It is not easy to calculate how many people were burned at the stake as a result of the witch-trials in Denmark, since many of our old legal archives have been lost, and because a complete survey does not yet exist of the source material that is available. However, systematic examination currently being carried out by two young historians, Karsten Sejr Jensen and Jens Chr. Johansen, of Danish witch-trial records from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively, has already indicated that previous calculations greatly exaggerated.

From my knowledge of the results they have so far achieved I would estimate that the total number of victims countrywide during the period from the Reformation in 1536, up to 1693, when the last legal witch- burning took place, was less than a thousand, and that the maximum number of this type of case tried was two thousand. For it is a fact that there were quite as many acquittals as there were sentences, particularly after 1576, when all death sentences in sorcery cases were referred for appeal to the Landsting. Examination of the court rolls from Viborg Landsting for the years 1612-1637, a period when witch-persecution reached its peak as a result of Christian IV’s ‘Decree concerning Sorcerers and their Accomplices’ of 1617, shows that the Jutland High Court judges imposed considerably milder sentences than the local courts: out of 225 persons who were recommended to be burned at the stake, 114, or slightly fewer than half the total number, were acquitted. The Viborg Landsting statistics during this 25-year period reveal some other interesting details of the witch-trials. 90% of the accused were women, only 10% were men. Distribution into age-groups shows that two-thirds of the witches were old (which in those days meant having reached the age of 50), slightly less than a third were between 25 and 50, and only a very few were under 25. The general assumption that the majority of witches were solitary persons does not hold water here. Most of them were married (59%) or widowed (8%) and only 6% were unmarried; but to these figures must be added, it is true, 27% whose marital status is unknown. The authority of Viborg Landsting covered the whole of Northern Jutland from Kongeaaen to Skagen, an area including 24 market towns and about 950 country parishes. When we recall that at that time every town and every parish had its witches and ‘wizards,’ it is actually surprising that the Jutland High Court judges could find holding an average of 10 cases a year to be sufficient. It is true that only three-fifths of the rolls are extant, but even if this is taken into account and the average calculated as 17 per annum, it is still only 17 per 1000 of the thousands of witches free and at large in Jutland.

The reason for so few being brought to justice was that a trial was a costly undertaking. A person who brought a case before the courts had among other things to take responsibility for the subsistence of the accused if he was being held in prison, and when there was also a risk of the case resulting in an acquittal owing to insufficient evidence, many hesitated to instigate proceedings. It could also happen that the case might be turned against one so that one found oneself accused of defamation and calumnious allegations. Therefore quite frequently witches were combated by other means, for instance their powers could be destroyed by counter-magic. Trial was therefore seen as the last resort. On the other hand many would ‘tag along’ when someone in the parish finally decided to serve a summons on a notorious witch. There could be as many as 50 witnesses in a witch- trial and the charges could involve damages and bewitchings that went back twenty or even forty years. The most frequent accusation levelled against the witches claimed that they brought sickness on able-bodied persons in their prime. In the country they could be charged with damages to cows and horses as well as milk and butter production. In coastal districts they were blamed for ruining the fishing, and in the market towns for harming trade. In short, when the witches were at their deeds of darkess, the very foundations of existence were at risk, people’s naering og bjaering, their very livelihood, as an old phrase has it.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark” (1982)


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