Nicolaus Ragvaldi (the younger)

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by Maria Berggren

Nicolaus Ragvaldi (d. 1 July 1514), brother at the Birgittine abbey of Vadstena, Sweden, 1476–1514, confessor general at Vadstena 1501–1506 and 1511–1512, at Mariendal in Reval, 1506–1508; translator, and one of the most prominent Swedish sermon-composers of the period.

A marginal note in one of the manuscripts known to have been written by Nicolaus indicates that he was born around 1445 (cf. MALIN 1926, 140 f.). On various evidence the conclusion has been drawn that he came from Östergötland, the Swedish province in which the abbey of Vadstena is situated (cf. BENGTSSON 1947, 10 f.). The main source of information concerning Nicolaus’s biography, however, is the memorial book of Vadstena Abbey, >Diarium Vadstenense (DV; cf. ANDERSSON 2001, 213–15).

In all probability Nicolaus was already a learned man when he entered Vadstena Abbey, as he was immediately ordained a priest brother on 29 September 1476 (cf. BENGTSSON 1947, 11). 25 years later he was elected confessor general and in the entry mentioning the event in the DV he is described as a very devout and conscientious person (DV 953: ... in bona concordia et tranquillitate electus est in confessorem generalem venerabilis vir frater Nicolaus Rawaldi magne devocionis et circumspeccionis.) On 28 April 1506 Nicolaus left Vadstena together with Karolus Benedicti to visit the Order’s abbeys in Gdansk and Reval, whence inquiries for help with reformatory work had been sent to Vadstena (cf. a letter edited in SRS I, 225–26, in which a brother informs the mother abbey in Vadstena about the unsatisfactory state of things in the abbey of Gdansk and applies for assistance). Nicolaus continued to be confessor general during his absence, until in a letter which arrived at Vadstena on 1 August 1506, he resigned from the post. On 24 June 1508 he returned to Vadstena from the monastery of Mariendal in Reval together with Karolus Benedicti, as, owing to the state of war between Sweden and Denmark, it was impossible to continue to Gdansk as had been planned. Johannes Matthei resigned from the post as confessor general on 22 February 1511, and a few days later Nicolaus was once again unanimously elected confessor general – this was the third time he had held the office. On 3 November 1512 he resigned from the post once more, to be succeeded by Johannes Matthei. Nicolaus Ragvaldi died on 1 July 1514.


Nicolaus wrote an account in the vernacular about the enshrining of the relics of St. Birgitta’s daughter, >Sancta Katherina, in 1489 (ed. FRITZ 2004a). Above all, however, he is famous as a Swedish translator. He produced a translation, or rather a revised, interpreting version of the Latin office used by the Birgittine sisters, Cantus sororum, under the Swedish title Jungfru Marie örtagård (ed. GEETE 1895, cf. HÄRDELIN 1998a). Nicolaus also translated Joshua and the Book of Judges (ed. KLEMMING 1853, 1–66; 67–141). Furthermore, he translated a series of legends of saints in the so-called Linköpingslegendariet, the legendary of Linköping (ed. RIETZ 1843, STEPHENS 1858). (Matters of attribution concerning Joshua and the Book of Judges as well as Linköpingslegendariet are discussed by BENGTSSON 1947, passim.)

Hitherto, Nicolaus Ragvaldi’s Latin works have attracted less attention than his Swedish translations. Nicolaus, however, seems to have been one of the most productive of all the Vadstena friars when it came to composing sermons. At the University Library of Uppsala, three collections of Sermones de sanctis (C 302, fols. 22r–553v; C 303, fols. 4r–312r; C 362, fols. 6r–273r), two collections of Sermones de tempore (C 304, fols. 14r–186v; 260r–270v; C 348, fols. 4r–47r; 52r–249v), one of Sermones de tempore hiemali (C 327, fols. 22r–265v), and a collection of Collationes ad sorores (C 304, fols. 187r–259v) have been preserved (cf. ANDERSSON-SCHMITT, HALLBERG & HEDLUND 4, 1991, 9–18; 18–23; 23–30; 202–11; 324–28; 405–10). In all this makes 220 sermons; many of them of considerable length. Only four of his sermons have hitherto been edited (MALIN 1942, 300–64; concerning matters of attribution, as far as the sermons are concerned, cf. idem 1926, 139–45).

Nicolaus also wrote a short account in Latin hexameters about the enshrining of the relics of St Katarina (ed. FRITZ 2004b).

A few records in the Diarium Vadstenense were taken down by him (cf. DV, p. 22).

Composition and style

The majority of Nicolaus Ragvaldi’s sermons were intended to be preached to the congregation that gathered in the abbey church (>Sermones), laymen, as well as friars and nuns. In one of the collections, however, Nicolaus addresses himself to a more limited audience, i.e. in the so-called Collationes ad sorores, where, in the capacity of confessor general, he speaks to the sisters. (The collection is probably to be dated to the years 1501–1505, Nicolaus’s first period as confessor general at Vadstena. The Collationes contain general exhortations to stricter observance of the Rule and other regulations of the Order, but also more specific references to actual incidents in the abbey. See HÄRDELIN 1993, 82 ff.) The ad populum sermons as well as the Collationes ad sorores were preached in Swedish, though his manuscripts are written in Latin (single Swedish glosses may occur) – this was the normal procedure.

Nicolaus’s sermons have the structure of the so-called thematic sermon; after the thema (usually a quotation from the Bible) follows an exordium, an introductory part, which, as a rule, ends with an Ave Maria, quite in accordance with the Vadstena practice. The thema is repeated and a few prefatory words lead up to the divisio thematis or partitio, which indicates the number of parts of the following expositio, the actual development of the theme. The main parts in turn may be subdivided. The expositio always ends with a short prayer.

Nicolaus makes frequent use of auctoritates to develop his sermons. The many quotations from the Revelations of St. Birgitta bear witness to his belonging to the Vadstena milieu. St. Augustine, Chrysostom and Gregory the Great are among the most frequently quoted doctors of the Church, but Nicolaus also cites a wide range of medieval authors, for example, Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm of Canterbury, Bonaventure, Hugh of St Victor and Thomas Aquinas. Classical authors sometimes occur, such as Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca.

He often uses exempla, examples or cautionary tales, to illustrate an argument, particularly at the end of the exordium and the expositio. Vitae patrum is often quoted. Other frequent sources of exempla are Caesarius of Heisterbach’s popular collections Dialogus miraculorum and Libri miraculorum and Thomas of Cantimpré’s Bonum universale de apibus. Nicolaus’s text sometimes gives the impression of being rather a skeleton outline, to be filled out at the moment of oral delivery. Often he just indicates that a certain sentence or line of argument is to be continued by adding an et cetera. Sometimes he reminds himself that he must develop a certain thought or give further examples of a phenomenon by expressions like Addantur que deseruiunt proposito and Addantur occurrentia.

The Latin of Nicolaus’s sermons is generally plain and lucid in character. The sentences tend to be short and their structure simple. Anacolutha occur, not least where he quotes or summarizes another source.

His style is characterized by a rather frequent use of figurative language – his images are often taken from nature. The elaborated sun simile in the opening of one of the sermons on St. Henricus may serve as an example of this phenomenon as well as of the style in general (MALIN 1942, 300):

Videmus enim quamlibet rem naturaliter continue, in quantum potest, moueri ac tendere ad suum principium et veram originem seu locum proprium. In hunc finem lapis petit deorsum terram, ignis sursum speram ignis, et flos solem. Sicut igitur in aduentu patris puer ridet et letatur quasi de formali principio suo, sic omnia animancia adueniente sole ridere dicuntur et gaudere transumptiue, quia vegetabilia, arbores, flores et plante, omnia se extendunt, florent et sursum eleuant se, et soli quasi formali principio se inclinant. Quod maxime <fit> in solsequio, quod sole oriente se aperit et versus solem vertit, sed occidente iterum se claudit, et a poetis ideo sponsa solis vocatur, quia habet se ad modum fortiter amancium, qui non gaudent nisi in presencia amati, et, amato amisso, dolent vehementer, aut si ipsum contigerit ab eis offendi. Sic anima, sponsa Christi magis dilecta, que eciam singularem bonitatis sue influenciam ab eo accepit, debet solum in eo letari, nec in alio quiescere terreno, ipsum toto corde diligere, nec vmquam mentis oculum ab eo auertere.

(For we behold how by nature everything, continuously and according to its ability, moves and strives towards its beginning and true origin or its proper place. For this reason the stone strives down to the ground, the fire up towards the globe of fire and the flower towards the sun. As when at the father’s arrival, the child smiles and rejoices at his natural origin, so to speak, in a similar manner all living creatures are metaphorically said to smile and rejoice at the arrival of the sun, for all plants, trees, flowers and herbs come out, bloom and rise, and they turn towards the sun as to their natural origin. This is particularly true of the heliotrope which opens and turns towards the sun at dawn, but closes at sunset. Therefore the poets call it “bride of the sun”, because it behaves like people who are deeply in love and do not rejoice except in the presence of the beloved, and when he or she is gone or if the beloved is hurt by them, they suffer severely. Likewise the soul, who is Christ’s precious bride and receives her goodness from him, ought to rejoice in him only, and not to repose in anything worldly, to love him with all her heart and never turn the eye of her mind away from him.

Sources and literary models

In some of his sermons Nicolaus Ragvaldi depends on and even quotes long passages from continental collections of model sermons by authors such as Jacobus de Voragine, Jordanus of Quedlinburg and Conradus of Brundelsheim, and from the anonymous Thesaurus novus and Parati sermones. In a few cases Nicolaus’s revision is very slight, implying little more than the addition of a few exempla and an Ave Maria at the end of the exordium.

It seems fairly clear though that Nicolaus is rather independent in comparison with the other Vadstena brothers. Generally he does not copy his Vadstena precursors or contemporaries. More thorough studies are needed before we can form a conclusive picture of Nicolaus’s originality and personal qualities as a preacher. There are good reasons, however, to assume that this will be a rewarding task. There is no doubt that Nicolaus Ragvaldi is one of the more talented and forceful sermon composers among the Vadstena friars.


  • ANDERSSON, R. 2001: De birgittinska ordensprästerna som traditionsförmedlare och folkfostrare (Runica et Mediaevalia. Scripta minora 4), Stockholm.
  • ANDERSSON-SCHMITT, M., HALLBERG, H. & HEDLUND, M. 1988–1995: Mittelalterliche Handschriften der Universitätsbibliothek Uppsala. Katalog Über die C-Sammlung 1–8 (Acta Bibliothecae R. Universitatis Upsaliensis 26:1–8), Stockholm.
  • BENGTSSON, A. 1947: Nils Ragvaldi, Domareboken och Linköpingslegendariet (Lundastudier i nordisk språkvetenskap 4), Diss. Lund.
  • DV = GEJROT, C. (ed.) 1988: Diarium Vadstenense. The Memorial Book of Vadstena Abbey. A Critical Edition with an Introduction (Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis. Studia Latina Stockholmiensia 33), Diss. Stockholm.
  • FRITZ, B. (ed.) 2004a: “Nils Ragvaldssons berättelse om Sankta Katarinas skrinläggning. Fornsvensk text med översättning och kommentar,” in FRITZ & ELFVING 2004, 30–61
  • FRITZ, B. (ed.) 2004b: “Nils Ragvaldssons hyllningsdikt till Sankta Katarina. Latinsk text med översättning och kommentar,” in FRITZ & ELFVING 2004, 62–66
  • FRITZ, B. & ELFVING, L. (eds.) 2004: Den stora kyrkofesten för Sankta Katarina i Vadstena år 1489. Samtida texter med översättning och kommentar (Kungl. Samfundet för utgivande av handskrifter rörande Skandinaviens historia. Handlingar 27), Stockholm.
  • GEETE, R., (ed.), 1895: Jungfru Marie örtagård (SFSS 30), Stockholm.
  • HÄRDELIN, A. 1993: “Predikan för alla stånd,” Kyrkohistorisk årsskrift, 79–89.
  • HÄRDELIN, A. 1998a: “Heder och hugnad. Generalkonfessorn Nicolaus Ragvaldis liturgiska hermeneutik. En studie av Jungfru Marie Örtagård,“ in HÄRDELIN 1998b, 294–316.
  • HÄRDELIN, A. 1998b: Kult, kultur och kontemplation, Skellefteå.
  • KLEMMING, G.E. (ed.) 1848–1853: Svenska medeltidens bibelarbeten 1–2 (SFSS 7, 1–2), Stockholm.
  • MALIN, A. 1926: “Studier i Vadstena klosters bibliotek,” NTBB 13, 129–53.
  • MALIN, A. 1942: De S. Henrico episcopo et martyre. Die mittelalterliche Literatur Über den Apostel Finnlands II. Legenda nova. Sermones.
  • RIETZ, J.E. 1842–1844: Scriptores Suecici medii aevi 1–3, Lund.
  • STEPHENS, G. (ed.) 1847–1874: Ett fornsvenskt legendarium (SFSS 7), Stockholm.