General, Women's History

‘The Devil’s Milkmaid’: The Witch as a Woman in

In 1532, four years before Denmark officially became Lutheran, a woman suspected of witchcraft was brought to the manor court of Øster Horne in Jutland. The woman on trial was called Karen Hanskone, her name indicating that she was the wife of a man called Hans, and the man who dragged her to court was the local notary, Jeb Skrivers. From the records, we learn that this was not the first time the two of them had met in court. Legal proceedings had already taken place between them, although these records are not preserved in the archives. A phrase in the court record suggests that prior to this trial Jeb Skrivers had tried to obtain a sentence of witchcraft on Karen Hanskone, but had not succeeded. This time round, though, he presented dannemænd, i.e. eight good, impartial men of honour as required by the court. These eight men were to confirm that Karen had, during a previous trial not preserved in the records, been convicted (oversvoret) of witchcraft. Jeb Skrivers had even brought the executioner to court with him and Skrivers proposed that if anyone wished to accuse Karen Hanskone of witchcraft, he would assist them in any legal way possible to obtain a guilty verdict. According to the court records, nobody stepped forward to accuse or demand a conviction of Karen Hanskone and the manor court dismissed the trial. The trial of Karen Hanskone is one of the few preserved documents of witchcraft trials in Denmark prior to the Lutheran Reformation of 1536. This is a period known as the Winter of Catholicism in Denmark, when jurisdiction over witchcraft was shared between lay and Church courts. Nevertheless, the trials preserved in the scattered legal records of the pre-reformation era were all brought to lay courts. In the case against Karen Hanskone, Skrivers simply followed standard lay procedure by presenting a number of impartial witnesses, but the trial was dismissed when nobody came forward to formally accuse her. There is no sign of any Church involvement in the trial, and witchcraft, generally, appears to be a crime handled by lay courts. In other parts of Europe though, the Church played an active role in trials of witchcraft, and in some areas were the sole arbiters of justice.

The beginning of the sixteenth century was also the period when the idea of the witch as a woman who harmed her surroundings, travelled at night to the sabbat and engaged in sexual relations with the devil was at its peak. The case against Karen Hanskone bears no sign of this diabolical witch image, but we do find fragments of this creature in other sources from the period of the Lutheran Reformation. The demonisation of women and the idea of the witch as the devil’s collaborator and erstwhile concubine was a melding of popular and theological ideas, which unfolded during the fifteenth century. This demonisation was greatly assisted by two publications: the Papal Bull Summis desiderantes affectibus, referred to as the Witch’s Bull of Innocent VIII (1484), and the publication of the notorious witch hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum, Hammer of Witches. The Bull’s warnings of how witches could be found amongst villagers was a break with previously held beliefs that magicians belonged to a group of learned or semi-learned persons who experimented with magical rituals that could harm people or help gain good fortune or love for their clients. According to the Bull, witches’ one goal in life was to harm their fellow villagers, and they were motivated only by their hatred of all Christians.

The inclusion of the Witch’s Bull in the Malleus probably caused it to enjoy a higher status and more attention than originally intended. In the Malleus Maleficarum, the tone was equally merciless towards witches, but the viewpoint in the manual had shifted. It is here we find the strongest emphasis on the deceitfulness of the female sex, which was not dealt with in the Papal Bull. For instance, the manual had chapters devoted to how to recognise female witches who stole penises and copulated with demons. During this period of the diabolical witch, only one law was issued against witchcraft in Denmark. This was the Landslov (National Law) of 1521. Prior to his dethronement in 1523, King Christian II passed two comprehensive laws, his Landslov and his Bylov (Town Law). The articles on witchcraft, no. 78 and no. 79, were written in a gender neutral language, beginning with ‘About witchcraft, [a] man or woman, rumoured to practice witchcraft of danger to villages will be arrested by our official’. Witchcraft was, as this shows, a crime committed by men as well as women, and in the following paragraphs the law referred to witches as ‘those people’ or simply ‘they’. Compared to transcripts from the Provincial Law Code of Jutland from the beginning of the fifteenth century, which only spoke of men performing witchcraft against other men, women were now explicitly written into the text.

The witch and/or the evil woman is also found in many late medieval church murals in Denmark and Sweden, reflecting a broader concern in the middle ages with powerful women. These witches appear in different scenes rooted in biblical stories, for example, depictions of the Fall, in which witches are escorted to Hell, or in folklore where the woman is depicted as more evil than the devil himself. Moreover, when Denmark became Lutheran in 1523, these beliefs continued within the reformed church.

Louise Nyholm Kallestrup is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern Denmark. Read more of her article in the summer edition of the Women’s History Magazine.

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