publish the thesis as a book. For me, it is retrospective journalism - delving into the past of those whose voices, and supposed vices, live on.