Wrocław's Bridge with Two Names
Although the majority of Polish citizens consider themselves to be Catholics, there are a number of Protestants in the country. Wrocław in particular, with its complex history, has naturally meant that the city was and continues to be quite diverse.
In the heart of the city, near the market square, lies a cathedral with a long Protestant history as well as two legends that draw the eyes of passerby up to its two towers and the bridge connecting them.
Wrocław’s Protestant Roots
The city of Wrocław dates back to the 10th century, with its first official mention in the early 11th century as Vratislava. The city was then under Bohemian rule and most likely named after the Duke of Bohemia, Vratislav I. The city fell under Polish control in the 11th century but the name was kept and altered for the Polish spelling of Vratislav, Wrocisław. Wrocław was under Polish rule for almost 400 years when, in a short succession, it fell back into Czech hands (at that point a part of the Holy Roman Empire) and then into German jurisdiction.
It was during the Reformation, when the German population was numerous and Polish less so, that Johannes Hess gave the first evangelical sermon in St. Mary Magdalene’s Cathedral in 1523, thereby making it the first Protestant church in Wrocław as well as all of Silesia.
The cathedral would continue to function as a Protestant house of worship until 1948, becoming a Polish Catholic (not to be confused with Roman Catholic) church, as it continues to this day.
A Bridge with Two Names
In the city of a hundred bridges, the small bridge connecting the two towers of St. Mary Magdalene’s Cathedral is the only one situated at 45 meters above ground. It has been a feature of the cathedral since 1459 when the cathedral towers were completed, however it was burned in 1887 and later reconstructed.
The bridge has always intrigued the residents of Wrocław and still draws attention up to the top of the towers. Now a tourist attraction, in the past it was convenient throughway, connecting the north and south towers of the cathedral and providing access to the large cathedral bell in the south tower. The bridge goes by two names – the Witches’ Bridge and the Bridge of Penitence – reflecting the two legends surrounding it.
The Witches' Bridge
Witchcraft in Europe dates back centuries, but it was at the height of the witchcraft hysteria in Europe (in the 15th through the 17th centuries) that hundreds of thousands of women, particularly those who were older, widowed or unmarried, were accused of sorcery, tried, and executed. Most often, these women were scapegoats for larger ills in society; frequently, they had some knowledge of herbal medicines which made them suspect. An accusation of witchcraft could have been the legitimate explanation for someone’s unexplained illness, the death of a farm animal, or a poor crop yield.
Numerous publications on the topic, including the definitive text on witchcraft during the time, Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum, were printed on the newly created printing press and spread widely throughout Europe. These texts equated sorcery with heresy, thereby elevating the crime and the punishment that would come as a result of a guilty sentence. An accusation of witchcraft, therefore, would most likely mean a death sentence.
The accused would be subjected to “tests”, a series of torturous trials which he or she would either pass or fail. Both outcomes usually resulted in death: either the accused was found guilty of witchcraft if they were able to pass the test, or they would die trying, thereby (pointlessly) proving their innocence.
In Wrocław, the bridge connecting the two towers of St. Mary Magdelene’s Cathedral was one such test. The accused were forced to walk across the bridge’s railing from the north to the south side; unsurprisingly and sadly, many fell the 45 meters to their deaths attempting this trial. Those who succeeded were accused of being helped by the devil and burned at the stake.
The Bridge of Penitence
The legend around this small bridge has given it its name: the Bridge of Penitence.
According to the original legend, a vain and stubborn girl named Tekla refused to fulfill her household responsibilities, lazying about and living in the present moment. She was in no rush to get married or work. After many years of her vanity, her father, losing patience, cursed her and the following evening she was kidnapped and taken to the bridge between the two cathedral towers. As punishment, she was told to sweep the bridge; no amount of crying or begging released her from her sentence. Tekla grew older, her prime had past. When she grew frail, a young kind witch, Martyna, was sent to help her sweep. Tekla told her her tale of woe. Martyna, wanting to help Tekla, flew down on the broom to the market square where, rewarded for helping a wizard in need, she was granted one wish. In an act of kindness, Martyna wished to free Tekla from her fate. By the time Martyna had returned on the broom to the bridge, Tekla was gone.
The cathedral bridge became a place for mothers to take their disobedient daughters to in order to scare them into submission. It is said that during dusk, passerby can encounter the cries of obstinate young women who, instead of doing their chores and housework, decided to live a life of pleasure, forgoing their responsibilities.
Beyond the legend, this bridge is a great spot to view Wrocław’s rynek (market square), as the cathedral is located parallel to the rynek, on Szewska Street. If you can handle the 247 steps it takes to get up to the bridge, the view is absolutely worth it.
The Poor Sinner's Bell
The Poor Sinner’s Bell was hung in the south tower of the St. Mary Magdalene’s Cathedral in 1386. At that time, it was the largest bell in all of Silesia. The bell measured over 6 meters in diameter and weighed about 6 tons. In order to get it to ring, the bellringers had to put all their efforts to start the pendulum for half a minute before it made a sound.
The name of the bell derives from the legend surrounding it: an apprentice to a famous bell maker was tasked with the responsibility of pouring the mold to create this very important bell. The apprentice made a mistake while working. Ashamed, he ran to the master to admit the bell may be irrevocably damaged. In a fit of anger and fearing that his reputation as well as the bell were ruined, the master killed his apprentice. When he returned to the workshop, he demolded the bell and to his shock, the bell was perfectly intact. The master turned himself in for his crime and, as a last request while waiting for his execution, asked for the bell to ring so that it would be the last sound he heard.
The Poor Sinner’s Bell rang for 559 years, even surviving the Second World War, until Soviet soldiers exploded the tower with the bell after the war. It fell, sounding for the last time.