A Medieval Lady’s Seal

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.

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New ?Guide Book To Medieval Stockholm

Historiska media is a publishing house in Lund. In recent years they have been putting out pop-sci guide books about Medieval Sweden, province by province. I’ve reviewed the volumes about Södermanland and Uppland provinces here. And now my friend and Fornvännen co-editor Elisabet Regner has written the first volume in the series that deals with a town, not a province: about Stockholm, in whose suburbs I’ve lived for almost all my life. Together with the Uppland and Södermanland volumes, Det medeltida Stockholm gives us Stockholmers a pretty good grip on our Medieval surroundings.

I shouldn’t really be reviewing my buddies’ books, so regarding Dr. Regner’s work I’ll just say that this lady knows what she’s talking about and she knows how to communicate it. The Stockholm volume has all the strengths of the previous instalments in the series: solid and interesting contents, generous thematic bibliographies, beautiful illustrations, good graphic design. But it also suffers even worse than the ones I’ve read before from weak guide-book machinery.

The subtitle is “an archaeological guide book”, but the volume hardly offers any of the rock-bottom basic aids I expect when I buy a city guide for tourists. I lay the blame at the doorstep of the editors, who also happen to be colleagues of mine, not tourism professionals.

  • The contents are organised thematically, not by city precinct. When standing at any given spot in the Old Town, I have to riffle through at least the chapters about the waterfront, the town and the ecclesiastic institutions for bits about that neighbourhood. And those chapters make up most of the book’s girth.
  • The single-page table of contents lists only six top-level chapter headings, and none of the informative section headings inside these chapters.
  • There are no page headers to aid browsing.
  • There is an alphabetical index at the back of the book, but it has been produced blindly according to whatever is mentioned in the text, not comprehensively according to names of streets or blocks. Three interesting spots may be on the same short alleyway, but I’m only likely to find one of them with the aid of the index because in one case the text (and index) refers to the street name, in another to the block name and in the third case to the building’s name, “the Petersén building” etc.

If instead we accept that despite the subtitle this is in no way intended as a guide book, but as a popular introduction to the subject that we are supposed to read from one end to the other (as I did), then we are, conversely, bothered by vestigial remains of guidebookishness. The text keeps repeating certain details in a way that would only make sense if you were reading bits of it here and there. Between pp. 114 and 145 Regner drops out of her attractive expository style and delivers a compact slab of archaeological data with street addresses as headings. Then it’s back to “In addition to the King and the Burghers, the Church was the third power factor that shaped the development of the Medieval town” etc.

To sum up, this good-looking and readable book is full of up-to-date and interesting information based on a comprehensive reading of the technical literature. But when standing, book in hand, at a particular spot in Stockholm’s Old Town, you are unlikely to be able to locate the relevant bits of information about that spot unless you have time to perform a brute-force search through the book from one end to the other. No e-book version that could make this easier is currently available.