Sleeping bodies, jubilant souls: the fate of the dead in Sweden 1400-1700

Sleeping bodies, jubilant souls: the fate of the dead in Sweden 1400-1700

By Joseph M. Gonzalez

Canadian Journal of History, Vol.40:2 (2005)

Abstract:┬áThis paper explores the evolution of the popular view of death and dead bodies in the context of the massive social, political, and cultural changes that transformed Swedish religious and political life in the period between 1400 and 1600. In the Catholic High Middle Ages the evidence indicates that the commonly held belief was that the judgment of souls took place immediately following death. In this light the tomb had a primarily social function, serving as the link between the dead and the living by petitioning prayers to relieve the souls of the dead from the torments of purgatory, while the actual bodies of the dead seem to have held little importance in popular perception. With the Reformation, the “death of purgatory,” and the development of the absolutist monarchy these attitudes underwent radical change. The lack of a clearly articulated understanding of what happened to the body/soul while it awaited physical resurrection and judgment led to popular attitudes reflected by the use of the metaphor of sleep to explain the life of the dead. These beliefs, coupled with the growing effectiveness of royal government and royal law to intercede in private life, encouraged the development of attitudes that gave special emphasis to the corpse, and hence the body, as both the locus of identity/soul and the focus for punishment and judgment.

Introduction: On New Years Eve in 1520 the Swedish forces were in full retreat. Their leader, Sten Sture the Younger, was mortally wounded and would die on the road to Stockholm. Danish forces besieged the castle of Stockholm, and the defenders led by Kristina Gyllenstiema prepared to make peace with Kristian II of Denmark, and to accept him as King of Sweden. The peace negotiations closed with the promise of full amnesty for the defenders, and on 4 November 1520 Kristian was crowned in Stockholm in the presence of the leading Swedish nobility, churchmen, and burghers. The coronation festivities continued uninterrupted for three days. Contemporary accounts report that the gates of the castle were left open so that exhausted revelers could retire to their homes for rest and return with renewed strength.

Then, contrary to all expectations, “just when things were most enjoyable,” the gates were closed. Eighty-two of the Swedish guests, noblemen, churchmen, and burghers, were placed under guard. Accompanied by whispered accusations of heresy, a hasty trial was conducted, and the men were led to a nearby market place and beheaded one by one, an episode known today as the Stockholm Bloodbath. The bodies were left to lie for three days until the stench forced Kristian to see that they were taken to the island of Sodermalm and burned. Along with the bodies of the executed were burned the exhumed remains of Sten Sture the Elder, a particularly revered Swedish leader whose victory over the Danes at the battle of Brunkeberg in 1471 had prevented the Danes from taking possession of the Kingdom of Sweden. His distant relative, the younger Lord Sten, was central to the organization of the continued Swedish resistance, which persisted, despite the massacre, Lord Sten’s death, and Kristian’s coronation. By the fall of 1522 a Swedish force led by Gustav Vasa, then Lord Protector of Sweden, had defeated the Danes and on Midsummer’s eve in 1523, Gustav Vasa entered Stockholm as king of Sweden.

Click here to read this article from the Canadian Journal of History

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