The Church on the Local Level: Parish and Community in Medieval Linköping Bishopric Anders Fröjmark, Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden

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The Church on the Local Level: Parish and Community in Medieval Linköping Bishopric

Anders Fröjmark, Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden ©

This essay explores the parish as a local representation of the Catholic Church during the later Middle Ages.1 Examples will be taken mainly, but not exclusively, from the Swedish bishopric of Linköping which within its medieval borders encompassed most of south-eastern Sweden including the islands of Öland and Gotland.

The establishment of a parish church is one of the milestones in the history of the local community. It is perhaps not clear from the outset, but thereafter this community will be a part of the – in theory – universal Christian Church, which with its customs, its laws, and its set of values will inevitably transform it profoundly.

For each parish church there would in principle exist a parish. The parish was a geographically defined territory. The location of your home decided which parish you belonged to. Through the institution of tithe, you had an obligation to contribute to the priest and other officials, and to the parish church itself.2 Also the obligation to undergo yearly confession, of which more will be said further down, was linked to this territorial unit since the parish priest was the one to whom you should normally go to confess. Consequently, tithe and confession were institutions that defined the parish.

The territorial principle is natural for us today, since counties, cities, towns, and districts all are delimited by their borders. We are used to paying taxes, voting, and expecting certain communal services within territorially organized municipalities or districts. We take this organization more or less for granted, but before the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia, kinship, loyalty or being someone’s client would have been more important than the fact that you lived on one side or another of a certain line. That the territorial principle came with, or at least is strongly associated with, Christianization does not mean that it is prescribed in the Bible or constitutes an essential part of the Christian message, but rather that the Christian Church was formed in the Roman world, which was organized according to such principles. They were adopted by the Church and served her well when Christianity was established in regions that had never been an integral part of the Empire. The Church was different from many pre-existing communities, both in its ambition to include all and in its being a sort of voluntary union in which you entered by baptism and not by kinship. In fact, the Catholic Church was prepared to go a long way to break down kinship structures which stood in the way for its work, and which were impediments to its eagerness to reach individual souls. The struggle to grant the right of individuals to donate goods to the church including by way of their last will and testament may be seen in this light.

Some examples may illustrate the territorial principle and its consequences. If you lived north of Getabäck Brook in the fifteenth century you belonged to Stenbrohult Parish, Växjö Bishopric, Uppsala Province, and the Kingdom of Sweden, while if you lived south of Getabäck you belonged to Loshult Parish, Lund Archbishopric, Lund Province and the Kingdom of Denmark. Still, you were close neighbours. Similarly, the locals found the border between the Swedish province of Småland and the Danish province of Halland insignificant. A miracle tale from the canonization process of St. Katherine of Vadstena tells of a woman from Burseryd parish in Småland who narrowly escaped drowning when the row-boat she was in capsized in the middle of a large lake during a storm in September 1471. Her friends drowned but after a vow to St. Katherine she was able to retrieve the boat and hold on to it until she reached the shore. Four years later two persons from the Halland side of the border followed her to Vadstena to give testimony to the miracle. They came from two different parishes at some distance from hers. It is not clear if they found her at the shore or if they already knew each other, but either way this tale provides a glimpse of a border region where a system of lakes and rivers with many branches made contacts natural.3 The border, so important for kings and bishops, did not count for much in everyday interactions. But the principle of territorial organization was systematically implemented by the Catholic Church. One might argue that the exact boundaries between nations in Scandinavia can be seen as secondary results of the delimitation of parishes and bishoprics.

The Parish Church – A Meeting-Place between God and Man

In pious medieval thinking, the parish church was a manifestation of God’s will to be near his people. God had once let himself be born as a small, helpless child into the earthly world of men. To be near humans, he had lived a life on earth. In the same desire to be near his people, he still had churches erected as meeting places. Here he was materially present, in the bread that the priest held in his hands, and in the bones of martyrs which had been deposed in the altar at the consecration of the church.

Already as an infant you were taken to the parish church, where the priest met you at the door-step, and made you enter the church and receive the sacrament of baptism. Baptism was not to be delayed. The Law of Östergötland, probably written down around 1290, which applied also to the northern and eastern parts of Småland and to the island of Öland, and thus to the major part of Linköping diocese, instructed the priest to give priority to an unbaptized child before a dying person, since the unbaptized person had not received any Christianity at all.4

Notwithstanding that the Law of Östergötland was a secular law, its ‘Kristnu balkær’ (Section on Christianity) has much to say on the parish church and the duties of the priest. The priest must reside in the ‘kirkiu bole’, the dwelling belonging to the Church, that is the parsonage, says the law. His duty is to sing Matins, Mass, Evensong, and the Canonical Hours.5 While the parishioners had their daily toils in the fields, with the cattle, with their fishing nets, and with making and repairing all things necessary for a household, the priest was set apart so that he could daily stand before the eyes of God as representative of and intercessor for the whole community. With the canonical hours, and particularly matins and evensong, which were indicated by the sound of the church bells, he framed the life of the parish in a given rhythm. The Breviary was an essential book for the priest.6 It contained the canonical hours of the entire year and had in its beginning the calendar, with the help of which he could keep up with the ecclesiastical year and the red-letter days, which had an impact on the life of the entire parish.

When mass was sung or read on Sundays or other red-letter days, all parishioners did well to be present, not only because it was stipulated in the law but also because it was an occasion to receive instructions for the following week.7 Certain days were fasting days, others were days of rest when no work was allowed. Violations of these regulations were offenses that might be punished also in worldly courts.

The parishioners attended mass in the nave of the church. The sacred room was filled with the aromas of the burning wax candles and incense. On the walls and ceiling were murals in bright colours, which gave glimpses of another world than that of everyday life. Images were not often seen in the homes of common folks. Just as the alien language of religious service, Latin, they contributed to mark out the church as an extraordinary place.

The nave was separated from the chancel by some kind of rood screen. Behind this was the main altar where the priest and his assistant sang the mass. The central act of the mass was signalled by the ringing of the sanctus bell, the sound of which demanded silence and attentiveness from the congregation. Silently, the priest read the prayer which accompanied the wonder of the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread.

On Sundays and the great Holydays, it was the duty of the priest to deliver a sermon.8 There was however no fixed place for sermons in the order of the mass. It may have followed the reading of the Gospel, which in that case would have been translated or paraphrased in Swedish before the sermon. In summertime, sermons were most likely delivered outside of the church after the conclusion of the mass. Outward pulpits from which sermons could be delivered exist in some churches, like the church of the Order of Saint John in Odense, Denmark, and the Blackfriars’ church in Sigtuna, Sweden. Ordinary parish churches would not have needed special structures like those.

The obligation to deliver sermons was a part of the priests’ responsibility to educate his parishioners, which in accordance with the canons of the fourth Lateran Council was stipulated in diverse statutes of the Swedish Church Province. A minimum requirement was the teaching of Pater noster, Ave Maria and the creed, which should be read and taught in the maternal language.9 Through sermons the parishioners most certainly also acquired a good knowledge of the narrations of the Gospels and the lives of the saints. These stories were the popular literature of the day, in oral rather than in written form, and were well-known to most people. Children who were too young to go to church would have heard them from grand-parents who stayed at home together with them. Just like any literature it widened the sense of time and space for the listeners, who through saintly narratives could learn of brave maidens in Alexandria and bold knights in Cappadocia.

From the library of the brothers of Vadstena Abbey, numerous medieval sermons are conserved.10 Preaching to the visitors of the Abbey was one of the duties of the brothers of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, and it was clearly taken seriously. The Vadstena Abbey sermons give a good picture of what late medieval sermon in Sweden looked like, keeping in mind that the Vadstena brothers were better educated than most ordinary parish priests.

According to a common misconception sermons were delivered in Latin in medieval churches. The rule was however to preach in the language of the community – preaching would be meaningless if people did not understand what was said. Why then has such a misconception arisen? I believe that it may be the Protestant Holy Service that has been projected back on the Middle Ages. When people in a Protestant context, in which sermon is an indispensable part of the service, hear that the medieval service was held in Latin, they are easily led to understand that also sermons were delivered in Latin.

Going to Church in Winter

In a cold climate, going to church in winter was a very different thing from doing it in summer.11 Churches, often built in stone, were icy places where you would not enter if you were not properly dressed. The priest would wear a fur under his liturgical vestments. The fur was covered with a wide, white garment known as the superpellicium, which literally means ‘over the fur’. Some churches were equipped with a metal globe (poma calefactoria) which was heated by insertion of hot coals and placed on the altar so that the priest could keep his hands supple during the mass in order better to be able to handle the holy objects.12

The nave would have been less cluttered up with benches than in post-Reformation times. In most churches there were benches fixed to the wall on which elderly people could rest, and it is also likely that well-to-do families had benches put in their church for their convenience and as signs of their status. Nevertheless, on the floor of the church there was much space for parishioners to move and keep themselves warm, and in the midst of the nave a pan with glowing coal could be placed to spread some warmth.13 When winter was at its coldest, it probably happened that mass was celebrated in the parsonage instead of in the church.

What then about the baptism of children in winter? Baptism was originally celebrated by immersing the child in water.14 As has previously been said, baptism should not be delayed. Having seen the immense medieval baptismal fonts, one might worry for the destiny of the little child. Baptismal water, once benedicted in the Easter liturgy, was kept all year. We should however not imagine the sacristan crushing a layer of ice with an axe before the immersing of the child. The baptismal water would be kept in a container of copper which was placed in the baptismal font, and could easily be tempered with the help of pre-heated stones that were sunk in the water. Such stones are still kept in some churches. In Klockrike church in Östergötland they are termed stone breads, and a story is told about them that connect them to the fourteenth century priest Björn (Bero), who had a reputation for holiness.15 Other tales are told about ‘stone breads’ in other parishes.

The Priest’s Assistants at the Celebration of Mass

The priest was not alone in the chancel at the celebrating of the mass. He was assisted by a man who held the office of klockare, literally bell-ringer. The office of klockare was highly respected and according to the Law of Östergötland he received a special contribution from the parishioners at the paying of the tithe.16 He rang the church bells and supervised the status of the church, baptismal font, and liturgical vestments. He not only assisted the priest at mass, but also when the communion was carried to parishioners who were ill. Ideally, the klockare had some elementary schooling in Latin and singing and had received the ordination of ostiarius, one of the minor orders, which did not imply celibacy.17

Often the priest also had an altar boy at his side, perhaps a boy whom the priest had noticed as a suitable candidate for priesthood.

In major churches a cantor would have led the choir, but in an ordinary parish church the bell-ringer would serve as both cantor and choir. It is however not unlikely that a choir was formed at major holidays also in ordinary parish churches, by school boys from the nearest town or perhaps even by some of the parishioners. There is evidence of ordinary parish churches having owned graduals, that is books containing the musical parts of the mass, implying that parts of their liturgy may have been sung by a choir.

The Sacrament of Penitence

The fourth Lateran Council of 1215 signified a greater interest than previously for the pastoral care of the members of the Catholic Church. Perhaps the most significant decree of the Council is found in its 21st canon, which stipulates that every Christian who has reached the age of discretion shall confess all their sins at least once a year to their own (parish) priest. Further, they shall at least at Easter receive Holy Communion. It is also said that they shall not go to another priest for confession without permission from the parish priest. Finally, priests are required in unambiguous words to keep secret what is revealed to them in confession.18

The early thirteenth century also saw the papal approval of two new religious orders for which pastoral care and education of the Christian people were first-hand tasks, the Dominicans and the Franciscans. They were based in urban centres, but were assigned rural districts, termini, in which they preached and gathered alms. Special privileges granted them the right to hear confession, which gave the parishioners a freedom of choice of sorts, but at the same time infringed on the powers with which the Lateran Council had invested the parish priests in order for them to carry out their pastoral mission.

There is reason to dwell upon the obligatory confession. The hierarchical organization of the Catholic Church was such as to ensure that this decision was carried out in practice, if not within a decade or two at least within a couple of centuries.19 From the viewpoint of the bishops who passed the resolution it might have seemed like a fabulous way of opening a window into the souls of every single Christian, measure the temperature of their faith, direct them from the ways of sin to a true Christian life – in short, to make Europeans a truly Christian people.

But not even the most foresighted of decision makers can predict all possible effects of the reforms they want to see carried out. Sooner or later all Christians considered it their duty at least once a year to look into themselves and put themselves on a kind of trial against the rules of conduct that they learnt from the priest and the mendicants. The ordinances of the fourth Lateran Council would have the entire Christian people to practice introspection. But if people are getting used to look into themselves, who knows what they will find, and who knows for how long they will be satisfied with Church officials telling them about right and wrong and how they should lead their life? Is not Martin Luther’s doctrine of a universal priesthood a long-time outcome of the decree of universal confession? And if we move on another four centuries; would Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis have come into being if not the medieval church had used the general public to introspection?

In medieval theological thinking, sincere confession was one of three parts that constituted the sacrament of penance. The other two were absolution and satisfaction, which in itself also may be termed penance.20 The confessant’s earnestness in his or her repentance from sin should manifest itself in willingness to put things right again, that is to do penance. If the sin was something that had been committed against another person, for example a theft, penance could be to return what had been stolen.21 Many sins were of a more immaterial kind, like illicit or blasphemous thoughts or other offences that had not resulted in any visible injury, but which nonetheless were viewed as wrongdoings in Canon Law and/or general opinion. Sin was always a crime against God and the penitent was required to fulfil a certain amount of prayers, fasting, and in some cases other pious works like alms and pilgrimages.

Thanks to handbooks for clergymen, the libri pœnitentiales and summæ confessorum, it is possible to form an idea of the amount of penitence that was assigned at confession for various offences. In the upper level of the scale we find incest and sodomy which may render fifteen years of penance. Murder and manslaughter should be amended with nine and seven years of penance respectively according to some Swedish penitentials, while the rather trivial offences at the lower end of the scale rendered some days or weeks of penance.22 Being a penitent meant abstaining from anything but bread and water, as well as from sexual intercourse, during Lent as well as every Friday and during special 40-day periods of fasting termed caremæ. It also meant the saying of certain prayers and often also abstaining from certain conveniences and pleasures. Since confession was mandatory for all Christians, so was penance. All men and women carried with them an invisible burden of fasting and other acts of penitence. Life was not long enough to acquit oneself of the penitence one was due, so this was believed to continue after death in the form of Purgatory.23 After having been cleansed there one was finally pure like a baby and ready to meet one’s Creator, but Purgatory was a most grim and painful place where people suffered the consequences of their own sins.

There existed, however, a way to reduce the penitence for the living and even to mitigate the pains in Purgatory for the dead. Bishops had the right to grant indulgence for a period of 40 days. This was normally done in exchange for specified pious works that the bishop wanted to encourage. If for example a church had been damaged by fire, indulgences could be granted to everyone who helped with its rebuilding, by donations or by contributing their proper labour. The works required for obtaining indulgence were specified in letters of indulgence. The study of such letters may give a good insight in the pastoral thinking of the bishops as it is reflected in their promoting certain religious practices. In a study by Church Historian Carl-Gustaf Andrén, he characterizes them as instruments with which the bishops to some extent could guide the activities of the Christian people.24 Examples of devotional practices that were promoted through letters of indulgence were the Angelus prayer which was said at the tolling of church bells mornings and evenings,25 and walking around churchyards, praying for the dead. On the whole, through letters of indulgence the Bishops held out a large array of methods with which mitigation of penitence could be gained, and Christian men and women had a real freedom of choice in this domain.26 In this respect the domain of indulgence recalls the cult of saints, which likewise was a domain of considerable freedom.27 A letter of indulgence for Torsås church south of Kalmar, issued by five Roman cardinals on 25 March 1487, is published below as appendix to this essay.

A bishop could grant 40 days of indulgence. Often two or more bishops issued letters of indulgence together, which made possible a pooling of days of indulgence. Roman Cardinals could grant 100 days of indulgence and the Pope had the right to grant more or less unlimited indulgence, as he did when King Christian I visited Rome in 1474. He was at this occasion granted more than 40,000 years of indulgence.28 At the end of the Middle Ages, there is a noticeable inflation in indulgence, particularly when printed letters of indulgence were sold to private individuals in exchange for donations to the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The letters of indulgence which had been instruments for pastoral concerns now had the opposite effect of emptying churches, since people were given the impression that they not only bought the remission of penance, but the remission of sins.29 Sincere confession remained however a precondition for all indulgence, which was clearly stated – in Latin – in all letters of indulgence, but perhaps not always unambiguously explained by the commissionaires.

Germany, and particularly urban areas of Germany, was considerably more affected by the commerce of letters of indulgence and more generally the inflation in indulgence than Scandinavia. We know that Martin Luther published his 95 theses on indulgence in 1517, whereas in the same year a Västerås burgher had a stone tablet attached to Västerås Cathedral upon which indulgences granted by four bishops for those who walked around the cemetery and prayed for the dead was publicized.30 The stone tablet in Västerås advertises a certainly generous offer of indulgence, but one that is totally in accordance with the ordinary practice of late medieval Catholic use. The tablet does not suggest any revolutionary trends in marketing indulgence, unlike German cities where letters of indulgence were sold with dubious methods, at least according to Luther.

The Bishop and the Parish Church

In many respects the parish was a self-governed and self-supported unity, but it was also a part of a larger body. A share of the tithe from the parish was directed to the bishop and the diocese, which in their turn had some obligations towards the parish. The bishop visited the parish, or at least came to a parish nearby, at intervals.31 Those parishes that were located far from the bishop’s see, for example in distant parts of Småland or on the island of Gotland often had long gaps between the visitations. In Linköping Cathedral, Bishop Henrik Tidemansson (1465/8–1500) even had an inscription made in the vaults of the chancel, boasting that he had visited Gotland five times, which was obviously seen as something rather exceptional.32

Among the most important obligations for the bishop during his visits to the local communities was the confirmation of the young members of the parish. This sacramental act included the imposing of hands and oil of chrism on young persons, who were baptized and had reached the age of discretion, which normally meant that they were between seven and twelve years of age at confirmation.33 This rite was regarded as the completion of the confirmand´s baptism.

At the bishop’s visits also such legal matters as fell under episcopal jurisdiction were settled and churches and graveyards could be consecrated or re-consecrated.

Moreover, at the bishop’s see priests were educated and the yearly synods, to which all parish priests were summoned, were held.34 In Linköping, the yearly synod was held at the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29.

Death and Burial

A commendable action that is mentioned in many letters of indulgence is the participation in processions across Churchyards and praying for the dead. As long as you were still alive it was imperative to make sure that there would be people who would pray for you after your decease, whereby your time in Purgatory could be shortened. The Law of Östergötland regulates the obligations of the priest when a person expired. He should come to the house of the deceased for a ceremony of benediction followed by one night’s wake. If he without lawful excuse failed to come for the first night’s vigil, he should pay the not negligible sum of three marks to the heirs of the dead person. The bonde, that is the head of the household, should have masses said when the dead person’s body is taken to the church after the vigil, further after seven days, after a month, and after a year. At all of these masses thirty candles or thirty pennies were to be donated.35 Due to distances or adverse weather conditions it was probably not always possible to have a funeral arranged at the short notice supposed by the law, but it was clear that after three days at most, the dead person’s body should not remain in the house.36

A good death from the medieval viewpoint was dying in the family circle, surrounded by prayer and comforted by the rites of the Catholic Church. As a preparation for death one should have received the Anointing of the Sick and the viaticum, the Holy Communion as ‘provisions for the journey’.37 Certain saints were considered especially effective as helpers to a good death, and protectors against sudden and evil death. Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, Saint Barbara, Saint Christopher and Saint Michael the Archangel were among these. Saint Barbara and Saint Christopher belonged to the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints whose intercession was particularly sought for in the presence of danger. The origin of the group goes back to a smaller group of virgin saints in the fourteenth century, who were to become the nucleus in the group of fourteen, which in its tour was seen in a vision in the vicinity of Bamberg in Germany in 1446.38 Saint Christopher’s image was frequently painted in large format in a visible space on the church wall. It was believed that he who saw his image would be protected from sudden death that day.39 The cult of Saint Gertrude was widespread in Scandinavia in the Later Middle Ages, and chapels were consecrated in her honour especially where roads began or met, as in Kalmar, Vadstena, and Visby.40

Dying in connection with bloodshed and without time for confession and proper preparations of the kind mentioned above was considered an evil death. Persons who were by their profession or otherwise engaged in warfare put their souls at risk, and tried to compensate for this by making particularly generous donations to churches and monasteries, in order to have many intercessors at the time of death. The medieval conception of death might be contrasted with that of the Viking Age, to which dying in battle was the good, desirable death.

Inscriptions on medieval tombs often contain an exhortation to pray and to the person who stops by the grave to prepare himself or herself for death. A mid-fifteenth century slab over a learned canon of Skara Cathedral has the following inscription: ‘Whoever you are who passes by, abide, read, and weep. I am what you shall become and I was what you are now. Pray for me, I ask you’.41 On a thirteenth century nobleman’s tomb in Resmo church on Öland, we find the following straightforward reminder of what we all shall become: ‘He who does not know it shall notice where Sigmund Elovsson reposes, laid down as food for worms. Here lies Sigmund, may his soul rest in peace’.42

The great value attached to praying for the dead is illustrated by the widespread medieval tale about ‘the grateful dead’. The tale talks about a man who had the custom to pray for the dead each time he passed by a cemetery. On one occasion he was pursued by enemies. In order to escape them, he fled to the cemetery. The dead showed their thankfulness to the man by rising from their graves and chasing his pursuers away. The tale is shown on murals in some Swedish churches, for example Rö church in Uppsala archbishopric.43

The Reformation theologians of the sixteenth century strove to persuade their listeners that praying for the dead was not a practice that Christian people should devote themselves to. Requiem masses were even prohibited in Sweden at the Riksdag in Västerås in 1544.44 For the second time in 500 years, the Christian church had brought about a revolution in the relationship between the living and the dead. Then they had urged the converts to desert the old burial fields that at places had been used for 2,000 or even 3,000 years, and instead to have the dead buried in the enclosed and consecrated ground that surrounded the churches.45 Now, they should cease to communicate with their deceased ancestors altogether.46


Guilds may also be said to have had the relationship between the living and the dead as one of their raisons d’être. Deceased guild members were followed to the grave and had masses said for them, and widows and orphans were taken care of to some extent.47

Guilds were associations that were characterized by having large banquets at the feast days of their patron saint, during which large quantities of beer were consummated and cups were risen to the glory of God and his saints. Guild members had mutual obligations towards one another, and to some extents guilds may be said to have functioned as mutual insurance companies. Some guilds gathered members of certain professions, while others were open to people in a certain parish.

Parish guilds are known from a number of Swedish parishes in the later Middle Ages. They had a guild house in the parish where the festivals were held. Both men and women were welcomed as members. In some cases, statutes have been preserved which allows us to get an insight into the function of a parish guild. This is true of a guild in Björke parish in the middle of Gotland which has been studied by Church Historian Sven-Erik Pernler.48

Parish priests were ex-officio members of eventual parish guilds in their parishes. In many cases, such guilds were probably created on their initiative, and they were important instruments for their pastoral work. Other promoters of parish guilds were convents or monasteries. Some guilds were tied by links of friendship to a particular convent, like Saint Catherine’s guild of Bredsätra parish on Öland which was tied to the Visby Franciscans, with which it could communicate by sea. The Franciscans sang a weakly Mass for the souls (missa animarum) for deceased guild members, in return from which they collected an annual payment of four silver marks.49 It is of course no coincidence that the patron saint of the Bredsätra guild is the same as that of the Visby Franciscans.50 On the Riksdag of Västerås in 1544, guilds as well as masses for the souls were formally abolished.51 The guilds were closely associated with the old religious practice and probably seen as potentially dangerous for the success of the Reformation.

The significance of voluntary associations such as parish guilds should not be underestimated. Political Scientist Robert D. Putnam argues that strong traditions of civic engagement, for example through voluntary associations, play a key role for the building of stable networks between people and relationships characterized by mutual trust, which in turn is a necessary ground for the development of democratic societies.52


The Catholic Church strove to achieve nothing less than a fundamental change of the northern societies. A very different set of values from that of Viking world should guide the life and actions of the Northerners. Many instruments were used to accomplish this change, and with the parish organization a grid was created that would ensure that no person should be without reach of their action. The parish was the basic unit of the medieval Catholic Church and a well-suited instrument of socialisation. By inserting the faithful in a territorially based organization, not only were they all within reach of the actions and teaching of the Church, but at the same time old structures of kinship and clientship could be neutralized.

Parishes were formed around churches which were erected by private men and women on their mansions or farmsteads, by kings and queens, and in many cases by local communities who acted on their own initiative. Independently of their origin, all churches were consecrated by bishops, burials were concentrated in the equally consecrated churchyard, and with the institutions of tithe and mandatory confession, the forming of a parish was completed. The founding of a parish church would prove to be one of the most revolutionary changes in the history of the local community. The breach of continuity was probably most deeply felt in the relationship between the living and the dead. Age-old village burial grounds were deserted, as only the consecrated space of the church yard was allowed for Christian burials.

The parish church was regarded as a meeting place between God and men. The priest came daily before the face of God as a representative of the local Christian community. The relationship between priest and parishioners could be viewed as a contractual one, where the priest, who carried out acts of daily worship, had his living provided for by the parishioners. His duties were regulated in secular as well as in canon law.

The Christian calendar set the rhythm of the yearly cycle and the bells of the parish church signalled the beginning and ending of the work day. The fundamentals of Christian belief and behaviour were taught by a successively better educated priesthood. Confession was mandatory for all Christians as a consequence of the enactments of the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Some amount of introspection was thus demanded of all parishioners. The parish was a formidable instrument of socialisation, put in place by a disciplined and hierarchical structure with a strong belief in its vision and a scope of action that the northern societies had never seen. The result was the transformation of Viking societies into reasonably pacified and well-integrated parts of Catholic Christendom. But maybe the seeds were also sawn for future changes that even the Catholic hierarchy would not be able to control in the long run.


Roger Andersson 1993, Postillor och predikan: En medeltida texttradition i filologisk och funktionell belysning [avec un résumé en français], Stockholm: Sällskapet Runica et Mediævalia.

Carl-Gustaf Andrén 1957, Konfirmationen i Sverige under medeltid och reformationstid (Bibliotheca theologiae practicae 1), Lund.

Carl-Gustaf Andrén 1965, ‘Liturgiska funktionärer’, in KLNM 10, 610–16.

Carl-Gustaf Andrén 1992 (1975), ‘De medeltida avlatsbreven: Instrument för kyrkans verksamhet’, in Investigatio memoriae patrum: Libellus in honorem Kauko Pirinen, Helsingfors 1975, 201–21, reprinted in Kungs-Husby i Trögd: Kungsgård, kyrka och socken, Stockholm: Riksantikvarieämbetet 1992, ed. Carl Gustaf von Ehrenheim, 89–104.

Consilium Lateranense IV a. 1215, Romæ 2007 ().

Gabriela Bjarne Larsson 2012, ‘Skärseld, mässor och döda själar 1527’, in Auktoritet i förvandling: Omförhandling av fromhet, lojalitet och makt i reformationens Sverige (Opuscula historica Upsaliensia 49), ed. Eva-Marie Letzter, Uppsala: Historiska institutionen.

Nils Blomkvist 1979, ‘Medieval Eketorp and Contemporary Turn-over Places on Öland’, in Eketorp – Fortification and Settlement on Öland/Sweden: The Setting, ed. Ulf Näsman & Erik Wegraeus, Stockholm: Royal Acad. of Letters, History and Antiquities.

Nils Blomkvist, Stefan Brink & Thomas Lindkvist 2007, ‘The Kingdom of Sweden’, in Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy: Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900–1200, ed. Nora Berend, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 167–213.

Breviarium Lincopense ex unica editione 1493 (Laurentius Petri sällskapets urkundsserie 5), ed. Knut Peters, Lund 1950–58.

Nils-Arvid Bringéus 1963, ‘Klockare’, in KLNM 8, 511–13.

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Carl-Martin Edsman & Einar Molland 1971, ‘Skärseld’, in KLNM 16, 109–13.

Helge Fæhn 1958, ‘Dåp’, in KLNM 3, 413–18.

Stina Fallberg Sundmark 2008, Sjukbesök och dödsberedelse: Sockenbudet i svensk medeltida och efterreformatorisk tradition [The Visitation of the Sick in Swedish Medieval and Reformation Traditions] (Bibliotheca theologiae practicae 84), Skellefteå: Artos.

Anders Fröjmark 1992, Mirakler och helgonkult: Linköpings biskopsdöme under senmedeltiden (avec un résumé en français: Miracles et cultes des saints: Le diocèse de Linköping au bas Moyen Age), Studia historica Upsaliensia 171, Uppsala: Uppsala universitet.

Anders Fröjmark 1997, ‘Medeltidsmänniskan och kyrkan’, Kalmar län: Årsbok för kulturhistoria och hembygdsvård 81 (1996–1997), 19–29.

Jarl Gallén 1957a, ‘Bot’, in KLNM 2, 173–76.

Jarl Gallén 1957b, ‘Botsakrament’, in KLNM 2, 181–86.

Jarl Gallén 1962, ‘Indulgens’, in KLNM 7, 387–93.

Sölve Gardell 1945, Gravmonument från Sveriges medeltid [Monuments sépulcraux du Moyen-Âge en Suède] 1, Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand.

Gotlandslagen = Gotlands-Lagen: Codex iuris Gotlandici, cum notis criticis, variis lectionibus,nova versione suecana, glossariis et indicibus nominum propriorum (Corpus iuris Sueo-Gotorum antiqui: Samling af Sweriges gamla lagar 7), ed. C.J. Schlyter, Lund: Berlingska Boktryckeriet 1852.

August Hahr 1923, Västerås domkyrka: Beskrivning och byggnadshistorik, Västerås: Ivar Wennbergs bokhandel.

Sven Helander 1993, ‘Mässans liturgi’, in Mässa i medeltida socken: En studiebok, Skellefteå: Artos, 55–99.

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Hjalmar Holmquist 1933, Svenska kyrkans historia 3: Reformationstidevarvet 1521–1611, Stockholm: Svenska kyrkans diakonistyrelses bokförlag.

Hanna Källström 2011, Domkyrkan som andaktsmiljö under senmedeltiden: Linköping och Lund [With a summary in English: The Cathedral as Devotional Milieu in the Late Middle Ages: Linköping and Lund], Skellefteå: Artos.

Erik Kjersgaard 1965, ‘Det gotiske oprør’, Skalk: Nyt om gammelt 1965:1, 20–29.

KLNM = Kulturhistoriskt lexikon för nordisk medeltid: Från vikingatid till reformationstid 1–22, ed. John Granlund et al., Malmö: Allhems förlag 1956–78.

Erkki Kuujo 1974, ‘Tiend: Finland’, in KLNM 18, 299–300.

Niels-Knud Liebgott 1981, Hellige mænd og kvinder, Højbjerg: Wormianum.

Tryggve Lundén 1983, Sveriges missionärer: Helgon och kyrkogrundare: En bok om Sveriges kristnande, Storuman: Artos.

Martin Luther 1518 (1517), Resolutiones disputationum de Indulge[n]tiarum virtute F. Martini Lvther Avgvstiniani Vittenbergensis, Liber, Candidum & liberum lectorem opto. Rhau-Grunenberg, 1518. Electronic copy at

Brian Patrick McGuire 2009. Da Himmelen kom nærmere: Fortællinger om Danmarks kristning 700–1300, 2. ed. Frederiksberg: Alfa.

Mittelalterliche Handschriften der Universitätsbibliothek: Katalog über die C-Sammlung 1–8, ed. Margarete Andersson-Schmitt et al., Uppsala 1988–95.

Anna Nilsén 1986, Program och funktion i senmedeltida kalkmåleri: Kyrkmålningar i Mälarlandskapen och Finland 1400–1534, Stockholm.

Bertil Nilsson 1987, ‘Död och begravning: Begravningsskicket i Norden’, in Tanke och tro: Aspekter på medeltidens tankevärld och fromhetsliv, ed. Olle Ferm & Göran Tegnér (Studier till det medeltida Sverige 3), Stockholm, 133–50.

C.A. Nordman & Tue Gad 1964, ‘Kristoffer’, in KLNM 9, 356–63.

Oloph Odenius 1960, ‘Gertrud’, in KLNM 5, 276–80.

Bror Olsson 1947–80. Kalmar stifts herdaminne: Det gamla kalmarstiftets klerus från äldsta tider till våra dagar 1–5. Kalmar: Dillbergs bokhandel.

Östgötalagen = Östgöta-Lagen: Codex iuris Ostrogotici, cum notis criticis, variis lectionibus, glossario et indice nominum propriorum (Corpus iuris Sueo-Gotorum antiqui: Samling af Sweriges gamla lagar 2), ed. H.S. Collin & C.J. Schlyter, Stockholm: P.A. Norstedt & Söner 1830.

Sven-Erik Pernler 1977, Gotlands medeltida kyrkoliv – biskop och prostar: En kyrkorättslig studie (Mit einer deutschen Zusammenfassung), Visby: Barry Press förlag.

Sven-Erik Pernler 1986, ‘S:ta Katarina-gillet i Björke’, Gotländskt arkiv 58, 67–92.

Sven-Erik Pernler 1993, ‘En mässa för folket? Om lekmännen i sockenkyrkans gudstjänstliv under senmedeltiden’, in Sven Helander et al., Mässa i medeltida socken: En studiebok, Skellefteå: Artos, 101–34.

Robert D. Putnam with Robert Leonardi & Raffaella Y. Nanetti 1992, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Processus seu negocium canonizacionis b. Katerine de Vadstenis, ed. Isak Collijn, Uppsala: Svenska fornskriftsällskapet 1942–46.

Peter Reinholdsson 1993, ‘Landsbygdsgillen – en förabsolutistisk organisationsform’, Historisk tidskrift, utgiven av Svenska historiska föreningen 113, 365–408.

Thomas Rydén 1995, Domkyrkan i Lund, Malmö: Corona.

Claire L. Sahlin 2001, Birgitta of Sweden and the Voice of Prophecy, Studies in Medieval Mysticism 3, Woodbridge: Boydell.

Åke Sandholm 1963, Klockarämbetet i den svenska kyrkoprovinsen under medeltiden (Acta Academiae Aboensis: Humaniora 26:1), Åbo: Åbo akademi.

Herman Schück 1974, ‘Tiend: Sverige’, in KLNM 18, 295–299.

Statuter från svenska medeltida provinsialkonsilier (Upsaliensis prouincie statutorum prouincialium): Enligt Ragvaldus Ingemundi 1506 (Linköpings stifts- och landsbibliotek, cod. J 73), ed. Sigurd Kroon, Skellefteå: Artos 2010.

Bengt Stolt 1993, ‘Kyrkorum och kyrkoskrud’, in Sven Helander et al., Mässa i medeltida socken, Skellefteå: Artos, 135–67.

André Vauchez 1981, La sainteté en Occident aux dernier siècles du Moyen Age, d’après les procès de canonisation et les documents hagiographiques, Rome: École française de Rome.

Visbyfranciskanernas bok: Handskriften B 99 i Kungliga biblioteket [Book of the Visby Franciscans] (Arkiv på Gotland 5), ed. Eva Odelman & Evert Melefors, Visby 2008.


Letter of indulgence by five cardinals for Torsås church, Linköping diocese, 25 March 1467. Original charter in the Swedish Riksarkivet (National Archives), Stockholm. SDHK (Svenskt Diplomatariums huvudkartotek) number 31892.

Rodericus Portuensis, Julianus Ostiensis episcopi, Johannes tituli Sancte Praxedis, Paulus tituli sancti Sixti, Johannes Jacobus tituli sancti Stephani in Celio monte presbyteri, sacro sancte Romane ecclesie Cardinales, Universis et singulis christifidelibus presentes litteras inspecturis salutem in domino sempiternam. Totiens christifidelium animabus prouidere credimus quotiens ipsorum mentes ad opera caritatis inuitamus. Cupientes igitur ut parrochialis ecclesia Torsaas Lincopensis diocesis congruis frequentetur honoribus et a christifidelibus iugiter ueneretur reparetur, conseruetur et manuteneatur, luminaribusque, libris, calicibus et aliis ecclesiasticis ornamentis fulciatur et decoretur, ibique cultus augeatur diuinus, Vtque christifideles ipsi eo libentius deuotionis causa confluant ad eandem ac ad reparationem et alia premissa manus pronptius porrigant adiutrices, quo ex hoc ibidem dono celestis gratie uberius conspexerint se refectos, supplicationibus etiam dilecti nobis in Christo Nicolai Tocke presbyteri dicti diocesis inclinati, de omnipotentis dei misericordia ac beatorum Petri et Pauli apostolorum eius auctoritate confisi omnibus et singulis utriusque sexus christifidelibus uere penitentibus et confessis, qui dictam ecclesiam in singulis uidelicet Omnium sanctorum diei, Olaui regis et martiris, sancte Caterine virginis, secunde ferie Pentecostes et ipsius ecclesie dedicationis festiuitatibus, a primis vesperis usque ad secundas uesperas inclusiue, deuote uisitauerint annuatim et ad premissa manus porrexerint adiutrices, Nos Cardinales prefati uidelicet quilibet nostrum per se, pro singulis festiuitatibus prefatis quibus id fecerint centum dies indulgentiarum de iniunctis eis penitentiis misericorditer in Domino relaxamus presentibus perpetuis futuris temporibus duraturis. In quorum testimonium presentes nostras litteras fieri fecimus sigillorumque nostrorum iussimus appensione communiri. Datum Rome in domibus nostrarum residentiarum anno a Natiuitate domini Millesimoquadringentesimooctuagesimoseptimo die uero vicesima quinta mensis Marcii, pontificatus Sanctissimi in Christo patris et domini nostri domini Innocentii diuina prouidentia pape Octaui anno tertio.

The edition has benefited from advice given by Dr. Eva Odelman in a letter to the author on 16 October 1996. Nils Tocke, who is mentioned in the text, was a priest in Torsås parish, see Olsson 1947–80, vol. 2, 22, vol. 3, 181.

1 The text is partly an adaptation of my earlier publication ‘Medeltidsmänniskan och kyrkan’ (Fröjmark 1997).

2 It is not known when tithe was introduced in Sweden, but the Law of Gotland, Chapter 3 (ca. 1220), mirrors an early phase when new parishes were still created and controversies could arise over which church tithe should be paid to, Gotlandslagen Ch. 3. Around 1200 at latest, the paying of tithe was probably an established practice in most parts of the kingdom; in Åbo (Turku) diocese, comprising most of present day Finland, it was established considerably later, Schück 1974; Kuujo 1974.

3 Processus seu negocium canonizacionis b. Katerine de Vadstenis, 108–09. The event must have taken place on Lake Fegen, which seems to have been larger in the 1470s than what it is at present, since it may be understood that it reached the vicinity of Burseryd church. One of the two Hallanders came from Greppered village in Krogsered parish and the other from Kinnared parish. None of these places is situated by the lakeshore, so if they found the woman there they must have done some traveling themselves. Lake Fegen would seem to have been used for fishing or for communications by people in a rather large area surrounding it.

4 Östgötalagen [Law of Östergötland], Kristenbalken [Section of Christianity], Ch. 6.

5 ‘Þæt ær præstins skuld a kirkiu bole boa, sionga i kirkiu ottu sang ok mæssu, ok aptun sang ok alla tiÞi’, Östgötalagen [Law of Östergötland], Kristenbalken [Section of Christianity], Ch. 5.

6 Every priest would need a breviary, which therefore belonged to the most widespread of all books, and consequently were among the first to be printed. The Breviarium Lincopense was printed in 1493. Six copies remain, all of them with defects; Collijn 1934–38, 128–32. A modern edition exists, Breviarium Lincopense ex unica editione 1493, ed. Knut Peters, Lund 1950–58, which is an indispensable source to the daily office and the calendar of the diocese.

7 ‘nu ær Þæt bonda skyld, um sunnudagh til kirkiu koma, præstær a hælgÞ biuÞa ok fastudagha’, ‘Now it is an obligation for the bonde [the head of the household] to come to church on Sundays, and for the priest to announce holidays and fasting days’, Östgötalagen [Law of Östergötland], Kristenbalken [Section of Christianity], Ch. 20 (my translation).

8 Pernler 1993, 111–12.

9 Statuter från svenska medeltida provinsialkonsilier, 77.

10 Now in Uppsala University Library, see Mittelalterliche Handschriften der Universitätsbibliothek: Katalog über die C-Sammlung 1–8, ed. Margarete Andersson-Schmitt et al., Uppsala 1988–95. See also Sahlin 2001, 214 n. 178; Andersson 1993. An authentic Swedish fifteenth century sermon is included in Sven Helander et al. 1993, 129–30.

11 Much of what is said in the following is based on conversations with church historian Sven-Erik Pernler.

12 Stolt 1993, 156, 162.

13 Stolt 1993, 162. A copper pan for heating was donated to Lund Cathedral in 1499 so that poor people could get some warmth in winters. It still exists; Thomas Rydén 1995, 116 (with photo); Källström 2011, 141. See also Stolt 1993, 162 concerning heating devices in medieval churches.

14 Fæhn 1958, 415. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries affusion was the general custom.

15 Conversation with Pernler. Björn was a priest who died in an accident in 1309. The stones, which are still kept in Klockrike church, are said to have been breads that were turned to stone at his death, Lundén 1983, 453–54.

16 Östgötalagen [Law of Östergötland], Kristenbalken [Section of Christianity], Ch. 10. Similar regulations are found in other provincial laws, see Sandholm 1963, 171–81.

17 Bringéus 1963, 511–13; Andrén 1965, 610–16; Sandholm 1963; Helander 1993, 77.

18 Canon 21: ‘Omnis utriusque sexus fidelis postquam ad annos discretionis pervenerit omnia sua solus peccata confiteatur fideliter saltem semel in anno proprio sacerdoti […] suscipiens reverenter ad minus in pascha eucharistiæ sacramentum [---] Si quis autem alieno sacerdoti voluerit iusta de causa sua confiteri peccata licentiam prius postulet et obtineat a proprio sacerdote [---] Sacerdos [---] qui peccatum in pœnitentiali iudicio sibi detectum præsumpserit revelare non solum a sacerdotali officio deponendum decernimus verum etiam ad agendam perpetuam in arctum monasterium detrudendum]’, electronic copy at Consilium Lateranense IV a. 1215, Romæ 2007 (); English translation at Fordham University: Medieval Sourcebook (

19 The council itself decreed in its sixth canon that provincial and diocesan synods should implement its decisions.

20 Gallén 1957a; Gallén 1957b.

21 Gallén 1957b, 183, 186.

22 Gallén 1957b, 186. The meaning of the term ‘sodomy’ is exemplified by Brundage 1996, 40, 43.

23 Cf. Edsman & Molland 1971; Fallberg Sundmark 2008, 161; Källström 2011, 292–93; Bjarne Larsson 2012, 24.

24 Andrén 1992 (1975).

25 The sound of church bells as a sound which in itself was an integrated part of the Christianization of a northern region, in this case Denmark, is treated by McGuire 2009, 17–21. The ringing of the Angulus still exists in certain localities in Scandinavia. McGuire mentions Løgumkloster in Denmark. It was also heard from some churches in Gotland, at least until recently.

26 Andrén 1992 (1975), 98; Källström 2011, 305–06.

27 Fröjmark 1992, 94. Vauchez 1981, 162, talks of ‘l’exacerbation des particularismes’, ‘a proliferation of particularisms’ in the domain of cult of saints. In other words, there was a large offer from which to choose.

28 Kjersgaard 1965, 28.

29 Even in papal documents, especially those granting indulgence to those who fought in the crusades, it is often talk about remission of sin rather than remission of penance, so it is understandable that there existed some confusion in this matter. Cf. forthcoming dissertation by Ane Bysted, Aarhus University. Also Gallén, 1962, 388.

30 Luther 1518 (1517). The text of the stone tablet has been published by Hahr 1923, 6.

31 On the frequency of Bishops’ visitations in Linköping diocese, see Pernler 1977, 68–71, 89.

32 Cnattingius et al. 1987, 28. See also Pernler 1977, 125–26.

33 See Andrén 1957.

34 Yearly episcopal synods in all dioceses are prescribed in the sixth canon of the fourth Lateran Council.

35 Östgötalagen [Law of Östergötland], Kristenbalken [Section of Christianity], Ch. 7.

36 Östgötalagen [Law of Östergötland], Kristenbalken [Section of Christianity], Ch. 7.

37 See Nilsson 1987; Fallberg Sundmark 2008; Bjarne Larsson 2012, 26.

38 Liebgott 1981, 71–80. A chapel was erected on the spot, now known as the Vierzehnheiligen church.

39 Nordman & Gad, 1964, 357–58, 360. Some examples are Levide and Väte churches in Gotland. The latter has a partly obliterated inscription which says: ‘Vultum Christofferi […] a morte subito’ (‘The image of Christopher […] from sudden death’), Nordman & Gad 1964, 360.

40 Saint Gertrude of Nivelles was frequently invoked against rats and for protection during voyages. The latter part made her a suitable helper also in the nearness of death. In life as well as after death, she was credited with the ability to lead the wanderer to good shelter; Odenius 1960, 277.

41 Tu quis eris / qui transieris / sta perlege plora / Sum quod eris / fueramque quod es / pro me precor ora; Gardell 1945, 172, 379–80, n° 439. The text is extensively abbreviated; it was so frequent so that it only needed to be suggested on the slab.

42 Cernat qui nescit / ubi Sigmundus requiescit / Elaui natus / uermibus esca datus; Gardell 1945, 164, 192–93 n° 30.

43 See Nilsén 1986, 417 with references.

44 Holmquist 1933, 306; Bjarne Larsson 2012, 15.

45 A short discussion on the introduction of Christian burial customs in the territory of Sweden may be found in Blomkvist, Brink & Lindkvist 2007, 187–88.

46 Bjarne Larsson 2012, 24–27.

47 I cite as an example the introduction of the statutes of Saint Catherine’s guild of Björke parish on Gotland, where it is said ‘Thet iär thy näst at allir gildis brydr ock Systr skulu gilda brydr folgia daudum til grafwa ock gildis Systr sidan i messo ganga ok offra sit offer’ [The second point is that all brothers and sisters of the guild shall follow deceased guild brothers and sisters to the grave, whereupon they shall go to mass and make their offering], Pernler 1986, 70.

48 Pernler 1986. Pernler’s study includes an edition of the statutes. On guilds, see also Reinholdsson 1993.

49 Visbyfranciskanernas bok, 80.

50 Blomkvist 1979, 76.

51 Bjarne Larsson 2012, 29. Bjarne Larsson underlines the need for further studies of the role played by the guilds in the care of members who were elderly and ill.

52 Putnam, Leonardi & Nanetti 1992.

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