Local cults of saints played a role in Scandinavian Christianisation

Parchment fragment of a medieval church book. Image: Sara Ellis Nilsson/University of Gothenburg

Parchment fragment of a medieval church book. Image: Sara Ellis Nilsson/University of Gothenburg

There is a clear link between the celebration of native saints and the ecclesiastical organisation that emerged in Scandinavia in the 12th century. Yet, according to a new doctoral thesis in history from the University of Gothenburg, important differences can be noted between Sweden and Denmark.

Local cults of saints emerged during the Early Middle Ages in the area of Scandinavia that was separated into the ecclesiastical provinces of Lund and Uppsala, roughly corresponding to modern-day Denmark and Sweden. Dioceses and other institutions were established in both provinces in the 11th and 12th centuries.

A Scandinavian perspective

This first-ever comparative study of all 23 native saints in both provinces yields a comprehensive Scandinavian perspective that has been missing in previous research on European cults of saints.

These early cults of saints served several purposes. The celebration of local saints supported the Christianisation, but cults were also a way to confirm sacred places. It wasn’t unusual that churches and monasteries were built in these locations. New sacred places could also be used to support local leaders or to create new pilgrimage sites and thereby facilitate the undertaking of pilgrimages for the new Christians,’ says Sara Ellis Nilsson, author of the thesis.

Sara Ellis Nilsson. Image: Monica Havström/University of Gothenburg

Sara Ellis Nilsson. Image: Monica Havström/University of Gothenburg

These saints were often individuals who had lived in the location in question, such as Elin of Skövde, Botvid of Södermanland, Thøger of Vestervig and Margareta of Roskilde. They were important role models for people in areas that had recently been Christianised. All saints were considered to have performed miracles, which were documented in their biographies. Some saints were martyrs, whereas others were canonised based on their good deeds. For example, Elin of Skövde collected money for the construction of a church.

Ellis Nilsson shows that Denmark was interested in papal canonisation much earlier than Sweden, indicating stronger ties to the Papacy.
In Denmark, the holy person had to be canonised by the pope in order to be officially celebrated by the church. That wasn’t necessary in Sweden,’ she says.

Medieval church books

Her research on local cults has at times consisted of meticulous detective work to sort through the remains of medieval church books. After the Reformation, these books were cut up in pieces and used as new book covers, often for 17th century account books. One hundred years ago, efforts to catalogue the fragments were initiated. This work has resulted in a digital catalogue of the Swedish fragments, which means that these valuable sources can be used once again.

Ellis Nilsson has studied parchment fragments of church books and other texts, which comprise the earliest preserved evidence of these cults.

One can find a lot of information in these texts. The native saints were venerated and celebrated in church and had their own days in the Calendar. For example, in dioceses where they were considered to be important, the saint’s feast day was for everybody to enjoy and not just the priests. This was the case for Elin, who continued to be venerated in the Diocese of Skara for a long time. In contrast, the status of the Danish female saints was not nearly as long-lasting, probably because they did not have enough support from wealthy families and the Church. They were never given their own official feast days,’ says Ellis Nilsson.