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Under the Law of the Father

Written by: Eva Hættner Aurelius |

“In the year 1629 on the 18th of August, a Monday morning at seven o’clock, I, Agneta Horn Gustafdatter, was born into this wicked, and for me miserable, world in the town of Riga, to my greatest distress and tribulation. My Lord God, help me [in] this my onerous world in this my childhood and later, for as long as it pleases God to grant me [this], to pass through my miserable and wretched life in a Christian manner and indeed with able patience, all that pleases Him to enjoin me of his fatherly will, so that I might always be content with His will, which in all things is sovereign.”

D. Custos (1550-1612). Copperplate engraving, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

Thus wrote Agneta Horn (1629-1672) by way of introduction to her autobiography, which she called “Description of my wretched and much-troubled wanderings”. Parallels have been drawn, with good reason, between Agneta Horn’s image of herself and the plight of Job, just as between the prayer books of the day and Agneta Horn’s text. It is a ‘memory of lament’ recounting the story of a criticised, neglected, and little-loved girl who nonetheless manages to assert her will and give her opponents as good as she gets. The heart-wrenching account of the girl’s battles with wicked aunts, both paternal and maternal, are garnished with prayers to the Almighty Lord beseeching him to help her through her tribulations.

Agneta Horn’s manuscript was discovered by Sweden’s first woman doctor philosophiæ, Ellen Fries (Dr. Phil. in history, 1855-1900). Sigrid Leijonhufvud (1862-1937) published the text in 1908, in part according to Ellen Fries’ editorial guidelines. It was thus given the title Agneta Horns lefverne (The Life of Agneta Horn).

In terms of form, Agneta Horns lefverne (The Life of Agneta Horn) largely resembles a family book. Arranged annalistically, it records the most important events in the private life of an aristocratic family: births, deaths, marriages and baptisms. The pattern for an entry follows that used by Agneta Horn in her introduction: first, a detailed specification of time and place of birth; next, the name; and then a prayer, often asking God to allow the child to live, to prosper and pursue a devout life.

One of the functions of the family book, the outline of which Agneta Horn followed, was to keep an account of private events of legal significance. Priority was therefore given to events that played a role in issues of inheritance and the purchase and sale of property, above all of land. The central figure in every family unit or family line was the father. The father’s side of the family was often the most important, and it was usual to highlight paternal inheritance with regard to name and the records kept in a family book. Agneta Horn thus called herself “Agneta horn gustafdåter” (Agneta Horn, daughter of Gustaf) in order to point out that she was the daughter of Gustaf Horn af Björneborg (1592-1657), one of King Gustaf II Adolf’s military generals. Agneta Horns lefverne is fundamentally an account of Agneta Horn’s relationship with her father and with paternal power, of the identity as dutiful daughter that she and the times considered to be the ideal. Between the lines we can read disgreement between Agneta Horn and her stepmother, Sigrid Bielke (1620-1679). Objectively, the conflict revolved on the inheritance from Agneta’s father; ideologically, it revolved on Agneta Horn’s obedience to her father’s resolve.

Agneta Horn’s autobiography has interested scholars of literature and of language alike. Literary historians Magnus von Piaten, Johnny Kondrup and Stephen A. Mitchell have studied the self and the world reflected in the text, while linguists such as Gösta Holm have studied the work as a unique source of information on seventeenth-century Swedish spoken language.

Morning Gift

In seventeenth-century Swedish society, men – from the aristocracy, at least – inherited twice as much as women, and only men could be presented with land as an entailed estate. Seemingly, therefore, this system guaranteed that men were the main landowners. There were, however, holes in the arrangement, the most conspicuous being the result of the so-called morning gift. It was common practice among wealthy aristocracy for the husband, prior to marriage, to transfer a significant proportion of his property, sometimes as much as half, to his future spouse. If the husband died first, this morning gift passed to his widow, otherwise it was inherited by the children after the death of both parents, and it was therefore often seen as a maternal legacy. This system worked in several ways to the women’s advantage – one factor being that they often survived their husbands. Agneta Horn also reaped benefit from the morning gift arrangement. In 1627, Gustaf Horn presented his first wife, Kristina Oxenstierna (1612-1631), with a very large morning gift. His generosity can probably be explained by the fact that Kristina Oxenstierna was the daughter of the most – after the king – powerful man in Sweden, Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna af Södermöre (1583-1654), someone with whom Gustaf Horn would quite definitely have wished to be in good standing. However, in 1631, Kristina Oxenstierna died suddenly and unexpectedly in Stettin. At that point she and Gustaf Horn had two children, Agneta and Axel, both of whom, according to Agneta Horn’s account, were left in Stettin in the company of a neglectful servant girl. Ebba Leijonhufvud (1595-1654), married to Gustaf Horn’s brother, took over supervision of the children. Agneta Horn refers to her as the wicked and harsh aunt Ebba. Even though the children had now been placed in a proper home, Axel Horn died soon after – his death caused, according to his sister, by their aunt making them sleep with the window open in the middle of winter.

For all intents and purposes, Agneta Horn was orphaned because her father was taken prisoner by the Germans following defeat at the Battle of Nördlingen in 1634. He was not released from captivity until 1642, when Agneta was thirteen years old. In the intervening years her maternal grandfather, Axel Oxenstierna, had managed Horn’s property and, it could be imagined, watched over his granddaughter’s interests. Kristina Oxenstierna’s large morning gift was now young Agneta Horn’s inheritance.

In 1644, Gustaf Horn married Sigrid Bielke, but they had to wait until 1650 before they had a child that seemed likely to survive. In this situation, Axel Oxenstierna and Agneta’s husband, Lars Cruus af Gudhem (1621-1656), made sure Gustaf Horn gave an assurance that Kristina Oxenstierna’s morning gift would remain Agneta’s property, and that upon Horn’s death official legal administration of the estate would be undertaken. Gustaf Horn died suddenly in 1657, and then the question arose as to how his property should be divided between, on the one side, his widow and her two daughters, and, on the other side, Agneta Horn.

Obedience to the Father

The family constellation vis-à-vis Gustaf Horn’s two broods of children was the crux of a dispute that underlies Agneta Horn’s account of her life. The key ideological question of the dispute turned on the extent to which Agneta Horn had been a dutiful daughter who had respected and loved her father.

Agneta Horns lefverne has previously been interpreted as a reckoning with her own tale of suffering and an account of divine justice, or as the manifestation of a young woman with a strong ego. If it is dated to 1656-57 and linked to the inheritance dispute which soon erupted between stepmother and stepdaughter, however, then the justification elements become clear, and it has to be seen as an apologia. Agneta Horn’s statements can easily be read as responses in a dialogue with an accusatory voice. The charges were primarily those of disobedience and covetousness.

There are two estimated datings of Agneta Horn’s text: that it was written in connection with the dispute about her marriage, which would date it to c. 1646; and that it was written after she had been widowed, which was in 1656. In the current account, the text is linked with her father’s death in 1657 and the resulting dispute over her inheritance; in Inför lagen: kvinnliga svenska självbiografier från Agneta Horn till Fredrika Bremer, Lund 1996, Eva Hættner Aurelius details her reasoning for this later dating.

Positions in the conflict had already been taken up just one month after Gustaf Horn’s death in July 1657. At this point one of his secretaries, Jacob Johansson, attested that a Will had been drafted for Gustaf Horn, but that he had not yet signed it at the time of his death. This draft existed as a sworn copy, signed by another of Horn’s secretaries.

M. Haas. Etching, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

In this context, the interesting aspect of the documents is that they state they are Gustaf Horn’s voice and resolve, and that this resolve will reduce Agneta Horn’s inheritance. As the case then stood – without a Will – the law stated that Agneta Horn would inherit the whole of her mother’s morning gift and a proportion of the property acquired by Horn the widower, plus, furthermore, just as much of the rest of Horn’s real estate and personal belongings as each of her two stepsisters. The reason for such an exceptionally large inheritance was partly that Agneta Horn was the only child of the first marriage and partly because Horn did not have any sons from his second marriage. In the unsigned draft Gustaf Horn would have substantially reduced this inheritance, his reasoning being: as Kristina Oxenstierna brought no inheritance into the marriage, apart from a dowry, then all personal property, “jewellery, gold, silver and all other chattels of whatever name such might be”, had been acquired by Horn and Kristina Oxenstierna together. It was therefore no more than right and proper that Sigrid Bielke should get all the movable goods. Secondly, Agneta Horn had been given a very expensive wedding: it had cost 8,000 riksdaler (rix-dollars). An equal sum should thus be deducted for the two stepsisters. Thirdly, Sigrid Bielke had brought an inheritance to the estate, and the stepdaughter should not be given a share in that property. And, finally, the draft Will stated that in fact Agneta Horn had been able to rob Gustaf Horn, due to his period in captivity, of her brother Axel’s share of the inheritance from their mother’s morning gift. This half share should have gone to their father instead.

This last point was a strong accusation: “since my poor son Axel Horn likewise departed this life some months after his poor mother, then, in accordance with Chapter Two of the Inheritance Act, I, rather than my dear daughter Agneta, should have inherited half of the brother’s share that was allotted him. I have, however, from fatherly affection, left this unchanged.” Due to the death of her mother and her brother, and due to Gustaf Horn’s imprisonment, Agneta managed to appropriate all of this. These are the three factors cited by Agneta Horn as being the great misfortune of her childhood: “And thus it happened to me at that time, that just as I had father and mother and brother and everything I could wish for, and everyone appeared to be fond of me for the sake of my father and mother, and no child was happier than I at that time […] And all my earlier happy days were then turned to bad and to tribulations for me.”

What Agneta depicts as misfortune, Sigrid Bielke depicts as favourable circumstances. In Sigrid’s opinion, Agneta had robbed her father. Agneta Horn’s petitions, on the other hand, claimed that during her father’s absence she had received “not a scrap” of her mother’s morning gift or of the movable goods. In writing her life story she sets out to draw the true picture of the young girl who had lost her parents: “And later I stayed with Mrs Ebba many a hard day and was out there with her for two years and there endured many a disagreeable and intensely painful day and hour and so much hardship that I cannot make sufficient complaint. For mother had passed away and left me, and father and all mine [were] so far away that there was no other than my very severe aunt, Mrs Ebba, who could take me into her home.”

Agneta mentions time and again how badly dressed she had been, even though she tells us about Gustaf Horn’s wish, after he returned home from captivity, to see his daughter expensively dressed:

“And now my father was in Stockholm and was very fond of me and both shod and gloved me. And so I paid no more heed to my patched clothing, but thought that it all would be behind me. And each time my father drew up to the castle, he came into my maternal grandmother’s house and looked at me and asked how I was [and said that] if I needed anything I should but send [word] to his house and ask for it, and no one would deny me.”

In this passage Agneta Horn touches on the ideological background to the dispute with her stepmother: the issue of the daughter’s love of and respect for her father. This “filial Affection” and obedience was a cornerstone in the patriarchal mindset of the era. All children were to obey their father, and anyone who did not obey their father did likewise disobey all other authority, such as, for example, the king or God. Daughters were pawns in the game of power, influence or property. Gustaf Horn married the daughter of the mighty Oxenstierna, and he had planned, as he states in his daughter’s story, to procure friends by means of his daughter’s marriage.

Behind all of Sigrid Bielke’s accusations, and sometimes stated quite openly, lies reproach for lack of love and respect for the will of the father:

“Notwithstanding that the poor gentleman could not sign the said [document] due to the rapid occurrence of death, it is however attested that this was the last will, intention and stipulation of my poor husband, and according to the law, against which my poor dear husband’s and her poor dear father’s last will I presume she will not be able to fight with clear conscience.”

Once the legal arguments have been exhausted, Sigrid Bielke raises the emotional and moralising factors: “I would never have believed that my stepdaughter would in such a way complain of and dishonour her poor father’s executed Will and final declaration.”

Sigrid Bielke forces Agneta Horn into the province of ideology. By so doing she has posed the question of Agneta Horn’s identity. Is she a dutiful daughter? This is the central issue of the autobiography. The writer uses three methods in particular by which to demonstrate that she has loved and respected Gustaf Horn. By means of formal address she points up how much she has loved and respected her father. In addition, she constantly casts aunt Ebba and to some extent aunt Karin in the role of her adversaries in various pitched battles. By so doing, Agneta Horn avoids depicting herself and her father as adversaries, which they most likely were now and then, at least in the struggle about who Agneta should marry. Lastly, she proves her affection for her father by explaining episodes that everyone has hitherto taken as evidence of Agneta’s covetousness and lack of respect for him.

Agneta Horn made a lengthy rejection of the charges brought against her by her father and his sister:

“And he came to me and asked what I was doing. I said that I was cooking for mother. But he said: ‘What you’re making, the pigs can eat, and you too.’ But he began to curse me greatly on grounds of my covetousness, at which I initially smiled and thought that it was in jest. But then I realised that it was in earnest and became aware of whence it stemmed […]. Therefore the words made me sorry with all my heart, and especially because they have made my father suspect that I would like to have seen them all dead, something I have however never wished […]. I thus took accusations of this kind so heavily to heart that I could not keep silent, but in order to prove my utter innocence I broke into such bitter tears and answered my father: ‘I cannot think or know why my father accuses me of so great a wickedness. But I know well who it was that initiated this. God forgive those who have told my father so great a falsehood that never in all my life has entered my mind. I would wish from the bottom of my heart that God would give my father so many children and let them live so that he would find comfort in them, this I wish from the bottom of my heart. Even though I never inherited so much as the tiniest trifle from my father, I do indeed hope that my maternal grandfather will leave me enough to live on.’”

An illustration of this latter strategy is the episode of Gustaf Horn’s two stillborn babies. His wife was bedridden following the birth, which took place in 1646. On one occasion Agneta Horn laughed out loud, according to her own version because she had seen a young lad fall and as he fell he had nearly dragged aunt Ebba down with him. This paternal aunt reported Agneta’s laughter to Gustaf Horn, saying that it was caused by Agneta’s delight that her inheritance had not been reduced.

Swedish playing card

Paternal authority was undeniably at stake in the wrangle over the matter of Agneta’s future husband. Initially, Gustaf Horn, aunt Ebba and the then sixteen-year-old Agneta were apparently in agreement that Agneta should marry Erik Sparre. Agneta soon had second thoughts, however, and it seems she immediately fell in love with the good soldier Lars Cruus. Agneta Horn’s account of her struggle to get out of marrying Erik Sparre and be allowed to marry Lars Cruus instead is extremely unusual for the times: a story of ‘true love’ in which Agneta Horn defends the legitimacy of feelings. Behind this little love story lurks the charge of disobedience to her father and an attempt to defend herself against these accusations, for in this story Agneta Horn again tries to depict her aunt Ebba as the driving force – making powerful and authoritative Gustaf Horn look like the piggie in the middle. The writer cannot completely hide the fact, however, that she had set herself against her father’s wishes: “And I asked in all humility my father if I could for the sake of God be spared marriage with him [i.e. Erik Sparre]. I would obey my father like a humble daughter for as long as I lived, which I was also duty-bound to do […]. Then my father became very angry with me and asked me who was the cause that I would fail him. And whosoever made a fool of him was himself an even greater fool.”

That Gustaf Horn undoubtedly exerted more pressure than is accounted for by his daughter can be read most clearly from the following exchange between father and daughter; the final battle is being fought and Gustaf Horn unequivocally shows his hand: “and he said to me: ‘Seeing that his sister is here, then I know that she awaits an answer from me and you. And now tell me what I shall answer.’ To which I simply replied: no. Then my father said: ‘I will not give her that answer, you yourself must say it. For I will have no enemy on your account, you who I thought should procure me friendships.’”

We might well wonder how Agneta Horn dared rebel, and that she was allowed to do so. It was perhaps for the reason that, at the time,

she was guaranteed to inherit at least all of Kristina Oxenstierna’s morning gift, and possibly more, because Gustaf Horn had yet to produce children with Sigrid Bielke. Secondly, she had her powerful maternal grandfather Axel Oxenstierna on her side, as witnessed both by the documents from the inheritance dispute and the autobiography’s affectionate descriptions of her maternal grandparents. Capricious and disobedient she was, however, and she resorts to the last and irrefutable argument: I love Lars Cruus and loathe Erik Sparre. In the following passage, addressed to aunt Ebba who has accused her of preferring Lars Cruus because of his wealth, rather than impoverished Erik Sparre, she again defends herself against the charge of covetousness: “but as far as poverty is concerned, I have nothing to say against it, it might well be that it has pleased God to impose it upon me. For He can easily make a poor person rich and a rich person poor. When it pleases Him then no one can change it, and He treats both the rich and the poor as He sees fit. But then poverty does not worry me unduly. When we only love one another with all our hearts and are allowed to keep one another long and well, then a little bite to eat with love is much better than a big house with all sorts of good things when two do not love one another.” Agneta Horn’s defence strategy – to take the battle over Gustaf Horn’s legacy into the province of ideology – forced her to examine her own mind and to answer the charges brought by her stepmother. It was her father’s voice she heard, or thought she heard, and it was her father, the voice of guilt and conscience, she answered. And from this dialogue an identity was born. In the narrative we hear Agneta Horn’s voice say: ‘I was and I remain innocent.’

The similarities between Leonora Christina Ulfeldt’s Jammers Minde and the account of Agneta Horns lefverne are striking. They both manifest a plaintive and contrary disposition; they both identify with Job. Above all, they both insist that they are loyal and obedient to the Crown and to the paternal authority respectively. In reality, both are rebellious and disobedient. Both cases also display the link between, on the one hand, accusation and guilt, and, on the other, the search for identity.

God the Father

There was another father to be obeyed, respected and loved: God the Father. If she did not obey, respect and love Him, but sinned, she could be punished severely and immediately. The Lutheran orthodox view of the relationship between humankind and God was quite legalistic. God and humankind had entered into a contract by which humankind was unable to abide. Humankind had therefore incurred eternal punishment. Atonement was brought about by the death of Christ, which satisfied God’s claim for damages based on breach of contract. This straightforward doctrine was mingled with popular primitive ideas such as ‘bad behaviour brings its own woe’. For example, aunt Ebba predicted that either Agneta Horn and Lars Cruus would not have any children at all or they would produce children who were “blackamoors and pygmies”, because Agneta had been disobedient and they were both “small and black”. Agneta Horn refuted this prophecy by parading her two good-looking and fair-skinned boys. However, this simple theology became problematic for Agneta Horn when, in the course of time, she suffered the sadness of deaths and misfortune. Her son Johan died in 1652, her paternal grandfather Axel Oxenstierna in 1654, her husband Lars Cruus in 1656 and finally her father, Gustaf Horn, died in 1657. Part of her autobiography should probably be read as a theodicy.

The original meaning of the word “theodicy” is: justification of God. As a teleological term, theodicy is used to denote the problem of suffering: if God is omnipotent and loving, then why is there so much suffering and injustice in the world? The philosopher Leibniz, for example, addressed the issue in a tract published in 1710, and it was a much-discussed topic in the eighteenth century.

Agneta Horn wanted to defend God and understand her own suffering. And this she did for the most part in the section comparing citations from the Psalms of David with those from the Book of Job, resulting in a prayer book for personal use. Prayer books at the time were often composed in this way. Bible quotations were put together and used as prayers for specific occasions. This prayer-book piety was of a different variety than standard, ecclesiastical piety. It was characterised by the individual’s experience of anxiety, sense of sin and guilt and need for forgiveness, and is thus a forerunner of the pietistic philosophy. Biblical quotations presented the ‘I’ as an innocent Job who complains, defies God and pleads for help and protection from enemies. Here she is moving from the fear of punishment for her sins to the belief in God’s Providence.

In the manuscript, however, this prayer book with biblical citations is clearly separated from Agneta’s autobiographical narrative by an account of Lars Cruus’ campaigns. This information was to be available for the sermon held at Lars Cruus’ funeral and it is not a continuation of Agneta Horns lefverne. The extent to which this prayer-book section should be connected with the actual narrative is thus an open issue. What is more, it must be noted that the fundamental religious tone of the autobiographical narrative differs in part from that of the quotations: the narrative has no pronounced ‘Job-attitude’. The rebellious, questioning and doubting tone from the Book of Job is missing. Despite Agneta Horn’s many lamentations, her narrative is essentially characterised by trust, a belief in God’s Providence and omnipotence, and submission to his will. This is the case in the above-quoted prayer which follows on from the introductory details of Agneta Horn’s birth. Whether this simple trust in God was genuine or not, we cannot know. On the other hand, Agneta Horn absolutely refused to concede that she had been disobedient. God, whose omnipotence could not be questioned, had sent her suffering as a trial, and not as punishment. She maintained to the last that she had submitted to her father.

Stephen A. Mitchell views the collection of citations in Agneta Horns lefverne as part of her autobiography. In his opinion, Agneta Horn casts herself in the role of Job, and by so doing she interprets her situation after the death of her husband in the language of prayer books.

However, by using the literary form and expressive means of a family book and prayer book, Agneta Horn accepted their patriarchal world and manifested her own disobedience. She had defied Gustaf Horn, just as Job once defied God. In dialogue with her own guilt and her judgemental paternal voice, whether dealing with money or sin, she had been compelled to answer the question: “Who are you, daughter?” Agneta Horn definitely believed that she answered: “I was and I remain your obedient daughter.”

Translated by Gaye Kynoch