Maria Johansdotter is the earliest known example of a Swedish or Finnish woman who expressedly said that she loved and desired other women.
Maria Johansdotter was born in Åland in 1683. She grew up on that island. She and her step-father arrived in Stockholm late in the autumn of 1702. She only spent a short time in the city before she began working in smaller neighbouring communities. All that we know of her stems from the legal records of her trial in 1706.
In modern times Maria Johansdotter would be characterised as queer. She had been drawn to masculine rather than feminine pastimes since childhood and had always worn trousers. As she said at her trial: she would rather go into the forest to collect wood than do the dishes. But she also had other skills. At home in Åland she had taught herself to play the nyckelharpa and she used this skill to earn a living after moving to Stockholm. She spent the winter of 1703 touring the inns where she would play in exchange for bread and butter. During the spring she held down two short-term jobs, initially for two merchants and then at a farm in Åker parish, before she finally agreed to become a maid for Lars Roberg, who was chamberlain Hermann Fleming’s bailiff, at Tuna manor. This post did not last long and she quickly made her way back to the city in order to take up a post working for a master-builder she had met at Tuna. Despite her knack for “all sorts of man’s work” – even when working as a maid she tended to take on men’s duties – she did not enjoy working in the master builder’s garden. Thus it was not long before she once again began to entertain folk at the city inns, having added fiddle-playing (which she had picked up at Tuna) to her talents.
Maria Johansdotter apparently became a well-known figure in Stockholm as she made her rounds of the inns, playing her fiddle and her nyckelharpa, dressed in trousers but otherwise wearing women’s clothes. As she recounted to the court at her trial, it was during one of her performances at Brädekrogen at Kongsvedgården (royal timber yard) that one of the guests persuaded her to pass herself off as a man. This individual also provided her with suitable attire, a pass, and a clerical document provided by bailiff Lars Roberg and the pastor of Åker parish, Mr Johan Acrelius. In these documents Maria Johansdotter was named Magnus Johansson.
Perhaps Maria Johansdotter had written the documents herself. It is less likely that she convinced someone else to write them for her. Living as a man presented her with new opportunities. The Lovö sexton had just died and when the pastor, Erik Kihlmark, learned that this male individual could sing well he asked him (Maria Johansdotter) to take over these duties. Perhaps Maria Johansdotter used to sing along to her instruments when she performed in the Stockholm inns. Sextons not only needed to be honest, loyal, and hard-working, but they also had to be able to sing. Maria Johansdotter took up the pastor’s invitation, but doubts arose around her papers. She had apparently created a range of documentation. The ones presented to pastor Kihlmark were apparently written by bailiff Roberg in both his own and in pastor Arcedius’ name. When Maria Johansdotter was asked why the pastor had not signed them himself she (as Magnus) explained that the pastor had been too inebriated to be able to write his own name.
Needless to say Maria Johansdotter was never hired as a sexton, but Mörby parish cobbler Lars Jönsson did take her on as an apprentice. It soon became apparent that there were perhaps ulterior motives for Maria Johansdotter’s disguise. As part of her new-found freedom as a man she had not only begun to smoke tobacco and to drink, but she had also had “all kinds of encounters” with the household maid and had even lain in her bed. At her trial Maria Johansdotter explained to the court that as soon as she began to wear men’s clothing she decided that she would “only love beautiful girls”. As a cobbler’s apprentice she carried on travelling around for her work and courted women whenever the opportunity arose.
She (as Magnus) also began to be hired as a musician for dances and performances. One maid after another began to fall for this new musician and these attractions were mutual. Maria Johansdotter maintained that she had enjoyed “all sorts of adventures with the maids”. That is to say, she had behaved in the manner expected of an unmarried and resourceful young man. However, this was not to everyone’s delight. Some called Maria Johansdotter (Magnus) a “knutfriare”, namely someone who secretly courts maids and daughters without the knowledge of the relevant household masters and parents. Others tried to exploit Maria Johansdotter. The tenant farmer at the large parsonage drew her (Magnus) in by promising that she would be able to sleep in the barn and “have fun” with the maids on condition that she worked for a few extra days harvesting hay. However, by this time rumours had already begun to spread amongst the local maids that ‘Magnus’ was not “entirely male”. “They say that I am not adequate”, Maria Johansdotter (Magnus) told the tenant farmer, who quite unawares suggested that he “let them try” and it would probably work out.
In order to allay suspicions Maria Johansdotter (Magnus) had admitted that she had been forced to leave Tuna after making one of the local maids pregnant. Pastor Kihlmark was sceptical and wondered whether it was in fact bailiff Roberg who had fathered an illegitimate child and then blamed his manservant. The records do not reveal what others believed but in any case it seems not to have been taken any further. Rumours continued to spread as regards suspicions surrounding ‘Magnus’ true gender and finally even the cobbler heard them and asked Maria Johansdotter directly what was going on. She eventually admitted that she was “both a man and a woman yet tended toward manliness”. This answer greatly upset the cobbler. As a patriarch and master it was the custom that he would share his bed with his apprentice on their work travels. At the time it was the norm for men to share the same bed, whereas sharing a bed with a young woman was not proper conduct, and to do so with a hermaphrodite (as intersex people were known then) was even less so. Maria Johansdotter later denied that she differed physically from other women and this was confirmed by a physical examination.
At her trial Maria Johansdotter maintained that she had enjoyed intimate friendships with three maids, with all of whom she had shared a bed on several occasions. Two of these women had ‘dumped’ her after getting a ‘little too close’ to her. This was presumably what had given rise to the rumours. The court case showed little interest in determining what had happened in those cases. Maria Johansdotter herself believed that she had done no wrong given that two ‘honest’ girls who ‘lay together’ could not ‘damage’ eachother – that is, neither of them could make the other pregnant. Lars Jönsson, the cobbler, who read the Bible, interpreted things differently. He described Maria Johansdotter’s behaviour as disgusting fornication which threatened to draw God’s wrath upon the entire nation.
Nevertheless the court moved on and chose to focus on whether Maria Johansdotter had proposed to any of the maids. This particularly concerned the maid Maria Andersdotter – one of the aforementioned three intimate friends – who, unlike the rest, had not been put off. She, in contrast, had said she enjoyed greater freedom when socialising with ‘Magnus’ since she had heard that he might be a woman. As she put it, the rumour should not trouble him, he was adequate enough. She had indeed asked him herself but had not received a definitive answer. She appears to have been genuinely in love with ‘Magnus’, despite the rumours and suspicions. She began to follow him on his work travels and arranged things so that they could meet and be alone together. Their relationship did not go unnoticed and eventually pastor Kihlmark, who seemed oblivious of the rumours and had no suspicions of his own, had summoned them and asked if they wanted to marry eachother. If that was the case he would arrange for this to happen without delay. ‘Magnus’ appears to have been taken by surprise and said no, whilst Maria Andersdotter had asked “Why not? You could have a worse wife than me”. This caused ‘Magnus’ to respond “I want nothing to do with you, I want to be on my own and you should be on your own” quite coldly and then to go straight to his master to whom he asserted that he was not a man but entirely a woman. This led to dramatic developments. The pastor was informed. Maria Andersdotter threatened to kill herself and ran off into the forest with a rope. She was quickly brought home again but when ‘Magnus’/Maria Johansdotter found out she too fell apart in a similar manner. This finally ended Maria Johansdotter’s spell as ‘Magnus’ and now she had to face trial and punishment.
In 1706 Maria Johansdotter was charged not only with criminally breaking the code as expressed in the fifth book of Moses, chapter 22, verse 5: ‘A woman shall not wear man’s clothing and a man shall not wear woman’s clothing and those who do are an abomination unto the Lord’, but also and not least because of the “great unrest and confusion” that she had caused in the area and the parish by misleading other women into believing that she was a man. Her punishment was relatively gentle for the time: eight days’ imprisonment, on bread and water, and as soon as she had served this sentence and the so-called obvious church punishment had been administered she was once again a free individual. There was no stigma associated with the punishment, as there would have been if she had been condemned to be publicly whipped with a rod. What she did afterwards remains unknown. To posterity she remains an enterprising and stubborn individual who threw the current gender-norms to the wind – a female Don Juan in men’s attire.