In 1346 the Swedish King Magnus Eriksson and Queen Blanche of Namur made their famous will, making careful arrangements forthe disposal of their mortal remains. According to this impressive document, the king and queen wished to be buried in a monastery that was to be constructed at the royal manor of Vadstena, situated on the lake Vättern in the province of Östergötland. In order to allow for such prospects of a future monastery on this location the king and queen made a remarkable donation, notably consisting of the large (partly ruined) buildings, normally referred to as the palace of the Folkungar dynasty. Birgitta Birgersdotter (1303-73), eventually better known as St Birgitta (or Bridget) of Sweden, had expressed a profound wish to establish a new religious order there, and it is possible that the king was familiar with this wish or that Birgitta had succeeded in winning him over. However, it was not until 1370 that Pope Urban V passed the first confirmation of the Rule of the Order, and not until 1384, eleven years after Birgitta’s death, that the solemn inauguration of the new monastery took place. In fact, Birgitta had left Sweden already in 1349 and, since she died in Rome in 1373, she never had the opportunity to see her long desired plans finally come true.
The abbey at Vadstena, mother house of the Birgittine order, came to play a key role in the Swedish literary history of the later Middle Ages. Even though the preceding period, before the middle of the fourteenth century, has justly been called the ’golden age’ of Swedish literature, and even though the major impact of Vadstena literature, at least from a quantitative perspective, belongs to the middle and second half of the fifteenth century, a remarkably rich literature, expressed in a broad variety of genres, was produced in Vadstena from the very beginning. Pride of place, of course, belongs to the Revelations of St Birgitta. Birgitta received her first visions in the 1340s and continued to do so during the rest of her life. The history of these Revelations, the remarkable circumstances of their genesis, the relation between the Latin and the Old Swedish versions and between different redactions, the prophetic voice and the voice of political agitation, all these issues have been debated for well over a century. It is probably not an exaggeration to claim that the corpus of the Revelations is the most important source for our understanding the religious and spiritual life of medieval Sweden.
The period leading up to the canonization of Birgitta in 1391 saw the production of many texts directly related to the cult of the future saint. Suffice it here to mention the two liturgical offices authored by the Archbishop of Uppsala Birger Gregersson (ca 1327-83) and the Bishop of Linköping Nils Hermansson (1326-91), the latter containing the famous antiphon Rosa rorans bonitatem, one of the most celebrated pieces of Swedish Latin poetry. We may also mention the weekly office for the sisters at Vadstena, Cantus sororum, composed shortly after the middle of the fourteenth century by Petrus Olavi from Skänninge (dead by 1378), and the famous Vita (Sciendum est) written by the same Petrus in collaboration with his namesake Petrus Olavi from Alvastra (ca 1307-90).
Well before 1400 the need for texts in the vernacular was beginning to make itself felt. A beautiful Vadstena manuscript from this period (Stockholm, National Library, MS A 110) provides ample proof of such ambitions, since it contains Old Swedish versions of important texts such as the Acts of the Apostles, saints’ legends, the Vitae patrum, a miracle collection and several others. Indeed, the large number of Old Swedish translations or adaptations of many international ’bestsellers’ is commonly regarded as one of the major achievements of the literary culture at Vadstena, even if the largest part of these texts was produced somewhat later, from the middle of the fifteenth century and onwards.
Sermons composed by the priest brothers at Vadstena must not be forgotten. In fact, a not negligible number of sermon manuscripts, often attributed to specific preachers known from other sources, such as the Memorial Book of the abbey (Diarium Vadstenense), were written during these first decades. Indeed, some of them were remarkably famous for their assiduous preaching. One such example is Johannes Giurderi Præst (d. 1391), who has left behind an impressive volume with sermons. Each day in Lent, just before the solemn arrival of the relics of Birgitta in 1374, Johannes, according to a contemporary notice, ‘preached eminently and with the highest devotion to the people coming in herds from all parts of the country’. A vast number of sermons, still largely unexplored, survive from this period, composed by renowned preachers such as Johannes Suenonis senior (d. 1390), Styrkarus Thyrgilli (d. 1416), Finvidus Simonis (d. 1424) or Thorirus Andreae (d. 1418).