Now my mind is filled with sorrow,
Wanders though the bog and stubble,
Wanders weary through the brambles,
Roams throughout the dismal forest,
Till my life is filled with darkness,
And my spirit white with anguish.
—-Kalevala Rune 1V (Crawford translation)
What happened next to our ancestor, in brief but brutal detail, was recorded in the household record. Maja Lisa Magnusdotter of Risatorp farm “Gave birth to an illegitimate child & [was] suspected of having murdered it and was therefore sentenced to 20 days water and bread as well as private penance.” In my own mind, I must slow down the story and take it in steps. Whatever the parish priest wrote down in the margins, there was so much more that happened. Before the county sheriff came to take Maja Lisa to prison there was the solemn moment that follows a death.
It is recorded that Maja said the baby was stillborn. From this simple statement it would seem that Maja Lisa was alone, without a midwife or mother to assist her at the birth or to testify on her behalf. It would seem that a doctor arrived at some point after the birth and disagreed, determining, somehow, that the baby had lived. Had the pregnancy been kept a secret? What would murdering the child accomplish? Was she hoping that with the death of the child, the controversy of her pregnancy would also go away? Had she acted alone? Was she instructed by her mother, by the father of the child? Was she acting to protect the father? There are many possibilities, some I can’t imagine.
Despite why and how it happened, it was still a child that had died. I have no way of knowing the sentiments–grief, shock, disgust or even indifference– of Maja or her mother, father and brother for the child. It was the Swedish custom to give first-born sons their grandfathers’ names. Had he lived under different circumstances, the child may have been named Magnus after Maja’s father. Perhaps it was Maja’s father Magnus who built a tiny coffin for the baby and buried it quietly in a family grave or perhaps outside the graveyard if the baby was not allowed into hallowed ground.
The situation reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Set in the English countryside of the 1870’s, Tess gives birth to an illegitimate child she names Sorrow. He is sickly and as he lies dying in her arms she gives him an emergency baptism of her own since it had been refused by the priest. He is buried outside the church wall and Tess herself fashions a cross and puts flowers in a marmalade jar by his small grave.
Would Maja Lisa have suffered grief if she had murdered her own child? Was it an act of callous disregard and wickedness? I hesitate to judge her and yet one of the standout fairy tales of my youth was Hansel and Gretel, a story about parents who abandon their children. I loved the victory of the clever brother and sister over the scheming stepmother (and strangely passive father) and the hungry witch in her gingerbread house. Fairy tales are one of the ways culture transmits history and values. Hansel and Gretel is about child abandonment, famine and the evil nature of women (especially stepmothers and odd old ladies that live in the forest, the type who practice magic and are unchristian.)
Long before the era of fairy tales, Barnadråp infanticide (killing a child) and abandonment (leaving a child to die of exposure) among the Nordic peoples was not necessarily a taboo. “As far as the Nordic Countries are concerned, child abandonment seems to have been a commonly accepted social tradition until the acceptance of Christianity.” The subject is documented in the old Norse sagas and the earliest written laws. However, as Scandinavia transitioned to the Christian religion, infanticide was seen as murder and the breaking of the Bible’s sixth commandment. By the seventeenth century infanticide, was held a terrible crime against divine and human law.” Among those executed for capital crimes, many were unwed mothers.
There was a also a dawning awareness that infanticide was not the product of a murderous impulse but rather a social problem. Execution for the crime was replaced with less harsh corporal punishments such as whipping, imprisonment on a bread and water diet and humiliation through public confession in the parish church. The Barnamordsplakatet, Infanticide Act of 1778 instigated by King Gustav the III, provided some measure for relief. It enabled unmarried pregnant women to give birth anonymously, give the child up for adoption and never name the father. The effect was somewhat predictable. Illegitimate births surged and men were left out of the equation more than ever.
A big part of the problem was that women suffered most. Proving the fatherhood of a child in a system that sought to discourage infanticide with harsh punishments was difficult. In Maja Lisa’s case, it appears that the burden was upon her to prove that the child was stillborn which was nearly impossible because it would appear that she gave birth alone. She was overruled by a doctor at a time when medical methods to determine such a thing were inexact. She was presumed guilty, rather than innocent, because she had already been exposed as a whore. We may never know if she planned to kill the child at birth, if she did so in a moment of confusion or if the child was, as she said, stillborn. And what of the father?
In addition to the consequences imposed by church and state, there were those of living in a community where many people held to den gamle tro (the old beliefs). For example, it was believed that a child who died illegitimate and worst of all ödopt, unbaptized, became a dangerous spirit. Many people believed that unbaptized children deprived of eternal rest in the hallowed ground of the churchyard roamed the forests as angry and treacherous spirits called mylings. They would leap onto the backs of unsuspecting people on their way through the forest at night and ride them fiercely, demanding to be taken to the churchyard. The moral of the story is that your sins will haunt you.
Maja herself would have been considered impure and unsafe. In the curious mash-up of old beliefs and the new Christian faith, a woman who had just given birth was “thought ”unclean” and on par with a heathen, and both she and the farm with all who lived there, both human and animal, were in danger.” By dangerous, it was meant that the milk could curdle, the bread fail to rise or worse people and animals could get sick.
The only cure for this was to go to church. The Lutheran Church offered a ritual called kyrkotagen, churching, to celebrate the health of the mother when she was able to attend services once again. However, most people viewed it as an ancient purification rite. New mothers did not attend the baptism of their own babies because of their impure and dangerous status. After about a month of confinement in their home, new mothers went through the churching ritual and were accepted back into the congregation and life of the community, cleansed of their evil potential.
To better understand how the old beliefs operated it is helpful to consider that even though the last execution for witchcraft in Sweden took place in 1676, 140 years before Maja Lisa was born, beliefs persisted about magic and bewitching powers. It was generally believed that thoughts–cast by an evil eye or a curse– had the power to cause physical harm. In the book Magic, Body and the Self in Eighteenth-Century Sweden, author Jacqueline Gent goes into great detail to document the pervasive and commonly accepted extent of beliefs and superstitions that led people to do things such as placing metal charms (scissors and knives of all things!) in the cradle of a newborn to protect them from evil, at least until they could be baptized.
Another example of the persistence of superstition comes from Undenäs Parish (about 50 miles north of Maja Lisa’s home parish) where my Gustafson ancestors originate. The Skaga Stave Church was built in the 1130s around a deep water well known for pagan sacrifices. Well into the 19th century people continued to throw offerings of rings, clothing, hides and coins–for luck–into the well. The diocese was so bothered by the superstitions around Skaga that it finally had the church demolished in 1826. It was rebuilt in the 1960’s, never forgotten by the local people.
Magical and malevolent powers were assigned to anyone who was different–wanderers, beggars, midwives, Finns (!), criminals and sinners. Perhaps the most dangerous category of person was the promiscuous woman, especially one who tried to hide it. Maja Lisa had been a secret whore hiding her sin and spreading evil to unsuspecting neighbors. In the book Women in Eighteenth Century Europe by Margaret Hunt, the author offers a powerful illustration of the thinking in those days. Rickets, a disease that is caused by vitamin D deficiency, was once believed to be caused by an encounter with a whore, a woman who had had extramarital sex. The disease was even called horeskaver, whore rickets.
This conversation between two Swedish women in about 1860 was written down verbatim by a folklorist.
Stina: Well…the boy obviously has whore rickets. He’s been sitting on the lap of a secret whore, you can be sure of it.
Mother: That’s impossible…I’m sure there hasn’t been anybody else here [other] than Blomgren’s sister Tilda. And she couldn’t be a secret whore.
Stina: But you can see for yourself that the boy’s got rickets. And you haven’t been near anybody dead. [Contact with a dead body was thought to be another cause of rickets.] Tilda has got to be a secret whore. No use doubting it. This illness here proves it. If Tilda had been honest [chaste], this boy wouldn’t have rickets. It’s hard to tell how many men she’s had but you can’t trust her.
Maja Lisa’s secret was out. She was now known as the worst kind of evil in her community. Her only hope lay in submitting to punishments and turning to the church that both condemned her and offered her absolution.