A Medieval Lady’s Seal

14th century seal matrix found at Skällvik Castle in 2016. Mirror-flipped photo.

My detectorist friend and long-time collaborator Svante Tibell found a seal matrix in the field next to Skällvik Castle this past summer. In the Middle Ages of Sweden, people of means didn’t sign their names to documents. They carried seals around, with which they made imprints into chalk-mixed wax, and these were affixed to paperwork such as property deeds and wills. If you lost your seal matrix, you lost your ability to sign documents – and you theoretically gave that ability to whoever found your seal. When people died during this period, their seal matrices were carefully destroyed. Sometimes the pieces were buried with the dead person, such as in the case of Svante Nilsson (obiit 1512).

The seal matrix from Skällvik shows the letter T in a shield. This device is known from a different seal under a surviving document from 1331, around the time when the castle was built. And around the edge of the matrix is as usual an inscription. I have no training in reading Medieval writing, so I took the matrix to the National Archives, where Roger Axelsson and his colleagues enthusiastically helped me make sense of it.

According to Roger & Co, this is what the seal’s inscription says. The letters within parentheses are somewhat uncertain.

[S’_ _]S[O] V[X]ORI S[O]NO[N]V[M]

Sigillum …so uxori Sononum

The seal of …sa, wife of Sune

Annoyingly, the two completely illegible letters are part of this woman’s name. But Roger has a suggestion for who her husband Sune may be: Sune Ingvaldsson, who lived in Östergötland about the right time and whose wife’s name has been lost to history. The couple chose to be buried in Hällestad, a peripheral parish in the forest of NW Östergötland.

There’s one more annoying detail here, says Roger. The man with the similar T seal from 1331 was named Thorberg. But there is no known female name T_sa from the time. Why then has this woman got a T on her shield? I wonder if our unnamed lady might have been using her father’s coat of arms.

Anyway, our little points of annoyance are probably insignificant compared to how Sune’s wife felt when she dropped her seal into the sea just off Skällvik Castle’s dock, some time in the mid-14th century.

Seal matrix, side view.
Seal matrix, side view.

An Heraldic Snail

snäckstavikI visited Grödinge church south of Stockholm for the first time Thursday. The occasion was my great aunt Märta’s funeral, an event which, though of course sombre, cannot be called tragic. The old lady was always cheerful and friendly, but by the time she passed away she was 104, severely disabled, and according to her many descendants quite tired of it all. As I like to say, I don’t fear death but I certainly don’t want to become disabled or isolated in my old age. For most of her remarkably long life Märta was in fine shape, and she was never isolated at all.

Grödinge is one of Sweden’s many thousand Medieval churches, and in those there are always innumerable details to catch the eye of anyone with an antiquarian bent. From my pew I looked at the 17th century funeral arms that so commonly adorn the walls. We were in the eastern bay of the nave with four sets of arms commemorating members of the Rosenhielm family, who have roses cheerfully sprouting from their heraldic helmet. But on the north wall of the chancel I could just make out two arms with what looked a lot like… an heraldic snail. After the service I looked closer and found that this was in fact the case. And I soon realised that it’s a funny case of folk etymology gone heraldic.

The plaque under the arms in the picture reads “Here lies buried the late Honourable Lord Lars Sneckenfeldt of Sneckstavyk, His Majesty’s trusted servant, born into this world in Stockholm in the year 1621 on the 23 April, and deceased in Our Lord at Sneckstavyk the 10 June 1664”.

Lord Lars was Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna’s secretary and the first nobleman of his line. His manor was the first one in the parish to receive säteri tax exemption. The property went back at least to the Viking Period or more likely the 6th century, and had previously been named Brötsta. Säteri manors however often received new names, and Snäckstavik (as we now spell it) is typical of the genre. The new manorial name referenced a nearby inlet of the Baltic Sea, Snäckviken, and the new noble line’s name referenced that of their manor.

But why a snail? Well, Snäckviken does mean “Snail Inlet” in modern Swedish, now as in the 17th century, and that is how Lord Lars interpreted it. But as we now know, this place name is almost a thousand years old. And in the 12th century, Snäckviken meant “Warship Inlet”. Names with snäck- dot our coasts and have plausibly been connected to the nascent Swedish kingdom’s naval organisation of the 11th and 12th centuries, the ledung. I’m sure Lord Lars would have been happy with a warship as his heraldic symbol. But as it was, he got something quite unique thanks to a misunderstanding.

Grödinge Church
Grödinge Church

Poet and Spy

Reading a good book, Charles’ Nicholl’s The Reckoning. The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992, 2nd expanded ed. 2002), about the 16th century playwright. It’s a bit overloaded with asides and covers far more characters and factions than anyone can keep track of without extensive note-taking. But quite intriguing withal. I find it fascinating how rich and detailed the written sources for this era are.

“Christopher Marlowe … is remembered as a poet, ‘the Muse’s darling’, and as a wild young blasphemer in an age of enforced devotion, but he was also a spy …

It is not a pretty view of the Golden Age of Elizabeth, and it is not a pretty view of Christopher Marlowe either. In these fragments which record his involvement in the secret world … there is a common thread of falsehood. … The keynote of this kind of work is precisely non-commitment: to belong to both sides and neither. It is a world of gestures, of alterable meanings: the ‘secret theatre’.

So we return to the circumstances of Marlowe’s death armed with this perception of [plots] and pretences, these forms of political gamesmanship which are such a feature of this world he belongs to. Marlowe’s political career is not – as in the conventional literary biography – a separate and rather puzzling side-issue. …

… We find Marlowe in the company of spies and swindlers because, regrettably, he was one himself. Our regret has no real claim on him. Posterity prefers poets to spies, but this young man could not be so choosy. He lived on his wits or else went hungry, and he was probably rather better rewarded for spying than he was for the poetry we remember him by.” (2002, pp. 317–318)

Coin Challenges Written Record

A fun thing about historical archaeology, the archaeological study of areas and periods with abundant indigenous written documentation, is when the archaeology challenges the written record.

According to the patchily preserved historical sources, Landsjö hamlet was a seat of the high nobility in about 1280 but then became tenant farms no later than 1340. This means that the castle on Landsjö islet was probably in good defensible shape and inhabited in 1280 but not after 1340.

During last week’s excavations we found a previously unknown strong wall delimiting the castle’s high inner bailey, and a likewise strong and previously unknown south-east corner tower or building for this bailey. In one of the floor layers of this plaster-facaded structure, Ola Lindgren found a coin of the strålkransbrakteat type. Within an hour and thanks to portable internet, numismatist Frédéric Elfver told us that this coin was struck for King Magnus Eriksson in Stockholm between 1354 and 1363 – decades after the castle would seem to have been abandoned judging from the written record.

The coin says only that people visited the castle about 1360, not what they did there or what kind of shape the defences were in at the time. But Christian Lovén has suggested a scenario. At the time, Landsjö was owned by Bengt Philippusson of the Wolf family, who was on Albrekt of Mecklenburg’s side in the civil war against King Magnus. Maybe Bengt made the castle islet available to Albrekt’s troops?

I’ve also written about Landsjö in Swedish for the County Museum’s blog.

Castle Owners

My excavations this summer will target the ruins of two Medieval castles near Norrköping. Christian Lovén and I have selected these two because unusually, both have curtain walls (Sw. ringmur) but do not seem to have belonged to the Crown. The High Middle Ages in Sweden are poorly documented in surviving written sources, but in one of these cases we actually have a pretty good idea who built the castle and when.

Landsjö in Kimstad parish enters the record in about 1280 when an old woman writes her will. She’s Kristina, daughter of a certain Faste who had borne a plant device on his coat of arms and is otherwise forgotten, and she signs Landsjö as her sätesgård manorial seat. Lady Kristina’s late husband, dead since about 1255, had been a well-known and powerful man: Lord Holmger, son of Folke jarl and male originator of the Ama family.

The late 13th century saw the first major wave of masonry castle construction in Sweden, and so Landsjö castle is unlikely to pre-date 1250. On the other hand, after the Black Death in 1350 Landsjö was farmed by tenants and thus no longer a manor of the nobility. Lady Kristina’s will marks a likely point in time when the castle would originally have been completed. In 1630 Landsjö again became a manor, a new säteri building was constructed elsewhere and the old castle was heavily quarried for building materials. Since then little seems to have happened on the castle islet.

Things are less clear at Stensö in Östra Husby. This castle starts as a single round kastal-type tower with no entrance from ground level, most likely about 1200. But the first written mention of the farmstead occurs only in 1359, when it is the manor of Holmger Torkelsson of the Boat family. The castle has a curtain wall with some brick in it which is likely to have been added at some time during the preceding century. No later than 1480 this property too loses its manorial status and is farmed by tenants.

This 14th century Lord Holmger belonged to the high nobility. Both his father and his maternal grandfather were members of the Royal Council. The grandfather was Ulf Holmgersson of the Ama family, and wouldn’t you know it, the son of Lady Kristina of Landsjö! Christian points out that the sources tell us Lord Ulf owned property near Stensö among other places, but we do not know where his seat was. A possible scenario is that the Ama family handed down both ambitious castle-building traditions and the name Holmger from Lady Kristina’s time on. Today Stensö castle boasts one of Sweden’s best-preserved kastal towers, and it is particularly accessible since the 19th century when a landowner had most of the rubble cover carted away as lime-rich soil improvement.

Neither of these sites have seen any documented excavations. I believe my team will be able to contribute a lot of interesting data in our four weeks of fieldwork.

Most of the information given above is taken from Christian Lovén’s magisterial 1996 book, Borgar och befästningar i det medeltida Sverige. Its rich illustrations and 23-page English summary make it eminently approachable even to people who don’t read Scandy.

Alboin and Cunimund in Hell

Back in 2012 we had a look at the first novel written in Swedish, 1666/68’s Stratonice by Urban Hiärne (1641-1724). He went on to become a high-ranking doctor, founded a hydrotherapeutic spa resort, was instrumental in putting an end to the Swedish witch hunts and fathered 26 children by his three wives. But before all this, at the suggestion of professor Olof Rudbeckius Sr., he also found time to write the first original play performed in Swedish: Rosimunda. This was student theatre, with a cast of young noblemen, put on to entertain the 11-y-o future king Carolus XI at Uppsala Castle on 15 August in 1665.

Hiärne took the material for his play from Paul the Deacon’s narrative about the 6th century hero king of the Lombards, Alboin. (I don’t know if Hiärne read Rucellai’s 1525 play in Italian on the same theme.) Alboin defeated the Gepids in AD 567, killed their last king Cunimund and forced the Gepid princess Rosamund to marry him. After Alboin served his wife wine out of her own father’s skull, she conspired with her husband’s foster-brother Helmichis and the Byzantines and had Alboin assassinated in 572.

The play consists mainly of long verse monologues, but in Act 4, Scene 4 we get some pretty funny dialogue. My favourite line is the smug yet resigned Det ähr förseent att gaalnas, “It’s too late now to get all worked up.” Cunimund is in the Land of the Dead and has just watched Rosamund and Helmichis kill Alboin. (And I translate:)

Cunimund’s ghost:

Yes! That was right! The inhuman dog
Has now received fair payment
For manslaughter, for the abominable wine cup
For enmity and blood-thirst
For mockery, for scorn, for the dismembered body
For cutting off my head.
I had to die thus, in order for you, Rosamund
Truly my child and my daughter
To prove definitively
That you take after your lord father.
I praise your laudable hands
And your nature that shows no degeneration.
But you, vile Alboin, have learned
To your great cost
What comes of angering my beloved daughter
Wronging her
And serving her such an awful drink
Which she would avenge.
Oh, did you not know, deluded one
And have you not learned
That the mighty heavenly avengers will not
Leave such vices unpunished?
Righteous revenge followed you
Though it travelled slowly.
But do not think that I am satisfied
By what happened to you just now.
There are no pains hellish enough
For what you truly deserve.
Yes, the thirst and unbearable hunger of Tantalus
Even such punishment would be too good for you.
But beware, you appalling blood-hound:
What you have suffered so far
Is but the vengeance and duty of my passionate daughter.
There is more to come:
To a grimmer court and harsher judgement
Will I soon sue you.

Alboin’s ghost enters at full sprint, delirious.

But look, there he comes, poor wretch.
That fellow is not in his right mind
Fear-struck, as if mad and demented
He shakes, gargles, makes threats.
What a troll! Oh dear, look at him
Like horned Hecate!
He reveals his uncontrolled mind
With a hundred crazy antics
Stares at the sky and the ground with awful eyes
Bitter, dizzy and burning.

A: Oh gods in heaven! And you, Rosamund!

C: He has evil intentions.

A: Oh you Rosamund, you Rosamund!

C: What’s wrong with you, madman?

A: You’ll get what you deserve, and soon!

C: It’s too late now to get all worked up.

Alboin runs up to Cunimund and slaps him in the face.

A: Who are you, weird-looking goat beard?
Oh it’s you, who have fathered
Such a vile and dreadful daughter!

C: A righteous daughter.

A: Yes, she, who has done this to her husband – – –
Oh, I can’t stand talking about it!

Alboin begins to rave again.

I want to come after you now, right away, right away!
Just look at that bent old heartless man!
You should watch out for me.
Who will give me his torch, so I can
Hit the old cod across the neck?
Where is the sword flecked with my blood?
I hate this disgraceful delay
In having myself avenged.
Oh, you ungrateful dog, Helmichis!
Oh, how dear you were to me, Rosamund
And how did you repay me?

A great blue flame rises, as if Phlegeton wishes to reclaim the ghosts.

Let’s see — where am I? What am I doing here?
Oh, wait just a little, Pluto! I’ll be with you shortly.
My path leads downward after all.
I will be there in good time.
But first let me get my hands on them.
Guardsmen! Run, run, run, good men!
Be swift and kill them both!
But spare my Alswinda, my lovely daughter in waiting.
Hurry, hurry, seize them, hang them, burn them!

Alboin exits, running.


Who knows where he runs in his madness?
I know the company he keeps.
He is plotting against my Rosamund
But I shall travel away with him
To the pit of Styx, where the two of us
Shall settle our differences decisively.

The earth splits and the ghost of Cunimund swiftly climbs inside; then the crack closes.

Three Ways To Depose Karl Knutsson

karlThe 12-15th centuries are reckoned as Sweden’s Middle Ages. Politically, it was a highly volatile period, where the average tenure of a ruler was less than 11 years. One trait that can look modern to a present-day observer is that some of these tenures were divided up into several separate terms interleaved by other rulers. The man who managed most terms – four of them – was Karl Knutsson.

Karl was born in 1408/9 and first ruled Sweden/Finland from age 29/30, becoming elected Steward of the Realm in 1438 after taking part in Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson’s uprising against the king of the Scandinavian Union. Karl would in all likelihood have preferred to rule uninterrupted until his death in 1470, but instead he lost power three times and had to fight to regain it.

1440. Insufficient support for his stewardship from the Swedish nobility. Karl hands over power to the Danish king and moves to Finland. Elected king of Sweden/Finland in 1448 and of Norway the following year, becoming ruler of much the greater territorial part of the Union nominally ruled by the Danish king.

1457. War with the Danes. Populace unhappy about paying for this. Archbishop leads an uprising and Karl flees to Gdansk. Regains power in 1464.

1465. Archbishop leads an uprising and Karl flees to Finland. Regains power in 1467 and keeps it until his death.

Karl ruled Sweden/Finland for a total of about 15 years, which was above average. It is the more remarkable because Medieval Kings tended to leave the office feet first on a stretcher. This is a sign of an important difference between the early and late parts of the Scandinavian Middle Ages. Over time, political power became far more grounded in negotiations, intrigue and money, and less in battlefield prowess and luck. Karl’s recurring problem was the Swedish high nobility, from which Archbishops were recruited. Only in the following century would a King of Sweden come to terms decisively with this problem.

They Moved To The City And Found Someone To Marry

My personal genealogy has never interested me much, knowing as I do that the number of ancestors multiplies by a factor of two with each generation. Thus in AD 1800 someone born in 1975 had about 2^8=256 ancestors of child-bearing age (or slightly fewer if someone has been productive in more than one slot on the diagram). Finding out that a historical figure contributed 1/256 to my genetics and social heritage would not make them all that much more interesting to me.

I draw the line at three generations back, with people that are still remembered. In my case they illustrate an interesting and well-known trend in people’s mobility in Sweden over the past century.

  • Generation 1. Eight people born c. 1890 in counties Kalmar (two people who do not join up), Bohus (two people who do not join up), Örebro, Malmöhus, Södermanland and Stockholm.
  • Generation 2. Four people born c. 1915 in counties Stockholm (3) and adjacent Södermanland.
  • Generation 3. Two people born in c. 1943 in Stockholm county.
  • Generation 4. Myself born 1972 in Stockholm county.

Look how they all move to Stockholm in 1910 and get married to someone from a county they’re unlikely to ever have visited before! This is why Stockholm people have no roots. The only genuine ethnic tradition that survives in my family is an infrequent goose feast on Saint Martin’s Day, passed down from the guy from Malmöhus in generation 1. He was a cabinet maker and we’ve got one of his pieces of work in the dining room.

An Attempt To Move The Hanging Gardens

STL19BABYLON_343980kAbout the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, Greek writers started to offer lists of Seven Wonders that the well-read traveller should see. In the 2nd century BC the Hanging Gardens of Babylon began to show up on such lists. The location of Babylon is well known: on the River Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia. But no ruins of the Hanging Gardens have been convincingly identified there. This is because the gardens were actually in another city in another country, according to Stephanie Dalley’s new book, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon. The Greeks got the city wrong early, says Dalley, and so created a spurious tradition.

The book has a problem with focus and target audience. It is inconsistent in how much familiarity with Dalley’s half-century of earlier work each chapter assumes on the part of the reader. I get a strong impression that during composition and revising the author has not quite been able to remember what she has put into this particular manuscript. She doesn’t introduce her big main thesis until midway through the book, and then in a wording that assumes that the reader already knows and just needs some extra convincing:

It would be satisfactory if we could account for [certain confusions], to strengthen yet further the [not yet made] argument that the Hanging Garden was built by Sennacherib in Nineveh rather than by Nebuchadnezzar or Semiramis in Babylon. (p. 107)

Boo to the editor who hasn’t kept a tighter rein on narrative continuity in this book. In fact, long before the quoted passage Dalley has established that one possible builder of the Gardens of Babylon mentioned in the Greek sources was an Assyrian king (they ruled over Babylon off and on), and she’s spent the interesting chapter 4 arguing that a long inscription of Sennacherib’s actually describes the building of the Gardens. But not once in the entire chapter does she mention the name of the city were she thinks this took place. This is not dishonesty on Dalley’s part, just poor organisation of the book: she simply doesn’t stop to consider that any reader may at this point need to be reminded that “Sennacherib’s South-West Palace” is in Nineveh on the River Tigris in Assyria – not in Babylon.

Dalley, in my opinion, does make a fine solid case for a set of Hanging Gardens in Niniveh, and I would happily follow her there. But does this remove the Gardens in Babylon from the agenda? No. It just transforms the Hanging Gardens from a unique item into an architectural category. Her attempts in Ch. 6 to take Babylon off the table amount only to convoluted special pleading. Dalley is clearly extremely fond of Niniveh and King Sennacherib, as evidenced by choices of expression and subject matter throughout. But to me, a man who is willing to be friends with any Middle Eastern city mound and ancient ruler, such favouritism is rather a weakness in a scholar.

Two thirds into the text the book goes completely off the rails, ending with three chapters that make little pretence at advancing any overarching argument. Ch. 7 comments on Sennacherib’s construction projects in general. “Look, they had multicolour stone flooring! Look, they had portable space heaters!” Ch. 8 offers motley bits and pieces about ancient gardens, which in Dalley’s mind all have an uncanny tendency to be inspired by the garden in Nineveh. Ch. 9 tries to extend Niniveh’s life as a major city past its conventional late-7th century demise, mainly in order to explain why anyone in the 4th century would still remember its garden and call it a Wonder of the World. This matter, though of some general interest in all its kaleidoscopism, must be seen for what it is: padding to fill out the book.

Here’s what I think. The various lists of World Wonders were a staple of Hellenistic tourism writing. Such information tends to get tested a lot. If a list had placed the Mausoleum in Carthage instead of Halicarnassus, then people would have corrected the error immediately. If there were no wondrous gardens in Babylon, then Greek and Roman travellers had several centuries to realise their mistake and write about it. None ever did.

Stephanie Dalley arguably has reason to be pleased with her book, as a sort of legacy. It presents her arguments on what is clearly a long-cherished issue in an accessible and durable format from a high-profile publisher. But the Oxford University Press can’t take much pride in this loosely held-together product. The selection of included images is erratic, partly gratuitous, and chapters 7–9 read like collated odds and ends out of a scholar’s notebook. Frankly, I get the feeling that this book reflects the mind of someone who either never quite had, or has recently begun to lose, the ability to make a sustained and focused argument.

History Is Fine And Scientists Are Co-Owners

Recently I blogged about historians of science who chronicle scientific debates of the past neutrally and leave it to the reader to find out who (if anyone) turned out to be right in the end. This approach pisses me off because I’m a scientist and I believe that the main point of such debates – past and current – is to advance science. I don’t enjoy the implication of neutralist history of science, that it’s all just historically contingent talk and the process isn’t taking us anywhere.

Historian of science Darin Hayton of Haverford College in Pennsylvania didn’t like my viewpoint and wrote a rather angry blog entry about it. There’s no comments section on the blog – I’m guessing because his blog is on Haverford’s server and they’re afraid of libel or hate speech. (But really, getting comments is half the fun of blogging!) Instead Dr. Hayton kindly agreed to publish a guest entry of mine where I explained my position. And now he has replied.

He opens by ascribing a rather odd opinion to me: that all intellectually defensible activities must show how past scientific debates have been resolved in the present. That is not my opinion. (Is this a copy editing error?) I do think however that the history of science should, as one part if its remit.

Dr. Hayton then appears to say that he rejects the idea that through scientific studies we gain better and more accurate knowledge about the world over time. The wording isn’t quite clear to me, but if this is what he believes, then I don’t understand what he thinks that scholars have to offer the world. Or why we should be paid.

I do believe, as he suggests, that in Enlightenment science only those activities that contribute to accumulation of knowledge are worthwhile. One such activity is scientific debate. Debate leading to expert consensus is how provisional scientific truth is established, tested, modified and built upon.

Dr. Hayton points out correctly that scientists of the past didn’t quite have the same long-term agenda as today’s scientists have. But as I pointed out to him, many or most scientists of today feel that we are continuing a centuries-old project aiming to find out what the world is like. And we are a considerable chunk of his potential readership. I don’t think it’s wise for anyone working in an abstruse field (like mine) to alienate potential readers. The customer is always right.

I’m not asking Dr. Hayton to ”sanitize” Isaac Newton’s work or ”excize God” from it. I’m not asking neutralist historians of science to remove anything from what they’re writing. I’m asking them to recognise that although scientists of the present are certainly not exclusive owners of Newton & Co, we do deserve to be counted among the stakeholders. We are way more interested in the history of science than most people. I’m not asking for hagiography. I just want a history of science that recognises that scientific debate actually produces more accurate knowledge of the world over time. Just like debates among historians of science produce more accurate knowledge about, say, Renaissance astrology.

Finally, I don’t know what Dr. Hayton means when he calls astrology a system of knowledge rather than a belief system. I just hope he takes his flu shot in the autumn, not acupuncture, and uses a skilled non-alternative mechanic to keep his car in good shape. Because if you can’t tell knowledge from belief, the real world that Dr. Hayton and I study comes up from behind and kicks your ass.