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XIV: Fourteenth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law
August 5 – 11, 2012 (Toronto, Canada)
Qui facit adulterium, frangit fidem et promissionem suam: Adultery and the Church in Medieval Sweden
This paper focused on adultery and the church in medieval Sweden. In 1442 a woman was accused of adultery and murdering her husband. She managed to free herself from the accusation of both accusations. If she had been found guilty, she would lose her morning gift. 11 years later, the not-guilty verdict was upheld by the courts as her husband also never had accused her of such. It is very hard to come by texts on adultery. In Sweden, adultery was already an offence when Sweden was Christianised around 1000 and courts had jurisdiction over sexual crimes.
Who was allowed to accuse? The first mention of adultery dates to the first half of the 13th century Adultery belonged to the ecclesiastical sphere at this time with the fine for adultery going to the bishop. In East Gothia, the law belonged to both jurisdictions a mixed secular and ecclesiastical system with the fines going to the king and the bishop. 1345, the adulterer had to pay an addition fine to the church. In the countryside, the some bishops heard and adjudicated adultery cases. Between 1522-1527: 64 cases were brought before the bishop and only 12 were sexual crimes but nothing remains recorded on their outcomes. Some marriage disputes involved accusations of infidelity and incest and the Provost of the diocese heard these cases.
Older canon law procedure was clear: the court investigated the claim and a suggestion was made but by the 12th century, the inquisitorial procedure was replacing the accusatorial procedure. A person could bring charges against someone based on suspicion or rumour and anyone could be an accuser. The husband could accuse based on suspicion alone and didn’t face charges of calumny if he was proven wrong. However, the wife could leave him if the charge was proven false. If the husband caught the wife and her lover in the act, he could kill them and parties unable to prove their innocence had to undergo public penance. Swedish society took a dislike towards this new inquisitorial procedure because it was invasive. Swedish people believed that adultery was something to be kept private within the family these new laws challenged that and gave the church too much power.
Mid-14th century town law only permitted spouses to accuse each other – anyone else would be fined. There are instances of townspeople breaking in and catching adulteresses in the act but it this had to be overt in order for them to accuse her. Swedish officials rarely judged cases of adultery in person – rural deans were in charge of judging sexual crimes. The episcopal prosecutor could not accuse a wife unless the husband accused her first, or unless a child was born of the illicit union or the adulterer moved in with their lover. Swedish wives rarely accused their husbands of adultery.As time passes towards the later middle ages, it gets worse in Sweden with the increase of these “ex officio” procedures and an increase in executions.