Authority and dependence in Nordic households
In early modern Nordic eras, the family and the household seem to have been going through the same developments that took place in north-western Europe and, perhaps, in all of Europe. In the general obsession of the time with creating order out of the chaos of nature and the universe, the family and the household became key units. Establishing a clear hierarchy between genders, generations, and social classes within households produced order, if not in reality then at least on the level of ideology, which was reflected in the tax records and Communion books. This orderly hierarchy received its most famous expression in the Protestant Catechisms’ ‘HaustafeF or ‘Table of Duties’, which emphasised the nuclear family, patrilinear kinship systems, and primogeniture based on respect for elders.14
How far these legal and ideological conceptualisations spread in tangible ways of living experienced by people in everyday life is another matter. When reading court record descriptions of what people did, it seems that behind the façade of catechisms and tax records of nuclear families, people lived in a great variety of households well into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries.15 Likewise, while legal and religious ideologies emphasised one type of grounds for hierarchy and authority (based on lineage, age, and gender), there were also other conflicting grounds for hierarchy and authority, namely those based on ownership, ability and responsibility, strength and even things like persuasiveness, popularity, and likeability. Normative ideology and social teachings did not represent the whole spectrum of what people actually thought of their family members or their places in the community. While it is clear that all levels of society saw the system as fundamentally and self-evidently unequal and hierarchical, the grounds for that hierarchy changed according to social class, age, and the situation at hand. The job of the household master and father was a balancing act, and masculinity was always under threat.16 Therefore, there was a fine line between the legitimate power of the household’s master and father, and the dishonourable misuse of that power.
The court cases for violence against parents in seventeenth-century Finland have several features in common. The abuse of parents mostly took place when parents and their adult offspring lived close to one another, either in the same household or in close proximity, and when the children were just entering adulthood - a slow and gradual process depending not only on age but also on marital and occupational status as well as economic independence and having children of their own. As Jonas Liliequist proposes, authority is one of the key issues here, and considering the nature of the crime, this shouldnot be surprising.17 Behind the conflicts over authority lay several contradictory ideologies about authority, hierarchy, family, and the economy.
Everywhere in Europe, as James Sharpe notes about the relationships of modern British parents and offspring, problems between the normative authority of parents and the conflicting expectations of the offspring were anticipated, even feared, especially in relation to the offspring’s desire to access their parent’s wealth and the parents’ attempts to restrict their children’s lifestyle and their choice of marriage partners.18 Garthine Walker notes that those who committed parricide were usually represented as lacking in compassion and saw the parent as an obstacle - to inheritance, marriage, or freedom.19 Both Sharpe and Walker discuss British pamphlet literature and newspaper articles on parricide as normative views on the matter. Early modern English parents sought to avoid problems using educational - mainly religious - and disciplinary means. Tales of murder and parricide presented a discourse of a sinner whose lesser sins - such as drink - gradually led to greater sins, which in turn led to the gallows. Through confession and punishment, the same narratives nevertheless end in a reimposition of Christian moral order and hierarchy within the family as the God-given foundation for a stable society. This attitude, emphasising the Christian views of the time, was still clearly visible in Finnish newspaper narratives on parricide in the mid-nineteenth century. The finest religious virtue was to embrace one’s social or family status and humbly submit to duties included in it, and work was understood as the most secure remedy against sin.20
Early modern people also connected violence against parents with the ultimate sin, but in a less strictly defined way. Rather than hoping to gain total freedom and inheritance through it, violence against parents presented offspring and parents with a continuous struggle for independence and authority. The abuse of parents tended to take place when the younger generation was at the stage of gaining independence but was prevented from doing so. What prevented the growing independence could only be partially attributed to the patriarchal ideology of early modern society since that ideology predominated more widely in society than just among those who ended up committing the rather infrequent crime of abusing a parent. Rather, it seems that far more tangible factors were at play, such as economic dependency, the close cohabitation of labour-intensive agriculture, and the limited availability of land, or in some cases the sheer physical disability of the offspring. At the same time, non-economic grounds for authority and hierarchy also existed. Liliequist points to two other ideological and practical grounds: civil status - being married and having a household to head versus being unmarried and living in a household headed by someone else - and age.21
Christian morals or the lack thereof had lost their explanatory power in the reporting of parricide cases by the end of the nineteenth century.22 By then, psychological and ethnic factors rather than moral ones had come to dominate as the main forms of ‘othering’ the perpetrator. Foreign peddlers, the physically marked, the insane, and other outsiders were repeatedly referred to
European parricide and parent abuse 157 as cultural and literary figures strong enough to supplant the historical matri-cidal or patricidal offender. New scientific theories and international political contexts influenced interpretations of murder both in newspapers and literature. These in turn formed a sort of a popular or cultural ‘verdict’ that became as significant as that of the court.23
In Finland today, the discourse on sin has been replaced by the topics of mental illness and substance abuse. In March 2017, the Iltalehti, a national Finnish newspaper, reported a 45-year-old man killing his parents because he had misunderstood some bank transactions and thought that he would lose his house and the farm, where he lived with his parents, so he decided to spare them the suffering and humiliation that this would cause and killed them with an axe in their sleep. The court immediately ordered a mental health examination, and the newspaper speculated about the offender’s insanity at length.24 In July of the same year, another national newspaper, Aamulehti, published a news story titled ‘Delusional man kills his father and holds his mother imprisoned for days’.25
Nevertheless, at least in the public media, the failings of both morality and reason are still present, especially concerning violence against parents, even and especially in cases where the sobering presence of death does not guide newspaper reportage. But moral failures have acquired ambiguous meanings and they no longer serve as an explanation but only as part of the description of an offender’s general personal failure. For example, TV news in Finland reported a case in Varsinais-Suomi district court where a man was indicted for 32 different crimes, mostly against his ex-wife, but also including a break-in to his parents’ house, where he forced his parents into their living room, demanded computers and money by threatening to hit his father with a hammer and, at the same time, pulling his mother’s clothes and spitting on her. The parents bribed him with some cans of petrol to go away, but he returned two months later and ensconced himself in his parent’s living room until the police were called to remove him. The events were not explained either by morals or by insanity but only described the 32 events between crime, foolish clowning around, and misfortune, including a detailed description of how he had caused water damage at the local police station by blocking the toilet with toilet paper and, as his last offence, written ‘messages’ on the back window of the police car when he was taken into custody. These media reports were presented less as moral outrage but more as jokey entertainment.26
Shame and victim blaming in violence against parents’ cases
It has been noted in contemporary research that a considerable amount of violence against parents, be that by a teenage children against their middle-aged parents or by adult offspring against elderly parents, remains hidden. Even cases that come to public attention often note that the family has gone to great lengths to hide the matter or have withdrawn their evidence due to either protective or fearful feelings towards the offspring.27 This is likely tohave been even more true in history. Although most historical cases of violence against parents in Finland and Sweden nominally dealt with a single instance of abuse, witness statements often revealed endemic violence. Likewise, parricides were usually preceded by a long-term conflict. The same is true in roughly a third of parricides in nineteenth-century France: previous cases had sometimes been going on for years before the escalation of the conflict into murder. Although often publicly known about in the community, the endemic abuse within families seldom reached the courts.28 The harsh penalties carried by the crime were not likely to encourage a parent to seek public help if that help was likely to result in the children’s death, except in cases of extreme emergency. Even when they knew, as the Swedish parents must have known, that such extreme penalties were rarely carried out, they avoided courting trouble. However, the related emotions of fear and shame were felt by the parents and possibly all parties concerned.
The history of both violence against parents and parricide present a paradoxical picture of formal condemnation of all types of abuse as the ultimate sin on the level of ideology and in legal codification, yet at the same time combined with victim blaming and shaming in everyday practice. When early modern cases of non-fatal violence against parents in Finland were investigated, there was a strong tendency to blame the parents and the poor upbringing they had provided. Attention was directed at possible provocation by the parents, which was often used as a reason for mitigating the sentences of the offspring. A most prominent example of this was a case of a drunken mother who had provoked her crippled son by excess violence.29 In another case, the court noted that the father had previously tried to accuse his son of violence and other serious crimes without any grounds, and as a result the father was to be punished by having to run the gauntlet according to the talion principle, still in use in seventeenth-century Sweden, which punished a false accusation with a punishment corresponding that of the original accusation.30 In these cases, a parent who was unable to uphold the hierarchy without excess violence or trickery was held at least partly responsible in the Court of Appeal. This points to a more pluralistic and reciprocal understanding of hierarchy than the usual emphasis on rigid patriarchy would suggest. A similar trend has been seen in early modern England, where the moral failures of children were seen to have been caused by overindulgence by parents, although parricide cases resorted to parent-blaming less openly than non-fatal incidents of violence.31
It is noteworthy that early modern court records also show that parents fared better in court cases if they were able to display a range of expected ‘parental’ emotions and rhetoric. Parents were expected to claim that they loved and wanted to protect their offspring, and to behave calmly and modestly. Similarly, the offspring sought to prove the opposite, that parents had not protected them or calmed things down but had instead provoked them. The rhetoric of familial emotions and parental provocation both point to the reciprocal nature of patriarchal ideology. Parents in early modern Nordic
European parricide and parent abuse 159 societies were expected to present familial emotions and take responsibility, and showing emotions complying with these expectations clearly helped in both winning a court case and in obtaining the respect of the community in general. On the other hand, failing to display resent parental emotions could have also led to loss of respect even within the formal framework of patriarchy.32