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Constructing witchcraft in early modern denmark. Emotions, Gender and Crime

The Carlsberg Foundation's 'Semper Ardens' Fellowships within the Humanities and Social Sciences | 09/04/2019

Devils leading the damned to Hell, depicted as the terrifying Hellmouth, church mural in the parish church of Nørre Herlev, 1460-1480.

The study is built around the thesis that witchcraft was constructed by means of a range of media in which gender, emotions and experience acted as important drivers, and in which Christian IV’s notion of what constituted a ‘good’ Lutheran king were centre stage. At this interface, the persecution of those suspected of witchcraft was not simply possible, but unavoidable.

By PhD Louise Nyholm Kallestrup, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Southern Denmark

The fear of ‘the others’, of those who consort with evil spirits to destroy the very roots of our existence, has prompted – and continues to prompt – people to put aside rational argument and commit the most monstrous acts. Fear has many incarnations. In our day, it is the ‘evil’ terrorist, who attacks western targets and therefore has to be countered. The powers-that-be and the media contribute in their various ways to feeding this fear. Four hundred years ago people feared the Devil. They thought that Judgement Day was at hand and that this meant the Devil was active on Earth, where he sought allies, practitioners of the black arts, for his final confrontation with God. In Europe about 100,000 people were persecuted in this way as followers of the Devil, often after accusations from their neighbours or even from their own children.

The rise of the European witch hunts

Belief in the secret arts – both malignant and benign – was common both before and after the era of the witch trials, but, seen through a historian’s eyes, fear of witchcraft resulted in its massive persecution and brutal punishment for only a relatively short period.

In the kingdom of Denmark, about 1,000 people were burnt at the stake, of which about 95% were women. Seen in proportion to the country’s population, this makes Denmark one of the most significant arenas for the persecution of witches. More than half these cases were conducted during the years from 1617-1622.

Even though this period of persecution reached its peak in Denmark in the fourth decade of Christian IV’s reign, the project argues that it was preceded by a process of construction where witches went from being figures who fell under pro forma legislation to becoming, in the eyes of the country’s rulers, the primary enemy of Christian society. While the increase in persecution in Denmark between 1617-1622 has been relatively well-documented in the research, a ‘blind spot’ still remains with regard to the process that built up to it. In other words, we still lack substantive accounts of how witchcraft was constructed as a crime in Denmark and of the king’s role in this process. This is the aim of my project.

Denmark stands as an important example of the way in which the fear felt by the rulers of the country led to hundreds of court cases against suspected witches.

Christian IV, Pieter Isaacsz 1614, Museum of National History, Frederiksborg.

Experiencing witchcraft in the 16th century

In my project I work with the concept of ‘experiencing witchcraft’. I argue that the second half of the 16th century represents a certain atmosphere in which the fear of witches had exceptionally good conditions to grow. a) the condemnation of Catholicism as the ‘cult of the Devil’ and the idea of the Pope as the Antichrist, which emanated from both Danish and international reformers. They strongly believed that the 16th century was indeed the Latter Days. As a consequence, themes as God’s wrath, the Devil, sin and penitence were constantly communicated to the populace to prepare them for the afterlife. b) the young king Christian IV’s attempts to create a self-image as the kingdom’s pater familias. Finally, c) the distinctive Nordic popular perception of evil people, in particular evil women. More specifically, the study is built around the thesis that witchcraft was constructed by means of a range of media in which emotions and experience acted as important drivers, and in which Christian IV’s notion of what constituted a ‘good’ Lutheran king were centre stage. I argue that at this interface, the persecution of those suspected of witchcraft was not simply possible, but unavoidable.

News about widespread persecution of witches in Trier in the 1580’s also reached Denmark, and in the 1590s a series of trials broke out in Copenhagen involving the king’s sister and her husband, the Scottish king James VI. The events in Denmark later made James VI initiate a massive witch-hunt back in Scotland.

By applying new theories of the history of emotions and experience with an emphasis on gender, the project offers not merely a study of Danish witchcraft persecution from an international perspective, but at least as importantly, an account of one of the most prominent kings in Danish history and of his perception of his office as Lutheran monarch.

Not an isolated island

My work relies upon systematic studies of archives and libraries, and it is due out as a monograph in early 2021 (Routledge).

The frontispiece of a news pamphlet by an anonymous writer reporting about the gruesome deeds of witches in Trier and Cologne in the 1580s. Danish Royal Library.

The book is based on an in-depth study of a whole range of sources such as the scrutiny of the private letters of Christian IV, legal documents, court records, pamphlets, sermons, and images – all of which contribute to laying bare the traditions and events that play their part in shaping and developing witchcraft as a crime.

Receiving a Semper Ardens grant has meant that the project’s in-depth as well as international dimension can be significantly expanded. It has provided me with an opportunity to pursue my collaborations with colleagues abroad to an even greater extent. Like today, Denmark in the 16th century was not an isolated island. A whole range of events played a part in constructing witchcraft as a crime and had an influence, in particular on secular authority. Transmission of ideas from Germany to Denmark as well as between Denmark, Scotland and Norway are crucial to understand the process of constructing witchcraft.

History shapes the way individuals and collectives think about themselves and of the world. National and collective narratives about historical events, kings and processes are used (and misused) almost every day in the media, by politicians and in public debate. As a historian I find it a crucial quest to enlighten people – whether politicians or the attentive audience at a public lecture - about the complexities of the past and how it may be interpreted.

Own Works

”Wrath and Fear. The Marginalisation of Witches in Early Modern Denmark”, in Feldt Laura & Jan Bremmer (eds.) Marginality, Media and Mutations of Christianity, Peeters, Leuven, (2019).

“I disse sidste tider. Pamfletter, troldfolk og Guds vrede i 1500-tallets Danmark”, in Bo Kristian Holm, Nina Javette Koefoed & Sasja  Emilie Mathiasen Stopa (eds.), Religion som forklaring, Aarhus University Press 2018.

”Kind in words and deeds, but false in their hearts”. Fear of evil conspiracy in late sixteenth-century Denmark”, in Barry, Jonathan, Owen Davies & Cornelie Usborne (eds.), Cultures of Witchcraft. Palgrave-MacMillan, 2018.

Agents of Witchcraft in Early Modern Italy and Denmark, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.