- Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Society: Finland and the Wider European Experience
When Agata Pekantyär’s husband died in 1670, leaving her with two young daughters, his relatives threw her off the family farm. She built a cottage on the common land, resisted attempts to drive her from it and challenged her parents-in-law’s will. The quarrels lasted for the next four years but the [End Page 198] court ruled in favour of Agata’s daughter, as the child of the eldest son. The relatives, compensated but resentful, moved out and Agata moved in. Within a few months she was accused of practising magic. She paid the customary 40 marks fine. Next year she was charged and fined again. The following year, she was sued for slander by the woman she had earlier claimed had taught her how to make women infertile. Another fine. In 1676, she was fined for forcing her 13-year-old daughter into bed with a man. The couple married and her son-in-law defended her with force when the court ordered her publicly whipped for witchcraft. In 1686, a male neighbour sued her for slander for saying he used magic and accused her of riding to the witches’ Sabbath on a calf. Her son-in-law was fined for magic. In 1698, Agata paid costs after a rumour that a certain woman had flown to the Sabbath on a broom was shown to have originated in Agata substituting the woman’s name for her own. Over these thirty years, Agata appeared regularly in court on matters connected with her management of her daughter’s farm.
Clearly we are far from the terror and torture of the witch-hunts of Germany, Switzerland and France. Apart those involving Agata, there were 26 cases of magic and witchcraft in the village of Ulvila between 1674 and 1698. None of them resulted in anyone being burnt at the stake, nor do they appear to have greatly affected the defendants’ reputations or livelihoods. Rather they formed part of the interminable squabbling of the villagers over resources and reputation.
Raisa Maria Toivo uses Agata’s case to examine the position of women in Early Modern Finland in relation to the wider scholarship on gender and witchcraft. She argues convincingly that excessive emphasis has been placed on a modern/pre-modern dichotomy and on the power of patriarchal rhetoric.
Toivo’s comprehensive review of gender and witchcraft theories provides a useful scholarly service but at the expense of the book’s focus. How far can we can extrapolate from one instance? Agata’s case provides an excellent basis for examining the status of women and the functioning of both village society and the legal system in seventeenth-century Finland. Women were not merely oppressed by men and confined to the home as domestic servants. Rather they were valued and accorded status for the contribution their work made to the household and the community and were active participants in society at these levels. Agata’s case also demonstrates the banal way witchcraft accusations were used in village power struggles and demolishes the image of the witch as a marginalized outcast doomed to destruction. However, it [End Page 199] cannot provide, as Toivo seems to imagine, a critique of scholarship on the murderous waves of witch burning since really it has nothing to do with them. If anything, Toivo’s study would seem to support theories that religious conflict, state-building and an inquisitorial judicial system were crucial factors in the witch craze, and that consequently where these were absent or weak the earlier pattern of witchcraft/slander accusations as relatively inoffensive weapons in rural politics continued.
For this reason, I would have welcomed closer examination of the shift to an inquisitorial system as part of the strengthening of the Swedish state, leading to increased prosecution of beneficent magic. The relationship of Agata...