De fundatione monasterii Vitæscholæ

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by Brian McGuire

The Narratiuncula de fundatione monasterii Vitæscholæ in Cimbria (Brief account of the foundation of the monastery of Vitskøl in Jutland) describes Cistercian foundations in Sweden in the mid-twelfth century that led to the building of a monastery in Varnhem, 11 km east of Skara in Vestergötland. Because of local resistance to the monks, they relocated it to Vitskøl in Jutland, on the eastern shore of the Limfjord. Thus the title of the work.


Swercho, rex Swecie, et Wluidis regina, duos conventus...


...laus sit omnipotenti deo ac Virgini Marie. Amen.


8 pages.


  • LANGEBEK, J. 1776: Narratio de fundatione monasterii Vitæ Scholæ in Jutia, in SRD 4, Copenhagen, 457-62.
  • •GERTZ, M.CL. 1920: De fundatione monasterii Vitæscholæ, in SMD 2, Copenhagen, 134-42.


None at present.

Date and place

The Narratiuncula or Vitskøl Narrative, as we can call it, cannot be dated precisely, but it has been traditionally assumed that it belongs to the thirteenth century (MCGUIRE 1982, 19-20). The account belongs to the genre of Cistercian literature describing foundations, which was very common in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. A terminus post quem would be about 1210, when the Exordium magnum Cisterciense was completed, for the author or compiler quotes this Cistercian compilation’s charactersketch of Eskil archbishop of Lund (GERTZ 1920, 141). There is no definitive terminus ante quem, but the closing lines of the account, celebrating the refoundation of Varnhem, point to the period in the early thirteenth century when Cistercian chroniclers were counting up the achievements of the previous century (Exordium monasterii Carae Insulae). One indication that the author was at some distance in place and time from the events he described at Vitskøl is that the name of the abbot of Esrum was never specified, but only given as an anonymous “N” (GERTZ 1920, 141).

The title of the work, which is likely to have been invented by Johannes Stephanius in the seventeenth century, distracts us from the fact that the work was almost certainly composed at Varnhem and not at Vitskøl. The narrative states that “the greater and better part [of the monastic community] returned to the place Varnhem, from which they had departed”, thus indicating a prejudice for Varnhem as opposed to Vitskøl.

Summary of contents

Chapter 1 tells how King Sverker (ca. 1130-56) of Sweden encouraged the foundation of two Cistercian houses, one at Alvastra in Östergötland, the other at Lurö on an island in the great lake Vänern. Because of the difficulties of life there the monks moved first to Lugnås (Kinned herred) and then to Varnhem (thirty km to the south, east of Skara in Vestergötland). After a short time a powerful woman named Sigrid expelled the monks, but when she was punished by skin disease and blindness, she relented and recalled them.

Chapter 2 continues the tale of Varnhem’s problems. Christina, the wife of King Erik (ca. 1156-60), and a relation of Sigrid, joined up with local people in resisting the monks. She encouraged women to enter the grounds of the monastery and to defecate there. One Palm Sunday women were sent into the cloister in their underwear, led by a local priest, where they danced. Abbot Henry was ordered by the queen to destroy a building in which he had liturgical books. The abbot decided to go to the Cistercian General Chapter to seek redress and possibly also to seek a papal anathema against the violators of monastic property.

Chapter 3 tells how Abbot Henry (who had originally come from Clairvaux, as described in the >Exordium Magnum) went to Roskilde where a Church synod was being held by Archbishop Eskil and King Valdemar. Valdemar’s rivals for the kingship are mentioned, but the meeting apparently took place after Valdemar’s victory over them at Grathe Hede in 1157. The chronicler says that Valdemar had made a promise to found a Cistercian abbey if he triumphed over his enemies.

Chapter 4 narrates how Eskil encouraged the king to keep his promise by handing over property in Jutland to Abbot Henry, who was sent to make an inspection tour of possible sites. On his return he was given Vitskøl, and messengers were sent to Varnhem to summon the monks “to the new place ... which the Lord gave them in Denmark”.

Chapters 5-7 conclude the story: Gerard, the second abbot of Alvastra (>Exordium Magnum) happened to be at Varnhem and approved the move to Vitskøl. Twenty-two monks and a greater number of lay brothers arrived with “chalices and books, silver, vestments and oxen”. But the “greater and better part” (probably a subtle reference to the Rule of Saint Benedict, ch. 64) eventually returned to Varnhem. King Erik and Queen Christina “because of the departure of the monks of Varnhem became milder towards the place”. Abbot Gerard of Alvastra sent an appropriate number of his own monks to Varnhem and made a Lawrence (or Lars) abbot of the refounded house. “Thus Varnhem, deserted for a time, began again to be inhabited”.

Composition and style

The Narratiuncula is hardly an outstanding piece of Latin prose, but the many corrections and additions made by GERTZ should not permit our dismissing the original version, which is lost to us. This “Brief Account” is typical of Cistercian narratives from the early thirteenth century that were intended to provide an account of the difficulties Cistercian monks experienced in founding their new houses (Exordium monasterii Carae Insulae). The author avoided the embellished style of the Exordium magnum Cisterciense and its hagiographical content. God is seen to punish those who resist monastic projects, but otherwise there are no miracles.

The author likes his ablative absolutes (mulieribus in claustro saltantibus, the women jumping or dancing about in the cloister), but for the most part the sentences are simple and the style direct. There is no dialogue, and one gets the sense of an author who saw events from a certain chronological distance and needed only to establish a happy ending with the refoundation of Varnhem.

Sources and literary models

The author almost certainly knew the Exordium Parvum, the original account of the foundation of the first Cistercian house at Cîteaux, and imitated its emphasis on early trials and uncertainty, as well as the Exordium Parvum’s concern for the cooperation and generosity of lay and ecclesiastical figures. The use of the >Exordium Magnum’s description of Archbishop Eskil also indicates knowledge of this major source for Cistercian life and ideals in the early thirteenth century. The mention of exactly what the monks brought from Varnhem to Vitskøl points to a desire to conform to the requirements put forth in the statutes of the important Cistercian General Chapter of 1134 (CANIVEZ 1933, 15).

Purpose and audience

The Narratiuncula was intended to show that the difficult foundation and refoundation of Varnhem took place in accord with Cistercian ideals and practices. Since the work in the form we have it lacks a preface, there is no formulation of purpose, but the author probably had the same intent as the writer of the first part of the >Exordium monasterii Carae Insulae, to show the legitimacy and appropriateness of the monastic foundation. Thus a work which in Danish historical writing has been copied and noticed for its information about Vitskøl actually says much more about the early years of Swedish Varnhem.

The intended audience would probably have been the monks of Varnhem themselves.

Medieval reception and transmission

No medieval codex containing the Narratiuncula survives, but we can assume that the monks not only of Varnhem but also of Vitskøl kept the original in their armarium in the sacristy, where central documents and manuscripts of any Cistercian abbey would have been housed. The local provenance of the work is supported by the fact that we have no later medieval references to it, but in general there is a dearth of Scandinavian Cistercian chronicle writing after the end of the thirteenth century.

The work in a later form was copied by the head of Sorø school, who became professor at Copenhagen University, Johannes Stephanius (Hans Stephensen), in 1608 (Copenhagen, AM 291 fol.). Stephanius seems to have been in doubt whether the original he used was from 1409 or 1509. GERTZ in his edition (p. 141) writes 1509. If this dating is correct, then an older version of the Narratiuncula was recopied in the early sixteenth century, at a time when several Danish Cistercian houses were collecting and recopying their earlier source materials (MCGUIRE 1982, 23-27).

Stephanius inserted the Narratiuncula as ff. 70r-72v in what he called Sorensis Monasterii Antiquitates, containing the Sorø Donation Book from the fifteenth century, a collection of information about the monastery’s land holdings. We are fortunate to have the original of the Sorø Donation Book (Copenhagen, Royal library, GKS 2485), and here there is no Narratiuncula. The appearance of the Vitskøl-Varnhem source at Sorø was probably a result of the fact that at the Reformation all remaining monks in Danish Cistercian houses were eventually transferred to Sorø. They would have brought with them their most important documents and papers, and among them could have been an early sixteenth-century copy of this foundation account.

A. Copenhagen, AM 291 fol., ff. 70r-72v (Stephanius’s copy of an earlier manuscript).

B. Copenhagen, Royal library, Bartholinianorum Tom. H, p. 329 ff. (From the Bartholin Collection of antiquities, a not very accurate copy of Stephanius’s manuscript).


Note: There has until now been no detailed study of the text.

  • CANIVEZ, J.M. 1933: Statuta Capitularum Generalium Ordinis Cisterciensis 1, Louvain (Decisions of the Cistercian General Chapter in the twelfth century, which might have influenced the content of the Vitskøl Narrative).
  • FORSSÉN, A. 1928: Varnhem (Svenska forminnesplatser 8), Stockholm.
  • FRANCE, J. 1992: The Cistercians in Scandinavia, Kalamazoo, Michigan (Full description of foundation of Varnhem, 35-40).
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1976: Conflict and Continuity at Øm Abbey, Copenhagen (The first chapter, on the coming of the Cistercians, makes use of the Vitskøl Narrative).
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1982: The Cistercians in Denmark, Kalamazoo (Chapter 1 places the Vitskøl Narrative in the context of other Danish Cistercian sources).
  • ORTVED, E. 1933: Cistercieordenen og dens Klostre i Norden. Vol. 2: Sveriges Klostre (A standard account, but very confused and badly organized).
  • SMIDT, C.M. 1938: Vitskøl Kloster (Nationalmuseets Blå Bøger), Copenhagen. (Brief guide to the monastery, especially its medieval buildings. Needs to be updated.)