Mending the Past 9: A Daughter is Born


Louis Sparre: Kalevalan kansaa katsomassa. Werner Söderström Osakeyhthio, 1930

A woman who gives birth can never imagine
What she is rocking her daughter for:
A man with his own cottage
Or a man without a dwelling
A man with plenty of bread
Or a man of no means.

–A Finnish lullaby, from Sorrow and Bitterness, a review of Nordic women’s oral literature in 19th Century Finland by Satu Apo

By 1840, Maja Lisa was 24 and Nils was 33. Perhaps the biggest concern in the lives of these two young adults was what came next after they had suffered their punishments and returned to their community. What did the future hold? What were the choices given their reputations?

Maja Lisa had been convicted of murdering her own baby. Nils had established his reputation as a difficult person back in May of 1838. The note below from the records of the Härja Parish meetings reveals a clue to his behavior as well as how the community dealt with “general living in the parish” issues.

 In question of the general living in the parish it is stated with sadness that Nils Nilsson of Vitared [farm], who neither visits church nor takes communion, lives an unruly life and in drunkenness assaults his wife so that she has to flee from their home, and furthermore recklessly squanders their property. The vicar promised to, privately and before the church council, caution the criminal, but the parishioners also wanted the matter reported to the local court of law, with a humble request that Nils Nilsson, whilst some of his property is still left, must be but under the guardianship of Sven Wetterberg in Kråkeryd and Gabriel Broman in Ryggahem.
In retrospect, we understand now that in May of 1838, Maja Lisa must have been 6 months pregnant. Nils knew that he was in trouble and he was violently distressed and had taken to drinking. It is worth mentioning here that most peasant households brewed their own spirits for daily consumption producing plain brännvin (burn-wine) and herb flavored akvavit (water of life). Both, like vodka, had alcohol contents of around 40 percent. Binge drinking and alcoholism were rampant problems and gave rise to the temperance movement. We don’t really know how much a role alcohol continued to play in Nils’s behavior.
But in 1840, it is fair to assume that the storm had perhaps passed. Maja Lisa was living at Risatorp with her mother and father. Her brother Johannes was 27-years-old and, in this small world where people most often married within the parish or from a neighboring parish, he was courting  Anna Stina Nilsdotter of Klämman farm in Daretorp. She was a younger sister to Nils Nilsson. Nils himself is recorded as working as a dräng, a farm hand  at various farms in 1840/41, including Risadråg and Mörkhult (farm hands were usually hired in the fall for a one year contract). By August 1840 Maja Lisa was pregnant again.
Illustration ur Vestergötlands fornminnesförenings tidskrift sje

Finnekulmla Church baptismal font, Västergötland, Sweden. Twelfth Century and carved with runes.

As far as the records reveal, Maja Lisa continued to live at home with her parents. A daughter Brita Kajsa was born on May 12, 1841 at Risatorp farm. She was dutifully noted in the parish birth register as öakta, illegitimate. However the father is also listed as Nils Nilsson, of Mörkhult. The godparents are listed as Eric Ericsson from Mörkhult and Inga Stina Olofsdotter of Risadråg. Most babies had four godparents. This couple would have carried the baby to Härja Church for her baptism on May 13, the day after she was born. (“Until 1864 the law required a child to be baptized within eight days, but most children were baptized earlier. If it could be arranged the child was baptized the very day it was born…” The better to guard against the bad luck heathens carry).
One hopes that Maja received the proper care that most new mothers received, about a month of rest from her chores and good milk and cream to restore her health. After about a month, she would have been required to undergo kyrktagning, churching, the ritual to welcome her back into the congregation after giving birth and, as seen by many, a ritual to purify her.
Den 12 maj 1841 Framfött ett oäkta barn Britta Cajsa och därför undergått hemlig skrift.
On May 12 1841 [Maja Lisa] Gave birth to an illegitimate child and therefore underwent confidential confession.
–Härja Parish PCM for 1841
At that time, unwed mothers often received the modified form of churching which included a public confession and apology in front of the entire congregation. It is noted that unwed mothers were “also made to kneel on the bare floor – or at least on an uncovered stool – while the married woman kneeled on a very plush and finely decorated stool.” Of course the priest did not shake hands with the unwed mother. It is noted that Maja Lisa did not have to do this. She was given “hemlig skrift.” That is a private confession with the parish priest rather than the public testimony and apology. In any case, a good dose of shaming was no doubt delivered.
There are many questions. Why were they together again given all the shame and punishment they had suffered? Were they passionately in love? Were they again arrested for breaking the law? Did they wish to be married? If so, what prevented it? How did her family feel about the situation? How did the community view it?
Even though sexual relations without the intention of marrying was against the law (pregnancy outside of wedlock was illegal until 1855), there is no evidence that either Maja or Nils were again arrested or paid fines. Nils Nilsson was divorced and free to be named as the father. It could be that they wished to marry but were prevented by any number of factors. A primary barrier may have been that as a divorced man, and the guilty party in an adulterous affair, he was prevented from remarrying without permission from his first wife Kerstin Andersdotter. We know a little about her. She continued to live in the parish and raise her son. She had been abused by Nils and had little reason to be generous.
Secondly, most Swedish men married when they had saved enough to support a family. Nils had lost everything in the divorce. He was working as a hired hand and probably had little to offer financially. He made a poor prospect for Maja and even if she wanted to be with Nils, she could be overruled by her father in the decision to marry. Maja was omyndig, meaning that she was considered a minor. In Maja Lisa’s Sweden all women were minors with a male guardian. Förmyndare, legal guardians, would have been a father, brother or, when married, a husband. Maja’s father also played the role of giftoman (marriage man) whose job was to approve and arrange marriage. Things changed when Maja was 57-years-old in 1874, the same year her father died, and women received the right to manage their own affairs.
One of the things that has motivated me to dive deeply into this story was the realization that I had been cut off from both a personal family history but also a cultural one. As I sifted through the facts of Maja Lisa’s life I realized that it was almost impossible to understand without learning more about Swedish history and culture. There was one word I kept returning to in my research and I believe it is key to better understanding my family’s story. The word is hor. 

David Adolf Constant Artz (1837–90, Dutch) Mother and Child in the Dunes

Jonas Frykman, professor of ethnology at Lund University, has written extensively about the old peasant culture in Sweden and the particular situation of women. In 19th century Sweden, according to the Church, sexual relations were only permissible within wedlock. If the parties were not married to each other it was classified as hor, fornication. A woman who was a party to hor became known as a hora which translates–imperfectly– to the English word whore. Frykman writes that the term “whorein the old peasant society had a wider range of meanings than it does today. It was not simply synonymous with the word prostitute, someone who performs sexual services for payment. It was a technical term for any woman who had sexual relations outside of wedlock. It was also certainly used as an insult to describe not only an immoral woman but also her children horunge (whore children) or her partner, a horkarl (whore man). The social sanctions were usually severe and the shame could stick to people, entire families, for the rest of their lives, making them effectively outcasts.

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