Disinheriting the Saints: Confiscations and the Redistribution of Church Assets in Reformation Sweden

15 June, 2022

The ‘Linköping Treasure’. Photo: Lennart Karlsson, Historiska museet/SHM (CC BY).

The cult of the saints was largely maintained — and initiated — by means from the laity. The amount of preserved wills and letters of donations benefitting saints’ altars, chapels, prebends and guilds attest to the enormous popularity of the cult of the saints in late medieval Sweden and Finland. By making a donation in honour of a saint, an individual could not only form a deeper personal connection to a particular saint, but also hope to shorten their own or their loved ones’ time in purgatory. But the wealth and abundance of guilds, prebends and altar foundations also attracted criticism, and the cult of the saints was to be one of the major sources of discord in sixteenth-century theological debate. 

While the great Humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) never left the fold of the Church, he was a staunch critic of what he believed to be the ignorant excesses of ‘popular’ religious expression. Using satire, he criticised many aspects of the cult of the saints, such as pilgrimage and relics. Martin Luther (1483–1546) maintained that the saints were to be respected and that their virtues and deeds should inspire Christians to piety and obedience to God. But praying for the saints’ intercession was useless according to Luther – the Blessed Virgin had no more power to aid an individual than anyone else (Kreitzer 2019, 445–449). Other reformers, like Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) and John Calvin (1509–1564) went even further, stating that turning to the saints was not only useless, but also idolatrous. Their renunciation of the saints led to the widespread destruction of shrines, altars and images in the parts of Europe where this more radical view became influential (Heal 2016, 601).

The Swedish Reformers followed the path taken by Luther. They never encouraged iconoclasm or outright banned all aspects of saints’ cults. Nevertheless, they efficiently disrupted the economic foundation of the cults and cut the cords to their cultural and ideological engine at an early stage. At the Riksdag held in Västerås from June 16–18, 1527, an event that has traditionally marked the launch of the Reformation in Sweden, the nobility were granted the right to reclaim all estates donated to the Church since 1454 (Gustaf I:s reg. 4, 226–240). A few months later, King Gustavus I in part revoked this right, when he claimed the rights to the revenues from land donated to the Church for the Crown itself. All in all, this led to a major redistribution of church assets, and greatly impacted the Church’s ability to maintain chapels and altars dedicated to the saints (Bjarne Larsson 2012, 20f). In 1544 the Riksdag, once again assembling in Västerås, took further steps towards disrupting the cult of the saints: all guilds, pilgrimages and prayers to the saints were now outlawed (Sv. riksdagsakter 1, 390).

The assets once belonging to the saints were frequently redistributed among those loyal to the king.  In a letter from 1530, the king granted the income from St. Gertrude’s Prebend  in Skara Cathedral to his own scribe, Måns Månsson (Gustaf I:s reg. 7, 100). In 1546, he gave a plot of land in Nyköping previously owned by St Barbara’s guild to Birgitta, the royal nurserymaid and the Queen’s confidante (Gustaf I:s reg. 18, 25).

Of all the ecclesiastical institutions, the mendicant orders were hit the hardest by the Diet of Västerås. Not only could their donated assets be suddenly revoked, their freedom to preach and collect alms for their upkeep was also greatly restricted by the decrees (Bjarne Larsson 2012, 17). These mendicant orders — most notably the Dominicans and the Franciscans – had up until 1527 been a fairly popular choice for people that wished to honour the saints by making a donation. For instance, in 1520, the noblewoman Anna Eriksdotter (Bielke) made up her will, and for the sake of her soul and the soul of her late husband, she donated a significant part to various religious institutions. Among the recipients was the image of St Anne in the Kalmar Blackfriars’ Church, that was to be given the gilded beads of a rosary (SDHK 38307 & SDHK 38325). 

In 1505, Merchant Ingevald Torstensson and his daughter Birgitta donated the rent revenues from a townhouse to the Stockholm Greyfriars. The condition for this particular donation was that the friars were to celebrate masses in their side chapel dedicated to St Erasmus ‘in perpetuity’ for the benefit of Ingevald’s and Birgitta’s deceased family members (SDHK 35010). The Stockholm Greyfriars had been dissolved already by August 1527, when the Poor Clares moved in to their premises on Gråmunkeholmen (Berntson 2003, 102). The perpetual requiem masses that Ingevald and Birgitta had paid for were thus only celebrated for 22 years. In 1527, Ingevald Torstensson was long dead, but his daughter Birgitta was alive and by then one of the wealthiest and most influential women in Stockholm. She was one of those donors that chose to exercise the new right to reclaim what they had previously donated to the Church. At the same occasion, she also reclaimed a house previously given to St Nicholas’ Guild (Sthlm tb 1524–1529, 153). Whether Birgitta did this because she understood that these institutions were already doomed, or because she had genuinely adopted a new Lutheran understanding of monasticism, purgatory and the intersession of the saints, we may never know.

A donation was a major spiritual investment, not unlike modern-day life insurances. The revenue from donated lands was to cover the upkeep for clerics to perform requiems and vigils for the donor. This  ‘liturgical annuity’ was expected to continue for all eternity, or in some cases for as long as the ecclesiastical institution, for instance a monastery, was in operation. The sudden disruption of this system must have stirred up many emotions among believers. In practice, it must have been as if all of the insurances that you or your parents had paid for, or your retirement savings, were suddenly rendered useless! Not everyone would have been as level-headed as Birgitta Ingevaldsdotter in this scenario. 

As the donation made by Anna Eriksdotter shows, not only land or monetary means were given to the saints, but all manner of goods and votive offerings. Gifts that were made of precious metals were often confiscated by the Crown in the first half of the 16th century. In 1541 for instance, a golden heart on a string was confiscated from Skara Cathedral. The heart had been hanging ‘on the head of St Brynolf’ and was likely a votive offering placed on the sculpture of the saint (Källström 1939, 241).

These confiscations claimed countless objects from the reliquaries, altars and images of the saints. Further examples are the crown belonging to an image of St Olaf, taken from Stora Tuna Church in Dalarna in 1533, and the 76 gilded ornaments from the Virgin’s cloak, taken from Rimito Parish Church in Southwest Finland in 1558 (Källström 1939, 258, 321). That people reacted strongly to these confiscations is evident. The confiscations were explicitly stated to be one of the grievances behind the uprisings the king faced during his reign, though less violent means of protest were likely more common (Berntson 2010, 230–231). A spectacular example of a more peaceful protest is the so-called Linköping Treasure discovered in 1676: a collection of gilded reliquaries, a chalice and a paten that someone had buried in a field, likely in order to save them from being taken by the King’s men (Lahti 2019, 228f). 

While we today may mourn the loss of countless artefacts that undoubtedly would have enhanced our knowledge of medieval religious life, these confiscations and land distributions in themselves actually provide valuable insights, not only into their own time period, but into previous eras as well. Frequently, short notes in inventories and royal correspondence are the only preserved sources in which these prebends, guilds, altars and embellishments of saints’ sculptures are ever mentioned. 



Martin Berntson, Klostren och reformationen: Upplösningen av kloster och konvent i Sverige 1523–1596, Skellefteå 2003.

Martin Berntson, Mässan och armborstet: Uppror och reformation i Sverige 1525–1544, Skellefteå 2010.

Gabriela Bjarne Larsson, “Skärseld, mässor och döda själar 1527”,  in Eva-Marie Letzter (ed.), Auktoritet i förvandling:Omförhandling av fromhet, lojalitet och makt i reformationens Sverige, Uppsala 2012.

Bridget Heal, ”Visual and Material Culture” in Ulinka Rublack (ed.), in Ulinka Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations, Oxford 2016.

Konung Gustaf den förstes registratur 4:1527, Stockholm 1868.

Konung Gustaf den förstes registratur 7:1530–1531, Stockholm 1877.

Konung Gustaf den förstes registratur. 18:1546–1547, Stockholm 1900.

Olle Källström, Medeltida kyrksilver från Sverige och Finland förlorat genom Gustav Vasas konfiskationer, Uppsala 1939.

Beth Kreitzer, “Mary in Luther and the Lutheran Reformation”, in Chris Maunder (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Mary, Oxford 2019.

SDHK 35010 (RAp 1505)

SDHK 38307 (RAp Kalmar 1520)

SDHK 38325 (RAp Kalmar 1520)

Sofia Lahti, Silver Arms and Silk Heads: Medieval Reliquaries in the Nordic Countries, Åbo 2019.

Stockholms stads tänkebok under Vasatiden I. 1524–1529, Stockholm 1908.

Svenska riksdagsakter jämte andra handlingar som höra till statsförfattningens historia under tidehvarfvet 1521-1718, Band 1 (1521-1544), Stockholm 1887.

A Short Reflection on Mapping Saints in 2021

1 February, 2022

The following content was originally published as a thread on Twitter @MappingSaints (Jan. 18, 2022). It has been edited for clarity.

At the beginning of a new year, it’s once again time to reflect on the project and, this time, our work in 2021.

The database has continued to grow and develop, with a lot of data being added. The interface now features a short description of the project and the research resource which is still under construction. The input interface, Mapping Saints, can now be viewed online, here: saints.dh.gu.se

In 2021, we focused on data input, creating places on the Finnish map, refining our database model, and implementing IIIF.

This update thread from April 2021 highlights that from mid-March to mid-June, Steffen Hope joined us as a research assistant to assist with the transcription and input of those calendar fragments that have images in the Medieval Parchment Cover database (MPO) at the Swedish National Archives.

Our collaborative partner, the Center for Digital Humanities, University of Gothenburg, where our research engineer, Johan Åhlfeldt, is based, has been working hard to implement a IIIF-server so we can utilize this to retrieve and view images directly in our research resource, including letters in the SDHK (Medieval charters/Svenskt diplomatarium) database and fragments in MPO. Johan has also worked with testing the possible implementation of an xml-editor.

While a lot of new material is continuously being input into the database, modelling discussions and implementations are also ongoing. For instance, Terese Zachrisson and Anders Fröjmark have been focusing their efforts on indulgence letters and miracle stories, respectively. Lena Liepe has been matching the digitized Iconographical Index cards to the correct Cult Manifestations in the database.

Throughout 2021, we were also active in presenting the project at conferences, such as at the (online) International Congress on Medieval Studies in May, in a session entitled ‘Saints Online’ together with other exciting mapping saints projects. In addition to co-writing an article about the spatial research data infrastructure of the project (forthcoming in 2022), we published an article in 2021 focusing on the project’s art historical aspects and the digitization work done in collaboration with our partners the Swedish National Heritage Board and the Swedish National Historical Museums. The article is available here: ojs.abo.fi/ojs/index.php/ 

We were joined by three student interns from the Department of History, Lund University, who input miracle stories. Our student research-assistant, Andreas Blixt, continued his work by inputting church bell and runic inscriptions, the latter including linking to relevant posts in the new database, ‘Runor‘.

Over the course of the autumn, we focused on questions of how we model time in the database, resulting in the implementation of a “function time-period” for our Cult Manifestations – enabling visualizations in both time and space.

From 2021-2023, our Wallenberg postdoc Sofia Lahti will be working with the Finnish art historical material. Speaking of Finland, starting in the spring 2022, we are also looking forward to finally beginning the delayed collaboration with our “sister” project, Lived Religion in Medieval Finland!

In addition to our Finnish collaborations and continued data input, our main goal in 2022 is to develop our future user interface. The first steps towards this goal will address appearance and functionality, as well as enabling visualizations and analyses.

Thanks to everyone who has helped us and shown an interest along the way! Keep yourselves posted on further developments via Twitter or here on our blog!

Re-post: News from our collaborative partner, the Swedish National Heritage Board

18 January, 2022

As part of the Mapping Lived Religion project, we collaborated together with the Swedish National Heritage Board (SNHB, Riksantikvarieämbetet) and our contact there, Johan Nordinge, to digitize and digitally publish the “Iconographic Index” (IR, Ikonografiska registret). The IR, compiled by Meredith Lindgren and Ingalill Pegalow, contains about 35,000 index cards, as well as black and white photographs, detailing medieval iconographic motifs in Swedish churches. It is an invaluable resource for medieval art historical research.

In addition to being accessible via our research portal, Mapping Saints, the digitized IR is now available via the SNHB search interface, ArkivSök. More information can be found in Swedish on the SNHB site:


Registerkort ur Ikonografiska registret

Index card featuring a 15th century mural from the Iconographic Index

Om att praktisera i projektet

4 November, 2021

Blogginlägget är skrivet av projektets praktikant Hedda Skaarud, student på Lunds universitet.

Jag heter Hedda Skaarud och jag har under de senaste två veckorna praktiserat i projektet Mapping Lived Religion. Medieval Cults of Saints in Sweden and Finland. Jag är student vid Lunds universitet och läser min tredje termin på kandidatprogrammet i historia. Det är genom programmet som jag har fått möjlighet att praktisera i projektet. I det här inlägget berättar jag om min upplevelse av praktiken.

Mitt arbete gick ut på att transkribera medeltida mirakelberättelser och föra in dessa i hemsidan. Till att börja med transkriberade jag mirakelberättelser om Erik den helige från Miracula S. Erici regis et martyris i Scriptores rerum Svecicarum medii aevi T. 2: 1. Verket sammanställdes av Erik Gustaf Geijer och Johan Henrik Schröder och publicerades år 1828. Mirakelberättelserna återges på både latin och gammalsvenska så jag förstod de historier jag transkriberade. Verket är digitaliserat i den mån att det är inskannat. Det finns som PDF-fil, från vilken man med relativt goda resultat kan kopiera text. Jag renskrev den kopierade texten och såg till att den “passade in” i databasen, exempelvis genom att ta bort fotnoter. Som den historiestudent jag är föredrar jag att arbeta med fysiskt material, framförallt vid läsning. Av den anledningen letade jag upp den tryckta boken från 1828 i Universitetsbiblioteket i Lund. Jag fortsatte att kopiera texten från PDF-filen, men jämförde med det fysiska källmaterialet.

Image of a workplace at Lund University Library with book open

Scriptores rerum Svecicarum medii aevi T. 2: 1 på Universitetsbiblioteket i Lund. Foto: Hedda Skaarud (CC-BY-SA)

Efter Erik den helige kom Heliga Birgitta. Jag arbetade med mirakelberättelser från ​​Acta et processus canonizacionis Beate Birgitte som sammanställdes av Isak Collijn och publicerades 1924-1931. Jag hittade källmaterialet fysiskt på SOL-biblioteket i Lund och påbörjade arbetet med att skriva av mirakelberättelserna. Dessa var på latin så jag såg till att låna en översättning till modern svenska, Himmelska uppenbarelser/Bd 4 av Tryggve Lundén, publicerad 1959. I arbetet började jag med att läsa berättelsen på svenska, sedan skrev jag av den på latin. Efter att jag hade korrekturläst kunde jag föra in mirakelberättelserna in i databasens tabell ”Quote” (citat) som är knyten till tabellen ”Source” (källan). På så sätt byggde jag sakta men säkert upp källan, så att andra i projektet kan översätta och använda materialet i ett senare stadium.

Det var en större utmaning än vad jag hade föreställt mig att arbeta med källmaterial på latin. Då jag inte har någon kunskap i språket sedan tidigare hade jag svårt att hitta stavfel i de transkriberade texterna och det var tidskrävande att gå igenom berättelserna ord för ord. Under praktikens gång blev det något lättare, då jag blev mer bekväm med latin. Många ord återkom gång på gång då mirakelberättelserna ofta är uppbyggda efter samma mönster. Till och med de ovana böjningsformerna kändes mindre främmande i slutet och stavfelen blev färre. Jag tror också att det hjälpte att läsa på svenska parallellt med latin. En av de största vinsterna för mig med praktiken var att jag förstod berättelserna när jag läste dem på svenska. Som historiestudent har det varit fantastiskt att få läsa så levande om dramatiska händelser som helt vanliga människor på 1300-talet upplevde. Jag har ofta upplevt mirakelberättelserna som underhållande med sina beskrivningar av märkliga sjukdomar och elaka djävular. Precis som i en saga kan man lita på att hjälten, eller i detta fall helgonet, kommer att rädda offret. Jag har definitivt fått mycket inspiration till en framtida C-uppsats.

En förhoppning jag hade inför praktiken var att få en bättre inblick i hur forskningsarbete verkligen går till, vilket jag anser att jag fått. Jag har förstått att det krävs mycket hårt arbete och att det kan vara tidskrävande. Jag uppskattar att jag har blivit betrodd med intressanta och ibland svåra arbetsuppgifter. Mapping Lived Religion. Medieval Cults of Saints in Sweden and Finland är ett enormt projekt och jag imponeras över hur mycket tid och kraft som ligger bakom Mapping Saints. Jag är glad över att ha kunnat bidra till det arbetet. Jag ser stora möjligheter med databasen och uppskattar särskilt att resursen kommer kunna användas så brett. Både yrkesverksamma historiker och historieintresserade amatörer kommer kunna njuta av resultatet.

Till slut vill jag säga tack för att jag fått delta. Det har varit otroligt lärorikt och intressant! Jag ser fram emot att följa projektets utveckling.

Projektmedlemmarna tackar dig också för fint arbete!

Re-post: A blog by our collaborative partner, the Swedish National Historical Museums

6 October, 2021

As part of the Mapping Lived Religion project, we collaborated together with the Swedish National Historical Museums (SHM) to digitize art historian and photographer Lennart Karlsson’s photographs of medieval ecclesiastical art as high-resolution images. Our contact, Eva Vedin, and the photographer, Ilar Gunilla Persson, have written a blog on the images, the original database (Medeltidens bildvärld), and the work digitizing the 19 000 images with “modern technology” (in Swedish on the SHM site).

Medeltidens bildvärld – nu högupplöst

Degrees of uncertainty – extracting information from difficult calendar fragments, part 2

17 September, 2021

In my previous blogpost, I was mainly concerned with the details of how one might go about when preparing for the inputting of a fragment into the database, and how one must be careful when encountering uncertain information. In this blogpost, I will focus on one particular fragment, namely Fr 25608, and provide a few examples of various degrees of uncertainty that I have had to navigate when inputting the information from this particularly complicated fragment.

Introducing the fragment

The fragment in question is kept at the Swedish National Archives Database of Medieval Parchment Covers (Riksarkivets databas över medeltida pergamentomslag, MPO). In the MPO database, this fragment is listed as Fr 25608, while in the older catalogue – CCM, or Catalogus Codicum Mutilorum – it is listed as Kal 16. Details about the fragment can be found here.

Fr 25608, verso

Fr 25608 is a fragment from a twelfth-century calendar, probably produced in England. It contains the months of May and June. Depending on the state of the fragment, the researcher can extract a lot of information from these two months. We can learn what feasts are celebrated, but also which feasts are not included. In the case of Fr 25608, however, the researcher faces a particularly difficult challenge, as the fragment has been cut vertically. Little more than half of the folio is now lost, and the information is only partially extant. This requires some educated guesswork when analysing the fragment. In some cases, the feasts included in the fragment can be ascertained fairly safely, while others are more complicated. In the following, I will provide examples of three degrees of uncertainty that we encounter when working on Fr 25608.

First degree: Very certain identification

Some feasts are easy to identify with a high degree of certainty, for instance because they are universally celebrated with a high liturgical grade. One such example is the Nativity of John the Baptist, celebrated on June 24 in every calendar of the Latin Church. In the entry for June 24 in Fr 25608, we see the letters “Nat” extant in red ink, and this clearly signifies “Nativitate”. We can therefore be completely certain what feast this is.

Fr 25608, verso (detail)

Other feasts are less certain, but still well within the spectrum of very certain identification. This might be because the feasts in question are universal, and/or because just enough of the text remains for us to identify which saints were celebrated on those days. In Fr 25608, we see this in the days preceding the Nativity of John the Baptist. On June 23, we see the abbreviation “Sce” for “sancte”, followed by the letters “et”. We then know that this is a singular female saint. Given the surviving letters in the name, as well as the calendar’s English origin, it is reasonable to suggest that this is Saint Etheldreda. This feast is not universal throughout the Latin Church, but it was celebrated in all English calendars. The identification therefore has a high degree of certainty.

Second degree: Quite certain identification

In other cases, the remaining information opens up for several possible interpretations. The identification, then, cannot be more than quite certain, or, as seen below, uncertain. When we look at Fr 25608, there are several feasts about which we can be quite certain, but where we are lacking the necessary piece of information that allows us to draw firm conclusions. One such example can be found in the entry for June 2. The abbreviation “Scor” for “Sanctorum” points to two or more saints to be celebrated on that day. Following this abbreviation we see the letter “m”, and this narrows down our options significantly, as June 2 is the universally celebrated feast of SS Marcellinus and Peter. Due to the universal nature of their feast, and because there are no other saints beginning with M commonly celebrated on this day, the identification seems certain.

Fr 25608, verso (detail)

Universal feasts are in many ways fairly secure points of orientation, but they are by no means completely fool proof. The plural “Sanctorum” might not point to two saints commonly celebrated together, but rather two independent saints who are celebrated on the same day by chance. There are several examples of this among the universal feasts. Moreover, there might be one or more saints venerated locally or regionally in the parish or diocese where the calendar was produced. These saints might be venerated on different days in other parts of Latin Christendom. While the most straightforward hypothesis in this case would be to interpret the “Sanctorum m” as meaning SS Marcellinus and Peter, there is just enough uncertainty at play to prevent us from excluding other options, no matter how less likely those options are.

Third degree: Uncertain information

In the aforementioned cases, there have been enough details to allow for some degree of speculation beyond the date of the feast itself. Whether one saint or more are celebrated, and whether it is a male or a female saint are elements that help us in arriving at a more secure identification. However, some of the entries in Fr 25608 are even more challenging for the researcher, because the only information provided is the date of the feast and the fact that there are two or more saints to be celebrated. We see examples of this in the entry for June 19.

Fr 25608, verso (detail)

Despite the fact that nothing of the names of the saints celebrated in this entry has survived, we are not completely in the dark. June 19 has a universal feast, namely that of SS Gervase and Protase. Given the universal nature of this feast, it is very likely that this is the one celebrated in Fr 25608. However, since we cannot exclude other possibilities, and since we cannot draw a definite conclusion based on the available information, this identification must remain uncertain and tentative.

Digitising uncertainty

When inputting information into the database, we often operate with uncertainties, and we have ways of factoring that into how we present the sources and their content. In cases such as Fr 25608, the once-available information is now reduced to a few details that can be more or less ascertained, as well as several details that we cannot be sure about. Cases such as this particular calendar serve to remind us about the limits of certainty, and how we need to navigate the balance between our own convictions – drawn in large part from our previous experiences and our frame of reference – and the available evidence. Even in the cases where our hypotheses are the simplest and the most likely options, we cannot allow ourselves to disregard alternative interpretations even though such a possibility is only hinted at in the plural “saints” at the beginning of an entry. Fragments such as Fr 25608 also remind us that very often we need to accept that we do not know, and that we must be careful not to add more to a source than can be found in it.

Degrees of uncertainty – extracting information from difficult calendar fragments, part 1

20 August, 2021

The present blogpost and the next aim to provide a brief introduction to some of the difficulties that we might encounter in the process of extracting information from fragments of medieval calendar manuscripts. In many cases, a fragment’s condition means that we must be very careful about drawing conclusions based on its contents. There are degrees of uncertainty that must be navigated carefully. There are conclusions about which we might be completely convinced, but for which we lack the final detail that allows us to be completely sure. This first blogpost will provide a detailed overview of how I have been working with the fragments, while the next post will discuss this work in more detail using examples from one particular fragment.

This spring I have been working as a research assistant in the Mapping Lived Religion project. My job has entailed transcribing a number of fragments of medieval calendars that have been either produced in Sweden or brought to Sweden from abroad, usually from England or Denmark. These calendars are immensely valuable as sources of which saints were celebrated in medieval Sweden, and how they were celebrated.

Calendar fragment Fr 25612 (Kal 20, 1r) contains the month of March. The fragment was produced in Finland in the fifteenth century. It has sustained significant wear and water damage, and this damage has rendered some of the entries more difficult to read. In such cases, careful detective work is needed to identify the feasts. Photo courtesy of Riksarkivet Sverige.


Working with calendars surviving in fragments can be a time-consuming task. This is especially the case because a calendar often contains a lot of information. Moreover, some of that information might be difficult to properly identify, which can cause a lot of detective work that might or might not yield results. Such difficulties might stem from material damage to the fragment, such as the way in which the manuscript has been cut for later recycling, as is the case with the fragment chosen for the examples included in the next blogpost.

When I work on calendar fragments for the project database, I process each fragment in three steps. The first step consists of transcription. The second step consists of double checking the transcription. The third step consists of putting the extracted information into the database.

In the first step, I transcribe the available text, at least as far as it is legible. When necessary, I put some suggested interpretations in brackets, as is standard practice when transcribing medieval manuscripts. Because the medieval scribes used a wide range of abbreviations and contractions for saving space in their writing, several words are not written in full. This means that in the transcription process, I have to navigate two issues: First, I need to give an accurate presentation of the text as it appears in the fragment. Second, I also need to make sure that the text is legible for non-experts. Consequently, when dealing with abbreviations I need to put the omitted letters in brackets, which also is standard transcription practice. For instance, the title “sancti” (of a saint), denoting a singular male saint in the genitive case (i.e., the possessive), is often abbreviated, and I might have to transcribe this as “s[an]c[t]i”. Similarly, the title “sancte”, denoting a singular female saint in the genitive case, must often be transcribed as “s[an]c[t]e”. Not all words are abbreviated in the same way, however. It is therefore crucial to double check that I have transcribed correctly and not confused the abbreviation practice with that of a different calendar.

For step two, I double-check my transcription with the fragment. I do this to see whether there are typos, or whether there are details that I have missed at step one. Additionally, this second step also serves as an opportunity to revisit my interpretation of elements of the fragment that require some speculation. Some deduction is often necessary when the name in the calendar entry is illegible, but it helps when the date of the feast day means that there is a limited number of likely options. It should, however, be noted that in many cases we cannot discard the possibility of very unlikely options, for instance due to a scribal error or a hitherto unrecorded local practice.

It is often necessary to revisit earlier interpretations. As I am transcribing the fragment for the first time, i.e., step one, I can sometimes draw conclusions with which I will disagree when I come to step two. This change might be because I have had time to reflect on my first conclusions. It might also simply be that in my re-reading of the fragment I see that I have made mistakes that invalidate my initial conclusions. In the latter cases, it is difficult not to feel sympathy with the scribes of these calendars, and it is easy to forgive them for the kinds of errors that can result in added hours of detective work for the modern scholar.

Step three consists of putting the information that I have extracted from the fragment into the database. This is a process whose details are explained in the previous blogpost by Sara Ellis Nilsson. This process is not necessarily as time-consuming as the previous two steps, but it can be derailed by the discovery of errors that managed to escape my attention. At the third step, it is especially important to be cautious about the information that is being inputted. Any uncertainties must be noted, yet in such a way that it is clear what exactly is uncertain, and in what way. This can be solved in different ways, depending on the degree of uncertainty. It is here that I need to critique my previous conclusions even more severely. I need to do so to ensure that the information which will be included in the database is reliable and can be used by others.

The main point to take away here is about the need for careful consideration in the work process. In the paragraphs above, I have provided a thorough overview of how I have organised this process. However, the key issue is not how I have structured this process, as there are many ways to organise how this kind of work is done. Rather, the post’s take-home message is that a sense of how attention to detail lies at the core of this type of work, and how this attention might require that we who do this work have to operate with various degrees of uncertainty.

In the next blogpost, I will focus on one particularly challenging fragment, whose details are fraught with several degrees of uncertainty. By presenting examples from this fragment, I hope it will become clearer that there will often be information that is unavailable to us. Moreover, even if that information can be deduced with some degree of certainty, we often have to hold back on our conclusions. If we do not, we run the risk of overconfidence. Such overconfidence, in turn, leads to a potential risk of distorting the way we understand the medieval source material. However, despite the uncertainty, it is possible to extract a lot of information from even tiny manuscript fragments, especially through collaboration with colleagues who might lend their eyes to the task as well.

Inputting Saints’ Feasts found in Calendar Fragments into the ‘Mapping Saints’ Database

18 June, 2021

In this blog post, I discuss how we classify information from the calendars for input into the database. An important part of this work involves figuring out how to deal with different systems of dating and how to visualize change over time. Lastly, I conclude with a reflection on my planned analyses of the development of saints’ feasts in medieval Sweden and Finland.


Classification and Input into the Mapping Saints Database

In the Mapping Lived Religion project, we are building a database of both objects and texts that provide evidence of the cults of saints; the research resource, including a mapping component, has been named Mapping Saints. In order to identify, trace, and analyze, the main analytical component in the project is the concept of Cult Manifestation, which indicates when evidence – for example, artefactual, archaeological, or textual – for a saint’s cult is “manifest” in a particular location and at a specific point in time (or over a period of time). The evidence for a Cult Manifestation can be an object, a painting, a narrative text, a feature in the landscape, or a feast day. In the Mapping Saints database, the basis for a Cult Manifestation is organized into Type of Evidence > Type of Evidence, subcategory.

The calendars contain Cult Manifestations for feast days (Type of Evidence), while the more specific (sub)category depends on whether the feast was celebrated or observed only by the clergy (called festum chori) or also by laypeople (called a festum fori/terrae in the database; see my previous blog-post for definitions of these Latin terms). The basis for a saint’s Cult Manifestation in the case of the calendars is thus either:

Type of Evidence = Feast Day
Type of Evidence, subcategory = Festum fori/terrae


Type of Evidence = Feast Day
Type of Evidence, subcategory = Festum chori

As an example, I have chosen a 13th-century century calendar fragment from the Skara Diocese (Figure 1). The feast days in red ink have been input into the database as a Cult Manifestation for a Feast Day > Festum fori/terrae for the month of March (given numerically as “03”). The feast days in black ink have been input as a separate Cult Manifestation for a Feast Day > Festum chori. As Cult Manifestations are also connected to time in the Mapping Saints research resource, I will discuss further details as to how these feast days are inputted below.


The image is a visual aid to the text.

Figure 1. Calendar fragment Fr 25594 (Kal 2, 1r) contains the month of March. It indicates the liturgical rank in the right column. The feast days in black are interpreted as festum chori, while the feast days in red as festum fori. Photo by Sara Ellis Nilsson.


Challenges with Time

In order to get to grips with what we have termed our “time-scape”, as well as landscape, including dates is an important component in the project. Currently, we are discussing and working on ways to implement the myriad dates and ways of dealing with time associated with our rich and varied source material. One of the ways that we have approached the issue of visualizing when – in terms of which centuries – a feast day was probably celebrated is by providing a date or interval for when an object was produced (called Production date). However, in the case of the calendars, this date may obscure when in fact certain saints were venerated in the landscape in question. This is because many of the early calendars (now fragments) were produced in other locations – France, England or elsewhere – although they were later used in dioceses in the Ecclesiastical Province of Uppsala. Some of these saints were venerated liturgically and their feasts observed, while others were known by name only (due to their inclusion in calendars). In the project, all saints’ feast days in the calendar fragments are included in the database, as even knowledge about the saints could have had an influence on lived religion.

Currently, the solution that we have implemented to show when a Cult Manifestation was active – and which can later be visualized using a timeline connected to the map tool – is by providing a Function time-period for each manifestation. In the case of the calendars, this interval begins either when the calendar was produced or when a feast day was added to the calendar later. The estimated end date in the interval for Cult Manifestations for feast days based on those found in calendar fragments is 1571 (unless other evidence or information is available), which is the year that the Swedish government and church officials decided on formal new regulations for the church (Kyrkoordningen). These regulations were a precursor to the Church Law (Kyrkolagen) that was ratified over a century later (Malmstedt 1994: 59, 67; Zachrisson 2017: 42). It is important to note, however, that many feasts continued to be celebrated after 1571, and red ink was also used for major feasts after the Reformation. In these cases, another end date will be input. In the above example, the Function time-period for the feasts in the original calendar starts in the 13th century, based on when the calendar was made (the Production date), and ends in 1571. Any additions to the calendar, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas on March 7, are input as separate Cult Manifestations with a new start date in the Function time-period interval. This will allow us to analyze and visualize changes in Cult Manifestations over time. In Thomas’ case, the start of this Cult Manifestation is based on the addition in the early 1300s, and the interval is given as 1301—1571.

It is important to note that, as the project is ongoing, this system is under development and might be modified.


Future Analyses

After the feast days and their observance have been input into the calendars, I will use digital methods to analyze Cult Manifestations based on calendar entries, i.e. Feast Day > festum chori OR festum fori/terrae. These results will be mapped over time, from the evidence in the liturgical calendar fragments to the final version of the liturgical year that was established in the Calendars printed before the Reformation. The results will give a glimpse into the way medieval people lived religion through feast days. Combined with Cult Manifestations based on other forms of evidence, such as sculptures, I will then be able to determine which saints were celebrated where and which cults had the most impact on the way religion was lived in Swedish and Finnish dioceses during the medieval period.



Göran Malmstedt 1994. Helgdagsreduktionen. Övergången från ett medeltida till ett modernt år i Sverige, 1500–1800. Göteborg: Avhandlingar från Historiska institutionen i Göteborg.

Terese Zachrisson 2017, Mellan fromhet och vidskepelse: Materialitet och religiositet i det efterreformatoriska Sverige. Göteborg: Avhandling från Institutionen för historiska studier.

Fragments of a Year: Saints’ Feasts in Swedish and Finnish Medieval Calendars (Part II)

4 June, 2021

This second part of my discussion of Swedish and Finnish medieval Calendars and their place in the project Mapping Lived Religion (or, as we have started to affectionately call it, Mapping Saints) has been delayed in part due to the current pandemic. When I posted the first installment, I thought that I was just at the start of a year of regular trips to Stockholm to transcribe the calendar fragments that do not have photos in the Swedish National Archives Database of Medieval Parchment Cover Fragments (Riksarkivets databas över medeltida pergamentomslag, MPO). Studying these fragments will provide a clearer picture of what is actually extant and what these fragmented calendars can tell us about the medieval veneration of saints. However, the past year has put my plans to travel to the archives on hold. I am not more mobile now, nor have I had the chance to travel to Stockholm. However, our continuing project-work developing the database’s model, as well as re-checking my transcriptions and inputting them into the database has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on what calendars can tell us about the veneration of saints in terms of lived religion, as well as the use of digital methods in studying feast days.

In my previous post, I presented a short historiography of the research on parchment fragments in Scandinavia – without which ground-breaking work my current research would not have been possible. The subject of this blog-post focuses on the parchment fragments that the Mapping Lived Religion project is including in its database for medieval Sweden and Finland: the liturgical calendars. Specifically, the post explores what these calendars can tell us about the veneration of saints.


What can the calendars tell us about the veneration of saints?

Simply put, the perpetual, ecclesiastical calendars found in medieval liturgical books, for example breviaries, indicate the date and rank of established feasts throughout the year and are organized into two overlapping but separate annual cycles. The feasts that were part of the Sanctorale were fixed to specific dates each month and included saints’ feast days, while the annual cycle celebrating Jesus’ life was found in the Temporale (Harper 2001: 49, 290). In the case of feast days, the date and liturgical rank, as well as the observation of the feast can give us clues as to when and how the feast was to be celebrated and by whom, just the clergy or also the laity. In addition, saints’ feasts were sometimes celebrated on different days depending on the diocese. Of course, these calendars are normative sources, indicating a rule rather than a practice. However, it is possible to deduce/postulate what the consequences of these regulations would have been on a particular congregation. There are, however, some further indications which provide concrete clues more closely related to the actual practices associated with feast days: that is, 1) observation, 2) liturgical rank, and 3) the additions and removals of feast-days.

Observation indicates how a feast was required to be celebrated by a community, both the clergy and laypeople. In the later calendars, how or by whom the feast was to be observed was often included (or added in the case of older calendars) to the right of the saint’s name, sometimes in conjunction with the liturgical rank or number of lessons. Observation of the feast was indicated by the following terms: festum fori (“feast of obligation for all”) or festum terrae (“feast of obligation for the entire country”) and festum chori (“feast of obligation for the clergy”). In the calendar material from the Nordic countries, festum fori/terrae indicates the most important feasts that are to be observed or celebrated by the entire ecclesiastical province (in medieval Swedish, landsheligt, literally “holy throughout the land”). This included of course laypeople, who were expected to attend church and the liturgical celebrations that day. The other term, festum chori, specifies that the feast need only be celebrated liturgically by the clergy. The liturgical historian Sven Helander suggests that a cross can have the same function as festum terrae in the older calendars (1959b; 1959c). However, these terms were not connected to the liturgical rank, although feasts designated as festum terrae often enjoyed a higher liturgical rank which is to be expected. The use of colour in the calendars seems to be connected to the observation of a feast, not its liturgical rank: red indicating festum fori/terrae, and black festum chori. It is also important to note that the use of festum terrae continued even after the Reformation to indicate important feast days (Helander 1959c). Indeed, even today, “red days” indicate public holidays.

Liturgical rank indicates how important a feast was in terms of its liturgical celebration, that is the celebration conducted in church which included the number of readings and songs: in general, the higher the rank, the longer the service. This can be indicated in a number of ways. From the 12th–13th centuries, the following terminology was commonly used, and the liturgical rank was often included beside the entry for a saint’s feast. This could be indicated by the number of lessons or a number of other terms in the case of a feast with nine lessons (Harper 2001: 49, 53–54; Helander 1959a). The number of lessons indicate readings from the Bible or a saint’s life that were read aloud during Matins (one of the times of prayer that organized the day) and two Vespers (one the evening before, and one the evening on the actual feast day). These extra terms are: totum duplex or festum duplex (a “total double” or “double feast”, that is a major feast and both indicate the highest rank), semiduplex (literally “half double” and indicates a feast between a simple and double), and simplex (a simple feast, that is a lesser feast with three lessons read at Matins in parish churches or nine lessons in monasteries). Of course, there are a number of hypotheses regarding what these terms actually indicated (Helander 1959a). The celebration of an office with three lessons does not seem to have required additional terms. A saint’s feast day could also be celebrated as a memoria (“memorial”, that is a day of remembrance to commemorate a minor saint which does not affect the regular daily liturgy). All of the other terms indicate a disruption to regular liturgical patterns.


Illustrates the discussion in the text

Figure 1. A calendar fragment, Fr 25594 (Kal 2, 2r) from Skara Diocese, which contains the month of September and shows the liturgical rank in the right column. For example, at the end of the first row in black, “ix l’c” indicates 9 lessons, while mem[oria] indicates a day of remembrance. The feast days written in red ink are probably festum fori/terrae. Photo: Sara Ellis Nilsson.

Moreover, additions and, if identifiable, removals (crossing or rubbing out) of feast days provide evidence for new saints, as well as changes to how saints were venerated and whose feast days were observed. Additions of the type of observation beside feast days also give an indication as to the importance of a saint’s feast at a later date. Additions of liturgical rank beside feast days provide additional evidence that a cult received renewed attention and the feasts were not just passive names in a calendar. However, these additions do not necessarily indicate a new manifestation of the cult. Adding a liturgical rank could also be a top-down activity and these saints were not necessarily celebrated.

Thus, observation and liturgical rank are key to understanding two different aspects of feasts. The current project’s focus is on lived religion; as a result, the observation of a feast – whether only by the clergy or by the entire community, including laypeople – is regarded as significant evidence for a saint’s feast day being a part of the lives of both clergy and laypeople. It provides clues as to which days would have affected the everyday lives of laypeople: when they were required to attend church or when they would have at least half a day off manual labour.

In my next post, I will discuss my work in classifying and organizing evidence from the calendars to include in our database. This work includes how to interpret the dating of source material – an important part when studying history – as well as a look ahead to my planned analyses of the development of saints’ feasts in medieval Sweden and Finland.



John Harper 2001. The Forms and Order of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sven Helander 1959a. “Festgrader”. In John Granlund (ed.). Kulturhistoriskt lexikon för nordisk medeltid (KLNM). Malmö: Allhems förlag, pp. 241–243.

Sven Helander 1959b. ”Festum chori o. festum fori”. In John Granlund (ed.). Kulturhistoriskt lexikon för nordisk medeltid (KLNM). Malmö: Allhems förlag, pp. 243–244.

Sven Helander 1959c. ”Festum terrae”. In John Granlund (ed.). Kulturhistoriskt lexikon för nordisk medeltid (KLNM). Malmö: Allhems förlag, pp. 244–245.



Saints and Holy Wells – A Medieval Tradition?

23 February, 2021


St. Olaf’s Spring and ”St. Olaf’s Cauldron” in Borgsjö, Medelpad.

Bodies of water believed to be gateways to the supernatural are a common aspect in many cultures, and they are still a feature of modern Christianity. The veneration of springs is an adaptable tradition that can be tied to deities, saints and other supernatural forces, all according to the particular cultural context in which they are found. In medieval Europe, many wells and springs were associated with the saints. Healing miracles frequently occurred at these wells, and pilgrims left votive offerings at the sites. At times, the crutches and canes left behind would pile up by the wells, as a testament to the intervention of the saints.

In the Swedish source material, holy wells and springs are frequently mentioned in 17th-century antiquarian reports, where they are usually described as remnants of a ‘superstitious’ Catholic past. Some of the springs were dedicated to universal saints, such as the Virgin Mary, St. Lawrence or St. Nicholas, but a large portion of them were connected to regional and local saints that were believed to actually have been present at the sites during their lifetimes. St. Olaf and St. Sigfrid, who according to tradition travelled extensively during their lives, have both left a particular abundance of footprints in the form of natural objects bearing their names. But holy wells also give us glimpses of saints’ cults that are otherwise largely unknown — for instance St. Ingemo in Dala, St. Torsten in Bjurum, and St. Björn in Klockrike.

But can we really know that holy wells and the religious traditions associated with them were part of medieval lived religion, when the majority of the sources are from the early modern period? The answer is that we simply cannot know for sure, but that there is a high probability that they were. Holy wells have been strangely neglected in modern Scandinavian research. When mentioned at all, they are often, especially in popular publications, sweepingly referred to as ‘pagan survivals’. There has been some scholarly debate in Denmark as to their status in the medieval tradition. Jens Christian Johansen (1997) and Susanne Andersen (1985) both state that holy wells are to be viewed as a primarily Post-Reformation phenomenon, and that evidence of the cult is almost entirely lacking from the medieval period. According to this view, the cult of holy wells developed in the early modern era in part as a way of compensating for the loss of the saints in institutionalized religion, and in part due to the growing fashion among the upper classes of attending spas and mineral wells.

That the Reformation and the sudden disappearance of several previously important channels to the divine led to a surge in visits to holy wells and other sites that were outside of ecclesiastical control is not in doubt here. But does that mean the cult of holy wells was non-existent in the Middle Ages? I would argue not. While evidence of the medieval cult of holy wells in Sweden is unusual, it is not entirely lacking.

Letter of indulgence for the chapel above St. Elin’s Spring in Skövde, Västergötland.
Photograph by the Swedish National Archives.

The most prominent examples are the two springs dedicated to St. Elin of Skövde in Skövde and Götene in the Skara Diocese. Already in the officium to St. Elin composed by Bishop Brynolf Algotsson (in office from 1278–1317), it is mentioned that a spring miraculously appeared at the site of Elin’s martyrdom. In addition to this, we have three preserved letters of indulgence that mention the sacred springs. In a letter from 1373 (SDHK 10386), Bishop Nils of Skara grants 40 days of indulgence to pious visitors to the oratorium jn honorem gloriose martiris Elene super fontem suum prope Skødw, that is, “the shrine in honour of the glorious martyr Elin, above her spring near Skövde”. Though the indulgence primarily concerns the shrine or chapel  built above the spring, the spring itself seems central: on the back of the letter, a later scribe in a 15th-century hand, has added the words: indulgencie ad fontem — indulgence for the spring. The indulgences granted at the Skövde spring were reaffirmed in another letter in 1425 by Bishop Sigge (SDHK 20587). The other St. Elin’s Spring, at the site of her murder in Götene, is also mentioned in a letter of indulgence, issued in 1462 by Bishop Lars of Växjö (SDHK 40914). In this letter, indulgence is granted to those that under certain conditions visit Götene Parish Church, but also to those that with good intentions visit the Fontem Sancte Helene. 

Some legal sources also mention holy wells. In the court records from the town of Arboga in 1459, Hælge Swens kællo — a holy well dedicated to the elusive local saint Sven of Arboga — is mentioned briefly. The most famous holy well in Sweden was likely Helga Kors källa (‘Holy Cross Spring’) in Svinnegarn parish in the archdiocese of Uppsala. Accounts of the cult of this spring are abundant from the early modern period, but the cult is alluded to in sources that strengthen its ties back to the Middle Ages. In 1483, a man in Stockholm convicted of manslaughter was required to make several pilgrimages in order to atone for his crime, with one of the locations being Svinnegarn. In his 1566 writing on church ordinances and ceremonies, Reformer and first Lutheran Archbishop Laurentius Petri stated his disapproval of how the ‘popish’ clergy had consecrated wells and springs. In the same work, he also criticized the previously abundant pilgrimages to famous sites like Rome, Santiago de Compostela – and Svinnegarn. To be fair, we do not know whether these sources refer to the church of Svinnegarn, the spring, or indeed both. That the spring itself had been the object of pilgrimage is indicated by the writings of Johannes Messenius (1579–1636). According to his Scondia Illustrata, a holy crucifix had been placed at the renowned Svinnegarn spring, and it had been removed by Laurentius Petri. Messenius lived in close proximity in time to the later part of the Swedish Reformation, and many in his audience could easily have falsified his claims were they not common knowledge at the time. Several coins have also been located in the spring, though the oldest one is dated to the 1590s — but the offertory log that according to oral tradition used to be placed by the spring, contained several coins from the period 1275–1520. 

Medieval comb found in one of Barnabrunnarna in Tolg, Småland.
Photograph by the Swedish National Heritage Board.

Speaking of archaeological finds, in 1901, when clearing one of the Barnabrunnarna (literally ”Children’s Wells”) in Tolg parish in Växjö Diocese, nearly 6000 coins, tokens, and other small objects were found. The majority of these offerings could be dated to the period between the late 16th century and the mid-19th century, but among them were also a medieval comb and a coin issued in the reign of King Magnus Eriksson (1319–1354). That so few medieval objects have been found in holy wells could either indicate that the cult was only a minor feature of medieval lived religion, or that many of the springs were cleared at some point following the Reformation. But whether the cult was a major or minor aspect of the medieval repertoire of piety, it certainly did occur. 

There is also the aspect of the place of Scandinavian religious culture in the context of a wider medieval Christendom. Recent research has demonstrated that Scandinavian Christianity was firmly in line with the church in Rome, with a vast and active network of ecclesiastical communication, and by no means as ‘peripheral’ as previously believed. The cult of holy wells was an integrated part of everyday piety throughout Christian Europe – why would Scandinavia differ from the rest in this particular aspect? Concluding that since records of the Scandinavian cult of holy wells in the Middle Ages are scarce, it did not exist, is an argumentum ex silentio. But at the end of the day, every scholar using our database will have to make their own assessment of the evidence available. 


Further reading:

Celeste Ray (ed.), Sacred Waters: A Cross-Cultural Compendium of Hallowed Springs and Holy Wells, Abington 2020.

Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, Oxford 2011.

Terese Zachrisson, Mellan fromhet och vidskepelse: Materialitet och religiositet i det efterreformatoriska Sverige, Göteborg 2017.