Saints and Holy Wells – A Medieval Tradition?


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.




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


Sara Ellis-Nilsson, Linnaeus University

Part I: the Sources

The start of another (Gregorian calendar) year provides a fitting opportunity to present an important source for the cults of saints in the medieval period: the Calendars. These perpetual timekeepers were full of information about, among other things, the months and days of the years, important liturgical celebrations, the “golden numbers” used to calculate Easter, and saints’ feast days. Calendars were included in other works, such as liturgical books, chronicles, annals, and treatises.[1] Regarding the cults of saints, they provided instructions as to the observation and liturgical rank of saints’ feast days.


January calendar fragment with feast days from Linköping Diocese

Fr 27557 (Mi 666, Mi753) – 15th-century Calendar fragment for January in use in the Linköping Diocese


For the earliest period, that is from the 12th to the 14th centuries, the Swedish Calendar material is fragmentary. However, for the end of the medieval period, entire liturgical works, such as printed breviaries and missals, still survive and include complete calendars. This way of organizing the year was valid until just prior to the Reformation. In order to chart the development of saints’ days, the early calendar fragments, in combination with the printed works, are important. Once a part of over 6000 manuscripts – from theological treatises to liturgical books – it is, in fact, lucky that these mutilated codices survived at all. These volumes were considered obsolete in the ecclesiastical reforms which occurred in the wake of Martin Luther’s reformation and, in the Nordic countries, were collected in order to be re-purposed.

Thus, as one of the consequences of the Reformation in the Nordic countries, these discarded manuscripts were re-used, among other things, as parchment covers on account books or binding reinforcements. In itself, re-using the parchment was not unusual in the medieval period as parchment, being costly and valuable, for worn-out books was often re-purposed in some way.[2] In Sweden, it was King Gustav Vasa who made this particular decision to re-use the pages as wrappers for his accounts. The practice was then later continued by his sons. In fact, nearly all of the accounts of the Chamber Archives are bound in old church books.[3] These included pages from liturgical books including their accompanying calendars.

Before discussing the calendars further, it is important to give a brief overview of the work that has been done identifying and cataloguing the parchment fragments. The systematic collection and re-use of these parchment leaves meant that they were preserved in the Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet and Kammararkivet) and, eventually, in Helsinki in the Senate Archives and then in the National Library of Finland (Helsinki University Library). In Sweden, by 1930, Antonie (Toni) Schmid (1897-1972) began cataloguing and collating the fragment material about which the National Librarian Isak Collijn (1875-1949) had originally written an account. Oloph Odenius was Schmids assistant in the cataloguing endeavour from the 1950s and he continued her work after she left the archives.[4] Their project was re-vitalized in 1995 by Jan Brunius (Swedish National Archives), together with Gunilla Björkvall (Stockholm University) and Anna Wolodarski (National Library of Sweden). Over the next decade, the MPO-project (Medeltida PergamentOmslag, or medieval parchment covers) aimed to complete Schmids Catalogus Codicum Mutilorum (CCM) – i.e. catalogue of mutilated manuscripts – and catalogue the fragments in a database that is now available online: the Database of Medieval Parchment Fragments.

As for the material preserved in Finland, it is estimated that the fragments once comprised 1500 volumes. After Finland was annexed by Russia in 1809, the documents related to Finnish and Russian territories formerly belonging to Sweden were moved to the Senate Archives. From the mid-19th century, a process of removing the medieval parchment fragments from the account books and tax records began. This collection was then moved to what was then called the Helsinki University Library, now the National Library of Finland. The first attempt to systematically catalogue the material was started in the early 20th century by Toivo Haapanen (a musicologist), who was interested in the liturgical material. A church historian, Aarno Maliniemi, studied the calendar fragments around the same time.[5] However, it was first in the 1970s that Anja Inkeri Lehtinen commenced the next step in the cataloguing of the fragment material, in particular the theological and legal texts. After this, a number of scholars actively catalogued various categories of material in the 1980s and 1990s, for example Ilkka Taitto’s research into the antiphonaries. Finally, in the early 21st century, Tuomas Heikkilä led a project focussing on literary culture, rather than on specific book categories. One of the results of this project was a catalogue of previously uncatalogued fragments and the beginnings of a digital research database of the fragments.[6] The resulting database was the first released in the Nordic countries. More recently, work on the fragments has also been published by, among others, Jaakko Tahkokallio, Ville Walta, and Jesse Keskiaho. The resulting catalogue and digital images of the Fragmenta Membranea Collection are available online in the Fragmenta membranea database: .

As part of this project, I am studying the development of saints’ feasts in the Ecclesiastical Province of Uppsala by analyzing the addition and removal of feasts in the Calendar fragments. Using digital methods to compare and map the calendars, these results will be compared to the final version of the liturgical year that was established in the printed Calendars before the Reformation. More on this part of the project will be the subject of my next blog-post.



[1] See also, Kathleen Doyle and Cristian Ispir, “Medieval Calendars” (British Library, 2019),, Accessed 2020-01-04.

[2] This occurred in all three kingdoms Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. An overview of research on the fragments in Norway and a digitized catalogue can now be found online, here: . For Denmark, see, e.g. Åslaug Ommundsen & Tuomas Heikkilä (eds.), Nordic Latin Manuscript Fragments: The Destruction and Reconstruction of Medieval Books (Routledge, 2017).

[3] Jan Brunius, “Medieval manuscript fragments in the National Archvies – a survey”, in Jan Brunius (ed.), Medieval Book Fragments in Sweden (The Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, 2005).

[4] For more info see, “Antonie (Toni) E M Schmid” (by Jan Brunius) in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon (1917-):  and Jan Brunius, “Foreword” in Jan Brunius, From Manuscripts to Wrappers: Medieval Book Fragments in Swedish National Archives (Skrifter utgivna av Riksarkivet 35, 2013).

[5] Tuomas Heikkilä, “Research on parchment fragments”, The National Library of Finland Bulletin 2012. 2012. Accessed: 2020-01-14. See also, the collection description:

[6] Heikkilä, “Research on parchment fragments”,