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The Saint in the Woods: Semi-Domestic Shrines in Rural Sweden, c. 1500-1800

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In the seventeenth century, a common saying in parts of rural Sweden when discussing someone lacking in piety was that they went to neither church nor cross. This reflects the practice of placing shrines in the fields, along the roads and in the
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  religions  Article The Saint in the Woods: Semi-Domestic Shrines inRural Sweden, c. 1500–1800 Terese Zachrisson Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg, 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden;terese.zachrisson@gu.seReceived: 9 May 2019; Accepted: 8 June 2019; Published: 17 June 2019      Abstract:  In the seventeenth century, a common saying in parts of rural Sweden when discussingsomeone lacking in piety was that they went to neither church nor cross. This reflects the practiceof placing shrines in the fields, along the roads and in the woods as a communal semi-domestic complement to o ffi cial church space. In the remote woodland areas of Sweden, the distance between parish churches could be considerable, and many parishioners were not able to attend church on a regular, weeklybasis. Atthesesites, parishionerscouldkneelandmaketheirprayersasacomplementto church service. However, they could also be used as points of contact in communicating domestic issues with the divine, with votives being left at the shrines by those hoping for deliverance fromdisease and di ffi cult childbirths. In the post-reformation period, such sites were regarded with suspicionbythehigherranksoftheclergy,andwereoftenconsidered“idolatrous”and“superstitious”. Yet, they seem to have filled an important religious need among their laity that made it possible to interact with the divine on sites bordering the domestic and the public space of the church. Keywords:  sacred space; materiality; popular piety; lived religion; Lutheranism 1. Introduction [  . . .  ] In Pelarne parish, fourteen or fifteen years ago, there was a large wooden cross on the lands of Hult, along the road to Fastnefall, now downfallen; and it is said that formerly, the old and the sick have gone there, fallen to their knees and held their worship. (Stahre 1992, p. 184) The statement above was written by a vicar in Småland in eastern Sweden in 1667 in a report to the College of Antiquities. Mentions of such sites are not uncommon from early modern Sweden. Thevicar mentions that the cross was primarily used by “the old and the sick”, which implies that the crosswas a form of semi-domestic alternative or complement to regular church attendance. In many parts of rural Sweden, the distance to one’s parish church could be considerable and roads were often in a poorstate, which limited the ability to attend service regularly–and these di ffi culties doubtlessly increased for those in old age and failing health (Kuha 2015, pp. 19, 22–23). To fulfil their religious needs, the laity could invest other sites than o ffi cial church space with sacredness, sites that were convenient in their closeness to home while still maintaining something of the otherness of the holy. Space o ff  ers an excellent opportunity to investigate religious cultures and in recent years, scholarly interest in spatial aspects of religious thought and practice have greatly increased (notable worksinclude Alexandra Walsham, ‘The Reformation of the Landscape’, 2011 (Walsham 2011); Andrew Spicer and Will Coster (eds.), ‘Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe’, 2005 (Coster and Spicer 2005)). In general, though, the focus of scholars has been the “grand” spaces—towns, cathedrals and Western and Central Europe—while the rural village chapels of Eastern and Northern Europe have receivedless attention. The focus of this article is on these “small” spaces: devotional sites created and Religions  2019 ,  10 , 386; doi:10.3390  /  rel10060386 www.mdpi.com  /   journal  /  religions  Religions  2019 ,  10 , 386 2 of 15 maintained by the laity in rural areas of Sweden. The study is carried out mainly through a close reading of seventeenth-century acts from the College of Antiquities, early modern topographical works and visitation records. In cases where the objects of these shrines have been preserved, the objects themselves will also be used as a source of analysis. Most commonly, these shrines consisted of a simple wooden cross, but could also include saint’ssculptures and small chapels. They could be found in a variety of settings: on farmland properties, in the woods, on churchyards and crossroads. They were also often found in close proximity to holywells. Holy wells and healing springs are the perhaps most well-known and subsequently the most researched example of landscape sites that bordered on domesticity. The overshadowing emphasis on miracles and healing makes the character of the visits to holy wells somewhat di ff  erent from that of crosses, sculptures and other small shrines in the landscape, though this di ff  erence is by no means absolute—holy wells could be visited for prayer and crosses and images could be visited for healing as well as the reverse (Ray 2014; Christian 1989, pp. 93–97). The wells and springs themselves will, however, not be the focus of this particular piece, though they will be discussed on occasion in relation to the manmade shrines erected on its grounds. In multi-religious areas, such as the Holy Roman Empire, the presence or absence of crucifixes, shrines and images could function as a way of claiming and confessionalising landscapes and public space (Freist 2009, pp. 214–15; Louthan 2005, pp. 286–96). This was likely not the case in early modern Sweden, which, with the exception of the easternmost part of Finland, did not border any areas whereother faiths were commonplace. Thus, roadside shrines probably did not explicitly signal CatholicisminthesamemannerasthesesitesdidincontinentalEurope, whichcouldbeareasonbehindtheviability of the custom of constructing and maintaining such shrines even in the post-reformation period. The timeframe of the following study is deliberately kept elastic. This is due to the fact that many of the sources discussing the sites in question are vague in their descriptions of when a certainpractice occurred or when an object was in place. Furthermore, even when specified, in certain cases there might be reason to suspect that these timeframes have been modified to suit the individual author’s purposes. This could be done as a rhetorical way of placing fairly recent practices in a distant “pagan” past, thus emphasising the author’s perception of pre-reformation religion as non-Christian. Timeframes could likely also be altered or kept vague for a di ff  erent reason. To a vicar, admitting that illicit practices were continuously occurring in his parish might pose a risk in calling his o ffi ce into question, and it could thus be safer to discuss questionable practices in the past tense. Geographically, this article investigates these practices in the Kingdom of Sweden as of its borders at the end of the seventeenth century. This included Sweden proper, as well as Finland and the provinces of Jämtland, Scania, Härjedalen Bohuslän, Halland and Blekinge, which had been acquired from Denmark and Norway earlier in the 1600s. Religious traditions in the Scandinavian Middle Ages di ff  ered little from the beliefs and practices of other parts of Northern Europe (Laugerud 2018, pp. 56–58), where we are more well-informed on the complex web of natural and manmade access-points to the sacred that characterised the religious landscape. Small prayer houses, crosses, sculptures and other shrines were scattered across Europe,fulfilling a variety of religious needs—most notably penance and healing. In remote areas where parishes were large, priests few and the churches far between, local holy sites may have been of greaterimportance than regular church attendance to these communities (Walsham 2011, pp. 49–50). Because of the general scarcity of sources from medieval Sweden, mentions of these outdoor places of worship are few. When combined with records from other parts of Scandinavia though, a somewhat coherent context may be sketched. For instance, a twelfth-century Icelandic homily mentions such sites, in thatit advices the faithful to hastily head to either “church or cross” in the morning, to kneel and sing the Pater Noster. Crosses could be erected by pious laypeople or by the Church, and in the former cases the crosses could be blessed by the local bishop. Their primal function was probably that of privateworship for local residents and travellers, especially pilgrims passing on their way to the tomb of St.Olaf in Nidaros. Some were erected in the woods or along roads while others were placed in small  Religions  2019 ,  10 , 386 3 of 15 chapel-like structures (Gardell 1931, pp. 4–7). Though the medieval Church initiated, maintained and promoted many shrines in the landscape, some could still be met with suspicion and disapproval. When local cults initiated by the laity could not easily be brought under clerical control, such sites wereoften deemed superstitious (Walsham 2011, pp. 66–79). Such non-o ffi cial sites are largely unknown ina Scandinavian context, but considering the general shortage of preserved pre-reformation sources inthe region, there is no reason to take this as proof of the absence of such shrines in the medieval period.Thereis, however, animportantdi ff  erencebetweenwaysideshrinesinthemedievalperiodandthoseinthe post-reformation era. Devotions at these sites in the middle ages were usually firmly incorporatedin the ecclesiastical sphere. They were visited on certain dates of the liturgical calendar, and sometimes even Mass was celebrated at portable altars in conjunction with these visits (Timmermann 2012, p. 393). Post-reformation shrines, on the other hand, seem to have been kept and used exclusively by lay believers, and as such, they bordered more heavily on the domestic than the public spheres of worship.O ffi cially, theKingdomofSwedenbrokeitstiestotheRomanCatholicChurchin1527andadopted Lutheran teachings. In reality though, changes in ecclesiastical law and liturgy were introduced step-by-step throughout the sixteenth century. During the 1544 ‘riksdag’ in Västerås, several traditional devotional practices, such as the veneration of saints, pilgrimages, masses for the dead and others, were o ffi cially abolished (Alin and Hildebrand 1887, pp. 390–91). Among these changes, the banning of pilgrimage was probably the factor that had the greatest consequences for wayside shrines—thoughpilgrimage in various forms continued to be a part of popular religious repertoires throughout the earlymodern period (Weikert 2004, p. 151; Malmstedt 2014, p. 103). In the first Lutheran church ordinance, authored by Archbishop Laurentius Petri in 1561 (printed in 1571), Petri criticised the abundance of  places of worship, stating that “unnecessary” churches, chapels and altars, had all led to a “great abuse”(Nordström 1872, p. 99). While generally tolerating images in the churches, the ordinance also stressed that all “superfluous” images that were sought by “ignorant folk” were to be “taken o ff   the road” [sv. taghas bortt a ff   wäghen] (Nordström 1872, p. 101). This has sometimes been interpreted as specificallyreferring to the outdoor crosses, saint’s sculptures and other shrines that were placed along the roads(Piltz 2016, pp. 76–77, 82), but it could also be a figure of speech and thus referring to “abused” images in general. According to historical scholar Johannes Messenius (1579–1636), Archbishop Laurentius Petrihad himself ordered the demolition of a famous miraculous crucifix that was placed at the Well of the Holy Cross [sv. Helga Kors Källa] in the parish of Svinnegarn (Messenius 1703, 98v). However, apart from this story, we have very little evidence on how the process of removing such shrines played out in practice, or how far-reaching such initiatives were in reality. As will be discussed below, many shrines seem to have been preserved—sometimes even in locations where the local clergy surely must have been aware of their existence, such as churchyards and in connection to chapels. For instance,in 1707, the vicar of Särna in the province of Dalarna told the College of Antiquities that there was a moss-grown wooden cross of about two metres of height just outside of Idre parish church. The use of the cross was still in living memory, and parishioners had told the vicar that people previously madetheir worship there, “crawling on their hands and knees” (Ståhle 1960, p. 166). That the cross was still in place in this central location, and that it had been in use up to at least some years following the reformation, was apparently not viewed as problematic in this context. However, as will be discussed in the following section, attitudes towards these shrines varied. 2. Votive and Devotional Crosses From the parish church of Liden in the province of Medelpad an unusual early 16th-centurywooden cross is preserved (Figure 1). It is painted with an image of St. Martin on one side and of St. Margaret on the other. The cross seems to have played a role in popular religion even in the post-reformation period, as indicated by the multitude of engravings covering its surface, consisting of initials, house marks and the year 1641. These engravings were possibly made in order to tie oneself orone’s household to the cross, or to that which the cross represented, and the cross was apparently used  Religions  2019 ,  10 , 386 4 of 15 in this manner after the reformation as well as before. In a 1776 letter to Härnösand cathedral chapter,the local vicar describes a nearly identical cross preserved in Liden’s annex parish Holm. Instead of St. Martin and St. Margaret, this cross is said to have had paintings of the Virgin Mary and St. Josephinstead. Due to the unusual design—to my knowledge, the Liden cross is the only example of sucha cross in Sweden—they seem to have been manufactured as a pair for the two churches. Anotherpossibility is that the vicar was actually discussing the Liden cross, and that the images of Martinand Margaret had been reinterpreted as that of Mary and Joseph in a post-reformation context. Inan inventory from 1831 the cross is described as “an old cross with painted images of humans on both sides, with unknown letters, that seem to be a remnant of paganism” (ATA: Holm 1831). Dueto the mention of the house marks, his statement seems to support the idea that this was in reality the preserved Liden cross. House marks often took a runic form, and this could easily have been theunknown “pagan” letters referred to in the inventory. There is, of course, a possibility that the Holm cross, if a separate object, was also covered with similar marks, though this is somewhat unlikely due to the rarity of such inscriptions on images.   Figure 1.  Votive cross depicting St. Martin from Liden parish. Photo: Ivar Andersson, Swedish National Heritage Board. Regardless, the vicar continues his 1776 letter with saying that he had heard from his parishioners that “during the Papacy”, the cross had been placed in some sort of small structure at a placed called  Religions  2019 ,  10 , 386 5 of 15 Korsmobacken in the woods between the Liden and Holm churches, and that it had functioned as “an o ff  ering stead” for those unable to walk the distance to either of the churches (HLA: Domkapitlet i Härnösand E III:76, Holm 1776-09-11). The cross was probably manufactured in the sixteenth century,placing this devotional custom on the “eve of the reformation”, and it is unlikely that the practice wasended abruptly as the new teachings were introduced. Rather, that parishioners had clear memories of how the cross had been used, even in the late eighteenth century, suggests that such customs continued into at least the seventeenth century, as indicated by the year carved into the cross along with the house marks. Similar statements, that project such practices to a vague “popish” or “pagan” past, arerather common in the sources. The fact that such objects existed in the pre-reformation period calls for little doubt; however, such statements could also have been made in order to disguise a more recent practice, and thus to evade possible criticism and sanctions from the cathedral chapter. Though no longer part of o ffi cially sanctioned religious practices, wayside crosses continued to  be a feature of the post-reformation landscape. Some of them, in particular memorial crosses, even survive to this day. These memorial crosses were often said to have been raised at sites where someone had met a violent end, in particular sites of murders and riding accidents. (Säve 1873, pp. 4–20).Wayside crosses primarily serving a mnemonic function like these were likely never demolished inpart because they were not tied to practices that the early modern Church perceived as threatening. Crosses used for devotional purposes are preserved to a much lesser degree because they were often constructed out of wood rather than stone, and likely also because they were associated with religioustraditions that were frowned upon by the early modern Church. However, they certainly still existed inmany parts of the country by the seventeenth century, and sometimes as late as the nineteenth century. In 1666, in accordance with the Gothicist movement of the Swedish empire, the crown issued a decree for vicars and local o ffi cials to submit reports of historical monuments found in their parishes. What actually constituted a “monument” seem to have been subject to a wide range of interpretations and the acts submitted vary greatly in geographical distribution, length and quality (Baudou 1995,pp. 164–68; Bring é us 1995, pp. 92–93; Zachrisson 2017, pp. 98–104). Still, these inventories, dating  between 1667 and 1693, are invaluable sources for early modern folklore and material culture, andmany wayside crosses are mentioned in these acts. For instance, in the parish of Tolg in Småland, the vicar of the area wrote of an old wooden cross by the name of “Three Lords” or “Lord Three” [sv. Herra Tre], that never seemed to rot (Stahre 1992, p. 153). An expression that seems to have been commonplace in early modern Sweden as well as in theother Scandinavian countries, when discussing someone lacking in piety was that he or she went to“neither cross nor church”. This suggests that the practice of visiting wayside crosses for devotionalpurposes had been far more common than what may be attested from preserved sources from the medieval period (Gardell 1931, p. 7; Bø 1964, p. 183). For example, one vicar, in writing to the College of Antiquities in 1683, tells us of the use of this expression in his parish: Up and by the old Dalby church [  . . .  ], there has been a large wooden cross, six cubits high orlong, outside of the gate of the church, and by the same cross there was a collection box. On Sundays and holidays where there was no service in the church, some of the peasants stillwent to the cross and made o ff  erings in the box on behalf of their sick back at home. But if  someone was negligent in their worship, other peasants would reproach him, saying that he goes to neither cross nor church, hence this expression has come in use in this area. (Ståhle 1969, p. 186) In Funäsdalen and Hede in the province of Härjedalen, remnants of a votive crosses [sv. O ff  erkors]could still be seen according to an antiquarian report from 1684, written by the vicar of the parish. Attheir bases, coins placed there as o ff  erings had been found. However, the vicar was also quick to finish the sentence with a redeeming “—but not nowadays” (Ståhle 1960, p. 245). The practice of not only preserving, but also raising new crosses continued well into thepost-reformation period, though it was regarded with suspicion by the clerical  é lite. When writing
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