Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

"Sat Vppa Thik Mins Sons Pino Braz": Memory and Action in Heliga Birgittas Uppenbarelser

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

"Sat Vppa Thik Mins Sons Pino Braz": Memory and Action in Heliga Birgittas Uppenbarelser

Article excerpt

HELIGA BIRGITTAS UPPENBARELSER (or Revelaciones, as the work is known in Latin) contains some of the most compelling and often shocking imagery in all of medieval Nordic literature. Perhaps, at least in part, for this reason, it was also among the most influential and widely known works of any Nordic author during the Middle Ages. Its author, at least nominally, was Birgitta Birgersdotter, who lived from approximately 1303 to 1373 and was canonized in 1391. Birgitta was descended from two of medieval Sweden's most prominent families and was wife and mother to some of the country's leading men. Indeed, for a time, she was herself a relatively prominent member of the Swedish royal court, where she served as an advisor (magistra) to the new queen, Blanche of Namur, consort of King Magnus Eriksson. Her fame, nonetheless, derives mainly from her reputation, both during her life and after her death, as a mystic, and as the voice of the Revelaciones. This collection of eight volumes of visionary narratives (not counting the Revelaciones Extravagantes, which were not part of the original edition) was published in several Latin editions during the fifteenth century and was translated into a range of vernacular languages, including Birgitta's native Swedish. Birgitta is moreover the only woman (with the exception of St. Clare), and the only Swede, to have founded a new monastic order, the Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris, whose rule she also composed (Holloway 124). In her visions, she is specifically and repeatedly addressed by Christ as his Bride, and the fact that she is a widow who has borne eight children is no impediment. Partly as a consequence of her visions, Birgitta Birgersdotter exerted a surprising amount of influence on the highest levels of Swedish society during her lifetime, and after settling in Rome, she began to participate in discussions concerning papal politics, seeking approval for her monastic rule and advocating for the return of the popes from Avignon to Rome. Although she is by no means the only woman involved in discussions concerning the papacy and is but one of many female visionaries of the period, as Andre Vauchez has noted, she is "one of the rare wives and mothers whose sanctity was recognized by the Church in the Middle Ages" and as Claire Sahlin comments, she is the only woman to have been canonized during the fourteenth century (Vauchez 245; Sahlin 12). As a laywoman, wife, mother, and finally, widow, Birgitta does not entirely resemble earlier female mystics such as Hildgegard of Bingen or Christina of Markyate. As both Bridget Morris and Claire Sahlin have pointed out, Birgitta does not, for the most part, experience a mystical union with God, as many earlier female visionaries do. Rather, "her role was essentially as a conduit of moral guidance to other people and actively to participate in their salvation" (Morris 66, see also Sahlin 47-54). Moreover, although she is called "the Bride" and addressed by the Virgin Mary as "daughter" throughout the Revelaciones and even though she is "called to bear spiritual children for her Lord" the relationship between Birgitta and her heavenly spouse might be more accurately characterized as that of an old married couple than the erotically charged unions found in the writings of many other visionaries or, for that matter, the lives of many virgin martyrs (see Revelaciones I: 10; Sahlin 52).

It is apparent that Birgitta's Revelaciones reached a relatively wide audience in late medieval Europe, and it is likely that their reception can to a great degree be accounted for by their intensely visual qualities. The influence of the Revelaciones on late medieval Christian thought can be traced in various ways. One clear example is the way that the iconography of the Nativity changed throughout Europe in response to Birgitta's vision of the birth of Christ. As Jan Svanberg observes, from the time of the early church through the fourteenth century, Nativity scenes had depicted the Virgin Mary reclining on a bed or mattress, with her newborn child swaddled in a manger beside her. …

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