History of Biecz

Sztych Hogenberga

Around the middle of the 13th century, Biecz received city privileges from Bolesław Wstydliwy (Bolesław V the Chaste). Walls with a barbican and towers were built around it. The city served an important defensive function on the southern borders of the Polish state and was an important economic and commercial centre because of the trade routes crossing here. Biecz was then one of the largest cities in Poland, home to over 30 kinds of crafts; among them, the fastest-developing ones were dressmaking and cloth-making, and the wine trade flourished. The entire spatial-urban layout of Biecz has survived without major changes since the Middle Ages. The city was royal property. Kings exercised state power during their stays here; they held political meetings and conferences, granted numerous privileges to the city, and signed documents that were important for the life of the region and the entire kingdom. Princes and kings (of the Piast and Jagiellon dynasties in particular) frequently stayed in Biecz's three castles. The seat of the Higher Court of German Law was located in Biecz, and so were the landed and magistrate judiciary. In 1616, Biecz received the ‘right of the sword’ (ius gladii), the right to sentence to and carry out capital punishment and the right to its own executioner's office. Captured thugs were imprisoned in the so-called ‘turma’, where they were subjected to various kinds of torture. As a result of the frequent death sentences, the Biecz executioners were well-practised and were 'loaned out' to other cities for a fee. According to legend, the executioner Jurko worked in Biecz. Supposedly, he was of aristocratic origin, highly educated, and fluent in several languages; he was an authority on legal and medical issues, was very fond of public executions, and loved to quote Homer, Ovid, and Horace during torture. Executioners had their hands full because of the dangerous bands of the 'beskidnicy', the Beskids highwaymen roaming these areas. They were professional mountain highwaymen, who roamed the merchant routes of the Poland-Hungary border, finding refuge from pursuit in the forests and permanent hiding places in caves. At the time, they were a problem for the authorities in these areas. As serf oppression increased, the ranks of the beskidnicy were strengthened by peasants. In many cases, the activities of the beskidnicy went beyond the criminal – they inspired peasant movements against the feudal system. The problem of banditry in the Beskids and Subcarpathia was not lessening. For this reason, in the middle of the 12th century, a resolution to establish a special guard division was adopted – the so-called 'harnicy', whose goal was to exterminate the bands of the beskidnicy. The intensified activity of the beskidnicy in the 17th century was primarily directed against the nobility, especially during the Chmielnicki Uprising in Ukraine. It is worth emphasising that the sentences imposed on beskidnicy by the wójt of Biecz were extremely harsh. Usually, it was the death penalty preceded by torture. They were skinned, hanged by the ribs, quartered, and their heads were impaled on spikes in front of the city gate as a warning to others. In the second half of the 17th century, the city's importance began to decline as a result of plagues, changes to trade routes, and the general situation in Poland. After the first partition of Poland, Biecz came under Austrian control. The partitioning powers dismantled the Biecz county (powiat) and courts. In the 18th century, Biecz became private property and thus lost its royal status.


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