Endre church in Gotland, Sweden. Cow being milked

Churning Butter with the Devil

Milking and churning butter was a competence belonging to the female sphere in Northwestern Europe. However, in the later Middle Ages, butter became a very important export article. This led to the development of a special motif: the devil’s milkmaid.

“Tables were brought forth and they were given food: bread and butter. Large bowls with curd (skyr) were also placed on the table. Bard said: “I regret much that I have no ale to offer you, though I would have liked to” (From Egil’s Saga) [1]

Medieval Food from Lödöse © Lödöse Museum
Medieval Food from Lödöse © Lödöse Museum

This story about Eigil and Bård begins with Aulvir asking to be treated as a guest to Bard, who is manager of a farm, which belongs to king Eric. But Bard is a skimpy man and offers his guests a most basic fare (and no ale). As it happens, the king arrives the same evening to Atla-isle and Bard is obliged to serve the beer, which he has kept from his wayfaring guests – Aulvur, Eigil and their men. “Sumptuous was the banquet, and great the drinking within the hall”. Hereafter the story turns into a mighty drinking brawl, which naturally ends with Egil killing Bard. However, for our purpose here, we only have to note the two offerings: on one hand a plain meal consisting of bread, butter and sour milk and on the other a banquet with lots of ale.

Originally – in the Viking Age – butter was thus a plain, everyday product produced by women or children shaking pots of sour cream up and down and around until it cluttered. Another method was probably to fill a calf’s skin with the soured cream and hanging it from a wooden tripod or tree. The skin could then be swung back and forth until the cream split.

Soured, salted and kept in wooden caskets or alternatively buried in bogs – butter might be preserved for a long time. Another option was of course to serve it directly on bread or as a condiment to fish. The latter option is even today very common in a Scandinavian context where “skinny” marine fish – typically cod or plaice – might be boiled and served in a very simple way with butter plus some pickled vegetables.

Churn Lid from Scotland
Churn Lid from Scotland c. 585 – 630 © National Museums of Scotland

It has been estimated that 25 lbs of milk is required to make one pound of butter, the equivalent of the average daily yield of a cow belonging to the ancient Irish breed of the Kerry. Even if only produced in the summer, any decent farm with a herd of 8 – 10 cows would be able to churn out more than may be eaten in a good day. Easily preserved, stored and transported, butter was early on a valuable commodity, which might be taken to market or used directly to pay taxes, tithes, and rents to the king, the church and the local magnates. Such“butter taxes” were then transformed into export articles, shipped from Scandinavia to the growing towns and cities of the Middle Ages.

An important precondition for this development may have been the more widespread adoption of the wooden churns, which made large-scale production more viable. “The archaeological material provides a picture of an emerging new technological complex surrounding butter between 1000 -1300, which involved high quality production for long-distance trading and tax paying”, writes Janken Myrdal. It is worth noting, though, that the growth in export and the rise in prices of butter in the later middle ages cannot be seen as the result of a technological innovation. Rather, the churn was adopted as part of the development of the new agricultural production system. Plunge churns are known from Roman Britain and the earliest extant churn lid can be found in the National Museum of Scotland and has been dated to AD 585 – 630. Nevertheless, the churn probably did not become widespread until the 12th or 13th centuries,  when it created the opportunities for a more developed agrarian butter economy.

Trade in Butter

Västra Vemmerlöv church, Trelleborg Sweden Source: wikipedia
Västra Vemmerlöv church, Trelleborg, Sweden. Source: wikipedia

The point is that some time in the 12th – 13th centuries, butter gradually became a valuable trade commodity in Northern Europe. In the 13th century Germans and Danes traded butter in Brügge and Damme, while butter is listed in lists of customs paid in Lübeck from the 14th century. Butter exports were huge and ships carrying cargoes of butter measured in læster are commonly mentioned in the sources. One læst butter was the equivalent of 12 tonnes, in principle the equivalent of 1344 kg. In 1411 Margaret I, Queen of Denmark delivered 24.5 læster of butter to a merchant from Lübeck or the equivalent of more than 130.000 “modern” half-a-pound packages of butter. Butter was definitely big business. At the same time, butter became an important dish, which formed as chalices were served at medieval banquets. Long gone, were the days when butter was a plain daily fare on an old Icelandic farm.

Hard Work

Butter churning in Tuse Church. Source: wikipedia
Butter churning in Tuse Church in Denmark. Source: wikipedia

However, milking cows by hands is not an easy task. It is hard on the hands and no one old enough to suffer from arthritis has a role to play. Secondly, the production took a lot of lifting, carrying and sifting. After having milked the cow, the milk had to be poured into shallow vessels in order to let the cream float to the surface, where it might be skimmed off. Finally, the churning itself is hard on the back. This is especially the case when using one of the “new” upstanding churns of the 13th and 14th centuries. More butter might be churned in one session, but more might also go wrong.

The cream was collected over a week and had to be slightly sour and slightly warm, 15 – 20o celcius. When churning, the woman had to lift the plunger to just above the surface in order to gather air and whisp the cream until the fat modules gathered. After the cream was churned, the butter and the buttermilk would be separated through a straining cloth and the butter would be paddled and pressed in order to remove the residue of milk. Finally, according to Janken Myrdal, it would be washed in cold water and salted. Afterwards the churn had to be cleaned with hot water and sometimes scrubbed.

In the sagas we hear that milking and churning were the jobs of female slaves. Men might be mocked for milking cows or in general work with the herds. Janken Myrdal, who has written extensively on the medieval butter business and examined medieval wills from Sweden, tells us that cows would in general be bequeathed to women, while men would get the workhorses and the oxen.

Butter Luck

Woman working the churn with devil. Vejlby Church, Randers Denmark. Source: Pinterest
Woman working the churn with devil. Vejlby Church, Randers Denmark. Source: Pinterest

There is no doubt, that there was a special connection between woman and dairy cattle on a medieval farm. This was developed through experience, but also fostered by skills handed down from mother to daughter (together with the cows). Such skills would imply knowledge of how to feed the cows properly. But you also need to have a good eye for cows and be able to read them. Cows may withhold their milk if they do not trust the milkmaid. Secondly, you also need to have some basic luck. More than anything this was documented in the many proverbs, which floated around – “better one cow, than two unwilling”, “the milk rarely sours for the woman, who looks for sweetness” or “better good butter-luck than a sour heering”, writes Janken Myrdal. From a later time, countless folkloristic tales are provided on how to secure your butter-luck by dropping all sorts of talisman into the churn, churn on Thursday (Thors-day), make the milk-utensils out of wood from the Rowan etc.

Thus men depended on women for procuring one of the important “cash cows” in the medieval agrarian economy. At the same time the success of these women depended on a “lore” basically unknown to the – in this matter – inexperienced men. Finally a successful peasant with a competent milkmaid in the family might also be the object of the envy and mistrust in a peasant society, which was basically built around “the image of the limited good”. [2]  Such a situation was perhaps ripe for drama.

The Devil’s Milkmaids

Butter presented to a banquet from church in Dannemora in Sweden. Source: Wikipedia
Butter presented to a banquet from church in Dannemora in Sweden. Source: Wikipedia

It is probably in this context we should understand the widespread motif of the “Devil’s Milkmaid”, which can be found in penitentiary texts form the 11th century, literary texts from the 14th century and murals in late medieval churches from the 15th century.

According to these folkloristic tales devils might be at play both when maids milked the cows or did the churning. A lucky milkmaid might just as well be someone who had been spared the onerous task of milking the cows. In stead the milking had been done by a devil or herself masked as a suckling animal thieving from someone else’s cow. This milk would be spewed into the churn, which the devil would proceed to help the woman work. Finally, the devil would shape the butter into a cone. In the end the woman would recieve a harsh punishment from the devil for stealing her “milk fortune” from her less clever neighbours.

The oldest sources stems from German penitentiary manuals and are more concerned with the sorcery involved than the fable itself. However, in 1180 Gerald of Wales writes about complaints that women in both Wales, Ireland, and Scotland “sub specie ubera sugendo” (shifts into the form of a hare) in order to “milk” their neighbour’s cows unseen. This motif is later found in a somewhat different form in a poem by Robert of Brunne in Manel de Péches, dated to around the beginning of the 14th century. Somewhat later (1330 – 50) the motif is worked over by Magister Mathias in his handbook of sermons, Homo Conditus. Mathias was friend and confessor of St. Bridgit of Vadstena and widely copied and read in both Sweden and Denmark. It is thought that the motif was transferred from here to the many iconographic renderings, which we find in late medieval church murals.

All-in-all more than 63 murals preserved in Danish, Swedish an Finnish churches render the moral fable, ready to be perused by anyone planning to steal the milk (wealth) of her neighbours or just more generally their “milk-luck”. The oldest of these is from c. 1420, while the youngest is dated c. 1520. The motif may also be found in a few churches in Northern Germany.
Really interesting is the concentration of the motif around large export-centre of butter – Mälarn (Stockholm), Gotland (Visby) and Seeland (Copenhagen). Presumably nobles and church authorities in these regions were more than heavily involved in butter export. It is likely, this caused a gradual development of more specialised agrarian production profiles among some medieval peasants, which may have caused social stress. Other sources (tax lists) point to the existence of important economic disparity in the late medieval peasant societies around Copenhagen, an importsant export centre. In turn, all this may have contributed to the development of local animosity between different types of peasants. Vitriol might then have been sprayed on this fire by the general misogyny expressed by prelates plus the general feeling of powerlessness among the men in the village, excluded as they were from the lore of their milkmaids and housewives.

No wonder the motif later turned up in the 16th and 17th centuries manuals used in the persecution of witches.


[1] Egil’s Saga. Ed. By Bjarni Einarsson. Viking Society of Northern Research. University College 2003, p. 57)

[2] G. M. Foster (1965): Peasant Society and the Image of the Limited Good. American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 67, No. 2, Apr., pp. 293–315.


Boskapsskoetseln janken myrdal coverTjuvmjölkande väsen. I. Äldre nordisk tradition
By Jan Wall
Lund 1977

Women and Cows – Ownership and Work in Medieval Sweden.
By Janken Myrdal
In: Ethnologia Scandinavica 2008, s. 61–80.

Boskapsskötslen under Medeltiden. En källpluralistisk studie.
By Janken Myrdal
Nordiska Museets Förlag 2012

The Devil’s Milkmaids
Lisbet Holst
In: The History of Nordic Women’s Literature. Kvinfo (No Year)

Smör, Smörhandel and Smörskat
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Rosenkilde og Bagger 1982


Witchcraft and magic in medieval Scandinavia - coverWitchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages
Stephen A. Mitchell
Series: Middle Ages Series
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ISBN 978-0-8122-0371-4
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Endre church in Gotland, Sweden. Cow being milked. Source: Pinterest


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