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The Case of Boel Olsdotter

Lyberg, Ingrid LU (2014) HISK01 20141
History
Abstract
By the mid-19th century, syphilis had been established for several hundred years as a disease associated with immorality, from which the poor in particular suffered. Although hospitals for the treatment of venereal diseases existed in most European countries, there would be no cure for another hundred years, and physicians battled unsuccessfully against disfigurement and death. The lock hospital in Lund was dirty and crowded, housing poor and desperate patients.
Boel Olsdotter is first mentioned in the lock hospital journal of 1856 in January, although she, and her child, are not admitted until October. It is noted that Boel is responsible, through her child, of infecting four women from Hyby parish with syphilis. The reason why Boel’s... (More)
By the mid-19th century, syphilis had been established for several hundred years as a disease associated with immorality, from which the poor in particular suffered. Although hospitals for the treatment of venereal diseases existed in most European countries, there would be no cure for another hundred years, and physicians battled unsuccessfully against disfigurement and death. The lock hospital in Lund was dirty and crowded, housing poor and desperate patients.
Boel Olsdotter is first mentioned in the lock hospital journal of 1856 in January, although she, and her child, are not admitted until October. It is noted that Boel is responsible, through her child, of infecting four women from Hyby parish with syphilis. The reason why Boel’s child needed wet-nurses was most likely that she was illegitimate, and that Boel therefore worked harder than a new mother normally would, which affected her ability to produce milk. No records remain of the process by which the wet-nurses were selected; only the end result, that they were infected with syphilis, and infected their families in turn, is discernible.
Boel had her child in Esarp, where she had been living for some time. Yet the church records omit any mention of her until 1855, when she moved to Hyby. An unmarried mother, in the old agrarian community, was viewed as a threat and was treated harshly. According to Jonas Frykman, the need for female labour was higher in southern Sweden than in the rest of the country, and social sanctions against unmarried mothers were therefore somewhat more lenient than elsewhere. The whore, as the unmarried mother was likely to be termed, was, however, subjected to humiliation, even if she was not completely cast out from society. As Frykman notes, it was important, in the old agrarian community, to separate the unmarried mother from decent society. To this end, she was forced to wear a whore’s cap, a head-dress which differed in appearance from that of the married woman. Other sanctions designed to identify, separate, and shame the unmarried mother were based on Church ritual. Although not officially endorsed by Church doctrine, these types of sanctions were firmly planted in popular culture. Ritual humiliation is, in Foucauldian terms, a manifestation of power. Mary Douglas, too, describes social sanctions as a response to actions challenging power structures. She notes that the only societies in which social sanctions against sexual transgressions do not exist are those in which male power is absolute, and immorality instantly results in harsh physical punishment or death. This is very rare; most societies boast a wealth of repression rituals to regulate behaviour which is considered indecent.
Boel’s social status was always low, and bearing an illegitimate child brought her to the very bottom of society. Her syphilis infection further tainted her as a woman of low morals, and what is more, she was reduced to living in the poorhouse. Both socially and economically, then, Boel’s status was as low as can be. Whatever her inclination was, in terms of ambition and resourcefulness, she was most likely always hampered by her place in society. If she, in her youth, possessed any cultural capital, in the shape of beauty or charm, she may have been able to use it to her advantage, but, when she became a whore, a social outcast, Boel's destiny was set. Her capacity to influence her own situation was limited to the ability to choose – if she could get work – her abode. However, once she was in the poorhouse, she could not get away and seek work until her daughter died – external circumstances, sometimes mere accidents, determined her life. (Less)
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author
Lyberg, Ingrid LU
supervisor
organization
alternative title
Venereal Disease and Single Motherhood in 19th-Century Skåne
course
HISK01 20141
year
type
M2 - Bachelor Degree
subject
keywords
syphilis, venereal disease, illegitimate child, church rituals, Kurhuset, lock hospital
language
English
id
4449921
date added to LUP
2014-06-12 12:53:32
date last changed
2014-06-12 12:53:32
@misc{4449921,
  abstract     = {By the mid-19th century, syphilis had been established for several hundred years as a disease associated with immorality, from which the poor in particular suffered. Although hospitals for the treatment of venereal diseases existed in most European countries, there would be no cure for another hundred years, and physicians battled unsuccessfully against disfigurement and death. The lock hospital in Lund was dirty and crowded, housing poor and desperate patients. 
Boel Olsdotter is first mentioned in the lock hospital journal of 1856 in January, although she, and her child, are not admitted until October. It is noted that Boel is responsible, through her child, of infecting four women from Hyby parish with syphilis. The reason why Boel’s child needed wet-nurses was most likely that she was illegitimate, and that Boel therefore worked harder than a new mother normally would, which affected her ability to produce milk. No records remain of the process by which the wet-nurses were selected; only the end result, that they were infected with syphilis, and infected their families in turn, is discernible.
Boel had her child in Esarp, where she had been living for some time. Yet the church records omit any mention of her until 1855, when she moved to Hyby. An unmarried mother, in the old agrarian community, was viewed as a threat and was treated harshly. According to Jonas Frykman, the need for female labour was higher in southern Sweden than in the rest of the country, and social sanctions against unmarried mothers were therefore somewhat more lenient than elsewhere. The whore, as the unmarried mother was likely to be termed, was, however, subjected to humiliation, even if she was not completely cast out from society. As Frykman notes, it was important, in the old agrarian community, to separate the unmarried mother from decent society. To this end, she was forced to wear a whore’s cap, a head-dress which differed in appearance from that of the married woman. Other sanctions designed to identify, separate, and shame the unmarried mother were based on Church ritual. Although not officially endorsed by Church doctrine, these types of sanctions were firmly planted in popular culture. Ritual humiliation is, in Foucauldian terms, a manifestation of power. Mary Douglas, too, describes social sanctions as a response to actions challenging power structures. She notes that the only societies in which social sanctions against sexual transgressions do not exist are those in which male power is absolute, and immorality instantly results in harsh physical punishment or death. This is very rare; most societies boast a wealth of repression rituals to regulate behaviour which is considered indecent. 
Boel’s social status was always low, and bearing an illegitimate child brought her to the very bottom of society. Her syphilis infection further tainted her as a woman of low morals, and what is more, she was reduced to living in the poorhouse. Both socially and economically, then, Boel’s status was as low as can be. Whatever her inclination was, in terms of ambition and resourcefulness, she was most likely always hampered by her place in society. If she, in her youth, possessed any cultural capital, in the shape of beauty or charm, she may have been able to use it to her advantage, but, when she became a whore, a social outcast, Boel's destiny was set. Her capacity to influence her own situation was limited to the ability to choose – if she could get work – her abode. However, once she was in the poorhouse, she could not get away and seek work until her daughter died – external circumstances, sometimes mere accidents, determined her life.},
  author       = {Lyberg, Ingrid},
  keyword      = {syphilis,venereal disease,illegitimate child,church rituals,Kurhuset,lock hospital},
  language     = {eng},
  note         = {Student Paper},
  title        = {The Case of Boel Olsdotter},
  year         = {2014},
}