Petrus de Dacia
by Monika Asztalos
The Dominican Petrus de Dacia (d. 1289) is the first Swedish author whose works have come down to us. His whole literary oeuvre centres on Christina, a German Beguine who lived in the village of Stommeln near Cologne (d. 1312 and beatified 1908). His earliest work is a poem praising Christina’s saintly virtues, accompanied by a prose commentary. A biography of the Beguine presents her religious experiences as he knew them from visits to Stommeln and from letters sent to him from Christina and other persons close to her. In addition to these two major works, letters have been preserved from Peter to Christina and other persons in her vicinity. Peter’s works are important sources for the history of the Dominican province of Dacia and provide an early example of the particular brand of spirituality and mysticism that was to flourish in fourteenth-century Germany.
The only extant sources for Peter’s biography are the works contained in MS 599 of the Bischöfliches Diözesanarchiv, Aachen, also known as the Codex Juliacensis (for a description, see ASZTALOS 1982, 16-27). Information concerning Peter’s life has to be culled on the one hand from his Life of Christina, which includes descriptions of his visits to Stommeln and a number of letters to and from himself, on the other hand from letters sent to Christina and different persons connected with her. The reconstruction of Peter’s biography from the evidence of these writings was achieved by GALLÉN 1946, 225-44. Adjustments to his chronology (and to his dating of individual letters) were proposed by ASZTALOS 1991.
Peter of Dacia was born around 1235 on the Swedish island of Gotland to unknown parents. He entered the Dominican order as a novice when Absalon was provincial prior of Dacia (1241-1261) and studied at the Dominican studia generalia in Cologne in 1266-1269 and in Paris in 1269-1270. During his years in Cologne pastoral duties brought him to Stommeln on several occasions, where he became a close friend and spiritual director of Christina. Peter quickly became convinced that she was a saint and made it a lifelong project to describe her mystical experiences and make them known to a wider audience. During his year in Paris he kept himself informed of her by correspondence. This mode of communication was maintained during the remainder of his life, which was largely spent in different Swedish Dominican convents. Since Christina was illiterate, she had to dictate her letters in German to a trusted person (a confessor or some Dominican known to Peter) who would translate her words into Latin and put them in writing.
In 1271 Peter was appointed lector in the convent of Skänningen which was to become an important spiritual centre in Sweden. After this, communications with Christina became increasingly difficult. Peter received a spate of letters from her at the provincial chapter in Aarhus in 1272, but after that contact seems to have been broken, and we do not know of any letters received by Peter until 1278. Consequently his biography for the years 1272-1277 is clouded in obscurity. GALLÉN 1946, 230 f., assumes that Peter was active in Skänninge from 1271 until 1277 when he moved to Västerås. ASZTALOS (1991, 59 ff.) has pointed to evidence, albeit not conclusive, in Peter’s letter favouring instead the following chronology: lector in Skänninge 1271-1272, in Västerås (after the meeting in Aarhus) 1272-1276, and again, in Skänninge 1277. There is, however, agreement on Peter being appointed prior in Västerås at the end of 1277 or the beginning of 1278. During a month-long visit to Cologne in the autumn of 1279, Peter had the opportunity to meet Christina again. He did not return to Västerås but travelled to Visby on Gotland, where he became lector in 1280. He was present at the provincial chapters in Oslo 1280, in Skänninge 1281, in Visby 1282, and (probably) in Sigtuna in 1286. From 1286 until his death he was prior in Visby. Peter was appointed the provincial prior’s socius (companion) on a trip to a general chapter, probably that held in Bordeaux in 1287, which gave him the opportunity to pay Christina a final, brief visit. During the Lent of 1289, the Beguine was informed of the death of her hagiographer and friend in a letter from a Dominican in Visby.
Peter of Dacia as an author in his own right rather than a hagiographer was “discovered” by a Swedish historian of literature, H. SCHÜCK, who acknowledged his importance as the first Swedish author and made him the primary object of a monograph in 1912. Peter enjoyed a particular reputation in Gotland, his native island, where Friedrich Mehler produced a popular opera that was staged every summer for many years in the ruin of St. Nicholas’s church in Visby. F. OCHSNER, a librarian in Visby, produced a portrait of Peter in a work of 1969, which is full of psychological insights.
(1) De gratia naturam ditante sive De virtutibus Christinae Stumbelensis
On grace enriching nature or On the virtues of Christina of Stommeln, fragmentarily preserved, provides a philosophical and theological running commentary on a poem, also written by Peter, praising the virtues of the German Beguine.
There is no title that can be attributed with any certainty to the author. The rubricator of the Codex Juliacensis presents the work thus: Incipit liber primus de virtutibus sponse Cristi Christine conpilatus a fratre Petro de ordine Predicatorum (Here begins the first book [i.e. the first work copied in the manuscript] on the virtues of Christina, a bride of Christ, compiled by Brother Peter of the order of the Preachers). In order to avoid confusion with Peter’s Vita Christinae Stumbelensis, the editor chose to use a two-part title, the first part indicating the principal theme of the extant part of the work (see ASZTALOS 1982, 10 n. 7).
Cuius amo mores, virtutum colligo flores.
horror indicat separacionis et dolor de invicem separatis.
The poem introducing the De gratia naturam ditante consists of 43 hexameter verses. The whole work (the poem and the prose commentary on it) originally occupied 39 folios in the Codex Juliacensis, but only 17 folios (1 and 24-39) remain, that is to say, less than half of the original. The extant work occupies 105 pages in its modern edition.
- HENSCHENIUS, PAPEBROCHIUS et alii 1867: Acta sanctorum, Junii, vol. 5, Paris/Rome, col. 366. [Edition of the text on the first folio of the manuscript.]
- • ASZTALOS 1982. [The only edition of the complete extant text].
Date and place
Since the De gratia naturam ditante contains references to at least one event of which Peter was informed in a letter that he received in Aarhus in September of 1272 (see ASZTALOS 1982, 11 f.), it may be assumed that he was working on it during his period as lector in Västerås subsequent to that date, when epistolary communications seems to have come to a halt. A terminus ante quem is the summer of 1281 when he sent a copy of the work to Stommeln (ASZTALOS 1991, 89-93).
Summary of contents
The poem is a highly lapidarian description of Christina’s saintly nature. Due to its condensed character it would be at least partly incomprehensive if it were not accompanied by a commentary. The latter is a word-for-word exposition in the manner of the scholastic glosses and commentaries that Peter became familiar with during his years of study. The comments vary in length from a few words to some fifty pages. The first part of the commentary, contained on the first folio of the manuscript, consists of brief comments on each word of the first eight verses. After the lacuna we are in the middle of a long treatise on how different aspects of God’s grace have enriched and continue to enrich human nature. Most space (sixty pages in the edition) is given to the cognitive and moral faculties with which the soul was enriched at the moment of creation. This philosophical and theological part of the De gratia naturam ditante, on the relations between nature, grace, and glory, is arranged around the general theme gracia naturam ditat (grace enriches nature), a scholastic axiom that was given the formula gratia perficit naturam (grace perfects nature) by the most important theologian during Peter’s life, Thomas Aquinas. It provides a comment on vv. 27-28 in the poem (Ornat naturam virtus, naturaque curam / istis ostendit propriam, quas Gloria pendit, Virtue adorns nature, and nature in its own way cares for the things that glory gives as a reward). This part furnishes a general background to the following section, a twenty-page comment on the words raptus, amor (ecstasy, love) that stand at the beginning of v. 29. This section is more immediately relevant to Christina, since it presents an aspect of grace that is only given as a special privilege to saints and whereby the receivers are already able in this life to enter into a union with God in a state of ecstasy. (For the theological background of these eighty pages of the De gratia, see ASZTALOS 1982, 42-55.) For the remaining fifteen verses of the poem, the author returns to his briefer word-for-word comments. Surprisingly, the identity of the person whose outstanding virtues are praised is never revealed in the De gratia. There is a complete lack of reference to persons and places. It has been suggested that this unexpected feature is due to one of Peter’s informants in Stommeln having required the utmost discretion during his lifetime in the use Peter was to make of the account given to him (see ASZTALOS 1991, 68-70).
Composition and style
For the brief comments given at the beginning and end of the De gratia (as we have it), the author employs a monotonous rhymed prose. An illustration is provided by the comment on the first word of the poem, cuius: Cuius vita est religio morum, emulacio devotorum, speculum imitatorum, miraculum inspectorum, increpacio tepidorum, redargucio delicatorum, instructio indoctorum, exposicio divinorum secretorum, summa bonorum et penalium experimentorum, incitamentum desideriorum, inchoacio eternorum, exemplum contemplativorum, incitacio activorum. But the 80 pages treating nature, grace, and glory are completely different in style. Their contents are compiled from different sources, mainly Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. Albert taught at Cologne 1248-1260, and his works must have been held in high esteem there when Peter entered the studium generale in 1266. Peter makes ample use of Albert’s commentary on Aristotle’s De anima but also quotes his other works of natural philosophy dealing with the faculties of the soul. As for Aquinas (who was in Paris when Peter studied there), Peter quotes mostly from works that Thomas had written in the fifties: the Commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences and the Quaestiones disputatae de veritate. In addition Peter gives excerpts from the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux and from several other writings, patristic as well as medieval. Peter does not usually quote long passages verbatim, but abbreviates and slightly reworks the texts. However, in the De gratia naturam ditante he stands out not as an original thinker but as a compiler.
Purpose and audience
From various remarks in the De gratia it is clear that it was intended as a work of edification (see ASZTALOS 1982, 62-64). As a lector Peter was responsible for the education in various Swedish convents, and he may have considered the De gratia suitable reading for Swedish Dominicans. He may have had in mind in particular a group of women in Skänninge (some of whom were Dominican sisters, others Beguines, and yet others lay women), a small community that was later to develop into the first Swedish convent of Dominican sisters (see ASZTALOS 1982, 65 f.). Peter describes these women in a letter to Christina, probably written after his transfer to Västerås in 1272, and dwells upon one of them who – like Christina – was at times stigmatized and experienced ecstasies (ASZTALOS 1991, 208-13). Perhaps he thought that Christina would provide a suitable “role model” for these women. His separation from them after his move to Västerås may have prompted him to write the De gratia for their benefit.
Medieval reception and transmission
No manuscript copy of the De gratia (or of any other work by Peter of Dacia) is known to have survived in Sweden. At the request of Christina’s “secretary”, Peter sent a copy to Stommeln in the summer of 1281 (see above). This was in all likelihood used when the Codex Juliacensis was put together, perhaps at the beginning of the fourteenth century in a monastery in Cologne (for the date and history of this manuscript, see ASZTALOS 1982, 21-27). De gratia is not known to have been quoted by or to have influenced any medieval writers, perhaps due to its lack of literary qualities as well as of doctrinal originality. The interest of the work (apart from the purely superficial one of being the first literary product of Sweden) lies partly in its evidence for the level of erudition reached by a Scandinavian student in the thirteenth century (one, it should be added, who did not achieve the degree of magister), partly in its original structure, with the author stepping back and producing a commentary on a text written by himself.
(2) Vita Christinae Stumbelensis
The Life of Christina of Stommeln is a biography conceived on highly unconventional lines due to the author’s desire to publish eyewitness reports rather than a chronologically arranged narrative. Since it includes eleven letters (some of considerable length) dictated by Christina herself, it produces a curious effect of double vision, in which the image provided by the respectfully enthusiastic and inspired biographer of a severely tried but ultimately triumphant and blessed bride of Christ conflicts with that given by Christina of a tormented and only occasionally consoled woman who suffered serious physical and psychological disorders and whose difficult social, spiritual, and emotional life was relieved by the constancy of Peter’s affection to a degree that he never seems to have grasped.
The title Vita Christinae Stumbelensis was given by the editor PAULSON 1896. In the Codex Juliacensis, the rubricator introduces the work with the following words: Incipit liber secundus de vita benedicte virginis Cristi Cristine (Here begins the second book [i.e., of the manuscript] on the life of Christ’s blessed virgin Christina).
Magnum dominum et magnam uirtutem eis merito laudarem.
reformabit corpus humilitatis nostre configuratum corpori claritatis sue. It should be noted that in the manuscript, the biography lacks a formal ending. After two empty lines follow 31 letters from Peter and others to Christina and other persons living in Stommeln. These letters were not inserted by Peter in the Vita Christinae (among them is the letter informing Christina of Peter’s death). But in PAULSON’s edition there is no indication that this letter collection is not part of the work he entitled Vita Christinae Stumbelensis. Thus the explicit given above of the Vita Christinae occurs on p. 213 in PAULSON’s edition. PAULSON’s inclusion of the letters sent to Stommeln in Peter’s biography of Christina has seriously hampered research on Peter of Dacia (see below and ASZTALOS 1991).
Vita Christinae occupies 213 pages in the edition of PAULSON 1896.
For an evaluation of their respective merits, see ASZTALOS 1991, 188-91.
- HENSCHENIUS, PAPEBROCHIUS et alii 1867: Acta sanctorum, Junii, vol. 5, Paris/Rome, cols. 236-94.
- • PAULSON 1896: Petri de Dacia Uita Christinae Stumbelensis (Scriptores Latini Medii Aeui Suecani I), Göteborg, 1-213 (Nachdruck der Ausgabe Göteborg 1896 hrsg. von A. Önnerfors. Lateinische Sprache und Literatur des Mittelalters 20, Frankfurt am Main-Bern-New York, 1985). [213-57 contain the letters that were copied in the manuscript after the biography].
- • ASZTALOS 1991 [201-411 contain a critical edition and translation of as well as a commentary on all Peter’s letters, both those included in the Vita Christinae and those copied after his work in the manuscripts].
- (Swedish) LUNDÉN 1965: Petrus de Dacia, Om den saliga jungfrun Kristina av Stommeln, Stockholm (LUNDÉN based his translation on PAULSON’s 1896 edition. Thus he was not alerted to the fact that the letters mentioned above were not part of the Vita Christinae. Instead, using the chronology established for the letters by GALLÉN 1946, he inserted these letters into various places in the biography, thereby making it impossible for the reader to distinguish between letters that Peter had inserted into the Vita Christinae and letters that he had no intention of publishing).
- (Swedish) ASZTALOS 1991 (see above).
- (Italian) GABRIELI 1984: Amor sacro e amor profano. Le lettere di Pietro di Dacia e di Cristina di Stommeln. Introduzione, traduzione e note, AION-N, 27, Naples.
- QUÉTIF, J. & ECHARD, J. 1719: Scriptores ordinis Praedicatorum, vol. 1, Paris [repr. 1959], 407-11.
- • ASZTALOS 1991.
Date and place
Vita Christinae Stumbelensis was written during four different periods between 1278 and 1288. Peter probably began his work on it as a prior in Västerås in 1278. He first gave detailed descriptions of the thirteen visits that he had paid to Stommeln during his years of study in Cologne (1266-1269). He then inserted copies of the letters that he received from Stommeln and Cologne while in Paris in 1269-1270 (though unfortunately only the parts that were relevant to the life of Christina), providing them with some additional information of his own. He also included letters written by himself in reply. (For the first period of writing, see ASZTALOS 1991, 79 f.). His work, which had been interrupted by his visit to Cologne and Stommeln in 1279, was resumed after his return to Visby in 1280. After a description of his meetings with Christina during the visit of 1279, he inserted an account of her life up to the time of their first meeting, written at his request by the vicar of Stommeln and given to him already in 1270. He also copied a number of letters from Christina that had reached him in Aarhus in 1272. It seems that he had not included these 8-10 year-old documents during his first period of working on the Vita Christinae because he wanted to collect more information about their contents during his visit to Stommeln in 1279. This information was duly received and added to the documents after his return to Sweden. He also included correspondence from 1278 to 1280. (For this second period of writing, see ASZTALOS 1991, 93-94.) His work was interrupted during 1281-1282, a period during which he tried to persuade Christina to move to Sweden, but was resumed in 1282. He then inserted letters received and sent in 1281 and 1282 and an account of the arrangements made (in vain as it turned out) for Christina’s move to Sweden. (For this third period of composition, see ASZTALOS 1991, 105-7). Apparently Peter wished to verify certain details in the last letters he had received from Stommeln, but no opportunity was given him before his last visit to Stommeln, probably in 1287. The meeting seems to have been a failure, since Christina had been unable or unwilling to provide the information sought by her biographer, and after his return to Sweden Peter inserted a letter of his own in the biography, thus putting an end to his work in 1288 (see ASZTALOS 1991, 139 f.).
Composition and style
Vita Christinae is stylistically a heterogeneous work. Peter’s descriptions of his visits to Stommeln as well as the letter reports he received from there are written in a simple, unadorned narrative with attention to detail (an attention probably requested from his correspondents by the biographer, who is constantly asking in his own letters for reports from Stommeln), whereas Peter’s own letters are literary compositions. Their function is to provide philosophical, moral, spiritual, or theological interpretations of Christina’s experiences as told either in the letters from Stommeln or in his own descriptions of his visits to Stommeln. They are rooted in the Cistercian tradition of spiritual friendship and can be compared to the letters from Jordanes of Saxony to Diana of Bologna (see ASZTALOS 1991, 153-66). As in his early work, Peter favours rhythmic prose but he uses it, for the most part, more sparingly and with greater judgment than in the De gratia naturam ditante. He still depends on an array of patristic and monastic authors (see the commentary to each letter in ASZTALOS 1991), but for an occasional quotation rather than wholesale compilation. His education shines through also in that some of his letters are composed in a form similar to that of formal sermons (ASZTALOS 1991, 143-51). From a literary point of view, those of Peter’s letters that form part of the Vita Christinae are without doubt the highlights of his production.
Purpose and audience
It is possible that Peter composed the Vita Christinae with a view to a future canonization of the person whom he firmly believed to be a saint. As a matter of fact, the work was used for Christina’s process of beatification in 1908.
Medieval reception and transmission
As a literary work the Vita Christinae does not seem to have exerted any influence in the Middle Ages. It was mainly used in and around Cologne as a means to propagate the local cult of the Beguine that began soon after her death (see NIEVELER 1975). This use of the work, focusing solely on Christina and reducing Peter to a mere eye-witness, is well illustrated by the title of the work given by WOLLERSHEIM 1959.
Vita Christinae is not preserved in any other manuscript than the Codex Juliacensis. There is evidence of two other manuscripts now lost (see ASZTALOS 1982, 10 n. 8, and 25 n. 35); extracts from one of them as well as from the Codex Juliacensis can be found in a manuscript of 1635, Codex Einsidlensis 470; these extracts have been edited by COLLIJN 1936.
Fifteen letters to Christina and five letters to other persons in her immediate surroundings are preserved. They were never intended for publication by their author but were apparently preserved in Stommeln and copied in the Codex Juliacensis together with other works relevant to the Beguine. This collection of letters (which also contains eleven letters to Christina from persons other than Peter) does not carry any title, since it was appended to the Vita Christinae without title by the copyist of the Codex Juliacensis and later erroneously included in the Vita Christinae by the editor PAULSON 1896 (see above). These letters lack any literary pretension but are of a unique value for the study of the medieval epistolary genre, since they make possible detailed comparisons between real, authentic letters, and literary ones.
The Middle Ages are rich in letter collections published by their authors, but only rarely do we have access to letters belonging to both categories written by one and the same person. In Peter’s case we are lucky enough to possess copies on the one hand of letters he actually sent to Stommeln and on the other of the rewritten versions of these letters that he inserted in the Vita Christinae and claimed to have sent to Stommeln. For the differences between the two kinds of letters see ASZTALOS 1991, 137 f. For editions and translations, see above under Vita Christinae Stumbelensis.
Two sermons are written by a Petrus de Dacia, but the name may refer to a different person (>Sermones)
For more complete bibliographies of works on Peter of Dacia and Christina of Stommeln, see OCHSNER 1969 and 1975 as well as NIEVELER 1975.
- • ASZTALOS, M. 1982: Petrus de dacia, De gratia naturam ditante sive De virtutibus Christinae Stumbelensis. Edition critique avec une introduction (Acta universitatis Stockholmiensis, Studia Latina Stockholmiensia 28), Stockholm. [See above under De gratia naturam ditante sive De virtutibus Christinae Stumbelensis, Editions].
- ASZTALOS, M. 1986: “Les lettres de direction et les sermons épistolaires de Pierre de Dacie,” in The Editing of Theological and Philosophical Texts from the Middle Ages, ed M. Asztalos, Stockholm, 161-84.
- ASZTALOS, M. 1991: Petrus de Dacia om Christina från Stommeln. En kärleks historia, Uppsala. [See above under Vita Christinae Stumbelensis, Editions and translations].
- ASZTALOS, M. 1995: “Petrus de Dacia,” SBL 142, 211-13
- COLLIJN, I. 1936: Vita b. Christinae Stumbelensis ex manuscriptis Petri de Dacia et Johannis capellani in Stumbel. Efter Cod. Einsidlensis 470 (SFSS ser. 2, vol. 2), Uppsala.
- GALLÉN, J. 1946: La province de Dacie de l’ordre des Frères Prêcheurs. I. Histoire générale jusqu’au grand schisme, Helsinki.
- NIEVELER, P. 1975: Codex Juliacensis. Christina von Stommeln und Petrus von Dacien, ihr Leben und Nachleben in Geschichte, Kunst und Litteratur (Veröffentlichungen des Bischöflichen Diözesanarchivs Aachen 34), Mönchengladbach.
- ÖBERG, J. 1986: “Authentischer oder autorisierter Text?” in The Editing of Theological and Philosophical Texts from the Middle Ages, ed. M. Asztalos, Stockholm, 59-74.
- OCHSNER, F. 1969: Petrus de Dacia, vänskapens mystiker, Visby.
- OCHSNER, F. 1975: Petrus de Dacia Gothensis, Mystiker der Freundschaft, Visby.
- PAULSON, J. 1894: Om Jülichhandskriften till Petrus de Dacia, Progr. Göteborgs högskola, Göteborg.
- RENAN, E. 1880: “Une idylle monacale au XIIIe siècle. Christine de Stommeln,” Revue des deux mondes, 39, 275-94.
- SCHÜCK, H. 1916: Vår förste författare. En själshistoria från medeltiden, Stockholm [also under the title of Minne af Petrus de Dacia in Svenska akademiens handlingar ifrån år 1886, 27 (1916), 17-246].
- WOLLERSHEIM, TH. 1859: Das Leben der ekstatischen und stigmatischen Jungfrau Christina von Stommeln, wie solches von dem Augenzeugen Petrus von Dacien und Andern beschrieben ist, nach authentischen Quellen verfasst, Cologne.
- WRETÖ, T. 1963/64. Petrus de Dacia som berättare, Litteraturhistorisk trebetyguppsats. Litteraturvetenskapliga institutionen vid Uppsala universitet [unpublished paper].