The trial against Aron Åsulsen in 1693
Homosexuality, or more precisely homosexual acts, were forbidden in Norway already in the first written laws in the 12th century. The punishment was loss of fortune and expatriation. However, historians do not know of any cases where someone was punished under these laws during the middle ages, with one possible exception. In modern times, after 1536, the sanctions were made more severe. This was in part because post-reformation, the Bible was increasingly was used as inspiration for legislation. One of the more significant changes that came of this was that the new laws were vague. In practice, it was still illegal for men to have sexual relations with any other living being than a woman, that is, if the act was completed. There was no distinction between intercourse between men or with animals (bestiality), both were called sodomy. Punishment for this was death, as demanded by the biblical Laws of Moses. The clearest expression of this was seen in Christian Vs Norwegian Code from 1687: "Fornication which is against nature, will be punished with flames and fire". Fornication against nature was the codeword used by lawmakers to avoid these kinds of cases (that is, homosexuality) or the laws against them of being publicly mentioned. This specific law was in effect until 1842.
Despite these laws, Norwegian historians have only known of a single case where male homosexual behaviour was investigated prior to 1842. This as opposed to bestiality cases, where some research shows at least 80 cases being investigated between 1687 and 1842. The known case is from Valdres in 1674, where an officer had used his power to force soldiers under his command to partake in intercourse in a "sodomitic manner". An investigative commission was established, but the officer had escaped the country and no trial was held. The officer's wife, who belonged to the Norwegian aristocracy, was granted a divorce and the case was mainly kept quiet.
In addition to this, evidence has now been found of a trial from Kragerø in 1693. The accused was Aron Åsulsen, a young man who worked at a sawmill. He was accused by many other men in the town of having performed "unseemly" acts on them. Many of the witness statements in the case have not been conserved, but it is clear that Aron had at least performed oral sex on one other man. One witness, named Elias på Øya, told the court that one day when he and Aron had been at a farmstead to cut hay, Aron had suggested that they delouse each other. Elias went first, but when it was Aron's turn, the testimonial states that Aron reached hands and head towards Elias' trousers, and grabbed after his “secret” and got hold of it with his mouth. It is unclear what happened next, but when Aron wished to “drifve”, perhaps meaning “push” or “drive”, Elias pushed him away. This last thing he also did again at night. Elias said that he first thought Aron was “qvindsk”, or “womanish”, but had since wondered if such things had to happen by “the arts of the Devil, on his request”. To modern ears, however, this sounds like oral sex as well as an effort at anal intercourse. But the judge and several other witnesses also mentioned sorcery as an explanation for Aron's actions.
In addition he had probably had some form of sexual activity, most likely anal sex, with several other men. But the testimonials describing this are missing from the protocol. It is however clear that one of them, Bertel Ansteensen, complained about the “interference he [Aron] had had with his body at night”. When the court asked Aron why he had done such terrible things, he did not deny it, but replied that he had been doing it since he was young, and that he simply could not resist. If he didn’t do it, he “shook as an osp leaf” or wiggled “like a fish”.
The case ended with Aron being whipped 29 times by the executioner, branded on his forehead and made to leave town for good. The sentence did not refer to any paragraph of the penal code, simply that Aron had admitted to interacting with someone’s body in a “lewd” and disgusting way, and it is noted that the world has never seen the like of such a lewd case. This is strange, as the punishment for sodomy at the time was to be burnt to death, and the judge in the case thought this was an example of “the unmentionable sin”. Why? One possibility is that it was not possible to prove completed anal intercourse, and thereby use the full power of the law. We do know that the language used, which roughly translates to “lewd actions” was by the 1800s used to describe a wider set of sexual actions were no “fornication” in the strictest sense of the word had taken place. The mild punishment could also be because the judge at Kragerø wished to hide the case and anything related to sodomy. Many testimonials were simply excluded from the court documents. The reason for this was either to save the young Aron’s life, and/or to avoid the public spectacle of such an execution. We know from Danish and Swedish history around the same time that the government used a strategy of concealment in cases such as this. Court meetings and trials were held behind closed doors, executions kept secret and expatriation used as punishment. A widespread fear of engagement reigned, and authorities preferred that these cases were not in any way made public. The goal was to silence homosexuality to death.
On April 24th 1693, Aron Åsulsen was whipped and branded by the executioner, and expelled from Kragerø. What happened to him after that is not known.
Riksarkivet, Rentekammeret, Reviderte regnskaper, Byregnskaper, Kragerø, Sikt og sakefall, pk. 222 1691-1712, legg 1691-1700, Regnskap 1693.
Rian, Øystein. 2001. ”Mellom straff og fortielse. Homoseksualitet i Norge fra vikingtiden til 1930-årene”. In Norsk homoforskning, edited by Marianne Brantsæter, Turid Eikvam, Reidar Kjær, Knut Olav Åmås, 9-24. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
Viskum, Øystein. 2002. Fortielse og straff. Rettsforfølgelse av crimen bestialis i Norge 1687-1842. History thesis. University of Oslo.
Illustration: Unknown artist. 1938. From p. 127 in J.A. Cochrane, The Story of Newfoundland. Montreal: Ginn and Company, 1938. (source: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/politics/government-to-1730.php).