Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Rewriting History: Humanist Oration at the Funeral of Gustav Vasa, 1560

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Rewriting History: Humanist Oration at the Funeral of Gustav Vasa, 1560

Article excerpt

WHEN GUSTAV VASA died in the early morning hours of 29 September 1560, the news of his passing was met with sorrow and considerable trepidation. (1) Gustav Vasa was largely responsible for expelling the Danes and establishing an independent Swedish kingdom. He had labored tirelessly to unify the kingdom and to provide it with a government and an identity that were capable of withstanding internal divisions and external threats. In the process, Gustav Vasa made a number of radical breaks with Swedish tradition; most significantly, he broke with the religious leadership of Rome and transformed the monarchy from an elective to a hereditary form. His death placed the new political and religious orders in jeopardy and fueled fears that the fledgling state would descend into the chaos of civil war or the horrors of foreign invasion. At the same time, his death also presented a potent opportunity for the young Vasa dynasty to further its own political agenda by presenting a carefully crafted recasting of the life and deeds of the dead King.

Gustav Vasa's funeral was the most elaborate ever staged for a Swedish monarch. (2) It was designed as a response to the conditions in Sweden and as a remedy for the general atmosphere of fear and uncertainty at the time of his death. The funeral ceremony propagated four main ideas: the unity of the Swedish realm, the victory of the Reformed Church, the ideology of hereditary monarchy, and Sweden's full and equal participation in European culture. All theology aside, funerals function more to satisfy the needs of the living than those of the deceased. In this case, the funeral offered Gustav Vasa's heirs, especially Prince Erik XIV, the opportunity to present a developed mythology and ideology of power that supported the ambitions of the Vasa dynasty. The solemn lying-in-state, the two day long procession of the effigies of Gustav Vasa and two of his queens, the long parade of heraldic devices, arms and armor, as well as the funeral service proper presented a discourse on the nature of royal power, the Vasa Dynasty, and the Swedish cultural identity. The culmination of this celebration of the life of Gustav Vasa and of royal power was the funeral oration given by long-time Vasa friend and propagandist, Peder Swart, Bishop of Vasteras. He provided the funeral with its emotional and ideological climax and, at the same time, the clearest enunciation of the ideas elaborated by the lengthy funeral rites. (3)

Though written to praise and mourn a dead king, Swart's sermon is in fact a faintly disguised proclamation of the principle of hereditary monarchy. It reflects the challenges that Gustav Vasa's heirs perceived to be confronting their fledgling dynasty and enunciates their carefully calculated response. By shaping the memory of the life of Gustav Vasa, they sought to use his death to gain political legitimacy, secure the succession, and encourage the development of Swedish cultural and political consciousness.

Swedish tradition offered no real precedents capable of answering the needs of such a portentous moment. The funeral of Gustav Vasa exhibited a number of innovations that were clearly borrowed from the court ritual and ceremony of older and more established royal houses (Gonzalez 105-204). This embellishment of the traditional funeral ceremony was, however, no mete imitation of ritual externals. The dominant political paradigms and intellectual traditions of continental Europe were invoked to give substance and meaning to the ceremonial celebration. As one of the earliest manifestations of renaissance humanism in Sweden, Swart's sermon is the clearest example of this effort to employ up-to-date methods to enhance royal power. As such, it demonstrates the development of a renaissance culture far removed from humanism's southern European home and demonstrates the ways that local institutions could adapt and transform humanism to serve local conditions and interests. …

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