Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373)
Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373)
Patron saint of Sweden who was the founder of the Catholic order of Brigettines and the mother of Saint Catherine of Sweden. Name variations: Birgitta, Birgitta of Vadstena, Brigit, or Brigitta. Born in 1303; died in 1373; daughter of Sir Birger Persson of Finsta and Lady Ingeborg ; married Ulf Gudmarsson, prince of Nericia, 1317 (died, 1342); children: first of eight born in 1319 (most of her children either predeceased her or else lived a celibate life, including Catherine, who is known as Saint Catherine of Sweden, c. 1330–1381).
Became lady-in-waiting and governess to Queen Blanche of Namur (1335); made pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella (1341); adopted penitential life (1342); departed for Rome just before the Black Death plagued Sweden (1349); made pilgrimage to Holy Land (1372).
Sweden is so far north that it enjoys almost perpetual daylight in the summer months but near total darkness in winter months, which are savagely cold. Its history is likewise extreme and harsh: a saga of dogged men and women living on the rim of the habitable world. It is difficult for English-speaking people to learn much about Sweden's patron saint, Saint Bridget, since almost the only sources on her life are written in Latin, Danish, and Swedish. The exception, Johannes Jorgensen's two-volume biography (written 1940; translated from Danish 1954) is so unsatisfactory that it has to be read with great skepticism. Jorgensen portrayed her as uncannily holy straight from the cradle, rather than as a flesh-and-blood woman; whatever she did he declared to have been supernaturally guided, faultless. Still, it is possible, from information Jorgensen provides, to visit the opposite side of the spectrum and interpret her life as that of a fanatical disciplinarian and political Machiavellian, as extreme as medieval Sweden itself. Like that of many saints, Bridget's history has been clouded behind hundreds of miracle stories, which to contemporary ears depict both the saint and her God more often vengeful and arbitrary than infinite in mercy and tenderness. Her book, the Revelations, full of threats of hell and horrible visions side by side with hymns of love for the Virgin Mary, is one of the largest surviving documents from a woman's hand to be written in the 14th century.
The first attempt to convert the Swedes to Christianity had been made in 845 by Saint Ansgar, archbishop of Hamburg, who struggled against the cult of the Nordic gods Thor, Odin, and the rest. But the kingdom as a whole was not converted until 1008, under the influence of Saint Sigfred, an English archbishop of York, who converted King (later Saint) Olaf. For the next five centuries, until the Protestant Reformation carried Sweden into the Lutheran camp, it became the northern extremity of Catholic Europe.
She would create a new army of warriors of God and gather them to fight under a banner as red as blood and bearing on the front a picture of the Cross of Christ, but on the back Mary, the gentle Mother of Mercy, was to stand with open arms.
Bridget was born to a noble Swedish family, one of the country's richest and most powerful, in 1303. Shortly before her birth, her mother Ingeborg had almost drowned in a shipwreck; Ingeborg's providential rescue was taken by later hagiographers as a sign of future greatness. As one of three siblings to survive childhood (four others did not), Bridget became one of the richest people in Sweden upon her father's death. Growing up on the family estates at Finsta Gaard, the girl was well-educated by governesses and priests, becoming literate first in Swedish, later in Latin and Italian. According to legend, she longed for a life of virginity and devotion to God ("Better to die than be a bride!"), but, whatever her wishes, she was married at the age of 14 to a powerful noble, Ulf Gudmarsson, himself 18. They lived "as brother and sister" for the first two years of marriage, but then she gave birth to a child and followed up with seven more, four sons and four daughters, finding time also to teach her hitherto illiterate husband how to read.
Legend has it that in the early days of their marriage, she ordered a fine bed made for herself and her husband; as she gazed upon it, she received a violent blow on the head and a rebuke from Christ, who pointed out that he'd had nowhere soft to lay his head. After that, Bridget took to lying on a sack of straw covered only in bearskin, even in the depths of the Arctic winter, telling surprised observers that the Holy Spirit provided warmth to her soul in compensation for that lost by her body. Both Christ and Mary the Virgin became regular visitors in a lifetime of frequent visions, and usually in her Revelations she spoke not in her own voice but in the voice of Christ or the Virgin. One might speculate that this was a powerful technique for gaining the moral advantage over any challenger.
Bridget also became involved in good works in her district, visiting the poor and sick, rescuing prostitutes, giving dowries to destitute girls, and introducing her own children to Christian works of mercy. Her daughter Catherine later recalled: "When Mother was reproached with taking us little girls with her, and that we might be infected from the stench of the sick people, she answered that she took us with her just while we were still small, so that we might learn at an early age to serve God in his poor and sick." Bridget undertook fiercely ascetic fasts, dripped burning candle wax onto her arms until they blistered to remind her of Christ's wounds, scratched open the wounds again before they healed, and took to chewing bitter gentian root at all times as a punishment for moments when she had taken pleasure in food and drink.
In addition to these mortifications, Bridget took an interest in the intellectual developments of her age, living as she did shortly after the creative scholastic theologians Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas had reconciled Christian tradition with Aristotelian philosophy. She learned of their work through Master Matthias, a canon of Linkoping Cathedral, near her family home, and became familiar with the intellectual, political, and religious life of greater Europe before ever leaving her homeland. Like Matthias, she was an intense student of the Biblical Book of Revelation and considered herself to be living in the last days of the world, with the Day of Judgment imminent. Many of her "Revelations," like those in the Book of Revelation, are complicated allegories and parables whose meaning is difficult to unravel.
When her husband became an advisor to King Magnus Eriksson (they were cousins), Bridget became a governess and lady-in-waiting to his wife Blanche of Namur , following the royal wedding of 1335. She was godmother to the royal family's first child but apparently became dissatisfied with the worldly life at court and decided to take up pilgrimages instead. With her husband, in 1341, Bridget set off to Santiago de Compostella, in northwestern Spain, which was then one of the chief pilgrimages of Europe, the place where Saint James was believed to have brought the word of Christ to Iberia and where he was buried. In Spain, she drew attention to herself by harsh condemnations of sinful priests and bishops, and by a slashing indictment of the kings of England and France, whose war with one another (the early days of the Hundred Years' War) had damaged parts of France through which they had passed:
They are like two wild beasts. One of them is greedy to swallow everything it can get, and the more it eats the hungrier it gets, and its hunger is never satisfied. The other animal wants to exalt itself above all men, and to rule over them. Each of the two animals tries to swallow the heart of the other. The terrible voices of these animals is heard far and wide across the world, and their voice and cry is this: "Take gold and the riches of the world, and do not spare the blood of Christian men."
She was dismayed that the pope (then living in Avignon) had been so ineffectual in his efforts to stop the war, and this pilgrimage appears to have hardened her resolve to lead a more active life in reforming a corrupt Christendom. The Avignon popes were notorious for worldliness, nepotism, and self-enrichment; poets like Petrarch and prophets like Joachim of Flora were united in their denunciations of Avignon as a new Babylon. Passing close to the papal court, Bridget pointedly failed to pay a visit.
On the way home from Santiago, her husband Ulf fell dangerously ill. While praying that he might recover, Bridget was rewarded by a vision of Saint Dionysius (St. Paul's disciple) who told her that Ulf would survive but that, from now on, they should live in celibacy. Ulf hung on only for another year and then expired at the monastery of Alvastra. Bridget, now a widow of 40, took up residence there, gaining a dispensation from the usually strict Cistercian rule against the presence of women. The sub-prior of Alvastra, Petrus Olai, became her secretary, and during Bridget's frequent visions and raptures she dictated to him messages she was receiving from God and the saints. Chief among these revelations was that she had been chosen by Christ as His bride with the special task of saving the Swedish people from their sins.
Guided by another vision, she began the work of founding her order, whose first house was raised on land that she had acquired from a greatly beneficent, or possibly terrified, king. (She had warned Magnus that his sins were so wicked that he faced near-certain damnation unless he reformed and gave her the royal estate at Vadstena.) In a demonstration to duplicate early Christian fervor, her order was to consist of 60 nuns, under the rule of an abbess. In addition:
there shall be thirteen priests, after the thirteen apostles, of which the thirteenth, Saint Paul, did not work least. Then there shall be four deacons, who can be priests if they so desire it. They signify the four great doctors of the church: Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory. Next there shall be eight laymen who shall serve the priests. Altogether that makes sixty sisters, thirteen priests, four
deacons and eight servants, which is the same number as the thirteen apostles and the seventy two disciples.
Bridget described living arrangements and the nuns' costume with similar precision and further attempts at allegory. On the white crown of the headdress, she specified, were to be sewn five small pieces of red cloth, like five drops of blood, to signify the crown of thorns. In other respects, the rule was similar to that laid down by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux for the Cistercians, and enjoined on nuns strict vows of poverty and obedience. She sent an envoy to Avignon to obtain the pope's approval for this scheme and to renew her pleas for a peace treaty between England and France. The pope, Clement VI, treated her envoy with scant courtesy, however, and refused to endorse the rule, noting that the Lateran Council of 1215 had judged that no new monastic rules should be introduced; the existing rules (Augustinian, Benedictine, Franciscan, etc.) were sufficient. Bridget received the news with fury, answering the pope (in the voice of Christ):
[A]s I have let you rise high above all so I shall also let you descend to fearful torment of body and soul, if you do not heed my words. Your boastful tongue shall fall silent, your name, that was famed on the earth, shall be forgotten and dishonored with me and my saints…. I shall also question you on how slothful you were to make peace between the kings [of England and France].
Meanwhile, Bridget continued to advise King Magnus and certainly approved of his dynastic schemes against the kings of Norway and Denmark and the Lords of Scania whereby Sweden reached its "natural" boundaries. In one vision justifying Magnus' conquests, Christ told her that Swedes and Danes had originally been together in Noah's Ark. Disembarking after the flood, Christ continued, "the Swedes went towards the east, the Danes towards the west; the Swedes settled on the continent, the Danes on the islands, both were to be content with what they had and live in the land of their fathers, and within the borders of the forefathers." She also agreed with Magnus' plans for a crusade against Finland. She favored an expedition of monks and soldiers—there was a place for peaceful conversions but also, she believed, a place for violence. Her biographer, Johannes Jorgensen, declares: "It may even be an advantage to the heathen to die young—if they were allowed to live longer they would sin more and so get a harder punishment after death."
After early successes, the expedition against Finland turned into a costly disaster—during one retreat, one of Bridget's two surviving brothers died in the city of Riga. Bridget interpreted defeats as a sign of God's wrath against Magnus for his wastefulness and ostentation and urged him to take advantage of the forthcoming holy year (1350) by going to Rome for an indulgence. When Magnus refused, she resolved to do it in his stead, setting out across the Baltic in 1349 as soon as the ice had melted. As it turned out, Bridget was leaving Sweden for the last time. No sooner had she departed than the Black Death swept through Scandinavia, killing two-thirds of the population of Norway and a third of the population of Sweden. King Magnus recalled one of the curses that Bridget had fired at him as a parting shot:
Thus saith the Son of God: I will visit this kingdom with the sword and lance and with wrath. In vain do they say, "Let us do as it pleaseth us, life is short, God is merciful. He will do us no evil!" Hearken to what I now say to thee. I will rise up in all my power and will not spare either young or old, rich or poor, just or unjust. I will come with my plough and pull up the trees by the roots, so that where there before were a thousand people only a hundred will be left, and their houses shall stand empty.
Like other European rulers he was powerless to prevent the annihilating power of the plague.
On her arrival in Rome, Bridget found the city in a sorry condition; in addition to the ancient Roman ruins and the ruins of earlier Christian ages, there was a new scene of devastation caused by an earthquake in 1348 and signs of the Black Death here too. Worse, two feuding families, the Colonna and the Orsini, kept the city, which the popes had abandoned, in a state of constant civic turmoil; all the Papal States had become the fiefdoms of petty warlords. Vice, crime, simony, nepotism, and a general sense of decay all contributed to Bridget's decision to stay in the hope of inaugurating reforms. Taking up residence in a cardinal's palace but living according to the Brigettine rule she had written, she continued to receive messages from saints and angels. Saint Peter, she said, gave her a summary of the situation in Rome and predicted her future:
Rome was in times past a city in which dwelt the warriors of Christ, its streets were strewn as if with gold and silver. But now all its precious sapphires are lying in the mire…. Toads and vipers build here, and the fishes from my draught are afraid of their poison and dare not lift their heads. Yet shall the fishes still be gathered here, though not so many as in times past, but tasting just as good…. Moreover I tell thee that thou shalt live long enough to see with your eyes my vice regent come back to Rome, and thou shalt hear the people cry "Long Live the Pope."
To prepare Rome for the pope's return (which she interpreted apocalyptically as preparation for Christ's return), she traveled frequently to the churches of Rome, praying in each one. She offered hospitality to visiting Swedish pilgrims, many of whom, by her reckoning, were horrible sinners, drunkards, voluptuaries, liars, and all puffed up with pride. Her visions showed her what would become of these men and women after death, and she passed the word on, depicting lurid torments in purgatory or Hell itself. Several sinners appeared in her visions sitting on a narrow beam suspended over the mouth of Hell, liable to fall into the fiery pit at any moment. Despite her frequent communications with the Virgin Mary whose purity she emphasized, she often described Mary herself carrying out savage eternal punishments on sinners. Bridget's growing dismay with King Magnus, meanwhile, increased when he failed to repay large debts owed to the pope and when he lost a series of conflicts with rival dukes; she approved first of his excommunication in 1358 and then of the baronial conspiracy and rebellion by which he was overthrown in 1365.
Bridget's daughter Catherine of Sweden , aged 20, either abandoned her husband or was widowed (Lives of Saints says widowed) and came to join Bridget in Rome. Catherine accompanied her mother while Bridget was touring the various kingdoms of Italy, urging corrupt priests and abbots to repent. A blonde Swedish beauty, Catherine became the object of many Italian noble's amorous designs. One, a member of the powerful Orsini family, laid in ambush for her as she was heading for church, but to save Catherine's virtue God struck him blind as she passed by with her mother. Mortified by his sin, the noble followed her to church, helped by his bodyguards, and begged forgiveness for his lecherous schemes. Bridget interceded with God, his sight was restored, and Bridget and Catherine became friends of the admiring Orsinis.
Some Romans, by contrast, took offense at Bridget's unceasing criticism of them, the pope, the Holy Roman emperor, and most of the pilgrims she met—her secretary noted that "when her revelations were made known and read to the inhabitants of Rome they were inflamed with a deadly enmity against the Lady Bridget, and some said that she was a sorceress and wanted her to be burnt as a witch." After she had delivered a new set of divine condemnations to Rome, a large crowd gathered outside the house, shouted that they would burn it down with her, a sorceress, inside. She consulted her "Bridegroom," Christ, who told her she would come to no harm, and so stayed put, despite her household's terrors, and calmly told her priests to proceed with Vespers.
Shortly afterwards, another of her visions was borne out when, after more than 60 years at Avignon, the papal court under Pope Urban V finally returned to Rome. She contrived to meet him, told him the church in Italy had fallen into a disgraceful state of decay, both material and moral, and that he should set things right forthwith. She renewed her request, first made nearly 20 years earlier, that her convent at Vadstena be recognized, and that her rule guide the lives of its priests and nuns. The pope approved the convent but reasserted his predecessor's judgment that no new rule could be written: she must use the Augustinian rule even though, as she asserted, her own rule had been delivered to her from the lips of Christ himself. Pope Urban did not last more than another year—he thwarted her and then took what she considered the unpardonable step of returning to the Babylon of Avignon, where he at once died.
In 1372, when she was 69 years old, Bridget followed one of her visions and set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. At this time, it was in "moorish" hands and could be reached only by a hazardous journey in the face of great political and environmental odds. En route, she cursed the people of Cyprus for their sinful ways, then her ship was wrecked as it approached the harbor at Jaffa, though all on board were saved. She visited the holy places in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the River Jordan, but did not get as far as Nazareth, then returned safely to Rome, via Cyprus and Naples. The journey was not without its scandals. Along the way her son, who had promised to accompany her, began a torrid love affair with Joanna I , queen of Naples, though both of them were already married. The affair, however, came to an abrupt end with his sudden death.
Bridget also died the following year, receiving (and dictating details of) divine visitations right to the end. Five days before her death, Christ came and stood before the altar in her room and spoke to her with a face of joy:
I have done with you as the bridegroom does when he hides himself from the bride, so that she may desire him the more greatly…. Now it is time for you to make ready. For now shall be fulfilled that which I have promised you, that you shall be clothed in the habit of a nun before my altar, and from henceforth you shall not only be called my bride, but shall also be called a nun and mother in Vadstena.
Though her remains were first buried in Rome, after five weeks her children came to take back her bones to Vadstena, her convent. Her priest prepared himself for the gruesome task of separating the decaying flesh from the bones, but when he opened the coffin, say the chronicles, all the flesh had miraculously fallen away, there was no odor, and the bones lay clean before him. The bones began to work miracles at once and became prized holy relics. In less than 20 years, Bridget was canonized, after the church heard evidence from her surviving children and secretaries confirming her exemplary life and countless miracles. Her order flourished in Sweden until the Reformation and beyond that elsewhere in Europe, while the story of her life and divine communications became a model for at least two subsequent saints, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila .
Jorgensen, Johannes. Bridget of Sweden. 2 vols. Translated from Danish by Ingeborg Lund. NY: Longmans, Green, 1954. (This is the only book on Saint Bridget in English; the only other references to her are short summaries in dictionaries of the saints.)
Patrick Allitt , Assistant Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia