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FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam

The Locus of Truth: Birgitta of Sweden and the Journey to Jerusalem

Alternative title: Sted og sannhet: Birgitta av Sveriges reise til Jerusalem

Awarded: NOK 2.1 mill.

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Project Period:

2017 - 2021


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Birgitta Birgersdotter (1302/3-1373), better known as St. Birgitta of Sweden, was canonized in 1391 because of what she claimed to be revelations received directly from God. Based on these visions, recorded in the work "Revelaciones", Birgitta could act as an agent on the religious and political scene of Europe - a role which was not readily available to women in this period. During the canonization process, when the "Revelaciones" were evaluated in order to decide if Birgitta truly did possess divine knowledge and would thus merit sainthood, the visionary's pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1372 received particular attention. Several of Birgitta's supporters who acted as witnesses during the process pointed to her presence at the very places were Christ had been born and died when she received visions as a proof of their authenticity. How should we understand the connection between physical places and divine knowledge made here? Although Birgitta's travels have been explored to some extent, the significance of her visit to Jerusalem for her claims to divine insight, as well as for the process of establishing her sanctity and thus her authority as a theological agent have not been explored before. The sources pertaining to Birgitta offer a unique possibility to study how medieval pilgrims experienced the shrines in the geographical and religious centre of Christianity, but also to understand how particular physical places could serve as a criterion of truth and as rhetorical assets in the theological debates of the period. In this project, both textual and visual sources have been investigated in order to explore how, and according to what conception of reality and of knowledge, the experience of certain sites and buildings could confirm that Birgitta had supernatural insight. A central aim of the project has been to shed new light on the strategies of legitimization employed in order to authenticate Birgitta's visions and thereby also her role as a female theologian and politician in the Middle Ages. The results of the project have been presented at various international conferences, among these "The Saints of Rome: Diffusion and Reception from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period" at the Hungarian Academy of Rome (2017), Italy; at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds University, England (2018 and 2019); at the Annual Conference of the European Academy of Religion in Bologna, Italy (2019); and at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, USA (2019). The results of the project have also reached a wider audience through presentations and lectures as a part of university courses at the Department of archaeology and at the Centre for Medieval Studies, Stockholm University, and the Swedish Institute of Classical Studies in Rome. The research has been published in two anthologies: A Companion to Birgitta of Sweden and Her Legacy in the Later Middle Ages (Brill, 2019), edited by the project leader, and Sanctity and Female Authorship: Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena (Routledge, 2019), co-edited by the project leader, and in six articles.

This project has demonstrated the kinds of rhetorical strategies employed by women and their supporters in order to legitimise their voices and assert agency in a time when women were prohibited by canon law from participating in public debate and to instruct men. It is revealed that sacred loci played a major role in this process. The identification and introduction of new sources into the growing field of study of premodern female authors has a general impact on our understanding of female agency in this period, but also more directly on the ongoing study of Birgitta's influence, which is the aim of the recently launched international research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council, "The Legacy of Birgitta of Sweden". An original theoretical framework for the study of the connection between knowledge, authority and sacred loci has been developed. This will have a direct impact on the newly started Doctoral School at Stockholm University, "Space and Place in the Humanities".

International scholarly interest in the remarkable Birgitta of Sweden is currently being revitalized. New attention has been given to her religious and political authority, her texts - the Revelaciones - and the impact that the trial of the canonization had on how the claims of religious women were met by the Church in the subsequent period. Birgitta was known for having visited virtually all of the major Christian shrines. Although her travels have been explored to some extent, the significance of Birgitta's visit to the Holy Land for both her claims to divine knowledge and in the process for establishing her sanctity and thus her authority as a female theological agent, still awaits a thorough scholarly analysis. The present project proposes that the journey to the Holy Land was fundamental to Birgitta's notion of true knowledge, and, furthermore, that her experience of the sacred loci served as one of the principal arguments during the process for establishing the veracity of her Revelaciones. The textual sources and the earliest depictions of Birgitta will be analysed with the aim to uncover in what way and based on what rationale the physical place, its space and the matter of the holy sites were discussed in order to establish the truthfulness of Birgitta's claim to represent God. This will entail a rhetorical analysis of the visual and textual material in order to uncover the strategies whereby the holy sites were enrolled as rhetorical assets. A theoretical framework based on the medieval division of meaning into a literal and a spiritual level will be developed and employed in order to explore the medieval rhetoric of space, and the relation between place and knowledge. The results of the project will be highly relevant to Birgittine scholars, but they will also have bearing on the on-going study of historical conceptualizations of Jerusalem, medieval models of signification and for the development of theoretical perspectives in medieval studies in general.

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FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam