On the Transformation of Apparition Stories in Scandinavia and Germany, c. 1350-1700 – 1

On the Transformation of Apparition Stories in Scandinavia and Germany, c. 1350-1700 – 1 – Critical Essay

Jurgen Beyer


Based on recent Central European research concerning the history of storytelling, this article explores the transformation of apparition stories in Scandinavia and Germany from the late Middle Ages through the Reformation to about 1700. A number of motifs were kept alive throughout the entire period but the stories as a whole changed considerably. This was not only due to a changing social and religious context but also to the specific transmission conditions of these stories.

Largely unnoticed by English-speaking folklorists, Central European scholars engaged in historical narrative research have in recent years reached important conclusions about the history of storytelling. Their findings undermine the very foundations on which the study of folklore hitherto has rested. The most important contributions have without doubt flowed from the pen of Rudolf Schenda.

The purpose of this essay is not to review these publications but rather to show avenues for future research. I shall therefore only give a simplified summary of the new history of storytelling from the late Middle Ages until the early-nineteenth century, when the ground for academic folklore studies was laid.

In the beginning, oral prose tales (which later came to be called legends or fairytales) were not told as fiction but as real events. Tales about supernatural beings, although containing well-known motifs and types, were told as memorates. We should remember that the boundaries between real and unreal or credible and incredible were drawn differently by lay people in those days than by nineteenth- and twentieth-century academics.

In the course of the eighteenth century the context of storytelling began to change. Fictional literature (mainly novels) became firmly established in the book-market. Reading habits changed as well: instead of studying a few books intensively, readers started to read many books more cursorily and only once. Reading societies were founded, printing presses were established in the provinces, and the authorities conceded a limited freedom of the press. It was at this time that fictionalised tales–which earlier had been rejected on religious grounds–started to reach a larger section of society. It is not surprising that this was also the period when the words for legend and fairytale in the Germanic languages took on their present meaning.(2)

The Grimm Brothers concentrated and codified literary developments of the late-eighteenth century. Their collections (Kinder- und Hausmarchen, 1812-15; Deutsche Sagen, 1816-18), despite claims to the contrary, were for the most part not collected from the “folk” but were derived from bourgeois and literary sources of various kinds (Grimm 1993; 1996). With the publication, translation and imitation of the Kinder- und Hausmarchen, as well as with the sale of individual fairytales as cheap booklets, a new literary taste spread among the lower classes, which earlier had only had access to Luther’s Little (or Shorter) Catechism, the official hymnal, almanacs, penny godlies and penny dreadfuls. The collections in folklore archives therefore only document–and this may sound rather banal–the folk narratives of the period of collection. These were not stories that had been handed down unchanged by the fireside by word of mouth since time immemorial, but only records of more or less oral performances which were the result of formal (compulsory school attendance) or informal literary training, only available since the nineteenth century.

Even though the concepts of folk narrative and of its genres were an invention of the Grimm Brothers and their disciples, it would be rash to conclude that tales which today we would classify as folk narratives were not spread both orally and in writing prior to the age of romanticism. If we do not want to extrapolate the tales recorded in folklore archives backward in time, we have to study sources from the preceding centuries. Here we can ask, “Which stories were told, how were they told and under which circumstances?” We could also add other questions and try, for example, to determine in what way tales influenced lay people’s actions and their perceptions of reality. Inevitably, many of the tales to be analysed in this fashion will not be covered by the narrow definitions of folk narrative developed in the nineteenth century (cf. Schenda 1993; Beyer 1997).

The following essay attempts to give some examples of the telling of a particular kind of story, viz. apparition stories. Apparitions can be defined as an unexpected appearance of a supernatural being to a person who continues to perceive his or her surroundings in the ordinary way. This distinguishes apparitions from ecstasies or dreams. Most apparitions convey a message to the percipient, calling for some sort of action, giving a warning, or telling of future events (cf. Dinzelbacher 1984-6; Barnay 1997). However, just as in contemporary sources, the boundaries with other forms of revelation will not be drawn too sharply.

This essay focuses on the transformation of apparition stories in the period from about 1350 to 1700 in Scandinavia and those parts of Germany which became Lutheran during the Reformation. Since these stories are religious, it is obvious that the Reformation will mark an important divide. After about 1700, the acceptance of angelic apparitions tended to be increasingly restricted to ever-narrowing spheres: pietism, revivalism and sectarianism. Apparitions in these different social settings would require a study of their own.

Apparitions of Saint Catherine of Vadstena

In 1381, Catherine, the daughter of Saint Bridget of Sweden, died. The establishment of her cult at Vadstena has been studied by Anders Frojmark (1992). While Frojmark’s analysis is primarily statistical, my approach is much more straightforward, namely to pick a single miracle from the sources and see what it can tell us about medieval apparition stories. Catherine’s biographer, Ulf Birgersson, included the following miracle post mortem in the Vita (composed between 1407 and 1427)(3):

Transactis aliquibus annis post obitum eius die qua ossa eius leuabantur

propter fundamenta columpnarum ecclesie collocanda. In parochia molaby

[i.e. Mjolby, Ostergotland] quidam puerulus infans nondum trium annorum

cecidit de ponte in torrentem rabidum.(4) querebatur que submersus a

parentibus per duos dies. Tercio vero die inuenerunt infantem illum contra

omnem spem viuum adherentem palo molendini cuiusdam. Interrogant pater et

mater infantem ab antea informe loquentem quo[modo] palo illi adhesisset.

Respondit puer iam formate loquens, quando de ponte cecidi in torrentem

quedam domina albis vestibus induta suscepit me adherentem palo sub pallio

suo ita quod aque michi non nocuerunt, et dixit se uocari katherina de

watzsteno adhortata que est me venire ad watzsten[um].(5) sed uobis me

leuantibus de aquis, domina illa disparuit. Parentes igitur eius venerunt

cum puero ad monasterium Watzsteni ad tumbam beate ka.(6) cum offertorijs

suis referentes cum sacramentis gratiam eis factam per merita beate ka.(7)

sic que completis votis suis ad propria redierunt (BL:f. 291v; cf. Lunden

1981, fol. C7r-C7v)

[Some years after her death, on the day when her bones were taken out of

the earth due the construction of the church pillars, a small boy, not yet

three years old, of the parish of Mjolby [Ostergotland], fell from a bridge

into a swift torrent. His parents searched for him for two days, but on the

third day they found the child against all expectations alive. He was

clinging to the post of a mill. The father and mother asked the child how

he had managed to cling to the post. Before the accident, the child had not

yet been able to speak properly, but now he replied fluently: “When I fell

from the bridge into the torrent and clung to the post, a lady dressed in

white took me under her coat. Therefore the waters did not do me any harm.

She said that she was called Catherine of Vadstena. She asked me to come to

Vadstena. But when you lifted me out of the water, the lady vanished.” The

parents then came with the boy to the monastery of Vadstena. They took

their offerings to the tomb of the blessed Catherine, received Communion

and told of the grace they had received through the merits of the blessed

Catherine. After having thus fulfilled their vows they returned home].

This is the first known miracle said to have occurred after Catherine’s death. During the investigations conducted in Sweden in 1475 for the in partibus phase of the canonisation process, the Mjolby miracle was one of thirteen items on the questionnaire. The version of the miracle used here was similar to the one in the Vita. The main difference is the omission of the fact that the boy had not yet learned to speak properly before the accident, but did so immediately afterwards (Collijn 1942-6, 10-11). This motif of learning to speak after seeing an apparition recurs in some accounts about Lutheran apparitions (Beyer 1995, 67).

The miracle is said to have happened at the time of the exhumation of Catherine’s bones. All witnesses in 1475 who gave a precise date for the miracle said it happened in 1388, shortly after the feast of Vitus and Modestus (15 June). At the time of the investigations of 1475 the miracle was beyond the memory of man; none of the persons interrogated had spoken to an eye witness. In folkloristic terms, the facts could not be told as a memorate anymore; they now took the form of a legend.

Nonetheless, the story was well known in the area. Many witnesses claimed that it was “communis vox et lama.” This phrase is inserted into almost every single deposition: after all, the fama sanctitatis counted at least as much in the process of canonisation as did eye witness accounts (Krotzl 1994, 357-9).

During the 1475 investigations another child was reported to have fallen from a bridge in Mjolby, this time on 20 December 1473. Magnus Jonsson appeared with four named witnesses and told the following story:

filia sua Katerina octo annorum cecidit de quodam ponte hora prandij vel

quasi in torrentem aquarum impetuose fluentem et querebatur submersa a

prefato Magno per duas horas. Quam tandem semimortuam et per totum corpus

impellentibus fluctibus eam continue ad margines glaciei laceratam,

adherentem frondibus cuiusdam arboris in medio ampne iacentis reinuenit.

Interrogata namque a prefato Magno patre suo, postquam leuata erat ab aquis

et volutata per duas horas, vt aquam stomaco susceptam euomeret, que nam

sibi fortuna fuisset, quod tanto tempore huic frondi adherere potuisset,

respondit in presencia omnium tunc presencium, quod, quando de ponte

cecidit in torrentem, tunc quedam domina albis induta vestibus nomine

Katerina de Vastenis eam sub pallio suo occultauit ita, vt aque ei non

multum nocere potuerunt, et predicta domina adhortabatur eam….vt

visitaret sepulcrum beate Katerine de Vastenis et faceret ibi oblacionem

suam (Collijn 1942-6, 91-2)

[At about lunchtime, his eight-year-old daughter Catherine fell from a

bridge into a violently flowing torrent. The afore-mentioned Magnus

searched for her for two hours. At last, he found her clinging to the

branches of a tree which was lying across the river. She was half-dead and

was wounded over her whole body because the eddies of the river had

constantly thrown her against the edge of the ice. After he had lifted her

out of the water and had rolled her around for two hours to make her vomit

the water she had swallowed, her father Magnus asked her how she could have

been so lucky to cling to the branches for such a long time. She replied,

in the presence of all the persons present at the time, that, when she fell

from the bridge into the torrent, a lady dressed in white and called

Catherine of Vadstena hid her under her coat in such a way that the waters

could not do her much harm. The afore-mentioned lady asked her … to visit

the tomb of the blessed Catherine of Vadstena and to make her offering


The similarities in the wording of the two stories are probably due to the Latin scribes, but it can certainly be concluded that the tale about the earlier event was current in the village. Perhaps the girl had been particularly attentive to stories about her name-saint. It is possible that there had been an unbroken oral tradition, but the story could just as easily have been fed back into oral circulation by the local vicar. In 1473, the Vita was read out at the diocesan synods of Vaxsjo and Strangnas (Collijn 1942-6, 189-91). This might also have happened in the bishopric of Linkoping, in which Mjolby was located. The yearly synods, which the entire clergy of the diocese had to attend, were important for the spreading of (ecclesiastical) news throughout the bishopric (Fojmark 1992, 125 and 141-2).

One genuinely oral element, however, might be the motif of the three-day disappearance which features in the original story. There are other miracles attributed to Catherine of Vadstena which concern children missing in the forest; after the parents have made a vow, Catherine helps them to find the child again (Collijn 1942-6, 86-7). However, unlike these children, the boy at Mjolby seems to have been entirely removed from this world for three days. This motif recalls early modern accounts of persons (both children and adults) who are said to have spent some time willingly or unwillingly–underground with the Little People; on their return, their minds are frequently said to be disturbed. In a number of post-Reformation accounts, the protagonists also disappear physically for a few days and, on their return, are struck with illness, tell of their experiences in Heaven or Hell, and preach repentance (Hennenberger 1595, 435; Battolovius 1730).

In 1576, in the earliest known Lutheran apparition story in Scandinavia, it is a mermaid and not an angel that appears to the percipient (Skovgaard-Petersen and Zeeberg 1992, 102-8). Unlike other sea monsters of Nordic tradition, mermaids probably first invaded Scandinavian waters long after the viking period (Christiansen 1935, 23). A being consisting of the upper part of a female body and a fish tail was assembled from older traditions in medieval Christian literature in the twelfth century (Faral 1953). Mermaids were also depicted in late-medieval church murals (Saxtorph 1986, 69, 72, 144, 154, 164 and 196 illustration; the oldest paintings are dated to about 1450). There is no place, however, in Christian tradition for mermaids delivering divine messages. The motif of a prophesying mermaid might be borrowed from oral or written folklore (cf. a contemporary Danish ballad in Grundtvig 1854-6, 89-91, and contemporary accounts of mermaids in Dahlmann 1827, 1:377-8 and 2:432-3).

Other unorthodox elements are sometimes recorded in post-Reformation apparition reports. Quite often, however, they will have been censored by the pastors, only the acceptable features of the apparition being retained (cf. Beyer 1996, 173-4). The procedure for dealing with a visionary, as described by the (reformed) protestant Conrad Lycosthenes, was probably quite common. About 1538 a girl in Basle died but came to life again and said that she had been to Hell. There she had seen some sinners whom she knew well and who were still alive.

Adiecit insuper alia quaedam anilibus fabulis plane similia, unde

magistratus prudentissimi mandato, ne nugis seduceretur mobile uulgus,

silere iussa est (Lycosthenes 1557, 624)

[[S]he added moreouer certaine other things very like to olde wiues tales,

wherevpon at the commaundemente of the wise Magistrate shee was commaunded

to sylence, leaste the vnconstaunte people myghte be wyth tryfles misseled

(translation in Batman 1581, 301)1.

We can only guess what these old wives’ tales were about. Fabulae aniles were not a fixed genre. The term was simply used to denote stories considered to be untrue and superfluous.

In the Mjolby miracles, Catherine appears in a white robe. White is the standard colour of dress in apparitions of medieval saints and Lutheran angels. The 1475 investigations produced a few more records of Catherine or her mother Bridget appearing in a white dress (Collijn 1942-6, 78, 178 and 197; see also 102-3). These apparitions conform very well to European standards: a saint appears to a sick person and admonishes the patient to go to the saint’s shrine (Sigal 1985, 145-7; Krotzl 1994, 294-7).

Apparitions Connected to the Founding of Shrines

Other apparitions dressed in white can be distinguished. Unlike the ones just mentioned, they are not connected to an existing shrine. Here the saint would appear and ask for a shrine to be established in his or her honour. The saint would then become patron saint of the village. It could be any local saint, but often it is the Virgin Mary. In these cases, the shrine would be called “Our Lady of X.” The apparitions frequently occur in times of crisis, for example during an outbreak of plague. The saint criticises sin and conveys an explicit message of penance. The shrine is to be erected in conjunction with penitential exercises by the community (e.g. processions). The percipient is given a sign to authenticate his or her apparition. After the establishment of the shrine, pilgrims visit the place and healing miracles occur. These apparitions were very common in the Middle Ages (Stierlin 1833, 111-3; Arnold 1980, 80-1, 94, et passim; Christian 1989). They continued in the Catholic countries (Darricau 1982, 82; Blackbourn 1993) and still take place today (Lais 1989; Billet 1990; Bax 1992, 121-2).

How could this pattern survive the Reformation? If one removes the unacceptable elements and replaces them with counterparts which are acceptable on biblical grounds, a typical Lutheran apparition emerges: the saint becomes an angel, the white dress remains (Matt. 28:3). The message of penance is retained (Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:15) but is put in the framework of the Lutheran theology of repentance. There is no place for the establishment of a shrine or pilgrimage in honour of a saint. The demand for community action to appease the Deity is transformed into a request for a public day of repentance to be ordered by the secular authorities. The need for signs remains.

From the large quantity of Catholic Marian apparitions I should like to compare an Italian example with a contemporary Lutheran case from Wurttemberg. On Saturday, 25 May 1560, at a time of famine, a woman from the lower strata of society had been working in a field of beans outside Piacenza, trying to keep the pigeons from eating the crop. She was in a distressed state. Suddenly a woman dressed in white appeared, and consoled her. It turned out that she was the Virgin Mary. At the end of the conversation, Mary announced that her son was very angry about the city of Piacenza because of the swearing going on there. Then the woman was shown Christ who was about to punish the sinful people with an inundation of the River Po, but Mary had kept him from doing so through her intercession. She showed the woman her knees with the bones laid bare by her incessant kneeling in prayer for the city. Mary instructed the woman to tell the people of Piacenza three things they should do in order to avoid the punishment: they should refrain from swearing; for three Saturdays they should fast on bread and water; and they should keep Saturday holy (during the Middle Ages, Saturday had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Arnold 1980, 114).

Apparently, the percipient only told one other woman about the apparition. The following Saturday, at the same place, Mary appeared again and enquired if she had carried out the task. The woman had to confess that she had not, but said that people would not believe her. Mary answered that she would make them believe and told her to sit down. When she saw the woman sitting, Mary asked her to get up again, but she was unable to do so. She felt as if a great weight was resting on her. In the meantime, Mary had disappeared. The woman began to cry and invoke the Virgin for help; but to no avail. However, two peasants working nearby had heard her and took her home. Since she could not walk, they had to put her on a horse. She had to stay in bed for a few days. This time her story spread very quickly. Citizens and peasants visited the place where the apparition had occurred and left offerings. They wanted to erect a sanctuary there. Some clerics supported her apparition, but the most influential did not. The major obstacle was the issue of keeping Saturday holy (Locatus 1583, 484; Poggiali 1761, 8-13; Prosperi 1984, 623-6 and 632).

A Lutheran apparition in the Duchy of Wurttemberg three years later, in 1563, shows many similar traits, but it is highly unlikely that the Italian event was known there. On Friday, 21 May, on her way home after visiting a sick man, the wife of a day labourer, Anna Schutzin of Durrmenz, was feeling depressed. Suddenly a young man dressed in white appeared, and asked what was wrong. He said that rich mens’ hearts were hardened towards the poor and that God was angry about it. It took some time before Anna Schutzin told anybody about the apparition. On one of the young man’s later visits she tried to find out what kind of spirit he was. She asked him to show his foot, which turned out to be of normal shape. At her request, he knelt down on the floor and said the Lord’s Prayer. He told her to ask the pastor to admonish the parishioners to repent. She asked for a sign to make her story credible because she feared that people would not believe her. As a sign, she was made to sit for three hours on a bench without being able to get up. Many neighbours and the pastor witnessed this. This story also spread very quickly. Rumour had it that she would preach publicly on Friday, 9 July. On that day, some 1,500 people came on pilgrimage to the village to hear her speak. Anna Schutzin, however, hid from them. The pilgrims had taken money along, which they would have given her if she had been willing to answer their questions. Although the higher clergy were sceptical about the apparition, some of the ordinary pastors believed her story (HStAS).

There are, of course, also differences. The Lutheran apparition did not lead to the establishment of a cult, nor was the place where the apparition had occurred viewed as sacred. Repentance took place in people’s hearts and was not dependent on the physical surroundings. There was no call for fasting, nor for keeping Saturday holy. In the Piacenza case, the clergy grew suspicious because Saturday was to be given the status of Sabbath. However, similar calls for keeping Saturday holy were also made in a fair number of cases in post-Reformation Scandinavia (see p.44 below and LAU, fol. 224v, 234v). Other survivals of the apparition of saints can be found in a few accounts about Lutheran apparitions where the angel offered intercessory prayer (Geddicus 1596, fol. A2v; Tschirch 1895, 159 and 166). It is worth noting that Anna Schutzin’s aunt was alleged to have had an apparition in the forest some fifty years earlier; that is, before the Reformation. She had seen a crucifix in the air beneath which the Virgin Mary stood. No message is recorded. Anna Schutzin’s aunt wanted a cross and a chapel to be built at the place of the apparition, but only the cross was erected (HStAS, no. 6).

How far angelic apparitions in Lutheranism took the place of Catholic apparitions of saints is evident from records concerning the recatholicisation of the Upper Palatinate after 1621, when Catholic authorities took over and started the Counter-Reformation in the territory. For the remainder of the century there are numerous reports about the apparition of saints, which led to the founding of shrines. However, from the whole period there are traces of only one angelic apparition. In this case, the percipient was a Lutheran (StAA).(8)

The interpretatio lutherana is also evident in the few cases from areas where Lutheranism superseded paganism directly without the intermediate layers of medieval Christianity. Speaking about the recently converted Laplanders in the first half of the eighteenth century, Pehr Hogstrom remarks:

Och blifwa sadana uppenbarelser af dem, som hafwa nagon liten kundskap om

Christendomen och Anglarnas natur, holdne for Angla uppenbarelser; men af

de andra, som napligen hort talas om Anglar, for Gudar … , som de mena

undertiden uppenbara sig for dem (Hogstrom 1747, 186)

[And such revelations are taken to be angelic revelations by those who have

some idea about Christianity and the nature of angels, but the others who

have hardly heard tell of angels take them to be gods … which they

believe sometimes to appear to them].

Means of Dissemination

In some of the cases referred to above, a few glimpses of the period’s communications system have been visible. How did the transformation to the Lutheran model come about? In what ways could lay people hear about divine revelations that conformed to Lutheran ideals? I have discussed this extensively elsewhere (Beyer 1994; cf. also Spufford 1994) and I shall therefore only summarise the main points.

If one wanted to assemble an apparition story, there were four main areas on which to draw (apart, of course, from meeting a real angel): common knowledge; cheap print; the church; and oral communication.

* At least since the beginning of witchcraft trials, it had been part of common knowledge that the soul could leave the body, for example when the Devil took the souls of witches and sorcerers to foreign places while their bodies lay motionless at home. Cunning women dealt not only with illnesses but also with divination.

* Many pamphlets were produced which recounted apparition stories as the latest news. Reprints during the same year and even many years later, with a new date for the event, were quite common. In the country-side, pamphlets and broadsides were distributed by book-hawkers and pedlars, but even pupils of grammar schools (the later elite!) would spread pamphlets in the villages by singing the songs that were on sale. Thus, printed songs not only reached the literate, but prose texts were also read to the illiterate. In some cases it is evident that the percipients had read devotional literature.

* Ecclesiastical teaching and practice left its mark on the percipients. In their performance they used elements of the liturgy (for example, hymns and prayers), Luther’s Little (or Shorter) Catechism or the Bible. Sermons sometimes contained a report about a percipient. Many pastors acted as a percipient’s mouthpiece after the angel had instructed him or her to go to the minister. The pulpit was, however, used not only to increase the impact of percipients but also to contain it if the ecclesiastical authorities decided that the message had not been brought by a good, but by an evil, angel.

* It goes without saying that sources for oral communication are difficult to come by, but occasionally we can at least see traces. An example is a fraudulent percipient in the Palatinate, who in 1659 confessed:

[Es] sey jhme in gedachtnuB kommen / wie er manchmalen von dergleichen

Englischen Erscheinungen habe reden horen / welche jederzeit an allen Orten

/ von jedermanniglich seyen hochgehalten worden: habe jhme deBwegen

furgenommen / auch etwas dergleichen zuersinnen (Anhorn von Hartwiss 1674,


[[It] had come to his mind how he sometimes had heard people speak about

such angelic apparitions which always everywhere had been treasured by

everyone. He therefore decided to invent something similar].

Religious Conservatism

The messages spread by most percipients were essentially conservative. This is already the case in one of the oldest texts about Scandinavia, Rimbert’s Vita of the missionary Ansgar. In 852, shortly before Ansgar came for the second time to Birka, an important trading centre on Lake Malaren in Sweden, a man had arrived and claimed to have taken part in the council of the gods who were believed to own the land. They had sent him with the following message to the king and the people: for a long time the gods had been favourable to them and had provided abundantly for them. The people had held the land in peace and prosperity. They had performed the prescribed offerings and made vows, but now these were withheld or taken light-heartedly, and, much worse, a foreign god was put above the old ones. If the people wanted to regain the gods’ favour, they should resume and increase the offerings and vows. They should stay away from the cult of the other god whose teaching was directed against them. If they wanted to have additional gods, the gods were prepared to accept the former King Eric among them. As a result, a temple was built in honour of the former king and offerings and vows were commenced (Waitz 1884, 56 [chap. 26]).

It is difficult to say whether this story reflects pagan traditions or the conventions of hagiography (including, of course, Old Testament aversion to other gods). The Vita abounds elsewhere with visions Ansgar is said to have had. Although instituting a new cult, that of King Eric, the essence of the message is highly conservative: only a return to the old ways will restore the well-being of the community.

Whereas the topoi of Lutheran angelic apparitions were well established by the 1550s in German pamphlet literature, they reached Scandinavia thirty to forty years later. It is therefore not surprising that until the end of the sixteenth century there were still percipients demanding a return to the former religion. At some point during the second part of the century, the vagrant Jons Anderson roamed through the Swedish diocese of Vasteras. He claimed to have spent three years in the mountain, to have seen the mountain troll, and to have got a glimpse of Hell, where he could see many kings, princes, knights, courtiers, bishops, priests and mercenaries–but only a few peasants. Furthermore, he had seen Purgatory and the Bridge of Trial. Jesus himself told him of events to come, among these that it would rain fire from the sky later in the year, and that:

En Orm skal komma pa thetta aret, then ter skal stor, tiuck och langh wara,

Som then storste timmerstack, Han skal bita Sigh i Stiarten och trilla Sigh

Huart han uill och ford[er]ffua [or ford[rie]ffua] bade falk och boskap …

Jnnan 3 aar Skal et Slagh sta pa langa Engian vedh WesteraaB sa at falket

skal vandra i blodhet Paffuen och keysaren skola vara pa en sydan, och k.

M. W. A. N. Herre pa then andra, men huar W. N. H. ville upbyggia klaster

och kyrkior, som han haffuer latit om kull riffua, ta skal han uinna, huadh

hah icke th[et] gior tha skal han tappa … Antechristus air nu try och 30

aar gam[m]ull (RAS, no. 19, p. 167-9 (undated); for further references cf.

Beyer 1994, 40-1; Jonsson 1996, 30-5)

[during the year a serpent will come which will be as big, thick and long,

as the largest log. It will bite itself in the tail and roll along where it

wants to. It will ruin [or chase away] men and beasts … Within three

years a battle will take place on the long meadow near Vasteras, resulting

in the people walking in blood. The pope and the emperor will be on one

side, His Royal Highness, Our Most Gracious Lord, on the other, but if Our

Gracious Lord reconstructs the monasteries and churches which he has had

demolished, he will win. If he does not, he will lose … Antichrist is now

thirty-three years old].

A theological classification of this vagrant is difficult. His story is a mixture of medieval elements like Purgatory and a Bridge of Trial, and of contemporary eschatological beliefs about the Antichrist and a decisive battle (which had a long literary history). Jons Anderson also came into contact with a world of spirits which were not at home in any of the official religions. Despite the many questions his case raises, it is probably safe to view his standpoint in ecclesiastical politics as conservative or Catholic since he demanded the re-establishment of the monasteries.

In another post-Reformation case, the Catholic character is much clearer. In September 1556, two Norwegian peasants claimed to be Saint Olav and Saint Nicholas. They called themselves messengers from the Virgin Mary and instructed their listeners to serve God and Mary. Saturdays should be kept holy in honour of the Virgin, and people should prepare themselves on Fridays by way of fasting and prayer. The two peasants found many followers among the common sort and tried to reintroduce the invocation of saints. In consequence, the king had them arrested, sentenced and executed (RLC, September, 1556; Krag and Stephanius 1776, 386).

Some twenty years later, in 1573, Ingeborg Kjeldsdatter from Skiptvet near Oslo had to appear in court:

for nogen wildfarelsse hun haffde ford eblant almugen ther wde och at hun

horde en rost oc at hemelen opnes och soge en quinde sidde i en stoll och

talet tiill henne … quinden schulle were virgo Maria etc. (Huitfeldt-Kaas

1895, 50)

[because of some erroneous teaching she had spread among the common folk

out there, namely that she had heard a voice and that the sky had opened

and that she had seen a woman sitting on a chair and talking to her … The

woman was alleged to be the virgo Mary etc.].

It is not recorded what Ingeborg Kjeldsdatter’s message was, only that she was spreading wrong ideas. Probably the Virgin wanted to rekindle the devotion shown to her before the Reformation. Ingeborg Kjeldsdatter was sentenced to make public confession in the church of Skiptvet and to be executed (ibid., 50-1).

After about 1600, the percipients seem to have accepted Lutheranism, but the message remained a call to reject all new fashions and return to age-old godly ways.


In the Middle Ages, souls were said to appear from Purgatory and to ask their relatives or friends to do them a favour such as having masses read to ease and shorten their sufferings. This kind of apparition was rather common in the later Middle Ages (Bowyer 1981, 186-92; James 1922; Schmitt 1994) and continued in early-modern Catholic Europe (Intorp 1982-4; Kramer 1991, 125 and 130). Such stories were not supported by Lutheran theologians. There was no third place from which souls could visit the living. The only beings capable of appearing were angels and Jesus, and, of course, devils in all possible manifestations. Reports about known individuals returning after their death with a message seem first to be available in the Lutheran countries from the late-seventeenth century onward, at roughly the same time as a word for revenant was introduced into many European languages. Still later came the fictionalisation of this genre as ghost stories. As a confirmation of the long historical ancestry of this genre one might add that some writers of modern ghost stories read pre-modern accounts for inspiration (cf. Simpson 1997).


At any time in the period dealt with here, lay people had access to a rich repertoire of motifs and tales with which to explain supernatural experiences as apparitions. But, though many motifs in tales about such experiences remained the same over centuries, it does not follow that the tales themselves had been handed down through the ages. It was possible to take a motif from one context and put it in another. The motifs appear to have been drawn from common knowledge about supernatural beings rather than from fixed tale texts about such beings.

What was new after the Reformation? At least to a certain degree, the merging of different traditions was an innovation: the new tradition was not narrowly defined, since most percipients only incorporated some of the available elements into their stories. The main innovation was that the percipients’ appearances were adjusted to Lutheran society–in Germany from the 1550s, in Scandinavia a generation or so later. The preconditions for medieval apparitions of saints disappeared quickly. The utterances of Lutheran percipients testify to a gradual Lutheranisation of the laity’s world view. A number of pastors also supported percipients since their message was compatible with the period’s penitential sermons.

For Lutheran theologians, tales were either historiae or fabulae. Exempla told by a pastor were historiae (true and useful stories),(9) but miracles told in Catholic literature or other silly stories were fabulae (invented and harmful lies) if not outright fabulae aniles (see p. 41). The main category was truth, not a modern division into genres. Folklore indices refer to motifs and types already in medieval and early modern texts; however, this should not lead us to conclude that these texts were perceived as fiction by their pre-modern authors and readers (or listeners). The practice of judging stories by their truth and usefulness also had a grip on popular storytelling.

In order to assess the availability of a tale to lay people, it is necessary to look at the ways in which they could come into contact with it. It can certainly not be ruled out that Lutheran percipients drew their inspiration from ideas and narratives they had heard from their parents or grandparents. However, there is no reason to expect that a story about a particular percipient was preserved exclusively in collective oral tradition over longer periods. A percipient’s message was immediate repentance. If people did not mend their ways, God’s punishment would soon come. These stories lost their topicality quickly and were replaced by new angelic apparitions which were spread through oral and literary channels. The patterns were kept alive by their constant use in practice and in print. Even if memories of practice had died out, the knowledge could be renewed through cheap print or oral communication about recent events elsewhere. As has been mentioned, the clergy played an important role in the communication process. Lutheran pastors interpreted stories they heard or read, and events they witnessed, according to their understanding of the truth. When they spread information about percipients in pamphlets and sermons, their versions showed a higher degree of conformity to the Lutheran model.

The actual emergence of the pattern of Lutheran percipients at the level of experience remains elusive since it took place inside people’s heads. Customs, beliefs, and memories of stories previously heard structured the experience of percipients and their listeners. The transformation of the available traditions took place in the decades following the Reformation, in interaction between the experience on the one hand and the interpretation in cheap print, sermons and everyday talk on the other. The underlying narrative scheme changed gradually (cf. Kaivola-Bregenhoj 1993, 148-56). The new stories were formulated under the direct or indirect influence of the Lutheran model. The result of the transformation, however, is quite clear. A pattern emerged which was acceptable to Lutheran theologians and meaningful to lay-people, and which could be used by anybody wanting to speak out on issues of common concern.

Department of Folklore, University of Copenhagen


(1) An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Departments of History and of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, Tartu University, on 6 October 1997. I am grateful to the audience for valuable comments made and to Juri Kivimae and Ulo Valk for inviting me. I am also indebted to Victor Thiessen (Kingston, Ont.) for improving the English of this essay.

(2) Ordbok 1965, S 104-27; Seidenspinner 1992, 17-19; Bausinger 1997, 250-1; and see de Vries 1963-71, 599, s.v. sage: “De reden, dat in de 18de eeuw de duitse vorm opnieuw overgenomen werd, is dat het in het n[ieuw]h[oog]d[uits] de speciale bet[ekenis] gekregen had van `bericht over gebeurtenissen in het verleden, die langs mondelinge weg overgeleverd zijn’. Een typisch woord van de romantiek.”

(3) The main body of the Vita was probably written during the 1410s. In 1427, a copy was taken by monks of the English Syon monastery. A copy (BL) of this copy contains the Vita in the oldest extant version of the text (Frojmark 1992, 51-3 and 148-50). The Vita is most easily accessible in the reprint of a 1487 incunabulum (Lunden 1981). The two versions of the miracle differ only slightly. I quote from the manuscript and indicate the variants of the incunabulum, though only concerning words, not spelling or punctuation.

(4) Incunabulum: rapidum.

(5) The original has watzstenoum.

(6) Instead of beate ka. the incunabulum has venerabilis domine katherine.

(7) Incunabulum: katherine.

(8) Information kindly provided by Trevor Johnson (Bristol).

(9) The term historia also covered stories we today would call history, but it is rather telling that a historico-topographical work of the late-sixteenth century could be concluded with a “Register … nach ordnung der Zehen Gebot … / zu nutz armen [sic] Pfarherrn / so die grossen Promptuaria Exemplorum nicht zu zalen haben” (Hennenberger 1595, index fol. D4r). In other words, it was being prepared for use in sermons.

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