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

16:06 by Sara Ellis Nilsson

Sara Ellis-Nilsson, Linnaeus University

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.



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