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Nordic Witchcraft in Transition: Impotence, Heresy and Diabolism in 14th-century Bergen

Stephen A. Mitchell

Scandia, Vol.63:1 (1997)

Introduction: Within the orbit of witchcraft, what is the relationship between sexuality, heresy, and diabolism? Since the early history of Christianity in Europe, these topics have increasingly come to be viewed “like three sides to a triangle,” to use Evans-Pritchard’s famous formulation concerning Zande witchcraft, oracles, and magic. This symbiosis, already in evidence in the early Middle Ages, intensified as the later medieval world experienced an ever increasing eroticization and diabolization of witchcraft. Whereas accusations in the earliest reliable sources suggest relatively simple maleficia, such as drying up cows, raising storms, and murder, the charges of the early modern period maintain that these same crimes, and much worse, are now committed by the sabbat-attending, baby-murdering, licentious harlots into which the medieval strigæ have been transformed. Age-old slanders, especially slanders involving sexual license, which had traditionally been used against groups at odds with the dominant society – at first, against Christians themselves, and later, against the Cathars, Waldensians and other heretics – were recycled to fit the emerging image of devil-worshiping, congregational witches. In Scandinavia, this transformation is most notable in the “‘Journey to Blakulla” complex that develops already by the early 15th century, but there is a much earlier Nordic case from 1324-25 that brings together some, at least, of these items, and raises interesting questions concerning the association of witchcraft with heresy, diabolism, and issues of sexuality in the Scandinavian context.

Our understanding of the European witchcraft phenomenon in all its manifold details – its accusations, crazes, and so on – has undergone remarkable reevaluation in recent decades, and certainly the study of Nordic witchcraft has been profoundly influenced and energized by it. Overwhelmingly, however, the numerous recent studies of the witchcraft phenomenon in Scandinavia have focused on the post-Reformation situation, where the extent of the persecutions is great, the imprint of elite witchcraft ideology imported from the Continent readily apparent, and the documentation and data substantial. Witchcraft in the Viking Period and the Middle Ages, on the other hand, has proved a largely elusive topic, generally being seen as a shadowy survival of Norse heathendom.

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