- The Cult of St Erik in Medieval Sweden: Veneration of a Royal Saint, Twelfth–Sixteenth Centuries by Christian Oertel
Most of the research on St Erik has focused on his early veneration up to the end of the thirteenth century, while largely ignoring the time of the Kalmar Union during which this veneration prospered. With his book, Christian Oertel aims to change that and provide 'a picture of the cult of St Erik which is as complete as possible concerning its spatial and social dispersal and concerning its supporters and their strategies of promoting the cult' (p. 15). He looks to accomplish this by investigating a wide range of edited and unedited sources associated with St Erik and his cult as 'an interdisciplinary approach is vital in order to create a comprehensive description of the cult of St Erik' (p. 15). While he admits that he is inexperienced with some of the types of sources, this does not stop him from including coins, seals, church paintings, sculptures, embroideries, and carvings in his research. Adequately discussing the possible benefits and difficulties of these diverse sources, Oertel makes a strong case for the inclusion of source material which was considered to be of low value in earlier research on the topic.
Although the level of historical detail might seem daunting, the structure of the book ensures readers do not get lost in the abundance of information. While the first three chapters serve as an introduction to the study, discussing the sources and the role of saints in the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, chapters 4 to 7 provide the core of Oertel's research. These contain a summary of political developments, insight into several important [End Page 242] influences in society, and a comprehensive examination of the emergence and growth of the cult of St Erik. The author contests the widely accepted assumption that Erik's son Knut endeavoured to spread the cult of his father to gain an advantage over the Sverker dynasty. He does so by calling attention to the sparse evidence, consisting only of a coin of King Knut and a wall painting. On top of that, Oertel points out that Erik's descendants would have named their holy ancestor in their charters if they wanted to propagate the cult. As there are only two existing charters in which Erik is named, he asserts this theory does not seem likely. Oertel also rejects the idea of St Erik as a rex perpetuus, or eternal king, in the early years of the cult; instead, he considers him 'a parochial saint without the potential to legitimise a claim to power over the kingdom' (p. 95).
Oertel goes on to discuss the intensification of the cult through the establishment of secular cathedral chapters and the arrival of the mendicant orders in Sweden, of which the Dominicans were especially influential. Combined with the 'privileges given to aristocracy and clergy, and the strengthening of royal power' (p. 146), the cult of St Erik thrived and two distinct forms of veneration arose: private and institutional. The latter, so argues Oertel, was furthered and transformed by the efforts of King Magnus Eriksson to make St Erik the patronus Sveciae, or patron saint of the developing country. The author continues to describe the rise, fall, and re-emergence of the cult of St Erik, and compares the saint with the broader canon of saints. Based on the sources, he argues that the cult was largely restricted to Sweden, with the exception of an altar dedicated to St Erik in a church in Gdansk in the early fifteenth century.
The conclusion, presented in both English and German, reasserts Oertel's conviction that 'the rise of the cult of St Erik was not a linear progression with mild fluctuations in degrees of ascent, as earlier research has indicated. Rather, it appears to have been a development that experienced stagnations and even relapses, as well as rapid...