Excerpt: Courage and Grief

The following is an excerpt from Courage and Grief: Women and Sweden’s Thirty Years’ War (January 2018) by Mary Elizabeth Ailes. Ailes is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She is the author of Military Migration and State Formation: The British Military Community in Seventeenth-Century Sweden (Nebraska, 2002).

Chapter 2: Peasant Women and Conscription

The Christmas and New Year holidays of 1647/1648 should have been a joyous time for Ingrid Eriksdotter and her family. Eriksdotter and her husband, Ingemar Larsson, were an upstanding peasant couple. They farmed land in the Kalland region of Sweden that the nobleman Harald Stake owned, their older son lived in Gothenburg, and their younger son, thirteen-year-old Sven, was working as a servant on a nearby farm called Aleback that Stake also owned. The holidays, however, turned out to be filled with discord and ultimately tragedy. During the holiday break, Eriksdotter and Larsson’s son Sven came home to visit his parents and brought with him stories of difficulties and troubles. While staying with his parents, Sven told them that his employers had mistreated and abused him. According to the boy, the farmer beat Sven, and the farmer’s wife threatened to use witchcraft on him.1

Toward the end of Sven’s vacation, his parents told him that he had to return to Aleback, but Sven refused and said that he planned to travel to Gothenburg to stay with his brother. His mother, however, told him that he had to return to his workplace. If he did not, Harald Stake would be displeased with them, they could be removed from their farm, and Sven’s father would be conscripted into the army. Sven begged his parents not to make him to return to Aleback, even taking hold of his mother’s hands and crying. His parents tried to calm him, but he continued to cry as they insisted that he had to return to his workplace. After this encounter Sven’s parents left to go to church. While they were gone, Sven went into a bedroom and hung himself.2

After the discovery of Sven’s body, local officials visited Aleback to investigate the circumstances surrounding his suicide. During their visit they questioned another boy working at the farm who testified that Sven had performed his work well. They also questioned the farmer and his wife, who both agreed that what Sven had said about them was true. However, the farmer said that he had hit the boy once for not performing his duties correctly and his wife said that she had never meant to scare Sven by threatening to use witchcraft on him. Instead, she had only meant it as a joke.3 On January 18, 1648, the local court met to discuss the circumstances of the case. Neither the farmer who had employed Sven nor his wife attended the court’s meeting, which meant that they could not be questioned further at that point. Instead, the court’s main concern was whether Sven could be buried in sacred ground because the law prohibited suicide victims from receiving such privileges. The court turned this matter over to the local bishop, who ruled that Sven was an innocent child who should receive a proper burial.4

Sven Ingemarsson’s tragic story represents the terrible burden that the constant conscription associated with the Thirty Years’ War placed on peasant families in Sweden. Because serving in the army was usually a death sentence, peasants throughout Sweden and Finland developed tactics to lessen the impact of conscription on them. In Sven’s case his mother was torn between her desire to save her husband from conscription and her wish to placate her son, who was in a dismal work environment. The conflict within Sven Ingemarsson’s family was not uncommon during this period in Sweden. Numerous families had to weigh the options of how to avoid conscription or lessen its impact on them and at the same time recognize that achieving their goals could involve sacrificing the well-being of particular family members.

Notes:

  1. Liedgren, “Bondenöd i stormaktstid,” 74.
  2. Liedgren, “Bondenöd i stormaktstid,” 74.
  3. Liedgren, “Bondenöd i stormaktstid,” 74.
  4. Liedgren, “Bondenöd i stormaktstid,” 75–76.

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