- A Lutheran Plague. Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century by Tyge Krogh
This fascinating study attempts the impossible: reading and interpreting the inner thoughts of a relatively small group of people distinguished by aberrant behavior on the basis of that behavior and often of their own testimony. Nonetheless, the author constructs a plausible case for religiously motivated murders by pious individuals who feared hell if they committed suicide, for which no repentance was possible, but who despaired of life and instigated their own deaths by the inevitable execution that would follow their committing murder.
Tyge Krogh focuses on suicide-murders in Denmark but cites literature on similar crimes in Stockholm and Hamburg; evidence from Catholic, Reformed, and other Lutheran territories, as well as England, is sketchier. The phenomenon seems to be associated with the rise of “Pietism,” although recent scholarship shows that many characteristics of Lutheran “Pietism” had been present since the later sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. Since all European Christians of the time condemned suicide, the specific elements of the Pietist attitude toward taking one’s own life need to be placed in that larger context.
These perpetrators who made themselves victims of the executioner’s sword were mostly victims previously, largely younger woman of lower economic/social status, although male soldiers and prisoners also resorted to murder to remove themselves from difficult situations. The former murdered children, almost exclusively, occasionally perhaps to get revenge on a tyrannous master or mistress, but perhaps more because of their vulnerability. No research tools enable us to ascertain why children were singled out as victims. The fact that these cases often produced printed ballads recounting the stories of the murderers, offering a sort of fame, even at high price, may also have played a role. Krogh outlines how “Pietists” in Denmark used publications for the pastoral care of the population; by 1740, accounts of the confessions of murderers had become a part of popular devotional reading.
The ballads often reflected the confessions of the condemned and reveal their turn to Christ after the crime. Court records disclose the murderers’ discouragement before the crime, their fear of hell should they commit suicide, and the comfort they had received from pastoral care awaiting execution. Closer analysis of theological and popular religious literature reviewed here could have enhanced this study though the very small group under study limits the validity of any conclusions. Since penitential practice is what is at the center of the problem under study, a chapter on the particulars in the several European confessions would have illuminated just what factors distinguish the Danish context. Comparisons with testimonies from actual suicide attempts that failed would perhaps divulge more about the interplay of the perceptions of faith with the actions even of those suffering from despair.
Krogh does offer some theological analysis of the situation, too often without documenting his claims. That weakens this analysis since at points it suggests more [End Page 168] a repetition of common modern misimpressions about early-modern European Christianity than a source-based command of the period (e.g., a brief treatment of “the soteriology of the medieval and Catholic church” [pp. 116–20]). That does not diminish helpful observations, however, such as the impression that “the Lutheran church was more engaged than the other confessions in the clerical preparation of the prisoners sentenced to death” (p. 115).
Krogh’s attempt to demonstrate how popular piety intersects with criminal justice and marginal, troubled lives in the early-modern period may raise as many questions as it answers, but it is a commendable, helpful venture into the difficult terrain of motivation and mind-set in belief systems of the past. Krogh and others will, this reviewer hopes, deepen and broaden research that addresses such questions.