Economic Botany

, 57:403 | Cite as

The witch trials of finnmark, Northern Norway, during the 17th century: Evidence for ergotism as a contributing factor

  • TorbjØrn Alm


During the 17th century, Finnmark suffered the worst witch trials on record in Norway; at least 137 persons were tried, and about two-thirds were executed. A late 17th century manuscript by district govenor H. H. Lilienskiold provides details of 83 trials based on contemporaneous sources. More than half of these provide evidence of a potentially important role of ergotism in triggering persecutions. In 42 trials, it is explicitly stated that witchcraft was “learned” by consuming it, usually in the form of bread or other flour products (17 cases), in milk or beer (23 cases), or a combination (two cases). In the cases involving milk, several witches testifed that some kind of black, grain-like objects were found in the drink. Medical symptoms compatible with ergotism were recorded in numerous trials, including gangrene, convulsions, and hallucinations; the latter often explicitly stated to occur after consumption of foodstuffs or drink. The majority of the convicted witches were females of Norwegian ethnic origin, living in coastal communities where imported flour formed part of the diet. The few, largely self-supporting Sámi affected by the witchcraft trials were mainly men, convicted, for example, carrying out traditional shamanic rituals. All flour available in Finnmark during the late 17th century was imported. Rye (Secale cereale), which is especially prone to ergot infection, formed a major part of the imported grain.

Key Words

ergotism Claviceps purpurea witch trials Norway 

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Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden Press, Bronx, NY 10458-5126 U.S.A 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • TorbjØrn Alm
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of botany, Tromsø museumUniversity of TromsøTromsøNorway

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