17.02.05, Oertel, The Cult of St Erik in Medieval Sweden

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Kirsten Wolf

The Medieval Review 17.02.05

Oertel, Christian. The Cult of St Erik in Medieval Sweden: Veneration of a Royal Saint, Twelfth–Sixteenth Centuries. Acta Scandinavica, 5. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. xiii, 398. ISBN: 978-2-503-55507-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kirsten Wolf
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Cult of St Erik in Medieval Sweden has its origin in a doctoral dissertation written at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. The aim of the book is to provide "a picture of the cult of St Erik which is as complete as possible concerning its spatial and social dispersal and concerning its supporters and their strategies of promoting the cult" (15). The author rightly points out that in order to achieve this goal, "all edited and a number of non-edited sources that deal with St Erik, especially the supporters of his cult and their strategies in furthering his veneration, have to be discussed" (15). He acknowledges that he is "not an expert in all of the research branches associated with the different types of sources investigated in this study," but comments that "an interdisciplinary approach is vital in order to create a comprehensive description of the cult of St Erik" (15). And indeed, the sources examined are manifold. As outlined in chapter 2 ("The Sources"), they comprise coins, seals, church paintings, sculptures, embroideries, and carvings, as well as literary sources such as charters and liturgical and hagiographical writings. The chapter outlines the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of sources and the state of the art within these fields of study. Chapter 3 ("Royal Saints and the Shift of Faith") may be said to be introductory as well in that it is concerned primarily with sacral kingship and the dynastic legitimation of rulership. In this chapter, the author gives an account of the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity and the roles of saints in the conversion. He also outlines for comparative purposes the circumstances surrounding the legends and cults of the Norwegian Saint Olaf, the Danish Saint Knut, as well as those of some local Scandinavian saints. In contrast to the author's claim in chapter 1 ("Religion, Politics, and the Cult of Saints") that chapter 2 "constitutes the main part of the study" in that it "will give an account of the spatial and ideal development of his veneration, starting in the late twelfth century and tracing the evolution of his [St Erik's] cult up to the early 1520s" (4), the main part of the study is really chapters 4-7.

Chapter 4,"The Early Cult (1160-c.1250)," gives an outline of the political developments in Götaland and Svealand in the twelfth and early part of the thirteenth centuries, and examines how the cult of Saint Erik began and developed during this period. Oertel challenges the general opinion that Erik's son Knut furthered the cult of his father, arguing that the evidence consists only of a coin of King Knut and a wall painting in the church of Eriksberg, and that the identification of the depicted figure on the coin is questionable. He also points out that there are only two extant charters in which Erik's descendants refer to him. Finally, he rejects the notion of Saint Erik as a rex perpetuus as early as the thirteenth century among other things because he does not appear as the eternal king of Sweden in his vita or miracles. Oertel does not believe that a lost painting in the church of Hjelmseryd (ca. 1200-1250), a silver brooch found on Öland (ca. 1200-1225), and a papal letter from 1171, 1172 or 1180 constitute real evidence of an early cult, and argues that only three sources can or should be considered: the Calendarium Vallentunense, Sverris saga, and Äldre Västgötalagens kungalängd, which all connect the early cult of Saint Erik to the region in and around Uppsala. He concludes that at this time, Saint Erik was "a parochial saint without the potential to legitimize a claim to power over the kingdom. His cult was therefore a concern of the bishopric of (Gamla) Uppsala as its diocesan saint. His former status as a king founded the equal status of Uppsala in relation to Nidarós and its saint St Olaf" (95).

Chapter 5, "The First Wave of Cult Intensification (c. 1250-1319)," is concerned with the increase in influence of the Bjälbö dynasty along with some important developments in Swedish society that led to the polity's modernization and made possible a more intensified cult of Saint Erik in the latter part of the thirteenth century. Oertel notes that during this time, the archbishop's see was relocated to Östra Aros, and that a cathedral church was built at the place, where Saint Erik was killed. He also observes that in connection with the relocation of the see and the dedication of the new cathedral to Saint Erik, the necessity of a vita, a collection of miracles, and an office made itself felt, hence the composition of the legend of Saint Erik, of which the trustworthiness has been a source of debate. Oertel devotes several sections of the chapter to discussions of the subsequent geographical spread of the cult of Saint Erik, early depictions of him, and the social groups that supported his cult. The last section of the chapter treats the description of a Swedish crusade to Finland by Saint Erik and Saint Henrik, which is mentioned in their legends. Oertel is sceptical about the historical veracity of the crusade episode, but notes that "[o]ne of the main tasks of the Dominican Order was to preach the crusade" (138). He points out that the cathedral church of Uppsala and the Dominican friary in Sigtuna were the two institutions that promoted the cult of Saint Erik and concludes that "[t]he works composed in honour of St Erik and St Henrik in the period under discussion in this chapter bear the mark of a strong Dominican influence and were most likely produced in the Dominican houses of Sigtuna and Åbo/Turcu (146).

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the cult of Saint Erik from the time of the coronation of the three-year-old Magnus as king of Sweden until the end of the Kalmar Union. In the former, "Times of Stagnation versus the Rule of Magnus Eriksson (1319-89)," it is demonstrated that at least two forms of the veneration of Saint Erik clearly manifest themselves: private veneration and institutional veneration. Oertel argues that "[o]ne person in whom personal and institutional veneration were combined in the fourteenth century was King Magnus Eriksson. On the basis of his personal devotion towards St Erik--best exemplified in his decision to give away a tactical advantage at the start of his crusade to Russia in order to show an imitatio Erici--the saint's status changed from that of the dynastic saint of the house of Bjälbo to the foremost patronus Sveciae. Once this had happened, his veneration became the particular business of the Swedish king, no matter who held that office" (175). In the latter, "St Erik and the Kalmar Union (1389-1520)," Oertel provides a detailed historical background to the era and then treats the revisal of the cult of Saint Erik around 1400 (after a decline from around 1320 to 1390 among the lay aristocracy), which, as Oertel points out, is clear from the introduction of a new feast, the translatio sancti Erici, in the diocese of Uppsala. The feast is first mentioned in 1401, though once again "there is surprisingly little evidence for a continued veneration of the royal saint until the 1430s" (193), which is when the uprising of Engelbreckt Engelbreksson made the cult of Saint Erik reach a national level. Oertel notes that the members of the Order of Saint Birgitta are at this time the most prominent sources, but that this may be due to the fact there are more extant sources from the Vadstena monastic house than from other ecclesiastical institutions in Sweden.

In chapter 8, "St Erik among the Canon of Saints," it is argued that the influence of the cult of Saint Erik was largely restricted to Sweden. With very few exceptions, there is no evidence of the spread of the cult until the fifteenth century, when an altar was dedicated to Saint Erik in a church in Gdansk. Within Sweden, however, Saint Erik was venerated on a large scale in comparison with other native Swedish saints. Only Saint Birgitta had more feast days than Saint Erik.

In his conclusion, which is presented in both English and German, Oertel maintains among other things that "the rise of the cult of St Erik was not a linear progression with mild fluctuations in degrees of ascent, as earlier research has indicated... The rise of the regional saint of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to the role of patron of the Swedish realm was by no means predestined-- much like the emergence of the Swedish kingdom" (276). Oertel is of the opinion that external factors played a huge role, and that "[o]ne such factor was the tradition of many European kingdoms--whether in Scandinavia, in Central Europe, or further afield--to make their royal saints the patrons of their realms," but acknowledges that "[i]nternal factors, such as the fact that the highest ecclesiastical and lay authorities had their centres in the core region of St Erik's veneration, along with the ongoing Dominican support of the cult, certainly also had an impact" (276).

Six very useful appendices (1. The text of the legend of Saint Erik; 2. A list of the miracles of Saints Erik and Olaf; 3. A list of charters using Saint Erik's feast day for dating; 4. A list of depictions of Saint Erik; 5. A list of pictures showing all three Scandinavian royal saints; and 6. Genealogical tables showing the house of Saint Erik, the house of Bjälbo, the network of the aristocratic families of Uppland associated with Saint Erik, the origin of Karl Knutsson according to the new introduction to the Erikskrönika, the origin of Karl Knutsson according to modern research, and the Bielke and Trolle families and the three Nordic saints), a bibliography, and a name/subject index conclude the volume, which is copiously illustrated with 17 maps and 31 figures ranging from the coin of Knut Eriksson to a wall-hanging from Fögdö showing the three Scandinavian royal saints.

The Cult of St Erik in Medieval Sweden: Veneration of a Royal Saint, Twelfth-Sixteenth Centuries is a pleasure to read and learn from. While the amount of historical detail may seem a little overwhelming, the book is structured in such a way that the reader has no problem navigating his/her way though the wealth of information presented. The book is truly a model for analyses of the cult of an individual saint in that it takes a very interdisciplinary approach and carefully reassesses previous scholarly assumptions. Accordingly, it is easy to forgive Oertel the inconsistencies with regard to Old Norse-Icelandic names, e.g., Einarr (31), Sigvat (31), Einar (32), Isleif (43). Anyone interested in Saint Erik will have to consult this book, which will be of interest to students and scholars within the field of medieval (religious) history, medieval literature, hagiography, and several other disciplines.

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