When people belonging to peasant communities in late medieval Sweden prayed to God they usually stood up and put their palms together. That was how they displayed their devotion before God. This is one of the conclusions of a thesis in Religious Studies from the University of Gothenburg – a unique first study to take a comprehensive look at the prayer habits of the late medieval peasant population.
During the 15th century, nine out of ten Swedes lived in peasant households. But scholars in Religious Studies and Theology who have examined prayer and piety during the late Middle Ages have so far not dedicated much attention to these people. There is a knowledge gap here that Viktor Aldrin, postgraduate student in the History of Christianity at the University of Gothenburg, wants to set right. In his thesis he has examined practices and ideals in the prayer life of peasant women and men in the ecclesiastical province of Uppsala, which covered seven dioceses in Scandinavia.
“This is the first time that anyone has ventured to do something so crazy as to find what previously no-one thought existed, that the prayer life of peasant women and men can in fact be found in historical sources,” says Viktor Aldrin.
During the late Middle Ages, Sweden was Catholic and the official language of the Church was Latin. It is most likely that the peasants still prayed in their mother tongue, even if they were often aware of the wording of the prayers in Latin. “Understanding was a keyword, which meant praying in the language that you understood. For the peasantry that was either Swedish or Finnish.”
Why did the peasant women and men pray? For the same reasons that we pray today: you prayed to God, the Virgin Mary and saints for help and protection. The many parish guilds, of which peasants were often members, served as important venues for praying. They prayed there both for each other and for the dead.
“Our Father, Hail Mary and Apostolic Creed were the three most common prayers, just as they are for practicing Catholics today, but peasants could also formulate their own prayers to express particular needs,” says Viktor Aldrin.
People from rural areas often prayed to God, but in times of adversity they would also appeal to saints. Another interesting observation is that the peasantry cast lots when they were unsure which saint to turn to. Three different saints or pilgrimage destinations were carved into three pieces of wood. They were then placed in a bowl and if the person seeking help drew the same saint or destination three times in a row it was regarded as a sign of God’s explicit will. This method was supported by some of the 600 or so miracle accounts that are preserved from medieval Sweden.
“One amazing thing is that among all the surviving miracle accounts: there are actually prayers invented by peasant women and men themselves, in which the person praying sets up an agreement between himself and the saint, where the saint would perform a miracle and in return the praying person would give a gift to a church, or go on a pilgrimage.”
Viktor Aldrin has examined material that extends across a wide range of written and unwritten sources: letters of indulgence, sermons and wills, altar carvings, miracle collections and personal names, frescoes and sculptures.
“The prayer life of the medieval peasantry is multifaceted and is not found in a single source. Combining a number of different sources has given a voice to their prayer life again, following a silence of more than 500 years.”