St. Birgitta of Sweden Essay - Critical Essays

St. Birgitta of Sweden


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.

Principal Works

*Revelationes (spiritual revelations) c. 1373

Revelationes extravagantes (spiritual revelations) c. 1380

Liber celestis imperatoris ad reges (spiritual revelations) c. 1391

*The original manuscript of the Revelationes contains several earlier books of revelations, sermons, and prayers that Birgitta wrote between 1344 and 1373, including Sermo angelicus, Quatuor oraciones, Liber questionum, and Liber celestis revelacionum.

†Included with later editions of the Revelationes.

Principal English Translations

The Revelations of Saint Birgitta [translated by William Patterson Cumming] 1929

(The entire section is 10 words.)


William Patterson Cumming (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Revelations of Saint Birgitta, edited by W. P. Cumming, Oxford University Press, 1929, pp. xxiii-xxix.

[In the following excerpt, Cumming summarizes St. Birgitta's life and the literary merit of her Revelations.]

A. The Life of Saint Birgitta1

In the year 1302 or 13032 Birgitta3 was born at Finstad, a town a few miles from Upsala in the province of Upland. Her father was Birger, the lagman or governor of Upland.

Birgitta began to have visions at the age of seven;4 in these visions an angel, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Christ, usually appeared and...

(The entire section is 2352 words.)

Roger Ellis (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "A Note on the Spirituality of St. Bridget of Sweden," in Analecta Cartusiana, edited by Dr. James Hogg, Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, 1982, pp. 157-66.

[In the following essay, Ellis focuses on St. Birgitta's spirituality and the metaphorical nature of its exposition in her Liber celestis.]

The present paper aims to describe the principal features of the spirituality of St. Bridget of Sweden, as revealed by her biographers and presented in the work which they collaborated with her in producing, the Liber Celestis)1 Any discussion of Christian spirituality, it seems to me, rests upon assumptions like the following: (i)...

(The entire section is 4802 words.)

Hans Aili (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "St. Birgitta and the Text of the Revelationes. A Survey of Some Influences Traceable to Translators and Editors," in The Editing of Theological and Philosophical Texts from the Middle Ages, edited by Monika Asztalos, Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1984, pp. 75-91.

[In the following essay, Aili studies the changes effected by Latin translators and by Alphonse of Jaén—the chief revisor of Birgitta's work—in the text of the Revelations.]

1. Introduction

In recent scholarship on the Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, the question has been raised, to what extent the surviving Latin version of the Revelations...

(The entire section is 7835 words.)

Barbara Obrist (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Swedish Visionary: Saint Bridget," in Medieval Women Writers, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, The University of Georgia Press, 1984, pp. 227-39.

[In the following essay, Obrist surveys St. Birgitta's life and influence, as well as the contents, style, and intent of her Revelations.]

Bridget, the fourteenth-century Swedish mystic, left a canon of revelations widely read in the vernacular at the end of the Middle Ages, especially in the fifteenth century. She was an incult lay author, meaning that she did not Know Latin and thus wrote or dictated her revelations in Swedish. These were gradually translated into Latin by her confessors—Mathias, canon of...

(The entire section is 5636 words.)

F. R. Johnston (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The English Cult of St. Bridget of Sweden," in Analecta Bollandiana: Revue Critique D'Hagiographie, Vol. 103, 1985, pp. 75-93.

[In the following essay, Johnston investigates the influence of St. Birgitta's writings in England following her death and canonization.]

The foundations of the gloria postuma of St Bridget1 were laid by her familia immediately after her death in Rome in 13732. Her daughter, St Katherine, arranged for the translation of her remains to Sweden where they were enshrined with great ceremony and reports of miracles at Vadstena, the mother house of her new order, the Order of the Savious3. Her...

(The entire section is 7243 words.)

Tore Nyberg (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: An introduction to Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Revelations, edited by Marguerite Tjader Harris and translated by Albert Ryle Kezel, Paulist Press, 1990, pp. 13-51.

[In the following introduction to The Life of Birgitta of Sweden, Nyberg examines the structure of Birgitta's Revelations and the theological doctrine it propounds.]

Spiritual background and early life

Mystic union with God, redeeming words and deeds born out of a burning heart—all that we summarize under the heading "spirituality"—is not to be labelled male or female. It is both and at the same time either of them; seemingly a contradiction. In...

(The entire section is 15963 words.)

Ingvar Fogelqvist (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Apostasy and Reform in the Revelations of St. Birgitta, Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1993, 262 p.

[In the following excerpt from his book discussing Birgitta's notion of the moral apostasy of her contemporaries, Fogelqvist outlines the first of many failings the Saint observed in her fellow Christiansa so-called "love of the world" reflected in the prevalent "sins of pride, covetousness, and carnal pleasure."]

There are several revelations where St. Birgitta in general terms accuses the Christians of her time of having apostatised or fallen away. Of special interest in these revelations is how the Church relates to and is affected by sinful...

(The entire section is 13591 words.)

Claire L. Sahlin (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Gender and Prophetic Authority in Birgitta of Sweden's Revelations," in Gender and Text in The Later Middle Ages, edited by Jane Chance, University Press of Florida, 1996, pp. 69-95.

[In the following essay, Sahlin explores Birgitta's attempts to overcome the medieval bias against women by appealing to a prophetic authority sanctioned by God]

During her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and subsequent return to Rome in 1372, Birgitta of Sweden traveled through Cyprus, where she summoned rulers and nobility to hear God's words concerning the fate of the island. Birgitta, who was advanced in age and growing physically weak, claimed to speak to the Cypriots on behalf...

(The entire section is 9442 words.)

Further Reading

Blunt, John Henry. Introduction to The Myroure of Oure Ladye, edited by John Henry Blunt, pp. vii-xlvii. New York: N. Trübner & Co., 1873.

Contains a historical account of the Birgittine monastery at Sion and a summary of the life of St. Birgitta.

Butkovich, Anthony. Iconography: St. Birgitta of Sweden. Los Angeles: Ecumenical Foundation of America, 1969, 102 p.

Includes a collection of images of St. Birgitta accompanied by brief biographical and historical anecdotes.

——. Revelations: Saint Birgitta of Sweden. Los Angeles: Ecumenical Foundation...

(The entire section is 189 words.)