Sweden In The Middle Ages

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Sweden In The Middle Ages

Before the 11th century, Sweden didn’t exist, nor did any European country. A map would have shown hundreds of small states, from Sicily in the south to Svea Rike in the north. Today’s Sweden was a number of small kingdoms. Three families competed for the crown of a united kingdom; the winners were descendants of a man who neutered horses with his teeth.

The Swedish Kingdoms

Oden Allfather entering Valhalla on his grey horse Sleipner, who had eight legs and was faster than the wind. From an image stone found in the province Gotland.(Picture from Wikipedia.)
Oden Allfather entering Valhalla on his grey horse Sleipner, who had eight legs and was faster than the wind.
From an image stone found in the province Gotland.
(Picture from Wikipedia.)

Around the 11th century, there were (at least) two kingdoms in today’s Sweden. In Uppsala one king reigned over Mälardalen (the Lake Mälaren Valley in today’s eastern Svealand). Uppsala already had a long tradition as a religious center for the Norse religion, asatro (“belief in aesir”, with Oden as the most prominent god). This was the kingdom Svea rike, later spelled Sverige. This arcaic spelling has been kept on and is the current Swedish name for Sweden.

A second kingdom existed in today’s Västergötland (West Gothland), also including the province (or kingdom?) Östergötland (East Gothland). All these kingdoms finally merged into one, or rather, they agreed to share the same king. But it didn’t really become a state in the modern sense: there were no common laws, every province had their own law, tax routines seems to have been rather arbitrary, there was no common military organization, and almost no administration… the king’s power probably depended much on his own person and the armed power of his family.

Further south, the current Swedish province Skåne (Scania) under king Harald, known as Strutharald, pleaded allegiance to the king in Roskilde (Denmark). And in between, there were warlords and kings, of which we know very little.

King Harald’s nickname was an allusion to his helmet, which was adorned with a cone (“strut”) of pure gold, weighing 10 marks, equivalent to 2 kilogram.

Nordic geography and peoples, according to Beowulf.(Picture from Wikipedia)
Nordic geography and peoples, according to Beowulf.
(Picture from Wikipedia)

This was a time of big changes in northern Europe. There was always a war going on, between some of the small kingdoms in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Germany. Swedish Vikings had already gained much influence in the countries east of the Baltic Sea, and Finland is considered to have become part of Sweden 1157 AD.

But why do we say “Sweden” in English, instead of “Sverige”? The word “Sweden” has an even older origin: in the late Iron Age, the people around Lake Mälaren were known as Svitjod (“Svi-“ refers to the province, and “-jod” is an old Norse word for people.) The old English Beowulf epic mentions the people of this province, spelled “Sweoðeod” (pronounced “Swede-yod”). This was later simplified to Sweden, somewhat erroneously as a label for the entire country.

Christianity Meets Resistance

A contentious issue was the advent of Christianity. Danish kings converted to Christianity as early as the 9th century. One Swedish king also converted in the 10th century, only to revert to asatro one year later. Swedes stuck to their own religion; the dominant ambition of the Christian church may have been an important factor.

The first king that can be verified to have ruled both kingdoms (Svea rike and Västergötland) was Olof Skötkonung, in the early 11th century. He was baptised, probably about AD 1008, and he was the first Swedish king who remained Christian until his death. However, people were dissatisfied with the king’s new religion, and he was eventually dethroned from the kingdom of Svea rike, but kept the kingdom of Västergötland. The meaning of his surname is not clear; the first part, sköt, maybe derived from the word sköte, which means a woman’s womb. If so, Skötkonung might mean that he, being the son of Erik Segersäll (Eric the Victorious), was a king (to be) already in his mother’s womb.

The worship of Norse gods gradually ceased under the later part of the 12th century… at least openly.

Three Competing Dynasties

Erik den helige.One of several renderings of Stockholm’s coat of arms.(Picture from Wikipedia.)
Erik den helige.
One of several renderings of Stockholm’s coat of arms.
(Picture from Wikipedia.)

Erik den helige (Saint Eric) was king of Västergötland 1150-1160 AD. He was the ancestor of the royal lineage later known as Eriksätten (the word ätt means “lineage”, i.e. the Eric lineage or Eric dynasty). After his death he was treated as a saint, seen as patron for the Swedish nation. However, he was never canonized, even though his crusade to Finland later was described in a letter to the pope in order to have him canonized. According to recent historic proceedings, the crusade probably never happened: Erik den helige seems to have been an ardent heathen. Anyway, he is still portrayed in Stockholm’s coat of arms…

Another prominent family competing for the throne was Sverkersätten (the Sweartgar lineage) with their power center in Östergötland. King Sverker den gamle (Sweartgar the elder) was an active Christian, built several monasteries, and performed a crusade across the Baltic Sea, which actually took place, although it seems to have been a failure.

For more than a century, the two families – Eriks and Sverkers – actually took turns of ruling; when the king from one family died, the new king was always elected from the other family. Even though they were taking turns to the kingdom, their life was not peace and lilies; the two families kept intriguing, assassinating, and making war with each other. It finally ended when the last king of the Eric lineage, known as Erik den läspe och halte (Eric the lisping and limping) died. From that point, power belonged to Folkungaätten (the Folkunga lineage) from Östergötland (also known as Bjälboätten (i.e. the Bjälbo lineage). This family had long been a power behind the throne while the other families were fighting. This started the creation of a modern state, Sweden.

The (mythical?) ancestor of the Folkunga dynasty was Folke Filbyter, today commemorated by a statue on the Main Square in the city Linköping, and remembered for his weird surname. The word Folkungar literally means “Folke’s children”. The legend says that Folke came from Anjou in currentdays France. In today’s language, “Filbyter” would be understood as a person who changes (byter) lane (fil) on the highway, but in 12th century vernacular, “filbyter” meant foal biter, i.e. a person who neuters horses with his teeth.

Law And Order

The most prominent man of the Folkunga dynasty was Birger Magnusson Jarl (jarl means earl), who ruled the new united kingdom from 1250 AD (as a guardian for his son Valdemar, who was elected king). Known as Birger Jarl he founded the city of Stockholm 1250 AD to be the new capitol of Sweden. During his reign the four laws of peace were made: Women’s Peace, Home Peace, Court Peace, and Church Peace, prescribing dire penalties for anyone who violated a woman, attacked somebody in his home, disturbed a trial, or behaved improperly in church.

King Valdemar finally got the power from his father, but was later dethroned by his brother Magnus Birgersson, known as Magnus Ladulås (Barnlock). During his reign, 1275-1290 AD, king Magnus reformed the government, made new laws, organized the tax collection, formalized the relation to the church, … in practise created a state with a working administration. His got his surname Ladulås for creating a law that prohibited noblemen to appropriate what they needed for their subsistence when they travelled through the country, i.e he put a lock on the farmer’s barn.

Pestilence And War Impedes Trade

At this point in time, Sweden had good relations with Hansan, the German Hanseatic League, a powerful trade organisation operating all over northern Europe. By tradition relations also were good with Russian aristocracy, and Swedish kings had friendly relations with French and English kings, which created good trading opportunities.

“Valdemar Atterdag brandskattar Visby 1361”,(Valdemar Atterdag holding Visby to ransom, 1361)Oil painting, on display in National Museum of Fine Arts.(Picture from Wikipedia)
“Valdemar Atterdag brandskattar Visby 1361”,
(Valdemar Atterdag holding Visby to ransom, 1361)
Oil painting, on display in National Museum of Fine Arts.
(Picture from Wikipedia)

But there were problems. Sweden was – as usual – in war with Denmark. Trading within the Hanseatic League had gathered considerable wealth in the town of Visby on the island of Gotland. The Danish king Valdemar Atterdag invaded the island 1361 AD and held Visby for ransom. The inhabitants of the town were forced to fill three brewer’s vats with silver and gold.

On top of that, the Black Death ravaged and killed people by the thousands. Descendants from the Sverker dynasty were still plotting for the throne, and open feuds and assassinations also occurred within the Folkunga dynasty.

Hope was rising for peace and better times when an agreement was reached in Kalmar 1397 AD about a union between Sweden and Denmark. The Kalmar Union was the result of the negotiating skills of the Danish Queen Margaret I; she became the first ruler, and after her came other Danish kings.

However, the Danish-Swedish Union didn’t really work as a union; it was more like a Danish occupation. Danish kings used armed forces to collect taxes and plunder Swedish towns and villages. Intractable and opposing Swedes were executed on the spot: the most reknown incident was Stockholms blodbad (Stockholm’s Bloodbath) in November 1520 AD when the Danes executed some 50 or 60 Swedish noblemen and clergymen.