St Birgitta, Max Weber and Charisma

08:03 by Karin Strinnholm Lagergren

How can organisations like monasteries exist for hundreds of years? What gives them their identity and what makes them find legimitacy through the centuries? Can Max Weber’s conception of charisma help us understanding for example an Order such as the Birgittines and their founder Saint Birgitta?

These questions have been the foundation for an article I am working on at the moment. Here are some thoughts and facts resulting from this work. Comments are as always welcome!

Weber explains charisma (in an English translation) as the following:

“…a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are as such not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader…. Charisma can only be ‘awakened’ and ‘tested’; it cannot be ‘learned’ or ‘taught’.” (Max Weber: The theory of social and economic organization, p. 358-359, red. Talcott Parsons, Free Press 1920/1968).

This superhero perspective is the looking glass through which I look at St Birgitta as the charismatic founder of her own monastic Order. Her charisma is of course demonstrated in her 700 revelations, but moreover are these an integral part of the life of the Order itself. One part of the revelations forms the Birgittine rule. Another part of the revelations called Sermo Angelicus, since they were delivered by an angel, form the three readings at the morning service matins, thus in all 21 revelations during one week. These readings are one part of the maybe most charismatic part of the Birgittine liturgy: the Office for the sisters: Cantus sororum. This weekly cycle of readings and songs combines Birgitta’s own words with music and texts to her honour. I don’t think the close connection between music and religion in worship needs to be further explained here and I can’t think of any religions not having something what we would call music as an integral part of their religious life. The Birgittines is just one of many examples, but a very obvious one and therefore good to use as a case.

St Birgitta depicted as a nun (which she never was) and introitus for Birgittine feasts. Uden Gradual 24, 18th century.

Cantus sororum is not a creation entirely by her own, and there is no proof for that she took an active role in the musical decisions for the newly created Office – but her charisma is inscribed through text and music. She is also present in the way she is invocated in six songs, included in the Office at the latest the middle of the 15th century. In these Birgitta is mentioned explicitly:

  1. Rosa rorans bonitatem
  2. O Birgitta myrrhe gutta
  3. Gaude Birgitta canticum
  4. Birgitta Christi famula
  5. Birgitta vas gratie
  6. Sponsa Regis

So these were the good news about what charisma can do. But when can charisma be an obstacle rather than a help and guide for for example recruiting new members? Well, that must be a subject of its own in another blogpost.

Karin Strinnholm Lagergren
Senior Lecturer at Linnaeus University
Senior lecturer in musicology and singer of medieval music. Research interest monastic chant, in particular Birgittines and Dominicans. In this blog I write, comment and reflect on my research project 'The Musical World of the Birgittine Order'. Expect loads of manuscript images, tricky chant problems and square notation!

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