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Witches and Children :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

Witches and Children

Sydney G.

HIST 229

Professor Brock

Children in the Scandinavian Witch Trials

            The witch hunts in Scandinavia were not as deadly as the witch-hunts elsewhere in Europe. The estimated total prosecutions in Scandinavia, which includes Denmark-Norway and Sweden-Finland, was around 5,000 which resulted between 1,700 and 2,000 executions.[1] The fact that Scandinavia did not accept the combined diabolism and maleficum charge until the seventeenth century and that the court systems were reluctant to use torture to gain confessions meant that the trials both started later and rarely managed to gain the traction for a witch-hunt.[2] These commalities created marked differences between Scandanavian and other continental witch trials however, there were variations in the witch-scares between regions in Scandinavia. Denmark, and Norway which it governed, had the earliest of the witch-hunts, but these never reached the level of the German states due to changes in legislation which required a mandatory appeal of death sentences. Finland was the latest of the Scandinavian countries to begin prosecutions for witchcraft, and of those accused around 50 percent were men.[3] Swedish witch trials though were particularly unique in that children played a large role in many of the Swedish trials. In some of the earlier trials children were accused of witchcraft, but in the later witch-scares children were used as the main witnesses. Both the children witches and children witnesses changed how the witch trials proceeded and because they were able to change the procedures, the children gained power during the trials.

The witch trials of Finnmark demonstrate both the change in the Scandinavian view of witches and provide an early example of children being involved in the trials. The main period of the Finnmark panic occurred between 1662 and 1663 and was linked to new demonological notions being spread by a knowledgeable couple, the Rhodiuses. The Rhodius couple had been sent north and were both held in Vardøhus Castle because they were considered to be politically dangerous because the husband,  Ambrosius Rhoduis, was an astrologer and physician and had a vision where he predicted the result of the ongoing war.[4] The wife, Anne Rhoduis, the grandchild of the private physician of Fredrick II, was particularly influential in the witch-hunts because she had been active in influencing the suspected adults and children by teaching them specific demonological ideas and trying to make them confess.[5]  The demonological ideas she introduced to the suspects were those of a maternal child-sacrifice to the Devil, the Devil’s mark, the Devil’s ability to father a child, and that a mother teaches her eldest daughter witchcraft.[6] Prior to these ideas spreading the laws focused on maleficum as the only punishable witchcraft crime, but afterwards began to include diabolism. The final idea that a mother would teach her eldest daughter witchcraft greatly affected the trials between 1662 and 1663 when six little girls were accused of witchcraft along with their mothers.

The six little girls were Ingeborg Iversdatter, Maren Olsdatter, Karen Iversdatter, Kirsten Sorensdotte, and Sigri Pedersdatter. Ingeborg Iversdatter was denounced by an adult neighbor and during her trial she confessed to learning witchcraft from her mother who had already been burned as a witch. Her sister, Karen Iversdatter, was arrested after her mother confessed to teaching Karen witchcraft. Maren Olsdatter was denounced as a witch by Ingeborg and she also confessed to being taught witchcraft, but by her aunt. Kirsten Sorensdotter was denounced by Karen’s mother and then imprisoned with mother who confessed to teaching Karen. Sigri Pedersdatter was denounced by a neighbor along with her mother.[7] These children did testify in court and their testimonies were similar to the adults, with a few minor differences.  The children gave similar descriptions of the Devil, but were more likely to include “extra fanciful elements” such as Maren’s description of her visit to Hell where she watched the Devil take a leg of ham “which he dipped into the said water [a boiling lake], bringing it up again at once, and now it was cooked.”[8] These added details to the testimonies make the children’s confessions sound more like a story as opposed to the adults whose testimonies would more strictly follow the cultural script given them about the Devil. Other examples in the children’s testimonies of fanciful elements include Maren telling the Devil “[she] did not believe that dogs could speak” when he first appeared in the shape of a dog and Ingeborg claimed that the Devil “dragged her around the courtyard and hit her, after which he threw the clothes over [her] head.”[9] These details of the conversations with the Devil are not found anywhere else in the witch trial records, while the adults’ testimonies focus either on their own demonic pact or how they turned their children to witches. Also unlike the adults, the children would also say how they would deny the Devil multiple times before finally agreeing to his demands or their mothers would force them to agree. Maren claims that she denied the Devil twice, but she finally relented when the devil offered her money.[10] Ingeborg and Karen Iverdatter both comment that their mother forced them to drink milk and after they were forced to drink the milk, the Devil appeared as a dog and bit them.[11] The other girls had similar stories. Maren managed to gain power because she denied the Devil which made her seem stronger than the adults who yielded to the Devils demands. While the other girls blamed adults by claiming they were forced into the Devil’s service which redirects the crime.

The girls’ ages also gave them more agency  in the trials than even the court may have realized. Though they were accused of witchcraft there is no mention of the girls being tortured, which was used during the trials in Scandinavia even though it was outlawed. The courts themselves faced a dilemma on what to do with the girls and wrote “since [the girls] are but small underage children who have not reached an  age to make their own decisions, nor have they ever been to God’s alter to receive the blessed sacrament, but are utterly ignorant, this is a difficult case to decide,”[12] so they turned the verdict to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals acquitted all of the children, as well as Sigri Pedersdatter’s mother. This acquittal may have been due in part to Sigri Pedersdatter’s testimonies against Anne Rhodius at the Court of Appeals. Sigri asserts that Anne Rhodius threatened the children into confessing as well as attempting to cajole them with promises of adoption if they confessed.[13] Though these accusations did not cause any harm to befall Anne Rhodius, it did cause the courts to question the legitimacy of the child witches. Since the courts were unsure about how to handle the situation, the young girls had more leniency in their trials because people were less inclined to hold them entirely accountable for their actions. This gave the girls the chance to test an amount of influence that they did not previously have through expanding the stories or accusing others in their testimonies.

Children exhibit this same type of influence during the Great Craze in Sweden.  During the height to the trials 30% of the Swedish witches accused actually initiated legal proceedings against themselves to clear their reputations, a possible course of action because very few people were found guilty.[14] The Great Craze which began in northern Darlarna in 1688 changed these proceedings and during this time there were at least 300 suspected witches and 18 death sentences passed.[15] The craze began as parents brought forward children who were claiming to have been taken to Blakulla.[16] Blakulla, or the Blue Hill, was where the witches’ sabbat supposedly occurred,[17] and the children would give vivid descriptions in their testimonies. In these testimonies Blakulla reflected reality and the descriptions were actually pleasant, but took on more sinister implications due to Christian beliefs. The children would describe white angels in Blakulla that defended them from the devil, and these angels were additions to the cultural script of a witches’ sabbat that accentuated the fact that the children were innocent even though they witnessed the sinful meeting.[18] This guarantee that the children would not be punished for being in league with the devil because they were victims meant that they could take the risks to tell “barely credible tales”[19] and in so doing gained more authority over who were accused of witchcraft.

These children witnesses did have power over the trials. Unlike other witch trials that had primarily children witnesses, there seems to be very little evidence of conflict between the children and the accused witches. The court records kept track of clan feuds and recognized that at the beginning of the trials the child witnesses usually belonged to a limited group of families, but there is still not much of a connection. Even if clan feuds were part of the early trials, their role lessened as children began to accused their grandmothers, mothers, and older sisters of witchcraft.[20] Per-Anders Östling suggests that at least the youngest witnesses may not have realized the accusations could lead to executions as these were the children most likely to accuse their families.[21] There were other children though who exploited the power they gained through the witch-trials. Beggar children would often claim to have supernatural powers that enabled them to identify witches, and these “wise lads” were used as expert witnesses in the trials.[22] These “wise lads” would threaten families with an accusation in order to have food, clothing, or shelter.[23] Since these children were blackmailing and slandering women, when the accusations of witchcraft ended in 1676, some of these children though were arrested and executed.

Since Sweden was not a country that regularly dealt with witch-crazes and because children were so central to the proceedings, the trials necessitated changes to the legal system.  Under Swedish law a crime of witchcraft requires 2 witnesses and a witness needs to be 15 or older.[24] This was complicated during the great craze because of the number of children claiming to have been taken to Blakulla. Therefore the courts made witchcraft the crimen exceptum so that children could act as witnesses. The way the courts determined whether the children were acceptable witnesses were by counting children as 1/10 or ½ of a witness and if a suspected witch had enough children denounce her with coherent testimonies, then the woman was convicted.[25] The courts continued to use these child witnesses until in the witch craze reached Stockholm in 1675. Around this time in Sodermalm some of the ‘wise lads’ who were used as expert witnesses began to accuse well-respected bourgeois and noble women which made the courts become suspicious of the validity of the accusations.[26] In Stockholm a commission began to investigate the witches and the trials to try and contain the craze. During this investigate the children began to confess that their stories were “pure-make believe and the accused witches were innocent.”[27] Once the children confessed to making up stories, the craze abruptly ended and “official proceedings began against the most active witnesses,”[28] including a 13 year old boy who was executed. This witch craze was able to stop so abruptly because it was so focused on children and once these children denied their own testimonies, the trials had no support. This can be seen through the pattern of the craze because “places where people accepted that there were witches were in areas where children stepped forward and if few children stepped forward or the accuser was an outsider the accusation was ignored.”[29] The children were the driving force behind the great witch craze in Sweden.

This craze also affected Osterbotten, Finland. Finland is a unique case because a majority of the accused witches throughout the country were men, but Osterbotten was an exception. Around this area from 1676 to 1678 there were trials in which children accused witches of taking them to Blakulla.[30] Since the Swedish craze had already ended at this time, the Finnish courts were cautious when it came to acting on the accusations. A reason that Osterbotten imitated  the Swedish trials is because they were closely linked economically and so the stories of the trials would have spread between the two places. The Osterbotten trials and the Swedish witch-craze demonstrate concerns about witches and how children learn the cultural script and can manipulate it to their advantage. The main concern about witches during these trials was that they existed, and that concern meant that once accusations began the people were willing to alter the legal proceedings for a conviction. Children who had been exposed to the cultural script of witches either in church or through pamphlets demonstrated a willingness to manipulate the ideas and make accusations to their own benefit.

The Swedish witch trials of 1662 to 1663 and the craze of 1688 to 1676 were influenced by the role that children performed. Children were involved in the trials either as the accused witches or as the main witnesses against an accused witch. The girls who were accused of witchcraft changed the proceedings because the court system was not prepared to convict children. The six girls used this uncertainty to gain some power because they were able to embellish the cultural script and highlight their own innocence by placing the blame on adults. When the young girls changed the script they gained some agency over their own trials because they were not being controlled by prior knowledge. The children who acted as witnesses during the witch craze held the majority of the power in the trials because they were able to accuse whomever. Their stories stayed consistent which added a sense of legitimacy to the children’s accusations even as it spread across Sweden. Then the children ended the craze by denying their testimonies. Both sets of children influenced the trials in an unanticipated way and therefore shaped how Sweden dealt with the witch trials.





[1] Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, (London, Longman, 2006), 223.

[2] Ibid., 223.

[3] Antero Heikkinen and Timo Kervinen “Finland: The Male Domination” in Early Modern European Witchcraft, ed. Benget Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 321

[4] Witches of the North, 280

[5] Witches of the North, 280

[6] Children Accused of Witchcraft in 17th cent. Finnmark. 28

[7] Children Accused of Witchcraft in 17th cent. Finnmark. 23-24

[8] Children Accused of Witchcraft in 17th cent. Finnmark. 25-26

[9] Children Accused of Witchcraft. 25, 28-29.

[10] Children Accused of Witchcraft in 17th cent. Finnmark. 25

[11] Children Accused of Witchcraft in 17th cent. Finnmark 29

[12] Children Accused of Witchcraft in 17th cent. Finnmark. 31

[13] Children Accused of Witchcraft in 17th cent. Finnmark. 30

[14] Witchcraft Trials of 17th Century and the Northern Swedish Witch Craze. 101

[15]Ankarloo, Early Modern European Witchcraft, 295

[16] Witchcraft Trials of 17th Century and the Northern Swedish Witch Craze. 102

[17]Ankarloo, Early Modern European Witchcraft,. 288

[18] Ankarloo, Early Modern European Witchcraft,. 314-315

[19]Ankarloo, Early Modern European Witchcraft,. 304

[20]Ankarloo, Early Modern European Witchcraft,. 314

[21] Witchcraft Trials in 17th-century Sweden and the Great Northern Swedish Witch Craze. 102.

[22] Witchcraft Trials in 17th-century Sweden and the Great Northern Swedish Witch Craze. 102

[23] Ankarloo, Early Modern European Witchcraft,. 302.

[24] Witchcraft Trials in 17th-century Sweden and the Great Northern Swedish Witch Craze. 103

[25] Witchcraft Trials in 17th-century Sweden and the Great Northern Swedish Witch Craze. 103

[26] Witchcraft Trials in 17th-century Sweden and the Great Northern Swedish Witch Craze. 103

[27] Ankarloo, Early Modern European Witchcraft,. 299

[28] Ankarloo, Early Modern European Witchcraft, 300

[29] Witchcraft Trials in 17th-century Sweden and the Great Northern Swedish Witch Craze. 104

[30] Early Modern European Witch-Craft. 326

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