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Från ära till skuld: Bönder och överhet i edgärden

Journal article
Authors Sari Nauman
Published in Scandia
Volume 77
Issue 1
Pages 62-81
ISSN 0036-5483
Publication year 2011
Published at Department of Historical Studies
Pages 62-81
Language sv
Keywords edgärd, ära, homosocialitet, 1600-tal, Sverige
Subject categories History and Archaeology, Legal history


This article examines the institution of oath helpers in seventeenth-century Sweden using the example of the Marks hundred. In the Middle Ages, edgärd (lit. oath-token; compurgation or wagers of law) was central to Swedish law, and it is often held up as an example of popular-oriented justice intended to resolve conflicts more than to determine the matter of someone’s guilt. It was abolished in 1695, but it has often been assumed that it had fallen into disuse long before, and that its abolition was a formality. However, there have been no substantial studies to support this assumption. Instead, historians have followed the lead of the seventeenth-century legal experts and their criticism of the institution, and have linked its abolition with advent of the experts in the hundredal courts following Sweden’s judicial revolution. The article tests the assumptions about the institution of oath helpers by studying how it was employed in practice, and asking whether the experts’ attitude was reflected in its more restrictive use in the hundredal courts. Is it correct to assume that the district-court session chairmen, the authorities in this instance, were the driving force behind this?

Of the 158 cases recorded in the Mark hundredal court’s judgement books, 132 occurred before 1653, a year which seems to have been something of a turning-point. Thus far the study confirms the historians’ view that the institution of oath helpers was a grass-roots, conflict-solving measure, and shows that it was used as a pre-emptive measure by defendants in order to restore their honour and place in public life. With one lone exception only maledefendants used oath helpers, since if women were accused of a crime their husbands or fathers, who had greater authority in the district courts, would swear for them. The institution of oath helpers should thus be seen as a homosocial arena. However, 1653 saw a change, and the article outlines two reasons for this: the appointment of educated judges to the hundredal courts; and an ordinance that altered the entire tenor of the oath itself. Together these two facts meant that the institution of oath helpers became a means to determine guilt rather than to resolve conflicts, which meant that it could no longer be used to restore a defendant’s honour. Instead of being used proactively and at the defendant’s prompting, oath helpers became something required of the defendant by the judge where the case rested on partial evidence; ultimately it came to imply guilt. The study shows that the peasantry, both women and men, set out to undermine the legitimacy of the institution by increasingly questioning the defendants and oath helpers’ honesty. It became more and more difficult to find willing oath helpers.

The article shows that educated hundredal court judges effectively curbed the use of oath helpers, but it was not only for this reason that it was abolished. It was the peasantry’s interpretation of the changing circumstances of the oath that finally eroded its usefulness and made its abolition unavoidable.

Page Manager: Webmaster|Last update: 9/11/2012

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