Reel Norden : Nordic Film & History

Day of Wrath -- Chronology/Events

Day of Wrath relates the experience of Anne Pedersdotter who was put to death as a witch in the late sixteenth century. From a historical standpoint the film does not represent the figure of Anne Pedersdotter accurately, as will be described below. In contrast the film does provide an accurate representation of the play, Anne Pedersdotter.  Information regarding witch trials historically and as depicted in the film will also be addressed below.

Who is Anne Pedersdotter?

Anne Pedersdotter exists in three forms: as a character in the film Day of Wrath, as the title character in the play Anne Pedersdotter, and as an actual historic person. Anne Pedersdotter as depicted in the film and play is a young woman who is married to a much older man, Absalon Pederson Beyer. Absalon’s son, Martin, returns home to visit his father and new step-mother and Anne and Martin begin a lustful relationship where Anne is portrayed to be a very sexual woman pursuing her new stepson. It can be inferred that she resents her husband for taking away her childhood, having been forced into marriage at a young age. When Absalon dies, Anne's mother-in-law accuses her of witchcraft, while Martin promises Anne that he will never leave her. Anne is publicly denounced as a witch, at which point Martin abandons her and she is left to accept her fate.(1)

Scholars have pointed out that the film and the actual trial of Anne Pedersdotter were very different. The setting represents one difference. Anne Pedersdotter was a Norwegian, but the language of the movie was Danish. However, during the seventeenth century Norwegians did speak a mixture of Danish and Norwegian. Anne's final trial and execution took place in 1590, as opposed to the film, which was set in 1623. Finally, the death and trial of Pedersdotter is very different in the film than the actual events that took place in 1590. Anne Pedersdotter was married to Absalon Pederson Bayer, a Lutheran minister and humanist scholar who was a teacher at the University of Bergen. Anne was charged with witchcraft in 1575, for killing a Bishop (her husband's uncle) in order for her husband to become Bishop. Her husband was able to have those charges dropped, but died later that year. In 1590, the case was reopened and new charges were also brought up against Pedersdotter. The charges included: putting a man into a coma, inflicting sickness on a man, and the death of a young boy.(2) The trial did not end in favor of Anne's life, even though she denied the accusations. She died by being burned at the stake in 1590.(3)

What Happened During a Witch Trial?

The trial of Herlof’s Marte portrayed in the movie is fairly similar to the reports of what witch trials were like in Scandinavia during the sixteenth century. Accusations were usually made toward a local resident and then an interrogation by a jury would begin. These juries usually began with an interrogation, and if the interrogators could not get the accused to confess they would begin torturing the accused. The interrogators would begin suggesting the type of witchcraft they thought the accused performed. Finally, a court would determine their fate. The options included denunciation (rare), or punishment (often death).(4) In the film it was very clear that the interrogators of Herlof’s Marte used pain and torture to get her to “admit” to witchcraft through their suggestion. This was a common practice through witch trials across Scandinavia. 

Who was Accused and Why?

The social setting in the sixteenth and seventeenth century is significant to why some were accused of witchcraft and others were not. The witch may have been responding to social or economic pressures when she cursed at her neighbors/enemies, also sorcery and witchcraft accusations allowed people in the society to resolve conflicts between themselves and their neighbors. It was also for many an explanation of misfortune in their everyday life. According to the book Witch Hunts in Early Modern Europe by Brian Pavlac, the study of these people that were accused is challenging because documentation is limited. Information regarding age, social class, or the circumstances of the charges is usually missing. The name and gender of those accused is most of what was documented. Because of the lack of documentation, the history and what is known about witchcraft tends to be generalized. Not only were the accused documented with limited information, but so were those who testified against them. During this time period in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, people who were of a high rank were able to accuse witches more easily than members of the lower class. It would not be surprising to speculate that the higher class would not want their witch accusations and trials recorded for fear of other’s knowledge.(5) 

Another important element of the historical context for witchcraft accusations was the rapid social and economic changes occurring at this time. Starting in the early fifteenth century, and ending in the eighteenth century, the population increased dramatically, but there were also a lot of epidemics that transformed the population. Mercantile and agricultural capitalism were introduced, family life was transformed, new morals and values were proclaimed to accommodate a changing world. This process of change had a huge impact on the society and witchcraft prosecutions.  The most important impact of all of these situations was increased and widespread anxiety. When there is high anxiety present throughout a society in a changing time, it is very common and easy to find blame in others, hence accusations of witchcraft.(6)

The majority of the people that were accused were female, some of the reasons for that were because many women acted as healers at that time period, like Herlof’s Marte in the movie. Some of those treatments could be seen as magical for someone and therefore interpreted as sorcery. People at that time also believed that women were morally weaker, and more sexually inclined than men due to the image of women being more pervasive in medieval and early modern European culture. It is also true that witches were not defined by their sex, there were some men accused with the most common reason being listed as political sorcery. In the middle ages, men practiced sorcery as a way to increase their political sorcery, most commonly through rituals. It was thought that by practicing magic, one could advance politically, this term was coined political sorcery. It makes sense that men were the ones accused of political sorcery, because women were not involved in politics the way men were at that time. However, political sorcery is not the only accusation that has been listed for men, the next most common was treason. Treason was most popular at the height of the witch hunt era.(7)

Though not every element of Day of Wrath is historically accurate, as outlined above, the film provides a window into social and moral attitudes common in early modern Scandinavia.

(1) Day of Wrath, Film, directed by Carl Th. Dreyer (1948; Denmark: Palladium Productions, 1948), DVD.
(2) Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt In Early Modern Europe (London ; New York : Longman, 1987), 188-89.
(3) Brian A. Pavlac, Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials (California: Greenwood Press, 2009), 175.
(4) Louise Kallestrup, “Lay of Inquisitorial Witchcraft Prosecutions in Early Modern Italy and Denmark,” Scandinavian Journal of History 36, no. 3 (2011): 266-69, accessed February 2, 2017,
(5) Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt, 117-19.
(6) Ibid., 119.
(7) Ibid., 125-26.
Written and edited by Anna Buan, Ulrik Sagbakken, Morgan Kelly and Katie Tuel.

This page has paths:

This page references: