Burned at the Stake in Transylvania

Dracula is based on Vlad III. Credit: Public domain

Dark and highly intense tales of mystery, superstition, and legend are passed from generation-to-generation in Transylvania. I am fascinated with Dracula and his blood-sucking legend which permeates our thoughts of this Romanian region. Transylvania is synonymous with Dracula and to this day there are also many additional local legends involving torture, coercion, punishment, death, magic, beasts, and alliances with the devil that have become common parts of the exciting local culture.

Presently, I live in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, in the heart of Transylvania and I have previously blogged about my adventures here. However, this blog entry is about some of the fascinating, legendary tales of Cluj witches… tales that have continued in Transylvania from the middle ages. I have been captivated by the origin and content of these legends especially when I explore the fate of about 500 convicted in the region.

Tailors Tower
Tailors’ Tower named for the Tailors’ Guild near Witches Road

Last year I blogged about my 11th Great Grandmother Ann Alcock Foster who was accused, tried, confessed, and found guilty of being a witch during the 1692-93 Salem Witch Trials in America. While not subjected to torture and death, she was imprisoned where she eventually died.

In the middle ages in Transylvania, religion and politics were entwined. Whispered accusation of witchcraft and execution of torture and death sentences became a convenient way for the more powerful to remove one’s religious and political foes.

Many times the accused was different from others such as a widow, midwife, beauty, or having certain physical traits such as warts. Witches were said to be capable of magic such as transforming from human to animal forms like a dog or cat and back.

The first sentence of capital punishment for witchcraft in Transylvania occurred in 1565 when midwife Carla Botzi was burned alive. Just a few years later in 1593 two “witches” were killed in what is now Cluj-Napoca!

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St. Michael’s Cathedral at Piata Unirii in Cluj-Napoca, Romania

It is believed that about twenty-five to fifty women were drowned, beheaded or burned at the stake in Cluj and nearby Dej for being “judged” to be witches. Since a judicial system was loosely defined in the 16th and 17th centuries in Transylvania, judgment may have been by a group getting together with limited judicial formality except for the support of someone with some power. Those judged to be witches often were given the “water test” prior to being burned in the piata (square)  in front of Saint Michael’s Cathedral.

The water test was used by the interrogators to determine if the accused had evil “magical powers.” If somehow the woman survived having her hands and feet bound and thrown into Cluj’s Somes River, she was determined to have used magical powers to survive and, therefore, was  a witch. But surviving the water test meant she was immediately burned alive in front of Saint Michael’s!

Following being burned, the human remains of witches were then exposed to the mocking public in front of the 16th century city walls and Tailors’ Tower. The trail leading to the tower was known as Witches Road. Witch trials took place throughout Transylvania in the middle ages and the procedures were similar to those employed in Cluj.

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Bathory House in Cluj-Napoca

The Bathory cousins, Ana and Erzsebet, provide an interesting legend with connections to witchcraft in Cluj. Countess Erzsebet is considered to be the greatest serial murderess in the history of mankind! She was from a powerful noble family and lived in Hungary. Reportedly she enticed as many as 650 young women to work as servants and house staff where she tortured and murdered them and bathed in their blood to maintain her youthful appearance. She was tried for murder and confined for the remainder of her life. Her powerful position kept her from being put to death, however.

Erzsebet’s cousin Ana lived in Cluj and is rumored to have been engaged in atrocities like Erzsebet. According to the Director of the Entomology Museum in Cluj, Ana was considered to have been a witch but avoided being executed because she was Bathory nobility. Ironically, her house faces the piata in Cluj and is within a few meters of where witches were burned at the stake.

Witches and witchcraft are only one of many aspects of interesting legends and folklore throughout Transylvania. Each community has stories that are reflective of the richness of their particular culture. Some even swear that the tales as based in reality and it is highly enjoyable to engage the local people and listen to their stories and the enthusiasm in which they are conveyed. Just as a fine local wine or a culinary delight native to a region adds so much more to a visit, so do the legends and tales like those I have described about witches in Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania.

3 thoughts on “Burned at the Stake in Transylvania”

  1. What an interesting and informative narrative about the witches in Cluj and Transylvania in general! How sad that even if a woman passed the “water test,” she still had no way of surviving the accusations of witchery. Do you think you still have some witches in your family? 🙂 🙂 I really enjoyed this latest blog, Barry. You have a way with words that makes the history and culture of where you are just come alive!


  2. I found your article to be very interesting. Ann Alcock Foster was my 10 th great grandmother I just discovered. It’s amazing what happened so long ago. Just wanted to say Hello as we must be related !!


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