saints feasts

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

Friday, September 17th, 2021

Steffen Hope, Linnaeus University and Oslo University

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.

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

Friday, June 18th, 2021

Sara Ellis-Nilsson, Linnaeus University

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.