After 1650 – and thus long before the official day of reckoning for witch-belief during ‘the possession of Thisted’ in 1696-98 – a marked drop in the numbers of witch- trials took place. On an average Viborg Landsting now had only two or three of this type of case a year, and the Jutland High Court judges grew more and more sceptical. One of them, the Professor of Mathematics, Villum Lange, wrote to Peder Schumacher (the later Griffenfeldt) in 1670:

‘During the past few days we have had a crowd of women brought before us, accused of sorcery. We have condemned a number of them to the stake; but because they are so foolish and simple-minded we have recommended to the court that the case should first be brought before His Majesty for appeal … One of them confessed to us herself that she had talked with the devil; but whether it was melancholia or some other form of fantasy, or was the honest truth, God alone knows. To me she appeared to be a person in her second childhood.’

No wonder that rumours soon began to circulate that this High Court judge ‘was siding with the sorceresses and saying that no sorceresses existed.’ Towards the close of the century the common people were complaining that the Jutland High Court judges never condemned anyone to the stake any more, and that was the reason for there being so many sorceresses in Jutland.

But it was only among the educated uper clases that attitudes were changing. Among ordinary folk the need for witch-trials continued to be felt far into the future, and when the authorities would no longer agree to hear this type of case, people several times took the law into their own hands. In 1722 some peasants at Grgnning on Salling lynched a witch by burning, and in 1800 the last murder of a witch occurred at Brigsted in the neighbourhood of Vejle. Not before the increasing prosperity of the end of the nineteenth century did the grounds for upholding the grim philosophy of witch-belief diminish. Another factor, doubtless, was the great movement of population in connection with industrialisation, which must have helped to break down the strictly-held norms in local communities and to make people more tolerant towards each other. But the truth is that as yet we know too little to enable us to explain why belief in witches disappeared so rapidly in most parts of Denmark, while in a few remote corners of the country it persisted right into our own time.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark” (1982)


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