Parental Grief and Prayer in the Middle Ages: Religious Coping in Swedish Miracle Stories
By Viktor Aldrin
COLLeGIUM: Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol.18 (2015)
Abstract: This article focuses on expressions of bereavement and religious coping in medieval miracle stories from Sweden. The stories come from the collections of St. Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden, the Blessed Bishop Nicolaus Hermanni (Sw. Nils Hermansson) of Linköping and the Blessed Katarina of Vadstena, and were recorded in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Catherine M. Sanders’s modern five stages of bereavement have been used as the theory of analysis through Kay Talbot’s adaptation of the theory for parents in grief. This theoretical foundation has provided new insights into how parental grief was expressed in medieval Sweden – and in stark contrast to Continental research on the same topic. Parents of both sexes expressed their grief outwardly through tears and crying, and a reluctance to accept that their children were dead. Throughout the miracle stories, lay people constructed their own prayers for miraculous intervention without the aid of any priests. This makes fathers and mothers in medieval Sweden agents of their own in terms of praying to God and being able to construct their own forms of religious coping.
Introduction: The death of a child is one of the most feared things that could happen to a parent. Nonetheless, it happens, and causes grief not only among parents but also those close to the bereaved family. While this is just as true today as it was in medieval society, some nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars such as Philippe Ariès believed that public emotions of mourning were not accepted or visible in the medieval period before the sixteenth century. He emphasised this even further when considering parental expressions of mourning by claiming that parental emotions towards children were something that developed as a result of the progression of the modern era. These conclusions have been refuted by scholars who have examined the dense levels of primary sources constituted by medieval miracle stories. It seems that scholars such as Ariès were not keen on accepting that parents grieved for the loss of their children regardless of modernisation and enlightenment.
The ways in which parents try to understand and survive the trauma of a dead child have often been described as coping strategies. Since all of the miracle stories examined here contain religious elements, and atheist attitudes were nonexistent in the Middle Ages, the aspect of religion in coping strategies is of primary significance for this paper as the religious framework provides the bereaved with a context of meaning and support. No previous study has been published on coping strategies in a medieval context, but there are studies on the role religion plays in coping strategies for bereaved parents in modern society.