Petrus Olavi (prior)
by Hans Aili
Petrus Olavi  prior (Peter Olofsson), born c. 1307, died April 9th, 1390. Father-confessor of Sancta Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden from c. 1346 until her death in Rome in 1373, Latin translator-in-chief of her Revelations. Prior of Alvastra monastery, a Cistercian foundation in the province of Östergötland, Sweden.
Peter’s life is known to us only through indirect information in the Acta et processus canonizacionis beate Birgitte (A&P), in particular in his own, most detailed testimony (Deposicio copiosissima, pp. 472--562) on Birgitta’s sanctity. He is mentioned by name a considerable number of times in the Revelations, particularly in the Reuelaciones extravagantes. In these sources he is nearly always dubbed Prior Petrus or Frater Petrus, since he is easily confused with the eponymous Petrus Olavi (magister). The date of his death is traditional and based on indirect sources.
The date of Peter’s birth is given by himself in his testimony of 1380, where he puts his age at about 73. Very little is known of Peter’s life until c. 1345, when the newly-widowed Birgitta applied for and received permission to take up residence at Alvastra. From this time onwards Peter’s life was inextricably linked with that of Birgitta, and we may, directly or indirectly, glean details of his life and works through what is said of the saint.
Birgitta apparently gained permission for Peter to leave his cloister in order to follow her on various journeys, and even to join in her household from time to time. According to his own testimony he personally witnessed her receiving of the calling to make a pilgrimage to Rome.
Peter was also personally acquainted with Birgitta’s father, Birger Persson, and other members of Birgitta’s family, to whom Peter habitually referred as sources concerning details of Birgitta’s childhood and youth. Peter’s circle of friends and close acquaintances also included Birgitta’s husband, Ulf Gudmarsson, and Sweden’s foremost theologian of European renown (as well as Birgitta’s first father-confessor), Magister Mathias Ovidi (Mats Övidsson), canon of Linköping cathedral.
The date for Peter’s inclusion in Birgitta’s circle of friends is not easily established, as his testimony in the A&P does not refer to any personal knowledge concerning the marriage of Birgitta and Ulf, but refers instead to information received from Magister Mathias: this period on the whole, therefore, probably preceded Peter’s entering Birgitta’s circle. On the other hand, he states that he personally attended Ulf’s deathbed in 1349, a year which may be considered the terminus ante quem of his gaining a more personal relation with the future saint. Since he furthermore relates that Birgitta had told him that she received her first real revelation in the year 1346, a comment he would hardly have retold in this form if he had been acquainted with Birgitta at the time of occurrence, we may conclude that the first-hand evidence points to this year as the terminus post quem.
Peter’s knowledge of Birgitta’s qualities as a visionary came early, possibly even before they had actually met one another: Bishop Galhardus of Spoleto narrates that Birgitta had foretold, on the strength of a vision received after prolonged prayer, that Peter would recover from a long illness he suffered in the year 1344 and that he would, moreover, live to attend her own deathbed. Other episodes, where Peter witnessed miracles performed by Birgitta, are mentioned by her Spanish father-confessor, the ex-bishop and Olivetan hermit, Alfonso of Jaén.
Peter travelled widely as Birgitta’s companion or in her service; in the latter capacity he probably accompanied Bishop Hemming of Åbo/Turku in this cleric’s embassy to the kings of England and France, with the purpose of acquainting them with Birgitta’s revelations concerning the apparently perpetual war between these two countries (Rev. IV 103-105); Hemming also carried a letter to Pope Clemens VI (Rev. VI 63). Unfortunately the wording of Peter’s testimony (A&P, 512) does not clearly indicate whether he accompanied Hemming or merely acted as his father-confessor after his return.
Peter did not, however, accompany Birgitta at her departure for Rome in 1349, a few months after her husband’s death; he recounts that he attended the death-bed of Magister Mathias in 1350. Some time after this event he did follow Birgitta, attending her, despite sporadic journeys to Sweden, as her father-confessor and Latin translator of the major part of her Revelations.
While in Birgitta’s service Peter met many of the major personages of contemporary Italy — he gives a great number of names in his testimony (A&P, 501) — among them two popes. Many of them were the recipients of Birgitta’s revelations, couched in letter form and translated into Latin by Peter.
Peter attended Birgitta’s death on October 7th, 1373, as well as her temporary funeral in the Lateran. When her bones were transferred to Sweden in early 1374, Peter followed them in the company of her daughter Katarina and her son Birger.
The time after Birgitta’s death was a busy one for Peter, as he first of all cooperated with Magister Petrus in writing the first version of her Vita, which was handed over to Bishop Galhardus of Spoleto, in Rome on 17th December 1373. After his return to Sweden Peter appears to have resumed his office as prior of Alvastra, interrupting this service for periodical visits to Rome, as he assisted Alfonso Pecha in preparing the first edition of Birgitta’s Revelationes. This, the so-called First Alfonsine Redaction, was presented to Pope Gregory XI on January 7th, 1377, on his entering Rome.
Latin translations mainly by Prior Petrus Olavi
Reuelaciones sancte Birgitte. Peter translated the majority of the c. 700 Revelations of St Birgitta of Sweden into Latin from the original Old Swedish. His work was either done from a written exemplar or ab ore, that is, simultaneously at Birgitta’s dictation. Among the Revelations texts he explicitly mentions as translated ab ore are one on the Nativity (Rev. VII 21) and one on the Passion on Mount Calvary (Rev. VII 15). Among the other works of his he also explicitly names the translation of Sermo angelicus de excellentia Virginis, which was dictated by an angel to Birgitta, while she was sitting at a window in her chamber, overlooking the main altar of the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso. Peter was in Sweden at that time, but appears to have translated the text upon his return to Rome. Peter’s absence, and the fact that Birgitta’s receiving the Sermo angelicus was witnessed by Magister Petrus, have led modern scholarship to consider this text as a translation by the latter father-confessor: a view which is thus contradicted by Peter’s own words (A&P, 526).
See Sancta Birgitta
- • Sancta Birgitta, Reuelaciones. Impr. B. Ghotan, Lübeck 1492 (folio, unpaginated).
This edition, whose textual arrangement has provided the norm for later editions, was followed by a series of reprints, namely Nürnberg 1500 (impr. A. Koberger) and 1517; 1557 Rome (impr. Olaus Magnus), Rome 1606 (impr. Consalvo Durante); Antwerpen 1611; Köln 1628; Rome 1628 (impr. C. Durante); München 1680. Generally speaking, the printers have copied the latest edition more or less slavishly, and the errors of Ghotan’s edition are therefore multiplied in the later ones. Attempts at correcting the text or printer’s errors by comparison with a small number of manuscripts were made by Consalvo Durante (1606 and 1628), with only small success.
- • Book I (ed. UNDHAGEN, C.-G. 1978), Book II (ed. UNDHAGEN, C.-G. forthcoming), Book III (ed. JÖNSSON, A.-M., forthcoming), Book IV (ed. AILI, H. 1992), Book V (ed. BERGH, B. 1971), Book VI (ed. BERGH, B. 1991), Book VII (ed. BERGH, B. 1967), Book VIII (ed. AILI, H. forthcoming).
- • Reuelaciones extrauagantes (ed. HOLLMAN, L. 1956).
- • Opera minora vol. I, Regula saluatoris (ed. EKLUND, S. 1975), vol. II, Sermo angelicus (ed. EKLUND, S. 1972), vol. III, Quatuor oraciones (ed. EKLUND, S. 1991). Stockholm.
Edition of Old Swedish translation
- • KLEMMING, G.E. 1883-84: Heliga Birgittas Uppenbarelser, V: 17-55, Stockholm.
- LUNDÉN, T. 1957-59: Den heliga Birgitta. Himmelska uppenbarelser. I-IV, Malmö. (Translation of complete text of Editio princeps into Swedish.)
- BUTKOVICH, A. 1975: Saint Birgitta of Sweden: Revelations, Los Angeles. (Translation of selected Revelations into English).
- TJADER HARRIS, M. (ed.) 1990: Birgitta of Sweden, Life and Selected Revelations, Translation and Notes by A. RYLE KEZEL, Introduction by T. NYBERG. New York. (Translation of selected Revelations into English).
Summary of contents
See Sancta Birgitta
Composition and style
Vita beatae Birgittae
(in collaboration with Petrus Olavi ). The Life of St Birgitta, recounting her life, visions, and miracles.
Sciendum est, quod humillima ancilla Dei numquam presumeret se vocare vel vocari facere sponsam Christi ...
27 folio pages.
• A&P (ed. COLLIJN), 74-101.
Summary of contents
The life of Birgitta of Sweden, written with her future canonization in view. Arranged mainly chronologically with many anecdotes, illustrating and confirming her claims to sanctity even from childhood, recounting her visions of the Virgin Mary, Christ, and her temptations by the Devil; giving descriptions of her marriage and pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela; extracts from her revelations concerning friends and enemies; description of her migration to Rome and subsequently to Naples and the Holy Land. Her death in Rome.
Composition and style
The Vita is written in Latin prose, with straightforward periods containing many participial and subordinate clauses as well as ablative absolutes. Speech (monologues and dialogues) is usually rendered in oratio recta, oratio obliqua being rather rare. The classical rules for the usage of moods and consecutio temporum are not upheld to the letter but with a certain degree of freedom. Vocabulary is medieval with many non-classical neologisms.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, at our present stage of knowledge to distinguish the individual styles of the two authors. Cf. above > Reuelaciones Sancte Birgitte.
Medieval reception and transmission
The Vita appeared in many versions even in the Middle Ages. The oldest one is retained in MS C 15 of Uppsala University Library and dubbed the C 15 Vita; this was probably the basis for the so-called Process Vita, Vita b. Brigide prioris Petri et magistri Petri, published by COLLIJN (A&P, 73-101) in a critical edition based on three MSS (Cod. Holm. A14, Cod. Ottob. Lat 90, Cod. Harl. 612); a secondary redaction to the Process Vita can be found in a manuscript, dubbed Codex Panisperna, containing not only the text of the Process Vita but also a number of additional miracles attributed to Birgitta (critical ed. by COLLIJN, A&P, 614-640). The basic contents were rendered by >Ragvaldus Anundi into a Vita metrica S. Birgittae.
Peter’s testimony concerning Birgitta’s claims to sanctity. A most valuable source not only concerning the life of the saint herself but also on the state of the Church and Italian history in general and Roman history in particular, covering the years 1350 to 1373 (approximately).
Venerabilis vir dominus frater Petrus Olaui diocesis Lincopensis, prior ...
90 folio pages.
Summary of contents
Peter’s very detailed testimony is arranged in the sequence dictated by the original 51 articles concerning Birgitta’s life and miracles; the extant text appears to be the result of dictation by Peter himself with additions by the editors (headed by Magister Magnus Petri), as each article begins with a formula, for example, ”Item interrogatus super xlvto articulo, qui incipit ... dicit se tantum scire ... , videlicet quod ...” after which follows the testimony in subordinate clauses. Subsequent testimonies concerning the same article begin, e.g. ”Item dixit idem testis loquens, quod ...”.
The Latin style of the testimonies is comparable to that of the >Vita beatae Birgittae.
• A&P (ed. COLLIJN), 472-562
See above, >Vita beatae Birgittae
An addition by Peter to Regula Salvatoris, Birgitta’s rules for her new foundation (also couched in the form of Revelations); Peter’s Constitutiones were formally accepted on behalf of Vadstena cloister by Bishop Knut of Linköping only in 1422.
The text, after a short introduction, is divided into 52 chapters, giving detailed instructions on the rituals to be observed, concerning such matters as kneeling, bell-ringing, the election of the abbess etc.
(old Swedish translation of Latin text) • KLEMMING, G.E. 1883-84: Heliga Birgittas Uppenbarelser, V: 15-53, Stockholm.
Latin text in Cod. Holm. A22 (Stockholm, Royal Library), Cod. Nordenskiöld (Helsinki, University Library). Old Swedish translation in MS. Germ. Fol. 726 (Berlin, Neue Staatsbibliothek).
- • A&P = Acta et processus canonizacionis beate Birgitte, ed. COLLIJN, I., Uppsala 1924-1931.
- • AILI, H. 1995: ”Petrus Olavi, f omkr 1307”, Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, Stockholm.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- SCHMID, T. 1940: Birgitta och hennes uppenbarelser, Lund (p. 238).
- SCHÜCK, H. 1901: 'Några anmärkningar om Birgittas revelationer', KVHAAH 33 (= Ny följd, 13:1), Stockholm.
- 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;
- • WESTMAN, K. B. 1911: Birgitta-studier, Uppsala.