Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Dining with the Devil

It is time for a blog post about a sad chapter of European history: The witch trials. My only known ancestor who was involved in this was my 11th great-grandfather Børger Bjerkenes, who was born in the mid-1500s and died in 1625. He is my ancestor on my maternal grandfather's side, and I find his story quite fascinating.

Børger lived at Southern Bjerkenes farm (hence his "surname", which is really just the name of his residence), and started out successfully; in the late 1500s he was the biggest landowner in the whole parish of Høland, in Akershus county just outside Oslo. He had at least six children.

In Børger's old age, his life took an unexpected turn. In the year 1624, a man named Christoffer Lauritsen, originally from Skåne in Sweden, was condemned to death for "diabolism", or consorting with the Devil; his confession, given under torture in Enebakk, named Børger Bjerkenes as one of his associates.

Christoffer claimed that Børger had gone with him to a diabolic mass in the Filefjell mountains, which forms the border between the districts of Valdres and Sogn. According to Christoffer's testimony, Børger had ridden there on the back of a sheep and brought with him six of seven pounds of pork meat and butter. At Filefjell, the two men dined with the Devil himself, along with several other men and women who were named in Christoffer's confession. All the participants allegedly rode to Filefjell on different animals; Christoffer himself claimed to have ridden there on the back of a billy-goat.

Christoffer Lauritsen was burned at the stake in 1624, probably in Enebakk.

The case against Børger Bjerkenes is the only case of sorcery known from Høland. Although Børger was accused of witchcraft, he was never actually convicted; he died before the case was brought before the court. This was in 1625, and it is not unlikely that Børger's sudden death was due to maltreatment in prison.

Convicted sorceres - or even suspected sorcerers - were, as a rule, not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground. However, Børger's children made sure their father got a plot in the churchyard after all. They paid 70 riksdaler for this privilege, a sum which would have been nearly enough to buy a whole farm.

In total, slightly more than 300 people were executed for witchcraft in Norway from 1539 to 1710. The victims were burned at the stake, often after having been beheaded first. As a wealthy man of prominent standing in his local community, Børger Bjerkenes was an unlikely sorcery suspect. Most were women, and most came from the poorer segments of the population.

Read more about Børger Bjerkenes and Norwegian witchcraft here and here (Norwegian language only).

A list of people accused and/or convicted of witchcraft in Norway can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Here in the colonial times we had the Salem witch trials. Isabella Towle (nee Austin) was a first cousin 9 times removed of mine. She was born in 1633 in Massachusetts and died in 1719 in New Hampshire at the age of 86. Here's the info. that was on her profile at

    "Isabella was persecuted for witchcraft. She and Rachel Fuller were accused in the summer of 1680 after the death of a child of John Godfrey. Rachel confessed and accused Isabella. both were committed to prison where they remained until the sitting of the Hampton Court, September 7, 1680. The court ordered that they continue in prison until bond be given for their good behavior of 100 pounds each. John Fuller became a bondsman for his wife, and Isaac Marston and John Redman for Isabella (it is likely that husband Philip was not able to raise the required bond). They were discharged at the Dover court in 1681. She was united with the church on July 2, 1699."

    I also have a second cousin (11 times removed), Mary Ayer Parker, who actually was executed for witchcraft:

    "Though there was no documented friction with any of her neighbors, nor any no prior accusations of wrong doing, Mary Ayer Parker was accused of having afflicted Sarah Phelps, Hannah Bigsby, and Martha Sprague of witchcraft. William Barker, Jr. named her in his confession on September 1, 1692, testifying that he and Goody Parker had afflicted Martha Sprague and that the two of them had ridden upon a pole and had been baptized in Five Mile Pond. Mary Parker was examined on September 2, 1692, where several "afflicted girls" from both Andover and Salem Village fell into fits. These included Mary Warren, Sarah Churchill, Hannah Post, Sara Bridges, and Mercy Wardwell. When the "touch test" was employed during the examination, the girls were "cured." Mercy Wardwell and William Barker, Jr. would also say that she had tortured Timothy Swan with iron spindles, pins, and other instruments. Mary Ayer Parker was found guilty of witchcraft on September 16, 1692 and she was executed just six days later on September 22, 1692. Interestingly, regarding Mary Ayer Parker and the fact that she had no conflicts with anyone in Andover or in Salem Village, are questions about why she was targeted, and even if she was the correct woman who was arrested. At that time, there was another woman who lived in the area who was also named Mary Parker. That particular Mary Parker had been taken to court a number of times. In 1669 she was sentenced for fornication. In 1672, the court extended her indenture to Moses Gillman for bearing a child out of wedlock. A year later, she went back to court to obtain child support from Teague Disco of Exiter. Once again she was charged with fornication and was sentenced to ten stripes. She came to trial two more times for fornication in 1676. This would be a reputation that was very bad during those Puritan times. Gossip was rampant. Was the wrong woman accused? Or, was the fact that she had the same "disreputable" name enough to cause her to be accused? There was little evidence given to convict Mary Parker and her testimony was seemingly ignored. Interestingly, the presiding officer, a man named Thomas Chandler, had once been good friends with the Parkers. But, had apparently had a disagreement with them somewhere along the line."

    There are a couple of other distant cousins that I've located who were accused but managed to survive that terrible time.