Petrus Olavi (magister)

From medieval
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by Hans Aili

Petrus Olavi [1] magister (Peter Olofson), born in the town of Skänninge (province of Östergötland, Sweden), died Confessor General at Vadstena Abbey 16 September, 1378. Father-confessor and teacher of Birgitta Birgersdotter (the future saint) from c. 1349 until her death in Rome in 1373 (where he headed her household). Author, translator and composer of music. Shared the task of translating Birgitta’s revelations into Latin with the eponymous Petrus Olavi (prior). Returned to Sweden in 1374 to be confessor of Birgitta’s monastic foundation of Vadstena, then being built.


Only a few details of Peter’s life are known, partly offered by his two medieval biographies, partly by incidental details given in the Reuelaciones of Sancta Birgitta, in the ''Acta et Processus canonizacionis beate Birgitte'' (A&P), the ''Diarium Vadstenense'' (DV), the Diplomatarium Suecanum (DS), and the Diplomatarium Danicum (DD).


The biographies were both based upon material collected at Vadstena Abbey from the year 1408, when it is stated in the DV that Peter had begun to choruscare miraculis. A full record is promised ”elsewhere”, which has been taken to mean that the abbey possessed a collection of notes on the subject, intended as raw material for a biography. This material was first utilised for the older biography, the De vita domini Petri Olavi, probably written by Ulpho Birgeri (Ulf Birgerson), Confessor General 1423—1426, died 1433. The author does not identify himself by name but repeatedly refers to himself in the first person singular. A deposition, written at the end of the Vita and dated June 20, 1427, records that the biography was written down at the request of Gervinus Petri, Confessor General, and the Convent of Vadstena Abbey. This Vita probably dates from the year preceding this deposition, that is 1426—27. A copy of it was presently made on behalf of Syon Abbey and at the request of two English Birgittines, Robert Belle and Thomas Sterington. The latter copy is part of the London MS, cod. Harley 612, (f. 291B, middle of XV century).

The later biography, entitled Fragmentum de vita et miraculis Magistri Petri Olaui was probably written by Brother Mathias Laurentii of Vadstena Abbey (d. 1486). Both the earlier and the later Vita were probably written with a future canonization process in mind, and structured accordingly, although this purpose is much more evident in the later Vita, which mainly deals with the miracles Peter performed before and after his death. We may note, however, that the older Vita once dubs Peter not only dominus but also beatus (Vita p. 306), a fact which indicates that this biography, too, was conceived with a future canonization in mind.

To the modern biographer, even the older Vita is somewhat disappointing as a source, as it offers only rather scant concrete information on Peter’s life, education and career but concentrates instead on the strength of his faith, his constancy in the face of temptation and his virtuous deeds —”unterhält uns fast ausschließlich mit Wunder- und Spukgeschichten” is the harsh comment by BLUME & DREVES 1905, 410.

Concerning Peter’s family this Vita offers the information that his parents, named Olav and Botild, were of humble social rank (mediocres secundum seculum), but his mother is described as the daughter of Peter, a burgher of Lund, Peter Olofson being named after his maternal grandfather and destined for clerical orders as a consequence of the fact that the news of his grandfather’s death had only recently reached Botild at the time when she bore her son.

Besides minor matters concerning Peter’s upbringing, and a comment that he was sufficienter liberalibus scienciis eruditus — which may be taken to refer to his putative Master’s degree — the Vita offers the information that he made pilgrimages to the Holy Virgin of Aachen and other shrines distant from his home. The question of his education is difficult to resolve, although it seems clear that, from the academic point of view, he was the humblest of those men of learning and faith who surrounded the future Saint (Birgitta, namely Magister (Mathias of Linköping, Petrus Olavi (prior) (Peter Olofson) of Alvastra and the Spanish hermit, Alfonso Pecha, ex-bishop of Jaén (WESTMAN 1911, 10ff.). If he did hold the degree of Magister artium, this was probably therefore the limit of his academic attainment.

Until 1349 Peter was Warden of the Almshouse (Domus sancti Spiritus) of Skänninge — according to the elder Vita, he had turned down offers of more remunerative positions in favour of this relatively humble one. In 1346, the same source informs us, Birgitta had received a divine revelation, enjoining her to make a pilgrimage to Rome; worried about the question whom to choose as her father confessor, she had another revelation appointing Peter to this service despite his lowly rank in the eyes of the world (older Vita p. 304). He responded to her approach, and the story she told about her revelation, by becoming her confessor and teacher (A&P, 95), a position he was to retain until her death in 1373. His service began a certain time before their departure from Sweden, as he apparently witnessed how Birgitta helped her former father confessor, Magister Mathias, when he was assailed by temptations (A&P, 530).

Peter ruled Birgitta and her household in Rome both in spiritual and wordly matters, and acted both as her confessor, teacher of Latin and as translator of her Revelations whenever Prior Peter was not present to fulfil this task (A&P, 84); such was his spiritual authority over Birgitta that it is said that she would neither talk nor even raise her eyes in his presence unless expressly permitted. This is confirmed by a deposition of Prior Peter’s (A&P, 489), who adds that Master Peter held the purse and ruled her house, she obeying his instructions implicitly. Prior Peter’s deposition also affords us the insight that Master Peter possessed a considerable capacity as a teacher: it states that, thanks to his instruction, Birgitta, who had been fairly ignorant in Latin at the time when she left Sweden, in a short time learnt to understand and speak in the lingua litterali, that is Latin (A&P, 546).

Peter appears, indeed, to have been somewhat of a disciplinarian in spiritual matters, as he himself recounts in a letter to Bishop Nils Hermansson of Linköping. When in Rome, he had refused to grant absolution to a noble and rich compatriot who had confessed to having committed fornication with two hundred women. The nobleman then turned to Birgitta, who prayed for him; consequently Peter heard a voice from Heaven commanding him to absolve the sinner after due penitence.

During their stay in Birgitta’s first home in Rome, located in the Cardinal’s palace in Campo di Fiore, Peter suffered a fall from a high place in the house (”by the Enemy’s invisible influence”) and hurt himself so badly that he remained lame in one hand and one foot, besides being generally afflicted for the rest of his life. But even after this accident he did not abstain from accompanying Birgitta on her various journeys and pilgrimages, including her stay in Naples and on her voyage to the Holy Land in 1372.

Besides functioning as Prior Peter’s co-translator of the Reuelaciones, he composed the Cantus sororum, the liturgy of the Sisters of the Birgittine monastery foundation and the greatest coherent liturgical work from medieval Sweden. It contains not only Birgittine texts such as the Sermo angelicus but also hymns for all the offices of the week and was written by Peter himself (AH 47 No 362—388). Rev Ext 114 testifies that Peter had started this work even before Birgitta’s death, receiving the words of this liturgy through divine inspiration. It has been suggested that Birgitta received fewer and less important revelations during the period when only Master Peter was regularly at hand to translate (1349—1367), compared to the periods when she enjoyed the assistance of Prior Peter. As WESTMAN rightly concludes (17ff, 29 ff, with further references), this is a thesis very difficult to uphold, as it is possible to point to important texts which date from periods when it is more probable that the translator was Master Peter than Prior Peter.

After Birgitta’s death in 1373, at which he was present as a witness (A&P, 507), Peter co-authored her first Vita with Prior Peter and handed it over to Bishop Galhardus of Spoleto on 17th December, 1373 (A&P, 613f., DS X 276). He also accompanied Birgitta’s children (Katarina and Birger), Prior Peter and Magnus Petri (A&P, 285, 344) when they left Italy with Birgitta’s relics at the beginning of 1374, and returned to Sweden in order to initiate the building of Vadstena Abbey (DS X 269 and 275). After his homecoming Master Peter was the first Confessor General of Birgitta’s new monastery — although he was never consecrated as such — which was built at Vadstena (DV 35).

The five years following Birgitta’s death must have been busy ones for Master Peter as he helped Prior Peter in assisting Birgitta’s chief editor, Alfonso of Jaén, in editing the first version of her Reuelaciones, having been appointed by Pope Gregory XI to the commission formed for this purpose. Master Peter must have made a remarkably quick return journey from Rome to Vadstena in the winter of 1376/77 as, on the one hand, a contemporary source states that the two Peters and Katarina personally presented their finished work to Pope Gregory after he had entered Rome on January 7th, 1377 (UNDHAGEN 1978, 221), and, on the other hand, there is a letter from Peter addressed to Arch-bishop Birgerus Gregorii of Uppsala, written at Vadstena and dated April 5th, apparently of the same year (DD IV:1 No 219), but we may note that the editors of the DD have not been able fully to confirm the year of the letter.

Besides the extant works mentioned below, the older Vita (p. 310) records a Hymn, Quis pius prudens, written for Birgitta’s grandson, Ulf, who had entered Vadstena Abbey as a novice.

Peter Olofson died on September 16th, 1378, and was buried at Vadstena (DV 35 and 172:3).

Works (extant)

Latin translations

in part by Magister Petrus Olavi 'Reuelaciones Sanctae Birgittae. Of this work, the Sermo Angelicus was translated by Master Peter alone (UNDHAGEN 1978, 11 with note 27), whereas the majority of texts were translated by Prior Peter, Master Peter only acting as his deputy — a known exception is Rev III 8—9, which is still extant in Peter’s autograph (Stockholm KB), printed BU IV 192—196; (cf WESTMAN 1911, 7, note 9).


See Sancta Birgitta

Summary of contents

See Sancta Birgitta

Composition and style

Peter’s style in the translation of the Revelationes is difficult to distinguish with certainty from that of his co-translator, Petrus Olavi (prior); a further complication is offered by the editorial activities of Alfonso of Jaén, who had been charged by Birgitta with the task of preparing the text for publication. Prior Peter’s statement that he had been the translator of the Sermo angelicus, as well as his authorship of the Constitutiones, might offer material for a more reliable analysis of his style as against that of Master Peter. The text of the prior’s testimony was probably revised by the editors of the A&P, and must therefore be treated with caution. An analysis of the influence of Alfonso on the Revelations texts will be given by AILI (Rev. VIII); when the contribution of the latter can be identified with greater certainty, the styles of the two translators may become more amenable to analysis.

Vita beate Brigide prioris Petri et magistri Petri. UUB Cod. C 15 (Vita C 15). Revised into ”Process Vita”, ed. COLLIJN, A&P, 73—101 and ”Vita Panisperna” ed. COLLIJN, A&P, 614—635.

Original works

Cantus sororum. Hymns written before 1373 for liturgical use in St Birgitta’s future monastery foundations.


O, trinitatis gloria


  • BLUME, C. & DREVES, G.M. 1905: Analecta hymnica medii aevi 47, Nos 362—388 (Hymns Nos 1-27).

Summary of contents

27 liturgical hymns in praise of the Holy Virgin and Christ, written for use in the monasteries of St Birgitta’s order.

Composition and style

=====Cantus sororum===== were written for the services of a complete week within the monastery, five each for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, three for Wednesday, one for Thursday, five for Friday and two for Saturday. On Cantus sororum as a liturgical composition, see Servatius. Structurally these hymns belong to the rhythmical type 8pp (NORBERG 1958, 106ff.), written on a pattern set by Auspicius of Toul, and containing four-line strophes, each utilising the number of syllables and rhythmical cadence of a iambic dimeter, while disregarding the metrical pattern. Thus, each line contains eight syllables, the final accent falling on the antepenultimate syllable:

O, trinitatis gloria

caelestis decus curiae

sponsa regis altissimi

suique mater filii (AH 48, p. 411, No 1, lines 1—4)

This example, being the first strophe of the first hymn, introduces the main theme of the whole cycle: praise of the Holy Virgin, the focal point of Birgittine devotion in general. Mary is in fact apostrophised as the main object of devotion in no less than sixteen out of the twenty-seven hymns. Praise of Christ himself is more sparing, occupying seven hymns. It is probably not by chance that Peter starts off and concludes (Hymn No 27) the whole cycle with a particular mention of the Holy Trinity, as the older Vita points out that this was his own special object of devotion.

Hymn No 24, AH p. 418, (Feria sexta, Ad completorium) recalls not only the famous hymn Stabat Mater, but also Birgitta’s three great revelations on the Passion of Christ (Rev I 10, IV 70 and VII15):

Rubens rosa tunc palluit

dum nati mortem doluit

Virgo, quem vox prophetica

dixit passurum talia.


1374—1378 (estimated), to Nicolaus Hermanni (Nils Hermansson), bishop of Linköping.


Quidam sacerdos fuit ex regno Suecie.

Critical edition: BERGH 1991 (Sancta Birgitta, Reuelaciones, Book VI 71:3—10); GRANDINSON 1888.

Summary of contents

Master Peter recounts his refusal to absolve a nobleman and compatriot in Rome, who was a self-confessed fornicator, and St Birgitta’s intervention.

Composition and style

As retold in the Reuelaciones, the letter consists solely of the context, lacking both protocol and eschatocol. The narrative style is simple and straightforward.

1377 (estimated), 4th April, to Archbishop Birgerus Gregorii (Birger Gregersson) of Uppsala, ed. DD IV:1 No 219. An autograph, containing information to the bishop concerning a visit to Vadstena, by Bishop Valdemar of Odense, for the purpose of examining testimonies on Birgitta’s life and miracles. The original letter is preserved at Riksarkivet, Stockholm (Riksarkivets pappershandlingar 12 nr 29).


  • • A&P = Acta et processus canonizacionis beate Birgitte, ed. COLLIJN, I., Uppsala 1924--1931.
  • • AILI, H. 1995: ”Petrus Olavi, f i Skänninge”, Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, Stockholm.
  • • BLUME, C. & DREVES, G.M. 1905: Analecta hymnica medii aevi 48: Hymnographi Latini, 410-420. Leipzig (repr. New York 1961).
  • BRANDELL, G. 1931: Svenska undervisningsväsendets och uppfostrans historia. I: Forntiden, medeltiden och reformationstiden. Lund.
  • • COLLIJN, I. 1929: Birgittinska gestalter. Forskningar i italienska bibliotek och arkiv, Stockholm.
  • DD = Diplomatarium Danicum. Copenhagen.
  • DS = Diplomatarium Suecanum. Stockholm
  • DV = GEJROT, C. (ed.) 1988: Diarium Vadstenense. The Memorial Book of Vadstena Abbey. A Critical Edition with an Introduction. Stockholm (Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, Studia Latina Stockholmiensia, 33).
  • ENGSTRÖM, S. 1930:" Ormungen och hans moder. Till tolkningen av en Birgittauppenbarelse", PHT, 1-6
  • FRÖJMARK, A. 1992: Mirakler och helgonkult. Linköpings biskopsdöme under senmedeltiden, Uppsala.
  • GEETE, R. 1914: "De sista nunnorna i Vadstena", PHT, 12-14.
  • GRANDINSON, K. G (ed.) 1888: Fragmentum de vita et miraculis Magistri Petri Olaui, in Karlstads läroverksprogram för 1887—1888, Karlstad.
  • JÖNSSON, A. 1989: Alfonso of Jaén, His Life and Works with Critical Editions of the Epistola Solitarii, the Informaciones and the Epistola Serui Christi, Lund.
  • KLOCKARS, B. 1966: Birgitta och böckerna. En undersökning av den heliga Birgittas källor, Stockholm.
  • • KLOCKARS, B. 1971: Birgitta och hennes värld, Stockholm.
  • • LUNDÉN, T. (ed.) 1963: Sankt Nikolaus av Linköpings kanonisationsprocess, Stockholm.
  • NORBERG, D. 1958: Introduction a l’étude de la versification latine médiévale. Stockholm (Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis. Studia Latina Stockholmiensia V).
  • SCHMID, T. 1940: Birgitta och hennes uppenbarelser, Lund (p. 238).
  • SCHÜCK, H. (ed.) 1895: De vita domini Petri Olavi, in: ”Två svenska biografier från medeltiden”, Antiqvarisk tidskrift för Sverige, 5, 295-312 and 417.
  • SCHÜCK, H. 1901: "Några anmärkningar om Birgittas revelationer", KVHAAH, 33 (= Ny följd, 13:1), Stockholm 1901
  • SERVATIUS, V. 1990: Cantus sororum, Musik- und liturgiegeschichtliche Studien zu den Antiphonen des birgittinsischen Eigenrepertoires, Uppsala (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Studia musicologica Upsaliensia, Nova series 12).
  • STEFFEN, R. 1909: Den heliga Birgittas uppenbarelser i urval och öfversättning, Stockholm.
  • UNDHAGEN, C.-G. 1960: ”Une source du prologue (Chap. I) aux Révélations de Sainte Brigitte par le cardinal Jean de Turrecremata”, Eranos 58, 214-226.
  • UNDHAGEN, C.-G. (ed.) 1978: Sancta Birgitta, Reuelaciones, Book I, Stockholm (Skrifter utg. av Svenska Fornskrift Sällskapet, Ser 2. Latinska skrifter VII:1).
  • • WESTMAN, K. B. 1911: Birgitta-studier, Uppsala.