Vita Gunneri episcopi Viburgensis

From medieval

by Brian McGuire

The Vita Gunneri episcopi Viburgensis (Life of Gunner Bishop of Viborg) is a unique source from Danish medieval history. It is the only secular biography we have from this period, for its purpose does not seem to have been to create a Vita in the traditional mould of a saint’s life but merely to tell the story of Gunner as abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Øm (1216-1221) and then bishop of Viborg until his death in 1251. The biography gives an impression of the everyday life of a Danish bishop in the thirteenth century.


Cum autem de dompno Gunnero, tunc abbate in Cara Insula, mencio iam habetur...


Animam vero eius deo et sanctis suis commendamus.


14 pages (377 lines).


  • CHRISTENSEN, C.A. 1960: Øm Bogen (CCD 2), Copenhagen; facsimile edition of the manuscript Copenhagen, Royal library, E don. var. 135, 4°, fols. 45r-53r.
  • LANGEBEK, J. 1783: in SRD 5, 574-80.
  • • GERTZ, M.CL. 1922: Vita Gunneri Episcopi Viburgensis, in Scriptores minores historiæ Danicæ medii aevi 2, 265-78.


  • (Danish) OLRIK, H. 1892: Viborgbispen Gunners Levned, originally published by “Selskabet for historiske Kildeskrifters Oversættelse” and reprinted many times by “Historisk Samfund for Århus Stift”.
  • (Danish) THOMSEN, J. 2010: in Hjermind & Melgaard 2010.

Date and place

The Life of Gunner Bishop of Viborg was once thought to be written at Øm Abbey (MCGUIRE 1976, 110) but since the early 1980s its provenance from Øm’s mother house Vitskøl has been securely established (CHRISTIANSEN 1981). It was probably written by a monk of Vitskøl who knew Gunner well and spent time at his episcopal court in Viborg.

The version we have in the Øm Book was added in the fourteenth or fifteenth century (GERTZ 1922, 156) and so is a copy of the lost original from Vitskøl. Since practically all of Vitskøl’s medieval archives are lost, it is not surprising that we have no trace of the original manuscript (De fundatione monasterii Vitæscholæ).

As for dating, a reference to Jens bishop of Børglum indicates that the work was written in 1264 at the earliest (MCGUIRE 1976, 110). Since the author knew Gunner and the memories of him are vivid and powerful, it is likely that the biography was written within a few decades of the bishop’s death.

Summary of contents

The opening of the Life indicates that it was originally part of a larger work, possibly a chronicle of Vitskøl history: “Since I have already mentioned lord Gunner, once abbot in Øm...” (GERTZ 1922, 265). We start with a narrative of his election as bishop of Viborg in 1222, after the intervention of the papal legate Gregory of Crescenti, who had been a student with Gunner at the University of Paris.

The next five sections, as divided by GERTZ, provide an impression of Gunner’s conversatio, his way of life, in terms of his continuing adhesion as bishop to Cistercian liturgical practices; his careful examination of candidates for the priesthood; his delight in intellectual discussions and quizzes of newly-trained masters; the life of his episcopal court and the possibilities for promotion it provided; Gunner’s generosity to all on church feast days and his concurrent self-restraint (MCGUIRE 1982, 203). The next sections move away from Gunner’s household to his larger public life as bishop. The narrative thus turns from conversatio to mores: episcopal visitations and the discipline of priests; demonstrations of hospitality towards the people of Viborg and a sermon warning of the danger of new German beer; Gunner’s role in Danish political life; his attention to his military obligations; his relative mildness as a judge; his affection and respect for the Cistercians whose monasteries where he was a guest (MCGUIRE 1983, 205).

The account ends with Gunner’s last years and death. He is supposed to have reached the age of 100. His funeral procession from Asmild, a house for women outside of Viborg, into the town, is mentioned. Dressed in the Cistercian habit and in his pontifical vestments, Gunner was buried in the chapel of Saint Kjeld in the cathedral (GERTZ 1922, 277-78). A lead tablet was placed next to his head, “containing the entire course of his life and its years”. This account is supposed to provide the “full truth” about Gunner.

Composition and style

The author of this biography was much less interested than his Cistercian predecessor at Øm had been in expressing himself in the international style of the Order. He wrote without the sense of history and tradition that are so important in the literature of Cîteaux and Clairvaux (MCGUIRE 1979). His concentration on local events and homely anecdotes was served by a style that makes use of brief statements and quotations from the bishop’s own conversations. The most memorable use of the latter is Gunner’s visitation of a parish in his diocese where the priest tries to bribe him with an ox: sed obsecro, mi dompne, vt nigrum bouem, quem satis pinguem habeo, propter hoc recipiatis (“...but I ask, my lord, that you accept for this matter a black ox, a very fat one which I have”: GERTZ 1922, 271).

One can detect the Danish language background of the writer, as in his use of unum to make a non-extant Latin indefinite article: unum nigrum pilleum (GERTZ 1922, 266). The opening passage from the Vita, quoted above in the section on purpose and audience, shows that the style at times could be awkward and too compressed. A few times GERTZ, an incarnate but polite classical philologist, caught incorrect Latin forms (as GERTZ 1922, 268) and in the notes pointed out words that are made to look Latin but are actually French or Danish. There are occasional biblical references (such as a very appropriate usage of Omnibus omnia factus su, vt omnes lucrifaciam, cf. 1 Cor 9:22. GERTZ 1922, 270).

In general the very informality of the language used and the author’s relaxed attitude towards his task of converting Danish life into Latin vocabulary make this brief work an invaluable record of monastic and episcopal mentality in the later thirteenth century.

Sources and literary models

The Life of Bishop Gunner belongs to the genre of commemorative biography once outlined by SOUTHERN (1966). The problem, however, is that the work was apparently written not by a member of the Viborg church where Gunner was bishop but by a Cistercian from a monastery in the diocese. The biography itself, however, makes it clear that Cistercians often stayed with Gunner at Viborg and one of these who was especially close to him may have been encouraged by the canons of the cathedral to write this work.

There may be a Danish model in the Chronicle of the Bishops of Ribe (Cronica ecclesiæ Ripensis), but there is no specific evidence of literary influence. As far as international Cistercian literature is concerned, there is a tendency, evident in the Exordium magnum Cisterciense, to celebrate episcopal figures who were devoted to the Cistercians (MCGUIRE 1983, 214). This trait can also be found in the Øm Abbey Chronicle (Exordium monasterii Carae Insulae), which could have provided inspiration.

No immediate literary source is evident from international Cistercian writings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Life of Gunner, however, does share with other episcopal biographies of the period an attention to naturalistic detail. The author’s keen interest in Gunner’s generosity, brings to mind a contemporary interest in the virtue of magnanimitas (MCGUIRE 1983, 228-30).

Purpose and audience

It is possible that the Vita was written by a Vitskøl monk as an implied criticism of the treatment of Øm Abbey by the bishop of Århus, Tyge. The contrast between Tyge’s harsh treatment of the Cistercians and Gunner’s devotion to them is obvious, but at no point in the work is there any reference, direct or indirect, to the Øm controversy.

OLRIK (1892, 16) pointed out in a note to his translation how the ending of the biography mentioned a possibility that Gunner’s remains one day might be uncovered. For OLRIK, this reference indicated an interest in having the bishop declared a saint. But the complete lack of anything miraculous in the account indicates that it was not written for a hagiographical purpose. There has been too much a tendency in Danish history writing to see sources about ecclesiastical figures as part of a canonization attempt. The biography of Gunner, however positive and even enthusiastic in its tone, does not portray him as a saint-in-the-making.

The purpose of the biography is clearly given in the very first lines: Gunner is remembered as “a noble member of our Order”. Thus “if anyone from our Order should perhaps wish to follow the example and content of his life, they can do so for the salvation of their souls and for the sake of success and honor” ( aliqui de ordine nostro exemplum vite sue et formam fortasse sequi voluerint, illis potest fieri ad salutem anime et ad vite profectum et honorem: GERTZ 1922, 265).

The work can thus be considered as a kind of extended exemplum, a Cistercian story about a monk who did well and became a central figure in the church and society of his time – without forgetting his Cistercian background. The purpose is not only to show the way to salvation in heaven but also to outline the path ad vitae profectum et honorem: Gunner is remembered both as a saintly figure and as a successful man in the world of his day. The source thus provides us with a fascinating moment of insight into a proces in which monastic idealism was secularized. The author provided a model who was not only a pious churchman but also a capable politician.

The intended audience of this work would have been primarily a monastic and especially Cistercian one, even though the writer may well also have intended that the portrait of Gunner be read and admired at episcopal courts. The unique surviving medieval copy of the work, however, warns against any definitive statement on the matter.

Medieval reception and transmission

The text is transmitted in Copenhagen, Royal library, E don. var. 135, 4°, fols. 45r-53r. See otherwise the remarks for Exordium monasterii Carae Insulae.


  • CHRISTIANSEN, T.E. 1981: “To gejstlige Typer fra Valdemarstiden,” Middelalder, metode og medier. Festskrift til Niels Skyum-Nielsen på 60-årsdagen, 167-81. [Presentation of Bishop Gunner as an episcopal type of the period].
  • FRANCE, J. 1992: The Cistercians in Scandinavia. Kalamazoo, Michigan, esp. 346-58. [A portrait of Bishop Gunner, based on the medieval biography, but contrasting him with Cistercians of the twelfth century.]
  • HJERMIND, J. & MELGAARD, K. (eds) 2010: Bisp Gunner: Bisp i Viborg. Forlaget Viborg.
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1976: Conflict and Continuity at Øm Abbey, (Museum Tusculanum Opera graecolatina 8), esp. 110-24. [Incorrect placement of the biography at Øm, but a first attempt to look at it in terms of its international Cistercian context].
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1979: “Structure and Consciousness in the Exordium Magnum Cisterciense: The Clairvaux Cistercians after Bernard,” Cahiers de l'Institut du Moyen-Age grec et latin 30, 33-90. [Background for the Cistercian context and development in which the biography of Gunner needs to be seen].
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1983: “Monastic and Episcopal Biography in the Thirteenth Century: The Danish Cistercian Account of Bishop Gunner of Viborg,” Analecta Cisterciensia 39, Rome, 195-230. [The fullest account to date of the biography especially in terms of its possible sources and its larger cultural background.]
  • SOUTHERN, R.W. 1966: Saint Anselm and his Biographer, Cambridge, esp. 320-28. [SOUTHERN’s superb summary of medieval biographical writing, unfortunately not reproduced in the later version of his Anselm biography from the 1990s.]