Mending History 4: The Secret Whore

solveig-Lund-Hardanger-Bride-Norway-Vintage-hand-colored-Albumen-Cabinet-Card-500x698.jpg

Solveig Lund, Hardanger Bride, Norway. The wearing of a bridal crown was a sign of chastity common in Sweden and Norway and can be traced back to Catholic times in Scandinavia and the image of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown.

Kanske har inte det gamla bondesamhället blivit mer romantiserat än någon annan försvunnen värld. Men effekterna därav har haft enormt genomslag i vår kultur.

The old peasant society has become perhaps more romanticized than any other lost world. Never the less, its effects have an enormous impact on our culture.

–Jonas Frykman, Om Kvinnors Ondska (On the Wickedness of Women)

To understand det gamla bondesamhället, the old peasant society of Maja Lisa’s time and place, I needed to understand how different her life was from my own. To get perspective on where our stories intersect, I needed to examine what story strands belonged to me as an American with ancestry in Sweden and other parts of northern Europe. I also wanted to untangle the threads of truth from romanticized images of fiddle playing, folk dancing peasants in colorful costumes as well as the equally glowing romance of author Vilhelm Moberg’s book The Emigrants where the Swedes suffered but survived hardship with grit and grace.
Some measure of truth can be found in the old records which are increasingly digitized and available online. For example, the truth about Maja Lisa’s family life comes from the inventory taken when Maja’s mother Lena died of dysentery in 1854. The single most valuable item for the household was their one bullock. The estate also consisted of one cow, two calves, two sheep, one pig, various furnishings and farm tools. Lena died an old woman but dysentery itself is a disease spread by poor sanitation and epidemics were common in impoverished areas. In the 19th century Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe and Maja’s family was poor.
800px-Starvation_image_from_Fäderneslandet_1867.jpg

Illustration of starvation in Sweden, Famine of 1866–1868. The man is the background is slicing bark from a tree. It was ground and used to replace wheat flour in bread.

It is difficult to grasp how bad things were in Sweden two hundred years ago. The fact that over a million Swedes emigrated in the 19th century is a powerful statement. It was not war that made them refugees or the sudden devastation of a natural disaster. Rather it was the crushing weight of centuries of social oppression combined with the realities of life in a northern place where the growing season was short. Whether it was weather or the government, the slightest tip in circumstance could have grave consequences for Swedish peasants who lived on a knife’s edge for basic needs.
Maja Lisa lived through times of acute famine and mortal crises. In addition to climate events that wiped out food crops, there were epidemics of disease and failures of the state to organize relief at these times. Extreme poverty created other miseries. Alcohol abuse was common and intensified despair and often led to family and community violence. Church and state acted in tandem to maintain the status quo. Education was dominated by the Lutheran Church and reinforced the social hierarchy–obedience before authority. At the same time, Swedes held onto superstitions, old ways of thinking, that went back in time before Christianity ( see my blog post Fear of Winter and Witchery).
Maja was probably taught to read at home. Sweden was a highly literate country despite its poverty in the 19th century. The church encouraged reading skills to better teach the populace about the Lutheran faith. Maja’s first reader was probably Luther’s Lilla Katekesen. Most rural families owned few books. In addition to the catechism a family might have owned a psalmbok and a Bible. It was the duty of every head of household to read from these books to the family every week. Most editions of the catechism had a väggtavla, an addendum, at the end offering advice and rules for “good and righteous living.” This was the extent of one’s library. When I think of the many books about all kinds of things that I have read in my lifetime and the enormous impact they have had on my worldview, it is almost impossible to imagine having only one book in the house.
unnamed.jpg

Manskogs socken, Värmland. From the summer of 1911 when the cows grew skinny because of drought and shortage of pasture. Photographer Nils Keyland.

However, Swedish women learned from the world too. As farmers they lived close to the earth, their farm animals and the people in their community. They had to be quite knowledgable in any number of things. For example, “milking and dairying” has a long tradition in Sweden as a woman’s craft and involved passing on skills and ‘mysteries’ associated with it from mother to daughter.” Maja and her mother did physical labor alongside the men in the fields and tended to the home garden which may have included flax which women knew how to harvest, spin and weave into cloth which they then sewed into garments and textiles for the home. Cooking involved the knowledge of putting up food for the winter–fermenting, brewing, drying and salting. Women cared for children, infirm and elderly family members (no school or care facilities in those days). The life of the family was busy in the close-knit pattern of the parish with its obligations of community life–attending church, and all the reciprocities of hosting and attending baptisms, weddings, funerals and harvest events.
In 1837, Maja Lisa was 21-years-old and burdened with a secret. She was pregnant, without a marriage prospect, and she had to decide what to do. Even if sex education was suppressed in favor of the church’s “good and righteous” rules, she knew from caring for the farm animals what lay ahead with her own body. She also knew that she had broken the law. Pregnancy outside of wedlock was criminal and she faced punishment by both church and secular authority. That meant church confession, heavy fines and physical punishment (whipping or prison and a bread and water diet). Even if she and the child survived labor and delivery and endured the punishments by church and state–something far worse loomed. The shame and stigma in her own family and community would be worse than death. She would forever be labeled a whore.

Advertisements

One comment

  1. Charles Gustafson · · Reply

    Lisa~

    I think this might be your best installment yet! It shows careful research, yet you present it in an intriguing, narrative way. I wonder if it would help to number each episode or installment to help readers go back to review the progression of your story. I find myself wondering what the rest of the family thought of Maja and her past as it influenced their present opinions of her? Apparently, my Aunt Louise described her as a “slut” to her grand-daughter Kendra. What did Britta Kajsa think, or know, about her mother? How did Ada feel toward Maja? Were they aware of and did they understand the background of events which transpired in Sweden before coming to America? In spite of everything that was in Maja Lisa’s history, how is it that she has the largest grave-stone of any of her family in the cemetery? Does it indicate respect? Did her life in America change to earn a new attitude from family members? Was her blindness thought of as God’s punishment for her transgressions?

    There are many parts to this story which can only be filled in with speculation. Are there any other descendants of the Quist line of my generation who might be able to add to the story of Maja Lisa? Perhaps the family poet, David, left something behind which betrayed true family feelings. What a challenge you have taken on!

    Love, Dad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: