Brigid of Sweden, from the British Library
A Girl of the High Nobility
Brigid of Sweden was actually named Brigid Birgersdotter, which means, "Brigid, daughter of Birger." She came from a noble Swedish family and was born around 1302 or 1303.
Her father, Birger Petersson, was a pious man and a member of the Swedish Imperial Council, members of the high nobility that advised the King. Brigid's mother, Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, was related to the Swedish royal family. She died in 1314, when Brigid was 11 or 12 years old.
After the death of her mother Brigid lived with her aunt and her uncle (Knut Jonsson), who ruled Sweden as stewart (drots) when King Magnus Eriksson IV of Sweden was a child. Since Magnus was elected when he was only three years old, his mother and grandmother were regents.
The mileu in which Brigid grew up was marked both by great piety and aristocratic self-confidence. In contrast to her relatives, however, Brigid grew up free from any pride in her status. Her contemporaries described her as a lovable woman of outstanding beauty.
Wife and Devoted Mother
Brigid wanted to become a nun, but when she was about 13 years old her father married her without asking her consent to 18-year-old Ulf Gudmarsson, who belonged to the Swedish high nobility. The couple had eight children, four sons and four daughters. Two of their sons died early. The children's tutor was not just any scholar, but the man who later became the Bishop of Lingskoping, Nils Hermansson. Brigid learned from Nils the basics of the Latin language, a skill that would later be important to her.
Ulf and Brigid's marriage lasted 27 years and was happy, though their life styles were very different. Ulf enjoyed good eating and drinking, the jokes of the court jesters and elegant bridles for his horses, all of which were sins in Brigid's eyes. She counted as postive the fact that confessed regularly, kept the proscribed days of abstinence and fasting, and to make several pilgrimages together with her. He was also regarded as incorruptibly honest in conducting his knightly duties and administering a province.
Brigid had sought from her childhood to live a holy, religious life. When her husband was absent, she openly practiced a strict ascetic life, refraining from all material comforts, and when he was home, she did so secretly. She was always much occupied with works of charity. Both she and Ulf became members of the Franciscan Third Order which admitted laypeople.
A Fighter for Women's Rights
In Brigid's time women did not count for much. A man could beat his wife without fear of punishment. Women were not allowed sell their own property. Widows were considered to be minors, incapable of caring for themselves. Brigid and her daughters made a point of caring for such poor, sick women in a hospital. If any of them were prostitutes, who were socially untouchable and not allowed in the cloister, Brigid looked for respectable men for them and she provided them with a handsome dowry.
Another of Brigid's private wishes was that the conditions of her daughters lives would be as good as possible. When Ulf betrothed the oldest girl to a much older nobelman without her consent, Brigid, well advanced in pregnancy, refused at first to take part in the wedding feast. But when she realized that it might harm her unborn child if she didn't eat, she decided to go to the celebration anyway.
Advisor to the Queen
King Magnus married Princess Blanca of Namur in 1335. Brigid was the master of ceremonies and the first lady-in-waiting the Queen called to serve at the court in Stockholm. Why Brigid was charged with this important office is unclear. Possibly it was because she was a relative on the king's side. Or because she was already at this time recognized as a visionary, whose heavenly advice the young king hoped would help him to rule well.
Visionary and Student of an Important Theologian, Matthias of Linkoping
From childhood Brigid had experienced visions. Christ, Mary, and the saints spoke with her often in Swedish and shared with her warnings intended for others, with whom Brigid herself would take down or she would dictate to her confessor. Even when she traveling by horse, she received such messages. Albrecht Durer illustrated what happened in this picture.
When these messages that Brigid was supposed to convey to others, became increasingly political she was very uncomfortable. Her confessor at the time, Master Matthias of Linkoping, examined her experiences and found them to be true revelations. So he translated her messages into Latin, the world language of the time. Brigid checked these translations through word for word and authorized them. This was also what happened later, when other confessors attended her. Gradually, in this way, her "Book of Revelations" took shape.
Throughout her lifetime, Brigid suffered from the fact that she was married without her consent. In those times, the ideal life was to remain a virgin and become a nun. By contrast, life as a wife and mother was not highly regarded. This makes it the more remarkable that in her visions Brigid was always honored with the designation, "Bride of Christ," that really is reserved for nuns.
Another remarkable thing about Brigid was that when Master Matthias, who had after all studied theology in Paris, consulted her about how to solve tricky theological questions, he was confident that in fact her answers came from Christ and the saints.
When he was uncertain, for example, whether the Apocalypse of John was written by the Apostle of the same name, he asked Brigid for help. Thereupon, she experienced a vision in which the Apostle John himself confirmed his authorship.
As first lady-in-waiting at first Brigid enjoyed a very trusted and good relationship with the King and Queen. But when King Magnus lead an unethical life, and his rule did not live up to Brigid's high ideals, she strongly criticized him in the name of Christ. As she reported her visions she became a leading speaker for the powerful artistocratic Swedish opposition. Probably for this reason left her position at court and embarked on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela with her husband Ulf in 1341.
On the return trip Ulf fell ill in 1342 in Arras and was close to death. In a vision St. Dionysius appeared to Brigid, and he assured her that her husband would again recover his health. This was to supposed to prove to her that God meant to communicate with people through her counsels.
In fact Ulf regained his health and the couple returned to Sweden. From then on, Brigid advised popes and regents in the name of Christ in letters and audienes throughout Europe, and critized with harsh and clear words the extravagant lifestyles of the clergy, monastic orders, and laity. She personally challenged four popes to return to Rome from Avignon . She also tried to persuade the rulers of England and France to negotiate peace agreement to end the war that had just broken out and would later be called Hundred Years' War.
As history shows, in both her great political concerns, she had no success. But because of her struggles, she was recognized throughout Europe as an uncomfortable counselor and a visionary.
Founder of an Order
After the death of her husband in the year 1344, Brigid devoted herself entirely to the religious life, as she had always wished. She wanted finally to become a nun in a cloister for which she had long-planned. For this purpose King Magnus gave her a palace and his lands in Vadstena.
For the Order she planned to found, Brigid prepared a Rule, which she wanted the based on the revelations she had received. The cloister would always have a women's and men's cloister next to one another, joined by a shared church, in which the monks, nuns, and laity would each have their own sections. The abbess of the nuns' cloister would be in charge of the mens' cloister too. These were for her times very unorthodox rules for cloistered life.
In order to get papal approval for her order's founding, Brigid traveled throughout 1349, with great success first to Rome, then to Avignon, and then back to Rome, the city on the Tiber. Finally, Rome because her new home, since it was not until 1370 when Urban V finally recognized the new Order and allowed its foundation at Vadstena. Brigid was in fact not the first abbess there, but rather her daughter Katharina. From its nucleus at Vadstena numerous additional cloisters following the rule of the new Order originated.
After the death of her husband, Brigid traveled a lot and visited a number of pilgrimage sites, chiefly in Italy. The high point of her pilgrimages was her visit to the Holy Land between 1371-1373. In Bethlehem she experienced a vision about the birth of Christ. In Jerusalem she had a vision about the passion and death of Jesus. Her impressive descriptions were known throughout Europe, and they had great popular appeal, particularly in art history. Brigid saw, for example, that the Christ child was not laid in a manger after his birth, but rather, that he was "naked and lying on the ground." Master Francke painted this image of the event.
Death and Canonization
On the return trip from Jerusalem Brigid fell ill and died in her home in Rome on the 23rd of July, 1373. A year later her daughter Katharina brought the body of her mother to Vadstena. The Swedish bishop Nils Hermansson, one of Brigid's close companions, campaigned for her to be canonized soon as a saint. This process began in 1391. Brigid of Sweden was finally canonized in 1999 along with Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein (Blessed Teresa of the Cross), as patrons of Europe.
Tractatus de summis pontificibus: Latin
S. Gronberger, "St. Bridget of Sweden: A Chapter of Mediaeval Church History," ed. J. Walsh, Reprinted from The American Catholic Quarterly Review 42 (1917), 97-148.