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The Life and Liturgy of Saint Birgitta of Sweden

By Sonja Maurer-Dass

When studying the relationship between women, music, and the medieval church, one of the most influential and prominent figures is Birgitta of Sweden, the fourteenth-century mystic, saint, and founder of the Bridgettines.

Although the church encouraged the restriction of female autonomy within medieval society, a number of strong, determined women managed to overcome the boundaries imposed by their male-dominated cultures, and thus, impacted liturgical developments. Among these influential women was Birgitta of Sweden (also known as Bridget of Sweden), who not only achieved sainthood due to her piety and revelations, but was also highly influential in ecclesiastical history due to establishing her own religious order (the Bridgettine Order) that is still thriving in the twenty-first century. In a time when women were relegated to domestic roles and positions that were subordinate to men, Birgitta of Sweden was driven to fulfill her vision of a Marian order with an accompanying musical practice and distinct liturgy. This is an exploration of the life and religious order of Birgitta of Sweden with particular attention allotted to the liturgical music that was developed and employed by the Bridgettines.

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Birgitta of Sweden (1303–1373) was born in Uppland, Sweden to Christian
parents who descended from royalty. According to ecclesiastical tradition, Saint Birgitta’s mother – Ingeborg – was shipwrecked due to a storm while pregnant, but miraculously managed to be one of the only survivors to reach land. The following night, Ingeborg was visited by a celestial figure who informed her that the holy child within her womb – Birgitta – was the reason that her life was spared during the shipwreck,

You are saved because of the goodness that is in your womb. Therefore, nurture it with the love of God for it is a gift given to you from God.

When Birgitta was born in 1303, her birth is said to have been heralded by the Virgin Mary herself, who appeared in a vision to a local priest. The Virgin appeared to the priest seated upon a cloud and told him that:

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a daughter is born to Birger (Birgitta’s father), whose voice will be heard throughout the world with admiration.

From a very young age, Birgitta was devoted to her faith, and often fasted in addition to frequent prayer. At the age of thirteen, she married a nobleman named Ulf Gudmarsson, with whom she had eight children. Moreover, she accompanied her husband on pilgrimages and performed acts of charity for the underprivileged. Birgitta’s marriage lasted for twenty-eight years until she was widowed shortly after a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Following the death of her husband, she founded the Bridgettine Order (also known as the Order of the Holy Saviour).

The Bridgettine Order was established by Saint Birgitta in approximately 1346, and was inspired by visions that she experienced regarding the formation of the order and the composition of the liturgy. These visions were share with her travel companion and confessor Master Peter Olaf, who was a priest that transcribed her revelations into Latin text.

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The Bridgettine motherhouse was established in the Diocese of Linköping, Sweden and was known as the Abbey of Vadstena. This institution was a double monastery (that is, it housed both nuns and monks) and required that an exact number of nuns and clergy participate in this new order. These numbers included sixty nuns and four lay sisters, thirteen priests, four deacons (who may have also served as priests), and eight lay brothers. An abbess was to be appointed at the head of the nuns and in charge of governing the institution, while a confessor-general served as the head of the brothers and possessed authority regarding spiritual matters.

In her book Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries (2006), Anne Bagnall Yardley addresses the history of the Bridgettine Order, and notes that Saint Birgitta “envisioned a constant flow of praise emanating from the sixty sisters and twenty-five brothers prescribed by her rule.” This was accomplished by the nuns singing their office directly after the brothers completed the recitation of their devotions. While the brothers continued to practice the already well-established Rule of Saint Augustine, Birgitta wished to establish a new Marian liturgy specifically for the nuns of her order.

Vadstena Abbey – photo by L.G.foto / Wikimedia Commons

Bagnall Yardley notes that the Bridgettine liturgy was formed upon writings known as the Sermo Angelicus that were traditionally thought to have been dictated to Saint Birgitta by an Angel. These writings consisted of twenty-one lessons with three allotted to each day, and were dedicated to Marian reverence; that is, each day focused on different accounts of the Virgin Mary’s life. The Sermo Angelicus was translated from Swedish to Latin by Master Peter Olaf, who subsequently arranged the Bridgettine Office known as the Cantus Sororum. Bagnall Yardley highlights that both music and liturgy belonging to the Bridgettine Office were composed specifically for this new order and a number of works were likely composed by Master Peter Olaf; however, many of the liturgical readings were written by Saint Birgitta herself. For instance, the readings recited for matins were reflections composed by Birgitta.

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While much of the music composed and sung for the Bridgettine liturgy was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Bridgettine nuns also sang daily chants that venerated Saint Birgitta. These chants were sung during lauds (early morning prayer) and vespers (evening prayer) and were part of an office that specifically incorporated music dedicated to Birgitta. Among these chants were antiphons bearing her name such as Gaude Birgitta and O Birgitta. Bagnell Yardley observes that these chants dedicated to Birgitta reminded the Bridgettine nuns of their founder’s role as a paragon of virtue and protective mother figure. For instance, the text of the chant Gaude Birgitta implores the saint to provide guidance in escaping earthly melancholy:

Gaude Birgitta canticum tibi debetur glorie deduc in refrigerium de lacunos miserie (Rejoice Birgitta. A song of glory is due to you. Lead us into rest out of the lake of misery).

The feast days of Birgitta also provided ample opportunity for the Bridgettine nuns to sing praises to their founder. In Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries, Bagnell Yardley provides an exemplary chant sung in commemoration of the Nativity of Saint Birgitta:

Virtutis dei dextere, trinam regenti machinam, trino ditata munere, birgitta dedit gloriam, captiva mundi carcere, mundam conservans animam. Soluta carpis onere, sponsoque iuncta sedere, partem elegit optimam.

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This translates to:

To the one skillfully running, the triune machine of God’s strength, Birgitta, enriched by a three-fold gift, gave glory. Captive in this earthly prison, keeping her soul pure. Freed from the burden of the flesh and united with her spouse she chose to settle on the best role.

In addition to chants composed specifically for the Bridgettine Order, the nuns were provided with strict instructions regarding the way in which chants were to be sung. Historian Margot Fassler provides the following account from singing instructions of the Bridgettine liturgy:

Their [the nuns] singing should be serious, sober, and simple, without breaking of notes and gay releasing, and with meekness and devotion; they should never have any organs; their psalmody should be distinct and clear, and everything should be measured and added by the nuns themselves, moderated with discretion.

While women and the medieval church had a tumultuous relationship regarding autonomy and ecclesiastical positions of power, there were still women who surpassed the gendered expectations of their time and served as leaders and innovators within the church both musically and spiritually. Although Hildegard of Bingen remains as one of the most widely discussed female figures in medieval musicological studies, Birgitta of Sweden was also a highly influential figure both musically and theologically as reflected in her enduring and unique liturgy.

Sonja Maurer-Dass is a Canadian musicologist and harpsichordist. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Musicology at Western University where she is researching eighteenth-century French musical exoticism and its relationship to Enlightenment philosophy. Additionally, she holds a master’s degree in Musicology specializing in fifteenth-century English music from York University. Her master’s thesis, “We with Merth Mowe Savely Synge: Henry V, Royal Musician,” examines Henry V’s role and influence in the development of late medieval English choral music with special attention given to The Old Hall Manuscript. You can follow her on Twitter @SonjaMaurerDass

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Birgitta of Sweden on an altarpiece in Salem church, Södermanland, Sweden

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