St. Birgitta of Sweden Critical Essays

Introduction

St. Birgitta of Sweden C. 1303–1373

(Also Bridget, Birgit, Brigid) Swedish prophetic writer.

The patron saint of Sweden, Birgitta was an influential figure in the religious and political life of fourteenth-century Europe. An outspoken proponent of reform within the Church, she is largely remembered for her prophetic visions later collected in the eight books of her Revelationes (c.1373; The Revelations of Saint Bridget). In this work, Birgitta called for the contrition of Christian society, which she believed had fallen away from the moral precepts of Christ as contained in the Bible. Many of her prophecies and visions evoke images of an ira Dei, the angry God of the Old Testament, as they denounce the sins of pride, avarice, and concupiscence to which Birgitta felt many Europeans had succumbed. She believed that Christians had strayed from the true path, and only through confession, purification, and penitence could they again achieve God's grace. Many of her later writings demonstrate her worldly goals, including the achievement of a reconciliation between the Church and the secular powers in Europe, the return of the Avignonese papacy to its traditional place in Rome, and an end to the long-standing and bloody conflict between the rulers of France and England known as the Hundred Years War. Among her other lasting accomplishments are the creation of the monastic order that bears her name and her critique of the Church in her Revelations, in which she foreshadowed many of the grievances that Martin Luther enumerated in the ensuing era of the Reformation.

Biographical Information

Birgitta was born in Sweden in about 1303, the daughter of Birger Person, then governor of the Uppland region. Her family was wealthy, politically influential, and strongly religious. In 1316 she conceded to her father's wishes and married prince Ulf Gudmarsson, with whom she had eight children, including a daughter who would become Saint Catherine of Sweden. In 1341 Birgitta, her husband, and a retinue of followers undertook a holy pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In 1344, a few years after their return, Ulf's death prompted Birgitta to devote the remainder of her life to religious pursuits. She retreated to the Cistercian monastery at Alvastra for a while, immersing herself in prayer. Beginning in

this period, and for the rest of her life, Birgitta reportedly experienced a series of visions, mostly of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Many of these revelations urged Birgitta to undertake future tasks. Some of God's messages were of a political nature and were revealed before the court of King Magnus and Queen Blanche of Sweden. Others guided her in various pursuits, notably in the foundation of a devotional order in honor of the Virgin Mary. Another caused her to leave for Rome in late 1349 for the purpose of spreading God's word and to facilitate the return of the Pa pacy—residing at that time in "Babylonian Captivity" in Avignon, France—to the Italian capitol. While there, Birgitta formed an apostolate embraced by many Italians. Her assistance of the poor and homeless became legendary in the city and earned her the title of "The Angel of Rome." Yet another vision she experienced late in life prompted Birgitta to travel to the Holy Land in 1372. She returned to Rome from her well-publicized pilgrimage in 1373 and died on July 23 of that year. Her remains were transported to Sweden and buried at the site of the future monastery at Vadstena. Following her death, Birgitta's movement toward sainthood was relatively swift; Pope Boniface IX finished a process begun by Urban VI and canonized her on October 7, 1391. In 1396 she was named patron saint of her native Sweden. As for Birgitta's visions, nearly all were transcribed and eventually translated.

Major Works

Birgitta's literary works consist entirely of the many editions and translations of her Revelations. Comprising eight books in all—the last of which was added posthumously—the Revelations contain transcriptions of approximately seven hundred religious visions pri marily featuring Christ and the Virgin Mary, as well as John the Baptist, God the Father, Saint Agnes, and others. Overall Birgitta's writings reflect a simplicity of style and rhetorical manner and evoke the author's pious obedience to the received word of God. The structure of the work, despite passing through countless editors and translators, has largely remained the same since the early fifteenth century. Books One and Two contain early revelations which Birgitta experienced in Sweden; their themes are mostly moral in nature. The next two books of the Revelations largely comprise Birgitta's visions of the Church in Rome. Book Five, generally known as the Liber questionum, or "Book of Questions," returns to the Swedish period. It features a monk on a ladder, who addresses questions to Jesus Christ on a variety of theological subjects, including the reasons for evil and suffering in this world. Book Six includes many biographical accounts from Birgitta's life as well as visions pertaining to a range of subjects, both secular and sacred. The topic of Book Seven is the years 1371 to 1373, including Birgitta's vision of and pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Book Eight, called the Liber celestis imperatoris ad reges, or "The Book of the Heavenly Emperor to the Kings," meditates on political themes and affairs. It includes portions drawn from the previous books of the Revelations. A final element of the work, made up of lost, discarded, or forgotten revelations and entitled the Revelationes extravagantes, was later added by editors. It contains revelations on a variety of topics, notably Birgitta's vision in 1345 on the subject of the Birgittine order, or the Ordo Sancti Salvatoris.

Textual History

Because Birgitta was unable to speak or write Latin, she dictated her Revelationes in Swedish to her confessors, who transcribed her words into the language of educated Europe. These manuscripts were later translated into Old Swedish, as well as German, English, and other European languages. Among her Latin confessors, one influential figure involved in the early formation of the Revelations stands out. Alphonse de Jaén guided the editing process of Birgitta's writings near the end of her life and following her death. His manuscripts of the Revelations include the famous preface entitled Epistola solitarii ad reges—"The Letter of the Hermit to the Kings"—in which he defends Birgitta's writings from contemporary and future attacks on their authenticity, veracity, and divine authority. Later editors carried on Alphonse's work but often took liberties with the manuscript. One such editor, Nicolaus Orsini, greatly transformed the style of the visions that Birgitta dictated to her Latin translators by eliminating its unique form of address—that of Christ speaking directly to Birgitta as his bride. Modern critics see this act by Orsini as an attempt to deflect criticism of the Revelations from biased medieval observers who would refuse to accept that the word of God could be revealed through a woman. An English trans lation of the Revelations was produced between 1400 and 1415, while the first published edition of the Revelations appeared in Lübeck, Germany, in 1492. Another early edition of importance was sanctioned by the authority of Emperor Maximilian and undertaken at his request in 1500. Contemporary scholars have begun work on a modern Swedish critical edition of the Revelations, although the English standard remains the 1929 partial translation by William Patterson Cumming.

Critical Reception

Subsequent to her arrival in Rome in 1350, Birgitta experienced a period of immense popularity—to the level of cult adoration, according to some critics. This popularity grew following her canonization and the creation of her monastic order in Sweden in the late fourteenth century. In the meantime, other Birgittine monasteries appeared elsewhere in Europe, most notably in England at Sion. After the advent of the Refor mation, however, Birgitta's Revelations were reviewed by the Council of Basel. Many passages were deemed dubious, and overall the popularity of the Birgittine order decreased. In the late sixteenth century, the convent at Vadstena that she had inspired was vacated. In the modern period, Birgitta's life and writings have elicited considerable interest among scholars. Some have discussed her Revelations as an example of medieval popular or mystical literature, by and large lacking in rhetorical refinement. Several have examined the question of prophetic legitimacy by investigating accounts of Birgitta as insane or falsely inspired. Roger Ellis has commented on her relation to Old Testament prophecy and the harsh judgment of a God enraged by lack of faith. Still others have seen Birgitta's work as a symbolic synthesis of the medieval desire for political and religious unity and as a powerful precursor of the ecclesiastical reform that took place in the sixteenth century.