Birgitta of Sweden as Saint Mother

As a wife and a mother of eight children the noble lady Birgitta (1302/3–1373) was an atypical candidate for sanctity, since female saints were virgins in the high Middle Ages. In order to negotiate this ideal Birgitta concluded that true virginity rather meant humbleness and obedience. In another female saint, the Hungarian princess Elisabeth (1207–1231), she found the source of legitimacy she needed in order to justify her atypical way of life.

Birgitta of Vadstena (Sweden) was canonized only 18 years after her death and became a model for many late medieval women who were mothers or widows. The relation between the ideal positions for women – virgin, wife, widow – seemed to have raised mixed feelings in Birgitta during her whole life. Birgitta wanted to proclaim divine truths to people, but women were not allowed to teach or preach publicly in the Middle Ages. For a woman to act in public it was possible only if she could find a proper strategy. Granted this situation, where did she herself get the ideas and models for her way of life? Birgitta’s life had surprisingly many common features with Elisabeth of Hungary’s life. This is probably both due to actual similarities in their life-stories and a tendency in historical writing towards using Elizabeth´s story as a paradigm for the tale about Birgitta. Nevertheless, the following examples show how difficult it was already in the Middle Ages for women to combine the roles of mother and career woman.

Holy even in life

The sources concerning Birgitta consist of approximately seven hundred revelations, hagiographical texts and other documents. The revelations are Birgitta’s visions, which her secretary-confessors wrote down in Latin. Characteristic for Birgitta’s revelations is that they were inspired by concrete situations and people. They were a medium through which Birgitta exercised influence on bishops and kings as well as knights and noble ladies. After Birgitta’s death the revelations were gathered as part of the acts for her canonization. A life, vita, was also needed for that purpose, to show that Birgitta was a suitable candidate for sainthood.

Birgitta was seen as a holy woman even in life. She performed her sanctity publicly and persuaded many to believe in her divine call. She got many devotees, both men and women. What separates her from usual saints in making is that she was married and became the mother of eight children. This was not a desirable lifestyle for a saintly woman, because the most usual pattern for a holy woman was still that of a virginal and chaste life. The birth of new martyrs ceased in the fourth century and the requirements for sainthood changed. Virginity became the most important prerequisite for female saints. This was due to the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the triumph of asceticism at the expense of the value of married people. Theologians, such as Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) and Jerome (d. 420) wrote influential treatises where they praised virginity and linked sexuality with sin. They formed the basis of the teaching about women in the Middle Ages. Birgitta was painfully aware of both their linking of women and sexuality, and of regarding virginity as the highest state for a woman.

What was lacking in her life was living role models whom one could meet on the streets of her hometown. This was possible for example in the Low Countries, Italy or Germany, where pious penitents and beguines were a common sight. But Sweden had only been christianized a couple of hundred years earlier, and the culture of performing one’s religiosity was not as versatile as in societies with a longer history of Christianity. Medieval Sweden could be called a religious periphery. In Birgitta’s revelations there are some examples which show what happened when the old Swedish culture and the new Christian culture met. For example, when visiting a Swedish farm she fervently condemned the feeding of elves with porridge and the popular belief in unavoidable destiny.

Elisabeth of Hungary as a paradigm

Birgitta got many ideas and models for her the whole night in prayer with her heavenly spouse. According to Jacobus de Voragine Elisabeth became known for her humbleness and goodness. She was generous to the poor, sewed clothing for them, and even became godmother to some poor children. She showed hospitality to pilgrims and poor people by giving them a shelter. She even had a large house built for the sick, whom she treated herself as well.

Moreover, Elisabeth persuaded her husband to go the Holy Land. “To use his arms for the defense of the faith”, as it is described by Jacobus de Voragine. The landgrave died during the journey and thus Elisabeth became a widow. She wanted to dedicate herself totally to Christ, and tried to arrange her life as a widow with this end in mind. She gave her money away some people accused her of deserting and forgetting the memory of her husband and children too quickly.

From wife to bride of Christ

Birgitta and her husband, lawman Ulf Gudmarsson (d. 1344), made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It is possible that Elisabeth’s story had inspired this pilgrimage. Like Elisabeth, Birgitta is said to have done charitable work and helped the poor and sick. Birgitta was also accused of forgetting the memory of her husband too quickly. Only few days after his death Birgitta took Ulf’s ring off her finger and said:

When I buried my husband, I buried with him all carnal love. Although I loved him as my heart, I would not wish to pay a single denarius to get him back against the will of God. When I had the ring on my hand, it was like a burden to me, because when I looked on it my soul recalled my former affections. Therefore, in order that my soul may immerse itself in the love of God alone, I wish to be free of the ring and my husband, and I commend myself to God. (Acta, 479. Transl. by Sahlin 2001.)

For Birgitta it was important to wipe her memory of “the former affections”, because they could include the thought of sexual intercourse. Taking the ring of her finger was a performance which showed Birgitta’s transformation from the wife to the bride. Emphasis on asexual life belonged to the bridehood , the body was going to be trained to become more spiritual. Thus, after their husbands died, both women wanted to be married only to God. Actually, in the Life of Elisabeth, she felt she also had a heavenly spouse, even in marriage. Birgitta yearned to have the heavenly spouse, but only after the death of the secular one. Elisabeth proclaimed that she loved only God – no longer even her children. This was demonstrated as a merit, and a similar idea could be seen in one of Birgitta’s revelations. It is said that before traveling to Rome Birgitta was worried about how her children would manage in Sweden without her maternal love. Then she saw a revelation in which a boy, depicting the devil, was warming a pot, which symbolized Birgitta’s love for her children.

From this revelation she learned that “she carried in her heart disordered love for her children and she repented immediately, so that she did not put anything before the love of Christ.” (Extravagantes 95). Birgitta obviously had difficulties with finding the balance between her role as bride of Christ and the role as mother of her children. Through her revelation she got a strengthened justification for her choice to dedicate her remaining life to Christ.

Legitimate precedence

Birgitta knew Elisabeth’s vita and shaped her life after this model. Its most important value was perhaps that it gave concrete ideas about how to perform saintly life in practice. Birgitta met criticism especially because she publicly wanted to get rid of the memory of her husband, and because she left her children. Elisabeth’s life provided a legitimate precedence for her when she wanted to step onto the public arena and proclaim divinely inspirited truths for the salvation of the people. Women, and particularly widows, had in non-Christian Sweden been quite powerful and independent. This also helped Birgitta to establish her visionary career in the later Middle Ages.

By Päivi Salmesvuori


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