The last burning of a witch in Denmark

HISTORY – Published by DR.

If you understand Danish and are interested in how society treated women and people who had some alternative ideas, then I can highly recommend reading this story. Especially on the 23rd of June, when Danes celebrate midsummer and the Feast of Sankt Hans by burning an effigy of a witch.

I went to the national archives to read the official documents from the late 17th century (I should pause here: To turn the pages of a book that someone neatly wrote with inc +300 years ago is highly fascinating – and in Denmark the archives are open to the public, so there is really no excuse to not go. GO!). After several hours there, various experts helped me understand the documents and put them into context.

Burning of a witch in Bern. Uknown artist, 1700-1800, Zentralbibliothek Zürich. Cover image of the story is a witch burning in Amsterdam 1571, Jean Luyken, 1686. Credit Dansk Folkemindesamling ved Det Kongelige Bibliotek.

The story begins with an old woman pissing in the gate of a farm. And it ends with that same woman being burned on a fire. Not alive, since the king – in an act of mercy – rules that she has to be decapitated before being thrown on the fire. They gave the woman half a pot of wine before she met her executioner. Two other women got thrown out of Denmark (the weren’t much evidence against one of them but she was still thrown out because of her “bad reputation”). A fourth woman died in prison.

It was a hard story to write because I hardly had any details to help build a story. No smells, colors and sounds, very few descriptions of people and so on. It was tempting to add a few dramatic details here and there but that is not how journalism works. So the story is a bit more fragmented than I’d like it to be.

It is a story about a society entering what we have later defined as Enlightenment (or an elite entering Enlightenment, since the belief in magic and witches – and lynchings – continued well into the 19th century in rural parts of Denmark).

The process got more bureaucratic since all death penalties had to be approved by the king, and with a growing skepticism in society more people were willing to fight back and accuse the accuser of defamation. In short, it got much more expensive and risky to burn other people.

I hope you either enjoy the story or go to your national archive and start digging. It is mind-blowing!

In the past, some women had to go through the ‘water test’ also called ‘swimming’. If she floated, it was proof that she was a witch, if she sank, she got pulled out of the water with a robe and (maybe) cleared. This image is from a German publication 1584. The method was never officially recognized by the Danish authorities.
Credit Dansk Folkemindesamling ved Det Kongelige Bibliotek.

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