Recalling Medieval Sweden

The Swedish churchman Hemming Gadh was a man who found himself in the middle of all the action and intrigues of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He knew and worked for Pope Alexander VI, born as Rodrigo Borgia, one of the more infamous successors to St. Peter. In this role, it is likely he had the chance to meet Machiavelli, who found himself in Rome as a representative of the Medici family from Florence; he probably witnessed Savonarola’s preaching in Florence. He made his own gunpowder and swore in Italian.

The historian David Lindén has recently written a biography of this colourful, meddling character. The book successfully brings the man and his time to life, with all its faults. The setting is partly in Sweden, amid animosity with Denmark over the future of the ‘Kalmar Union’ that joined the two nations, along with what is today Norway, Finland, Iceland, and several smaller islands. The other main setting is Rome, known at this time for its extravagant lifestyle and sinful pleasures, with the Borgia family at the centre of action. The time is often referred to with the Latin phrase Roma veduta, fede perduta (the one who sees Rome, loses his faith). Gadh was no stranger to Rome’s offering and, based on this recent biography, was at least guilty of lust and gluttony.

After launching a campaign in Sweden, Gadh was later elected Bishop of Linköping, finally reaching the pinnacle of his career. However, by failing to travel back to Rome to have his bishopric accepted and acknowledged by the Holy Father—a standard procedure at the time—he was excommunicated. Having studied canon law in Rostock, spent time in Rome, and befriended the main protagonists of the anti-Kalmar Union faction he was one of the most important men in Sweden: a close acquaintance, Gustav Eriksson, would later be known as the first king of a united Sweden—Gustav Vasa.

The story of Hemming Gadh is in many ways the history of human nature: we can do many good things through our labour, but we can also fall for the temptations of the world. It should be remembered, as Lindén points out, that, during the 16th century, religious belief was an integral part of life, and apparent human faults should not be seen as a rejection or neglecting of the faith.

Indeed, Gadh had something that was uncommon at the time: self-distance and humour, two weapons he often used to his advantage in communication. Gadh stood for most of his life on the side of the Sture-faction that wanted to be more autonomous towards Denmark, but late in life he came to side with the Danish King, Christian II, who thanked him by having him beheaded.

The book is well written and full of fascinating anecdotes. It serves as a great introduction to Sweden in the late Middle Ages and hopefully an English translation will be available in the future.

Karl Frederick is a Swedish scholar and writes from London.


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