Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages

Stephen A. Mitchell offers the fullest examination available of witchcraft in late medieval Scandinavia, drawing on extensive sources ranging from the Icelandic sagas to those much less familiar to the nonspecialist: legal cases, church frescoes, law codes, ecclesiastical records, and surviving runic spells.

Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages

Stephen A. Mitchell

2010 | 384 pages | Cloth $49.95 | Paper $24.95
Religion | Anthropology
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Witchcraft and the Past
Chapter 2. Magic and Witchcraft in Daily Life
Chapter 3. Narrating Magic, Sorcery, and Witchcraft
Chapter 4. Medieval Mythologies
Chapter 5. Witchcraft, Magic, and the Law
Chapter 6. Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Gender
Epilogue: The Medieval Legacy

Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This study examines the responses in the legal, literary, and popular cultures of the Nordic Middle Ages to the belief that there existed people capable of manipulating the world through magical practices. To date, there have been no comprehensive evaluations of Nordic witchcraft beliefs between 1100 and 1525, whereas studies of Scandinavian witchcraft in the eras both before and after this period abound. The reasons for this situation are many. In large part, it is explained by the tendency for many of the late medieval materials, such as the Icelandic sagas, to be appropriated to discussions of the much earlier Viking Age; moreover, there is a view among some specialists that nothing much happened with respect to Scandinavian witchcraft before circa 1400.

I argue, on the contrary, that much was happening and that an evaluation of this important meeting ground of church doctrine and vernacular belief systems in the period between the Viking Age and the early modern era has long been a desideratum, both for the study of witchcraft in Scandinavia itself and for the study of witchcraft in Europe more broadly. The current work thus presents an account of developments in witchcraft beliefs throughout Scandinavia in the later Middle Ages, of how elite and nonelite, native and imported constructions of witchcraft evolved during the centuries before the Reformation, an era of profound and widespread changes that set the stage for the early modern crazes.

A phrase like "Nordic witchcraft," especially when framed by specific dates, suggests a highly bounded entity, a set of orthodox views held by a homogenous culture, but nothing could be further from the truth. What we know and what we can reconstruct about the world of Northern Europe from the early Iron Age through the Middle Ages says that it was always a heterogeneous and dynamic world, and, importantly, seen from the perspective of the people we tend to think of as "Scandinavians" or "proto-Scandinavians," a world in which their neighbors, the Sámi, with their shamanic practices, played significant roles, as recent research has emphasized. Moreover, as the Nordic world expanded during the Viking Age, leapfrogging its way across the North Atlantic islands, Norse settlers and travelers came into contact with yet another shamanism-practicing culture when they established colonies in Greenland, western outposts that lasted throughout the Middle Ages. Likewise, their eastward expansion brought them into greater proximity to Finnic and other peoples, whose cultures too had echoes of shamanism. And it should be borne in mind, as regards the variegated nature of the Nordic cultural region, that these events took place across a stretch of the earth roughly comparable to distances across North America.

At the same time, that Scandinavia was drawn into the Christian ambit by the beginnings of the new millennium meant that the cultural construction of such concepts as magic and witchcraft was increasingly shaped under thinking developed in other parts of Europe. By the later Middle Ages, ideas about such matters reticulated between the local Scandinavian population and adjacent vernacular cultures, especially in Hanseatic-influenced cities with large foreign settlements (e.g., Bergen, Copenhagen, Stockholm). In other words, there is in one sense no such thing as "Nordic witchcraft," but there are recoverable outlines of an evolving set of more or less similar beliefs held by the Scandinavian-speaking peoples of the Middle Ages, and it is in that sense that I intend the phrase "Nordic witchcraft," even when I have not elaborated the problematic nature of the expression.

The time frame 1100-1525 is naturally both artificial and subjective but does reflect certain important criteria that tend to bundle around these boundaries: in the European context, the dates capture the legal reforms that took place circa 1100 and the early thirteenth-century shift in the church's thinking about the nature of witchcraft and magic and the relationship of these phenomena to diabolism and heresy (e.g., the oft-cited Vox in Rama of Pope Gregory IX in 1233); at the other end, the date reflects the beginnings of the Reformation (e.g., Martin Luther's excommunication in 1521). Within the Scandinavian context, Christianity is reasonably well established in elite circles—at least—throughout Scandinavia by 1100, and it is first in the thirteenth century that contemporary Nordic documents become available in large quantities. And, of course, the Nordic region was deeply transformed by the early sixteenth-century Reformation, a period in which major political, religious, and linguistic developments mark a break with the medieval past. I have used the somewhat arbitrary year of 1525, because it is at approximately this point that the dominant political map of Scandinavia is set for the next three centuries with the establishment of a Swedish kingdom clearly independent of Denmark.

Many of the residents of this region were descendants of the Nordic pirates and adventurers who traveled, raided, traded, and settled widely throughout much of the known world during the so-called Viking Age, but this emphatically is not a book about Vikings. It does, however, depend in large part on a great medieval literature that centers on events—sometimes factual, sometimes mere literary confections—set in the Viking Age. The sheer brilliance of these texts, and especially their uncanny ability to make the medieval world seem so accessible, can be an attractive nuisance, to use the lawyer's term of art. An extraordinary medieval literature, often well informed by tradition, the sagas are nevertheless not mirrorlike reflections of the Viking Age but rather something akin to forerunners of the historical novel. No one would, by way of a parallel, hope to use the weird sisters from the opening of Macbeth (ca. 1605) as source material for eleventh-century Scottish witchcraft beliefs rather than those of Jacobean Britain. Yet in the Old Norse field, mining an Icelandic saga known only from post-Reformation articulations in order to comment on the tenth century does not automatically seem so improbable or problematic.

That is not to say, however, that the remarkable work done in interpreting the sagas in the light of folklore, archaeology, philology, and other frameworks has not done much to encourage our confidence in the sagas as sources and shown how critically important they are as parts of a larger cultural puzzle. As a number of earlier studies have carefully combed through these texts, identifying their testimony to the various qualities the thirteenth and later centuries attributed to Nordic magic and witchcraft, I have avoided repeating that process yet again here. Instead, I want to demonstrate how and to what extent medieval Icelanders actively used the concepts of magic and witchcraft in their literature and, more narrowly, how witchcraft and its practitioners are employed to project a sense of the past, of the remote world of pagan Scandinavia.

Determining the best means for presenting the complicated, interlaced evolution in clerical and popular cultures about witches in the centuries between the Viking Age and the Reformation presents a challenge. In structuring this monograph I have eschewed the more obvious chronological approach—its directness appealing at first blush, of course, but fraught with its own complications—and instead embraced an approach in which the various chapters are organized around specific idea complexes. Thus, although the chapters are not meant to be limited to, or by, types of source material, they do often reflect concentrations of certain genres—literature, laws, and so forth. Chapter 1 surveys the available materials on, and approaches to, the topic; further, it reviews the status of magic in pagan Scandinavia, as well as its represented value in the conversion of the Nordic region. The nature and usefulness of magic in daily life, in both Christian and pagan contexts, is the subject of Chapter 2, which also reviews the major arenas in which magic was used, namely, romance, fortune, health, weather, and malediction. Chapter 3 examines how medieval Nordic authors represent, and use, witchcraft and magic in narrative materials, not only in the Icelandic sagas, but also in histories and other forms of courtly and ecclesiastical literature. In Chapter 4, I take up late medieval mythologies developed in the Nordic world about the nature, powers, and habits of witches. Chapter 5 examines the rich materials about witchcraft contained in normative documents, such as the provincial laws, as well as the documented cases of witchcraft prosecution from medieval Scandinavia. The complex relationship between gender and the construction of witchcraft in medieval Scandinavia is the subject of Chapter 6. And, finally, in the epilogue I survey the developments in the medieval period in Northern Europe, with a focus on how these changes help establish the framework for the witch-hunts of the early modern era.

As regards nomenclature, it should be noted that there are important differences in the contemporary world between the geographically derived designation "Scandinavian" and the more inclusive "Nordic," an adjective whose usage embraces with greater ease the non-Indo-European cultural and linguistic traditions of the region, Sámi and Finnish in particular, and does not so readily pigeonhole Icelandic and Faroese traditions. On the other hand, the terms are so thoroughly intertwined in standard English usage, and offer such an excellent opportunity for stylistic relief, that I use them interchangeably and mark meaningful differences in materials that are Germanic versus non-Germanic, insular versus noninsular, and so on with explicit designations. Similarly, in the interest of clarity, I have generally used what are strictly speaking anachronistic terms such as Danish, Norwegian, and so on, even where the cultures and polities under discussion were not always consonant with the modern national states. At the same time, I have tried to respect the political realities of the Middle Ages where there have been important postmedieval changes in boundaries (e.g., the modern Swedish regions of Skåne, Blekinge, Halland, and Bohuslän). As regards the spelling of personal names, no single rule works perfectly. I have generally normalized names to Old Norse standards for periods before the mid-fourteenth century or so but, for later periods, regularized them according to rules of the dominant national language, orthographic anachronisms notwithstanding.

No less difficult has been the question of what terms to apply to the phenomena scrutinized in the following pages. The very sensible concerns raised by scholars who prefer employing native terminology like trolldómr and galdr rather than "witchcraft" and "magic," for example, are not lightly dismissed; yet at the same time, this debate, so familiar to students of folk narratives, has another side, one which argues that although using native terminologies has its advantages, it also removes the Nordic world from the growing international discussion of such topics. Moreover, because this study is keyed to the later Middle Ages rather than the pre-Christian era, and especially given the increasing influence of the church in shaping these issues, employing the vernacular terms, where many of our documents use Latin terms such as maleficia, would be forced and anachronistic. In the hope of resolving this issue favorably, and with due attention to both the native traditions and the international context, I have generally used standard English terminology followed by the Nordic or Latin terms in parentheses where the exact phrasing can be deemed significant.