Mending the Past 7: Paying with Body and Soul

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Kyrkvägen (road to church) by Helmer MasOlle. The women wear the yellow aprons and traditional mourning costume from Leksand.

“Nevertheless, the village formed a landscape where people knew their ways and whereabouts. There were norms and rules implicitly known by everybody on how the village life was to be lived.” –Stig Welinder, The Ethnoarchaeology of a Swedish Village

When I was young my parents took us to the Episcopal church on Sundays. I loved the visuals: the crimson carpet, stained glass windows and the oak timbers of the ceiling. The sanctuary glowed with candle light, polished brass and pressed white linen. I would sit in the pews with my parents until Sunday School was announced and we were released from the prayers, readings and hymns. I was an acolyte and did my communion at that church and even had my wedding there one unseasonably warm September day.

There was a safe and peaceful feeling in that hallowed space. I liked the liberal-minded and kind members of the congregation and the only time I worried about my behavior was when passing in front of the altar to remember to genuflect. I minded my own business when it came to my sins, keeping them in my secret heart as I joined the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, …forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…

In Maja Lisa’s time, the spiritual life of the parishioners was very much the business of the parish priest. Everyone went to church (or was supposed to) and everyone in the whole nation belonged to the same church, the Lutheran one. Rural people lived in small hamlets full of kith and kin and church was the community center for the parish. There were no schools, at least not for the peasant class. Church was school. For everyone, young and old. The school books were the Bible and Luther’s catechism. The parish priest was the teacher, sermonizer and the principal in charge of the moral condition of his parishioners. He was also in charge of their punishments, when required.

Född ett oäkta barn & misstänkt att hafva mördat det. Blivit därför dömd till 20 dagars vatten och bröd samt hemlig kyrkoplikt.(1834–1849, Husförhör)

Gave birth to an illegitimate child & suspected of having murdered it and was therefore sentenced to 20 days water and bread as well as private church punishment.

When I was translating the description of Maja Lisa’s punishment from the household survey I had trouble understanding the word kyrkoplikt. Maja Lisa was sentenced to 20 days in prison, bread and water and kyrkoplikt. The literal translation of kyrkoplikt is church (kyrko) and duty (plikt). [The closest English cousin word to plikt is pledge, which in Old English meant bail.] It was essentially church punishment, a rite of penance, something like posting bail to keep you out of hell. For better or for worse, it resulted in a public outing of one’s crime, a chance to air the dirty laundry, confess, repent and be forgiven.

Maja Lisa’s crime was murder, albeit infant murder which was a capital crime punishable by execution in her grandparents’ lifetime. Thanks to King Gustav III and his reforms of 1778, authorities were beginning to acknowledge the social factors in infanticide. She was lucky that she escaped execution and a life sentence. She was also probably found guilty of lägersmål (sexual relations without marriage or the promise of one). She may have paid a fine for the latter and, if the family was unable to pay, that may explain the length of her imprisonment. Fines were often converted to jail time when people could not pay the steep sums, often equivalent to a half a year’s wages for a peasant. In addition to Maja Lisa’s civil penalties there remained her conversion from sinner and criminal into a true Christian and obedient, law-abiding woman. That was the job of the parish priest and the goal of kyrkoplikt.

It seemed odd to me that a civil court would sentence someone to church confession, punishment and absolution but I was growing in my understanding that Sweden was a very religious nation at this time and historically, crime was a moral failure and criminal punishment was the church’s domain. Penance was meant to reconcile a criminal with God and the community. Up until the mid-1800’s, kyrkoplikt involved corporeal punishments conducted in the most public of places, in or near the church itself. Skammstraff, public humiliation was considered an important element in deterring crime. There were several types:

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A shaming stool from Göteborg’s Garnison’s Church

Skampallen (the shaming stool) and shunning were among the mildest church punishments. During the service, the offender was required to kneel in front of the congregation on a special stool and could not take communion or participate in the service as everyone else did. Often they were the pointed subject of the  sermon and asked to confess in front of everyone and to suffer disapproval expressed quietly through pursed lips and glowering looks.

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Church foot stocks at Själös Church, Finland

Stocken (the stocks) were more humiliating. Offenders were confined by their feet to a device usually placed right outside the church door. Churchgoers could pass by on their way in and out of the service, pausing for a moment to stare and tut at the offender.

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A shame post, Sagalund Museum, Finland

Skampålen (shame post) was a pole outfitted to shackle the hands or neck. Bound to the post, the offender was treated to insults and abuse from neighbors and often a flogging. A whip was used on men and ris (birch twigs) on women. Such punishment was called“plikta med kroppen,” paying with your body. 

In Maja Lisa’s era, kyrkoplikt basically came in two flavorsuppenbar (public) and enskild (private). Perhaps she was lucky, she received received “hemlig” kyrkoplikt another word for private or secret penance. It involved confession in the sacristy with the priest and a handful of church leaders. However, even if her sin was meant to be secret or confidential, the community already knew about her crime. There would be little left to the public imagination and the repercussions, even if muted, would probably be rooted in the long tradition of shaming.

I have no doubt that kyrkoplikten was a harsh experience, whether it was performed in public or in private. At the same time, this was Maja Lisa’s world. I cannot see or experience it in quite the same way that she did. For her, kyrkoplikten was familiar and normal. It is possible that Maja Lisa welcomed the opportunity to unburden herself through confession and to once again stand among her neighbors in the parish, redeemed and forgiven. If that was truly possible. But I have also wondered if she was different, if she rebelled, if she was confused or angry because she was raped. Or was she in love? I also have wondered if redemption cost her the ultimate confession, the name of the father.

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2 comments

  1. Charles Gustafson · · Reply

    Hi Lisa~

    When I was ten years old, my friends and I would go to the local movie theater to see the “Saturday Matinee”, which consisted of two movies, a cartoon and a serial episode. The serial was an adventure story divided into 12 – 14 episodes, each one ending with the hero in a precarious situation. The next week always found the hero amazingly escaping to continue pursuing his mortal enemy. Being at that age, we could hardly wait till the next Saturday matinee to find out what happened. The Saturday Matinee cost was five cents with 2-3 extra cents for “penny candy”.

    We called it “a cliff-hanger”. It is a technique often used by authors to build anticipation in readers to get to the next chapter of a story. Your ending sentence in this installment is a question designed to build anticipation for the reader. Well done!

    Check out the different meanings of “corporeal” and “corporal” as they relate to a form of punishment.

    See you Saturday for a “family matinee”,

    Dad

  2. Charles Gustafson · · Reply

    Hi Honey –

    So well written! You have always had that talent. Keep up the good work.

    Love, Mom

    P.S. What can we bring to the family gathering?? >

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