JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING OF LOVE AND ITS CONTEXTS ©1997-2017 JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAY  || JULIAN OF NORWICH  || SHOWING OF LOVE || HER TEXTS || HER SELF || ABOUT HER TEXTS || BEFORE JULIAN || HER CONTEMPORARIES || AFTER JULIAN || JULIAN IN OUR TIME ||  ST BIRGITTA OF SWEDEN  ||  BIBLE AND WOMEN || EQUALLY IN GOD'S IMAGE  || MIRROR OF SAINTS || BENEDICTINISM || THE CLOISTER  || ITS SCRIPTORIUM  || AMHERST MANUSCRIPT || PRAYER || CATALOGUE AND PORTFOLIO (HANDCRAFTS, BOOKS ) || BOOK REVIEWS || BIBLIOGRAPHY ||
 

ST BIRGITTA OF SWEDEN'S INFLUENCE IN FINLAND

MAIJU LEHMIJOKI

 

I. Birgitta of Sweden and Bishop Hemming of Åbo

uring many of her Revelations, St Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) heard Christ and the Virgin reveal the will of God, which she was to pass on to secular and clerical rulers, as well as to common people. These messages often fiercely urged their recipients to repent so that their souls would be saved from divine anger, and God's peace could rule the world. The spiritual messages were intertwined with visions for the practical reform of the church and secular kingdoms, which in Birgitta's day were troubled by wars, the Papacy's dislocation in Avignon (1309-1377) and epidemic of the plague later known as the Black Death (1347-1351).

In the late Middle Ages Finland, then an eastern province of the Swedish Kingdom, was only partially Christianized. The cooperation with the Swedish church was close and most of Finland's high-ranking clergymen came from the Swedish Diocese of Uppsala and the region's written language was Swedish. When Birgitta was still in Sweden - that is, before her journey to Rome in 1349, from which she never returned - Finland was shepherded by the efficient and learned bishop of Åbo, Hemming (from 1338-1366). Hemming came from a well-to-do Swedish family, had close contacts with Swedish nobility, and knew Birgitta well. Birgitta chose him to accompany her confessor, the Cistercian Prior Peter of Alvastra, in a mission to Pope Clement VI at Avignon and to the Kings of England and France.

Bishop Hemming and Prior Peter made their journey between 1346 and 1349. Their mission was to deliver to the Pope Birgitta's Revelation which lamented the decline of the Papacy. This Brigittine Revelation urged the Pope to reform his own lasciviousness, to cease supporting the King of France, and to return the Papal See to Rome. In Birgitta's Revelation Christ spoke directly to Clement:

Hemming and Peter were also empowered with another of Birgitta's Revelationes (Rev. IV.103-105), which exhorted the Kings of France and England to end their hereditary strife, which was turning into a devastating sequence of wars. The mission of these two Nordic reformers was not untypical of the time; many visionaries sought audiences at the Papal Palace to deliver their visions for reform. These individuals also took part in the secular politics of the magnates of Europe. Alas, these peace makers spoke often to deaf ears. Likewise, Bishop Hemming and Prior Peter's journey bore little fruit. Clement remained in Avignon, where he continued his power-greedy life and his close relationship with the French King. It also turned out that the Kings of France and England were beginning their devastating Hundred Years' War (1338-1453). Birgitta's Vita states that the bellicose kings were 'less than willing to receive the words of God'. The cooperation between Birgitta and Hemming was a complementary partnership. An ardent visionary and a diligent administrator joined forces. Birgitta's Revelationes provided energy and inspiration while Bishop Hemming channeled these into practicable plans. On his return to Finland, Hemming probably spread the knowledge of Birgitta's sanctity in his diocese. After her death, Finns contributed to the collection of her miracles. For example, a clergyman from Kokemaki testified that a request to Birgitta had granted him the restoration of his sight. But towards the end of the fourteenth century the cult of St Birgitta, for over half a century, seems to disappear.

II. The Valley of Grace

irgitta's cult and the influence of the Brigittine Order (founded in 1370), was resuscitated when it was decided to establish a Brigittine Abbey in southern Finland for nuns and monks. The construction work for the abbey, Vallis gratiae (`Valley of Grace'), started in 1443. Nådendal was the name of the village (in Finnish 'Naantali') that quickly grew up around this thriving monastic community. The Abbey of Nådendal kept close contacts with its Swedish mother Abbey, Vadstena. Yet, especially in its golden age, from the 1460s to the 1490s, Nådendal was deeply rooted in the surrounding Finnish culture, and many of its members were recruited from the Swedish-speaking Finnish gentry.

For several decades the Brigittine Abbey of Nådendal was vital for Finnish religious, cultural and economic life. The Abbey was favoured by the nobility and gentry, whose generous donations helped Nådendal compete even against the nearby Cathedral of Åbo (in Finnish, 'Turku'), and that city's Dominican convent dedicated to Saint Olaf. The annual fairs in Nådendal helped the village's economy and merchants greatly profited from the pilgrims who came. The spiritual life of the cloistered nuns of Nådendal focused on contemplation and prayer, but they had a reputation also for their skilful handwork. Their lace products were especially famous. In the Abbey church the priest-monks gave sermons in both Swedish and Finnish, and they also had charge of the religious education of the nuns. The Abbey included the first-known Finnish author, Jons Budde (+ 1491), who translated saints' legends and the Books of Ruth and Esther into Swedish for the nuns' daily readings.

At the end of the fifteenth century Birgitta's cult blossomed also in other regions of Finland. Her feast day, 7 October, was given a solemn celebration. Birgitta and the Norwegian warrior king, Saint Olaf (+1030), were viewed as regional saints in Finland, alongside the sole canonized Finnish saint, the missionary Bishop Henrik (+1156). St Birgitta's popularity is seen in numerous church dedications. Several mural paintings and wooden statues of her survive from the fifteenth century, in which Birgitta is usually depicted with her characteristic emblem, the book, symbol of the Revelationes she received and which she then wrote.

Santa Birgitta ora pro nobis . 'Saint Birgitta, pray for us'. This inscription can still be seen under a well preserved mural painting of Birgitta in the Church of Parainen (1486). People asked Birgitta for intercessory prayer at the time when the Finnish region was entering exceptionally hard times. Throughout the Middle Ages, Finland had remained on the fringes of the Swedish Kingdom and consequently in poverty. At the end of the fifteenth century that poverty was aggravated by the Great Russian War, by very harsh winters, by famine and by epidemics of plague. The Abbey of Nådendal also suffered and in the 1508 Plague no less than thirty-six brothers and sisters died. The Finnish Brigittine Abbey never recovered its former glory after the loss of at least half its members. Its history as a Catholic Abbey then ended with the Lutheran Reforms executed by King Gustaf Wasa. After 1544, monastic life was prohibited and the property of Catholic religious houses was confiscated.

St Birgitta, Revelationes V, The Book of the Questions, Doubting Monk (Magister Mathias) on Ladder, Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1500. Helsinki University Library

III. Lutheran Times

he Lutheran Reform in Finland was carried out with great thoroughness. Today about ninety per cent of Finns belong to the Finnish Lutheran Church. With over four million members it ranks as the world's third largest Lutheran Church. In the decades of the Reformation, and in the following centuries, the cult of the saints was banned. In modern times, St Birgitta is, however, remembered as a major personage in medieval Scandinavia, and she is greatly honoured as part of Scandinavia's religious heritage.

Birgitta has also left many marks on Finnish secular culture and folklore. In medieval times children were given the names of the saints and such popular Finnish names as Piritta, Pirjo and Pirkko derive from Birgitta. Finland has kept the custom of celebrating namedays. 7 October, Birgitta's Feast Day, is also the nameday for her namesakes.

In folklore one finds many elements that have been adapted from high culture, but which are interpreted in down-to-earth fashion. Several Finnish proverbs were inspired by Birgitta's Legend. For example, the Finnish word for 'ladybird' (English), 'lady bug' (American), leppapirkko, reveals a combination of both pagan and Christian cultures. 'Ladybirds' in medieval Finland were seen as messengers in the animal world who carried people's wishes to the gods, but in the Christian era people learned to pray for the intercession of the saints. Common people then fused the traditions by giving the name of a popular saint, Birgitta, to their former animal messenger.

IV. Inspiration from St Birgitta

n our times, St Birgitta has inspired historians and artists. A celebrated Finnish author, Eila Pennanen, wrote a historical novel on the saint. This book, Pyha Birgitta (1955), drew a picture of a woman who, as a visionary, was a saint, but who, also, in her maternal emotions, in her occasional weariness, and in her overwhelmingly strong will, had the feelings of an ordinary human being. Eila Pennamen's vivid and accurate descriptions of late medieval life and its religious culture reminds the reader of another famous author of historical novels, the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner, Sigrid Undset.

St Birgitta has also been studied by Finnish historians, among whom, beyond compare, was Birgit Klockars. Birgit Klockars' books studied St Birgitta's social milieu, the Saint's literary learning, and the life of the Nådendal Abbey. These books are still only published in Swedish, giving English summaries at their conclusion, but it is hoped that soon the English-speaking world may have more access to them.

St Birgitta's Order has now returned to Finland. Since 1986 there has been a Brigittine house in Turku and, in 1996, a second house was established in Helsinki. These houses belong to the Order's new branch, founded in 1911 by the Swedish Sister Elisabeth Hesselblad. The Finnish Brigittine houses are small, totalling only fifteen Sisters. But with members from Italy, Mexico, India and England they add a further international flavour to Finland's already multicultural Catholic church. Birgitta valued the contemplative life and her Order follows her model. In recent years, short contemplative retreats have been revived also in the Finnish Lutheran church. Every October there is a retreat in Naantali (Nådendal) which honours the saint by naming the event as Birgitanpaivat, 'St Birgitta's Weekend'.


Bibliography

Birger Gregersson and Thomas Gascoigne. The Life of St Birgitta. Trans. Julia Bolton Holloway. Toronto: Peregrina, 1991.

Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Revelations. Ed. Marguerite Tjader Harris, Albert Ryle Kezel, and Tore Nyberg. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

Johannes Jørgensen. Saint Bridget of Sweden. Trans. Ingeborg Lund. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1954.

Julia Bolton Holloway. Saint Bride and Her Book: Birgitta of Sweden's Revelations, Translated from the Middle English with Introduction, Notes and Interpretative Essay. Newburyport: Focus, 1992.

Birgit Klockars, Biskop Hemming av Åbo. Helsingfors: Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland; København: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1960.

_______________. I Nadens dal Klosterfolk och andra, c. 1440-1590. Helsingfors: Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland, 1979.

_______________. Birgitta och Böckerna. En undersökning av den heliga Birgittas kallor. Stockholm: Alqvist & Wiksell, 1966.

Christian Krötzl. Pilger, Mirakel und Alltag. Formen des Verhaltens im skandinavischen Mittelalter. Tampere: Studia Historia 46, Societas Historica Finlandiae, 1994.

Aare Lantinen, 'Nådendals placering i den sociala miljon i Åbo stift'. In Birgitta, hendes vaerk og hendes klostre i Norden. Ed. Tore Nyberg. Odense: Odense Universitetsförlag, 1991.

Tore Nyberg. Birgittinische Klostergrundungen des Mittelalters. Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1965.

Istvan Räcz and Riitta Pylkkänen, Art Treasures of Medieval Finland. Trans. Diana Tullberg and Judy Beesley. New York: Praeger, 1967.

JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING OF LOVE AND ITS CONTEXTS ©1997-2017 JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAY  || JULIAN OF NORWICH  || SHOWING OF LOVE || HER TEXTS || HER SELF || ABOUT HER TEXTS || BEFORE JULIAN || HER CONTEMPORARIES || AFTER JULIAN || JULIAN IN OUR TIME ||  ST BIRGITTA OF SWEDEN  ||  BIBLE AND WOMEN || EQUALLY IN GOD'S IMAGE  || MIRROR OF SAINTS || BENEDICTINISM || THE CLOISTER  || ITS SCRIPTORIUM  || AMHERST MANUSCRIPT || PRAYER || CATALOGUE AND PORTFOLIO (HANDCRAFTS, BOOKS ) || BOOK REVIEWS || BIBLIOGRAPHY ||