Author Archive

Wayside Shrines, Crosses, and Saints’ Images in the Nordic Landscape

Monday, February 13th, 2023

Terese Zachrisson, University of Gothenburg

Figure 1. A wayside shrine points out ’the narrow path’ towards Heaven to a fool stuck in a swamp in Sebastian Brant’s 1494 Ship of Fools. Image by Project Gutenberg (CC0 1.0 Universal).

A phenomenon that usually catches the eye of modern Scandinavians travelling through the Alps or the Southern European countryside, is the multitude of small wayside shrines scattered throughout the landscape. To secularised Scandinavians, this is often a rather exotic view. Few are aware that this aspect of sacred topography was once as common a sight in the North.

Christian wayside shrines come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A type of shrine evident from late medieval illustrations — that is still common today — is that of a crucifix or a saints’ image with a gabled ‘roof’ or enclosed in a small open ‘house’ (see figures 1 and 2). Shrines can also consist of a larger free-standing cross or crucifix, made of either stone or wood (see figure 3), or a large saints’ sculpture, for instance placed in a grotto or small oratory. Another variant is a painted image on a board or tablet, that according to some 17th-century descriptions seems to have been relatively common in Sweden. 

Wayside shrines were the focal points of ‘devotion on the go’. People working the fields, herding livestock in the woods, travelling along roads or visiting markets would kneel, make the sign of the cross and offer a prayer at such sites. Visiting shrines and crosses could also be a substitute for church attendance, when circumstances made it difficult to travel far. Shrines could also fill other functions. They could function as boundary markers and they could indicate sites where something remarkable had taken place, like a battle, or where someone had met a tragic and untimely end. People dying in riding accidents are especially common in the folklore surrounding many memorial crosses, and this tradition has much in common with offerkast* and the modern-day tradition of marking the sites of fatal car accidents with candles and flowers (Petersson 2009, 87). Even when a shrine mainly had a memorial function, it still called out for interaction with passers-by. Some of the surviving inscriptions on stone crosses request prayers for the victim’s soul, like the 13th-century runic inscription on a cross in Guldrupe parish on Gotland that says: Pray for Jakob in Annuganänge’s [?] soul, whom Nikulas slaughtered. 

Wayside shrines could also mark processional routes, as evidenced from medieval Central Europe, where religious processions ended in the open-air celebration of mass (Timmermann 2012, 393). According to Bishop Jöran Wallin the Younger (1668–1760), the stone cross in Kräklingbo had once had an altar at its base, for this very reason (Säve 1873, 18–19). Other shrines functioned as stations along pilgrimage routes, showing the way to pilgrims both physically and spiritually. 

Figure 2. Pilgrims at a wayside shrine. Colourised woodcut from a prayer book by Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg (Augsburg 1510). Image by the British Museum (CC BY-NC- SA 4.0).

As with so many other aspects of medieval Christianity in the Swedish realm, the contemporary sources rarely contain references to wayside shrines and we often have to rely on early modern narratives in order to identify sites that had these types of shrines. While shrines were likely an important part of the lived religion of the laity, as long as they weren’t part of saints’ legends or renowned enough to be objects of substantial donations, there was probably little motivation to mention them in writing. Many small shrines were likely also initiated and maintained by the laity, and as such not part of the formal ecclesiastical framework of buildings and other official structures. 

But there is little reason to doubt that wayside shrines were indeed a part of the religious repertoire of the Nordic region in the Middle Ages. From Norway and Iceland there are some early examples of wayside crosses in the sagas. St Olaf himself is said to have erected a cross in Sunnmøre in 1029 and Bishop Gudðmundr the Good (1161–1237) is said to have had several crosses consecrated along the Icelandic coast (Gardell 1930, 2–3).

In the last will and testament of Queen Margaret, the architect of the Kalmar Union, five different crosses in her vast realm were mentioned (DD 1405. Sorø 12. April.). For the sake of the queen’s soul, pilgrims were to be dispatched to the holy crosses in Solna in Sweden, in Borre in Norway, in Hattula in Finland and Randers and Kliplev in Denmark. Margaret’s will doesn’t clarify whether these crosses were free-standing shrines or part of the churches’ furnishings.  In the case of Hattula, the cross in question has been identified with the 14th-Century crucifix still in place in the parish church (Hagen 2021, 113–114), but no crucifix has been preserved from Solna, and it is possible that it was indeed a free-standing object.

The terminology used in the sources presents a challenge to its categorisation and analysis. For example, the Swedish word for cross — kors — had a much wider application in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period than it has today. It could refer to both  the ‘naked’ cross and the crucifix, and it was used for both smaller objects and large, free standing ones. Sometimes it seems to have been used to refer to a shrine or holy object in general — that in itself could have had any iconographic content.

In the Mapping Saints database we have currently collected around thirty such sites. Crosses and sculptures placed by holy wells aren’t included among these, since we view them as part of the wells rather than their own separate sites. Neither are the crosses mentioned in the will of Queen Margaret categorised as wayside shrines. Due to the uncertainty mentioned above, we haven chosen to categorise them as connected to the parish churches of Solna and Hattula.

Several wayside crosses were associated with the saints. At St Olaf’s Harbour in Medelpad, the staring point of the northern pilgrims’ way to Nidaros, a large copper-clad cross was in place up to the middle of the 17th century. In Ålem in Småland, St Birgitta’s Cross marked the site where the ship carrying St Birgitta’s relics back to Sweden from Rome is said to have docked in 1374. In Nousiainen, Finland, a cross in remembrance of St Henrik was still standing in a field by 1674. 

Figure 3. 13th-Century stone cross on Kapelludden, Öland, later associated with St. Birgitta. Photograph by the author (CC0 1.0 Universal).

The saints could also be present at wayside shrines through their images. For example, a highly unusual object has been preserved in Liden Church in Medelpad: a simple wooden cross with a painting of St Martin on one side, and St Margaret on the other, dated to the first quarter of the 16th century (Figure 4). According to local tradition, as mediated by the parish’s pastor in 1776, the cross had been placed at a site in the woods “during the papacy” (HLA Härnösands domkapitel EIII:69). This shrine was visited by those who were unable to travel to the church, and who left offerings at the site. The cross itself is covered in grafitti, initials, and house-marks, which lends additional credence to the story. 

One aspect that likely contributed to the popularity of wayside shrines were their accessibility. As indicated above, such sites were accessible to people who due to age, ill health or remote living conditions had a difficult time attending church on a regular basis. Not only could these sites be found close at hand, they were also always open. Even when crosses and saints’ images were enclosed in some kind of small structure, there were no ‘opening hours’ to take into account. A clear example of the importance of availability is seen in the instructions by Bishop Eystein of Oslo (c. 1337–1407) regarding a wayside cross raised in honour of St Olaf in Eidskog:

Thus, we let it be so, that this cross is maintained and that there be made a small prayer-house in honour of St Olaf, with an altar and a door without a lock, so that it is always open and ready for the pilgrims to have mass there, as we have promised, when they cannot enter the church (DN I:545, Vinger, February 18, 1394).

He further specifies that half the income from offerings left at the site is to belong to the church, and the other half to the shrine itself, which is probably one of the reasons that his stipulations for the small shrine were put into writing. 

The 17th-century antiquarian reports, written by local clergy and magistrates and sent to the Swedish College of Antiquities, speak of several wayside shrines which still existed in living memory, and some that were still in use. One example is from Funäsdalen, located in the mountainous border region between present-day Sweden and Norway, where remnants of an “offering cross” [sv. offerkors] were still visible, as well as the evidence of an offering practice in the form of scattered coins on the ground (Ranns. I, 245). Another cross is mentioned from Södra Åsarp in Västergötland. It stood in a field, and according to two different reports from 1668, people would visit the cross to pray with their rosaries (Ranns. I, 195 & 202). Crosses from the Finnish part of the realm are also mentioned in the early modern sources. When Dutch diplomat Andries van Wouw visited Finland in 1616 he commented on the tall crosses with an altar-like foundation he encountered in Savonia (Wikman 1947, 114) and the same tradition was reported from Karelia (Arffman 2016, 259). 

Figure 4. A cross with saints’ images and grafitti from Indals-Liden, 1500–1525. Photograph by the Swedish National Heritage Board (CC0 1.0 Universal).

A particularly interesting case is found in a rather unlikely source — a scientific treatise from 1698 on the midnight sun by Mathematician Johan Bilberg. When travelling through Västerbotten in 1694, he visited Bygdeå Parish Church, where he was shown a saint’s sculpture that had functioned as a woodland shrine where parishioners living far from the church had met together for worship. After “the most happy Times of Religion being purged from the Heresies of Papists”, the image had been brought back to the church and laid aside “in detestation of the Memory of that Matter” (Bilberg 1698, 86). A very similar case is found in Lövånger, about 45 kilometres to the north of Bygdeå, where parishioners born in the late 19th century still remembered a sculpture (CM #73) by the name of ’God in Vebomark‘ (figure 6), that had previously been placed in the Vebomark forest (SND LUKA 1, 1 *113302). 

Tablets with painted images of Christ, the saints, or the Cross is also hinted at in several early modern sources that describe shrines as “votive boards” or “offering tablets” [sv. offertavla]. According to Fale A. Burman, who travelled through Jämtland in the late 18th century, many place-names containing the word tavel, such as Tavellokan and Tavelbacken, reflect the memory of such shrines (Burman 1898, 104). Another indication of the past importance of wayside shrines, and how they were preserved in memory, are the sayings that were common in Sweden in the Early Modern period. When describing someone lacking in piety, it was said that that he or she “went to neither cross nor church” [sv. gick varken till kors eller kyrka], and someone admitting their wrongdoings were often said to “crawl to the cross” [sv. krypa till korset]. While the former expression is extinct, the latter is still widely used in Swedish. 

* An offerkast [“offering throw”] is a heap of pebbles, twigs and branches marking the site of an untimely death. Passers-by would throw a pebble or twig onto the heap while passing.



Arffman, Kaarlo, ”Resistance to the Reformation in 16th-Century Finland”, in Sari Katajala-Peltomaa & Raisa Maria Toivo (eds.), Lived Religion and the Long Reformation in Northern Europe c. 1300-1700, Boston 2016. 

Burman, Fale A., Fale A. Burmans koncept-dagböcker förda under resor i Jämtland åren 1793–1802. I utdrag utgifna af Johan Nordlander, Stockholm 1894.

Diplomatarium Danicum (DD), Sorø 12. April, 1405.

Diplomatarium Norvegicum (DN) I:545, Vinger 18 February, 1394.

Gardell, Sölve, ”Om kors och korshus i medeltidens Bohuslän”, i Göteborgs och Bohusläns fornminnesförenings tidskrift, Göteborg 1930.

Hagen, Kaja M. H., “O holy cross, you are all our help and comfort”: Wonderworking Crosses and Crucifixes in Late Medieval and Early Modern Norway, Oslo 2021.

Lund University, Lund University Church History Archive (2014). Questions concerning religious conceptions and church customs, *113302. Swedish National Data Service. Version 1.0.

National Archives of Sweden in Härnösand (HLA), Domkapitlets i Härnösand arkiv, EIII:69. 

Petersson, Anna, ”Swedish Offerkast and Recent Roadside Memorials”, in Folklore, vol. 120:1, 2009.

Rannsakningar efter antikviteter, Vol. 1. Stockholm 1969. 

Säve, Per-Arvid, ”Kors på Gotland”, in Svenska fornminnesföreningens tidskrift, Vol. 2:1, Stockholm 1873. 

Timmermann, Achim, ”Highways to Heaven (and Hell): Wayside Crosses and the Making of Late Medieval Landscape”, in Celeste Brusati, Karl A. E. Enenkel & Walter Melion (eds), The Authority of the Word: Reflecting on Image and Text in Northern Europe, 1400–1700, Leiden 2012.

Wikman, K. Rob. V., ”Gårdskors och bönkors”, in Fataburen: Nordiska museet och Skansens årsbok, Stockholm 1947. 

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

Wednesday, June 15th, 2022

Terese Zachrisson, University of Gothenburg

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.

Saints and Holy Wells – A Medieval Tradition?

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

Terese Zachrisson, University of Gothenburg

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 1487, 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.




Medieval Church Objects and Early Modern Antiquarianism

Friday, November 8th, 2019

It’s not just the middle ages that can tell us about the middle ages. A very large quantity of medieval devotional objects was preserved – and sometimes in continuous use – in post-reformation churches. The great era of destruction of these artifacts wasn’t in the wake of the Reformation, but occurred during the Enlightenment. By then, medieval churches were considered too small, too dark and too primitive, and the parishes that could afford to do so, often had them torn down and replaced by the spacious, neoclassical white churches that today can be seen all over the Swedish countryside. Sculptures of saints that weren’t lucky enough to have been bought by museums and private collectors, often ended up as oven fuel.

But parallel to, and in part due to, this modernising process, antiquarians and other scholars started to display an increased fascination with the history of their hometowns and villages, resulting in a boom in historical dissertations focusing on the author’s home region. Luckily, this has left an abundance of evidence of many soon-to-be-discarded medieval church objects, whose existence otherwise would have been unknown to us. An excellent example of these 18th-century academic pursuits are the collections of Sven Wilskman (1716–1797) and Olof Sundholm (1752–1819) that I have recently spent a few days researching in Skara stifts- och landsbibliotek as part of the project.

Wilskman and Sundholm systematically collected parish descriptions from the clergy of the Skara diocese, and these descriptions offer many interesting insights into the medieval heritage still kept in parish churches. Though these local pastors had an excellent knowledge of their own churches, as to when renovations had taken place, when an object had been discarded and so on, they weren’t always that knowledgable when it came to iconography.

In the description of Ottravad parish church, authored by its vicar in 1784, the vicar tells us of an image of a man placed in a shrine in the church. According to his parishioners, the image represented a man named Antonius, who had once lived in the parish. He was a prosperous swine farmer, and used all the revenue from his sale of pork to pay for the foundation of Ottravad church. That was why he was shown with a pig on his arm, with a small bell around its neck. Though the vicar himself didn’t know it, this description helps us to identify the saint as the desert father St. Anthony! The people of Ottravad had remembered his name, but without the ecclesiastical framework of the pre-reformation Church, his legend had been forgotten, and a new one invented instead – one that placed him firmly on local ground.

Another interesting finding from these collections is the 18th-century discovery of a relic in Habo parish church. In 1716 the church was to be renovated, and the old high altar was torn down. Inside the altar a small urn was discovered. In the urn there was a small bone wrapped in red silk fabric, and next to it a small piece of parchment, whose inscription contained the information that during the episcopacy of Bishop Sigge (1340–1352), a relic of the 11000 virgins that accompanied St. Ursula had been enshrined when consecrating the altar. The relic container itself is today kept at Västergötlands museum, but the informative piece of parchment seems to have been lost. If the vicar hadn’t remembered the occasion when faced with Wilskman’s questionnaire, we would never have known what saint this object was associated with.

The collections are of course mostly consisting of less spectacular– but not less important – information of medieval church objects. We are told of a now-lost sculpture of the Virgin Mary in Vesene parish church, that the bell of Råda church was consecrated in the honour of St John the Baptist, that St. Catherine was depicted on the murals of Böne parish church, that an inscription in Blidsberg parish said that the church was inaugurated during the feast of St. Eric and that a medieval image of St. Sigfrid had been incorporated into the the early modern pulpit at Öttum parish church.

All in all, these collections help us to fill in the gap when the medieval sources themselves are silent and let us in not only on the richness of medieval lived religion, but of its afterlife in the early modern era as well.