Seminary XXXIV: bits of breviary and conversion-era piety in Sweden

Scandinavia can be an interesting history to explore, because in some ways it’s very isolated, but it kept participating in wider European changes anyway. In the most immediate example of this, I can’t remember which of the First Crusade chroniclers it is (perhaps Albert of Aachen, whose text I don’t have time to search) who expresses his surprise at Danish sailors turning up in the Holy Land to join in the Crusade, and no-one being able to understand them or how they’d got the message, but this is a thing that happened. In more prosaic terms, I come across it occasionally because like Scotland, they adopt high medieval charter-writing as a pretty-much fully-formed deal and it’s interesting to see what happens to it. Erik Niblaeus, a student of Jinty Nelson’s at King’s College London, is thus kindly presenting a paper on this in my Leeds sessions this year, assuming that they get accepted, but on 29th October he was instead at the IHR talking about one of the mainstream European phenomena that Scandinavia adopted rather more piecemeal, namely, Christianity.

A rune-stone from Søvestad depicting a man carrying a cross, at Wikimedia Commons

A rune-stone from Søvestad depicting a man carrying a cross, at Wikimedia Commons

Erik’s paper was called “The Småland Breviary Fragments: a liturgical mystery from twelfth-century Sweden”, which is later than the Earlier Middle Ages seminar would usually go, but as I say Scandinvia rather blurs the divide. The mystery of his title derives from some 22,500 fragments of book that lurk in the Royal Archives in Stockholm, representing some 6,000 books that once existed in Sweden. Almost all of them were liturgical books of some kind or other, and a lot of them are (firstly) 12th-century, (secondly) breviaries, a then-new form of collected and abbreviated vademecum containing everything you as an officiating Christian might need to lead Mass throughout the year, and (thirdly) in more cases than proportion should suggest, from the rather isolated and wild country round Småland, roughly in the middle of Sweden’s downward projection into the Baltic. The reason that these things are a mystery is because there’s really not much Church in Småland in the twelfth century, the area’s new to conversion, what churches that archaeology has been able to find are small and basic, and yet these texts, almost all of which bear musical notation, bespeak a high level of training and understanding of the liturgy, training and understanding which papal legates in the thirteenth century found signally lacking in this area.

A fragment of a German breviary of the 10th or 11th century preserved at Freising

A fragment of a German breviary of the 10th or 11th century preserved at Freising

It also isn’t clear why Småland has more of these texts than anywhere else. They are preserved only because they were used as wrappings for tax-collectors’ reports in the sixteenth century, and it’s as such wrappers that they still exist in the archives, but Smålanders used to kill tax-collectors and it’s not especially rich, so it seems unlikely that more such records would exist from there. I suspect that preservation through neglect is at least part of the answer, but the seminar suggested various others. The picture we were coming to by the close of discussion was an initial envangelisation with an enthusiastic uptake but driven by learned missionaries, who taught the musical notation and chant at the same time as they taught basic reading, but who were not adequately replaced in the generations that followed. This seems a bit harsh on the Swedes, who shouldn’t be thought of as being somehow backward, but it does seem that a lot of texts and training were poured into this area and then didn’t entirely stick. Interesting parallels for elsewhere, at that rate…

Swedish 15th-century illuminated Breviary, intact, from the Schoyen Collection, MS 1392

Swedish 15th-century illuminated Breviary, intact, from the Schoyen Collection, MS 1392

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One response to “Seminary XXXIV: bits of breviary and conversion-era piety in Sweden

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