By Sandra Alvarez
Everyone has “that” neighbour on their floor, or street who they’d secretly love to move to Mars and never see again. Well, the Early Modern Swedes had a way of dealing with those kinds of nasty neighbours…
When we think of witchcraft and the witch hunts of the late medieval and early modern periods, we think about horrific persecutions, trials and mass burnings. The situation in Sweden however, was a little different from witchcraft trials elsewhere in Europe. Witchcraft trials in Sweden rarely resulted in execution. It appears that, in some cases, witchcraft wasn’t used for serious accusations but more as a form of policing and solving neighbour drama within a localised social setting.
With Neighbours Like These, Who Needs Enemies?
In an article on Early Modern witchcraft in Sweden, Per Sörlin suggests that accusations were a means of dealing with conflicts in small, close knit communities because there was no formal way to resolve insignificant issues between villagers. Personal disputes could easily spill over into full blown accusations of witchcraft. Anything could set off such an allegation, a snub by a neighbour, a row about property boundaries, a dispute over the cost of goods at the market, retaliation for a favour that was turned down, blame for an accident, or simply someone in the community that didn’t fit in and was disliked.
Let’s look at some of the more popular reasons to get dragged to court by your neighbours and the lessons we can learn from them…
But…I Thought We Were Neighbours?! That’s it, you MUST be a Witch!
The next time your neighbour bangs on your door for a cup of sugar, you might want to remember this little tidbit before you decline…
One of the classic and most common causes of accusations in these trials stemmed from retaliation for the refusal of a simple request. Poor Peder Jönsson testified that his evil neighbour, Elin Ambjörnsdotter, had come to visit after his wife had given birth asking for some cabbage. After Peder’s wife refused the request, Elin uttered: “You will soon be kept busy with that child”. Three days later, the child was dead. Pretty brutal. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Peder had been on Elin’s hit list, she also said she’d make life difficult for him after he refused to give her some tobacco. Difficult indeed, Peder’s horse promptly died and he fell ill vomiting blood for no apparent reason. It was apparent that one did not refuse Elin’s Ambjörnsdotter because she was obviously (by his logic) a witch. Peder wasn’t the only unlucky soul to run afoul of an angry neighbour. This situation repeated itself again and again in witchcraft cases in Sweden where the refuser was the victim of the requester’s malevolence. Lesson learned: Just hand over the cabbage.
My Cow Ran Away, I have a Cold, My dog died…You MUST be a Witch!
The more unusual occurrences one had visited upon them, the more likely they would cry foul about witchcraft. In 1630, a farmer blamed another villager for an entire laundry list of perceived injuries ranging from, his cow dying, another cow falling down over the rocks and being injured, a dog biting his geese, to his children becoming ill. This set of unfortunate circumstances, under most other conditions would simply be seen as just a string of bad luck. In this case, however, it led to a witchcraft accusation. To test his theory, the farmer even repeated the incident with the dog and noted that when it was released again, it killed four of his sheep and no one else’s. Coincidence? He though not. Lesson learned: When the dog eats your homework, it’s never your fault.
I Fell Off My Horse…You MUST be a Witch!
Accidents, it seems in Sweden, were never your fault. Nope. There was an excellent chance that whatever ill befell you was the result of some nasty witch in the neighbourhood. Like the poor country sheriff in Vartofta Sweden who fell off his horse and broke his leg after having served an eviction notice. In his mind, he was definitely being punished by a witch. In another case, Johanna Hansdotter was dragged before the courts because she too was accused to causing an accident. The witness had fallen from his horse and broken his leg. He claimed he had been rude to Johanna before the accident and she had uttered: “Oh yes, I’ll give you a wadding”. And a wadding he got…so naturally, the fall was her revenge for his rudeness. Lesson learned: Never be rude to a witch, and never, EVER do it while riding a horse.
The trials in Sweden offer an interesting look at witchcraft accusations during the Early Modern period. Accusations were a form of managing personal grievances and conflict within small communities where formal means of resolving a problem were unavailable. People were often accused after accidents, illness, disputes and denied requests for assistance. These trials were rarely serious and almost never resulted in excessive persecution and execution as was the case in mainland Europe. Lastly, don’t piss off your neighbours.
Per Sörlin, “Witchcraft and Casual Links: Accounts of Maleficent Witchcraft in the Göta High Court in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries”, Arv: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore, Vol. 62 (2006)