Olaus Magnus Carta Marina - 1540

Heresy in Olaus Magnus – Reactions to the Lutheran Reformation in the North (XVIs)

Published originally in Portuguese as: Reações à reforma luterana no Norte: as diversas faces da heresia e heterodoxia na Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, de Olaus Magnus (XVIs): PLURA, Revista de Estudos de Religião, ISSN 2179-0019, vol. 8, nº 2, 2017, p. 19-53. Dossiê “500 anos da Reforma Protestante”


This article intends to achieve two main goals: to analyse the theme of religious heterodoxy in Northern Europe in the transition between the Medieval and Early Modern Ages; thus, we shall analyse the changes suffered by the conception of heresy among the two periods in Christianity.

Specifically, we will observe the Swedish context in the first half of Sixteenth-century as a case study due to the Protestant Reformations and the end of the Kalmar Union. Such aspects will be observed in Olaus Magnus’s Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, the last Roman-Catholic archbishop from Sweden, already in exile. Thus, we shall observe the diverse meanings received by heresy and heterodoxy in the referred work. 

Keywords: Lutheran Reformation; Northern Europe; Medieval Scandinavia; History of Church

1. Heresy and Orthodoxy

“Heresy” comes from the Greek herein, to choose, to choose, implying the choice of a doctrine, a dogma, different from the one to which the role of the norm is attributed. The concept was formed at the beginning of the History of Christianity, assuming diverse and variable meanings, considering that, in order to define what deviates from the norm, it is first necessary to define what this norm is about (Falbel 2007[1977], 13).

Thus, there is a particularly rich potential for reflection around heresy and heterodoxy in specific moments of Ecclesiastical History in which dogmatic definitions and ruptures occurred. If in Late Antiquity most of the heresies had a philosophical-theological character – discussions about the nature of Christ and the Trinity, for example – in the Late Middle Ages, heresies took on a popular, pragmatic character and distanced from philosophical hermeticism, usually linked to a character of contestation of order and social privileges, whether economic or even in the monopoly of preaching (Falbel 2007[1977], 13ff).

The idea of heresy is directly linked to alterity. In Protestant Europe, religious movements ended up awakening and deepening prejudices and passions concerning this undefined “other” in attempts at purification that often identified evil with religious opponents – usually Catholic or Anabaptist, but also ultimately leading to a process of demonization of European popular culture (Waite 2003, 88).

From the Roman Catholic point of view of early modernity, there is a fundamental difference in the perception of the heretic concerning his Protestant counterpart. Protestantisms were imbued and strengthened with the idea of purification and return to a supposedly original interpretation of the Scriptures, thus emphasizing the idea of rupture as purification and conceiving mostly the heretic as the Catholic, under which Christianity distanced itself from the first love and the holy teaching. For the Roman, however, the Protestant heretic is the transgressor of the norm established and preserved for centuries by the Roman institution; in this way, the heretic is the one who, promoting rupture, attacks continuity.

We can abstract from this reasoning that, in the Roman milieu, the fight against heresy has an ideological kinship with the idea of preserving the ancient and reacting to innovation. Although it is not our purpose to make a universal generalization, at least in moments of the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, it is possible to notice that what is attacked by the author as heresy could, in a context without the same religious debate, be considered as an action of reactivity to the change of customs and practices, with minor theological implication.

2. Europe in the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity and the emergence of confessionality

The extreme relevance of religion must be highlighted among the conjuncture and structural circumstances that underwent transformation between the so-called Middle and Modern Ages. Traditionally, whether in common sense or – regrettably – even in academia, the Middle Ages are considered a period of “darkness”, “ignorance”, and all sorts of derogatory adjectives and characteristics.

Among these, the factor that is mostly brought up is the religious issue; simplistic equalizations are commonly carried out, such as the Middle Ages being associated with faith and religious sentiment, in contrast to Modernity, associated with the awakening of rationality and even scientificity.

Such meanings do nothing more than endorse concepts established in Modernity among its participants, who tried to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, even to the point of coining the term “medium” in order to fully demonstrate the irrelevance of what came before their own time. ; between classical antiquity and the newborn modern – and it should be emphasized here that the Renaissance is credited with being some of the few in history to name themselves (Delumeau 1984, 87) – there would be something in between, without value in itself, except for the fact that it was a bridge between two other temporalities of relevance.

This is not the place to discuss the organization and terminological definition referring to the study of history; it is pertinent, however, to point out all kinds of concepts – for better or worse – resulting from this attribution of values. The religious factor has by no means lost its weight and relevance in modern society, particularly in its first centuries and decades. On the contrary, in addition to the political element and the emergence of Nation States, factors to which other elements of the context are often subordinated (Mainka, 2007, pp.12s), religion will take on renewed importance, as it will be instrumentalized as an aid element in the strengthening of temporal powers and their emancipation in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy.

To the religious wars and disputes between the different strands of Protestantism must be added the emergence of confessionality. In the process of confessionalization, differences between the new religious denominations that will emerge from the Protestant reforms are accentuated, each one developing more rigid, extensive and defined dogmas in a way that is both totalizing and detailed (Rodrigues, 2012, pp.372s).

3. The Lutheran Reformation in the North: Sweden in the 16th Century, Gustav Vasa and the Magnus Brothers

Historiographically, the temporal transition milestones in Northern and Baltic Europe differ from those in Mediterranean Europe. In Scandinavian countries, in particular, the transition from medieval to modernity is marked by two significant events: the Protestant Reformations in the north and the end of the Kalmar Union; in such places, the Renaissance took place concurrently with the Reforms; its most outstanding representatives were intrinsically linked to it, whether as supporters or opponents (Sawyer and Sawyer 2003, 76-79).

As for the end of the Union of Kalmar, it marked the end of the period of dynastic union between Denmark, Norway, Sweden and dependencies that started in 1397, in which the Danish crown exercised political supremacy over all of Scandinavia, despite the alleged union between the constituent kingdoms of political organisation.

Throughout the Baltic, including the Germanic coastal areas, Prussia, Scandinavia, Livonia, Estonia and Finland, the presence of German merchants and cities was strong since the founding of the Hanseatic League. It is possible to affirm the development of a Germanic urban culture specific to the Baltic region, marked by strong independence from the Holy Roman Empire and even tensions with elites and local governments in search of privileges and economic supremacy, particularly in Scandinavia. (Opsahl, 2013, pp.73-90).

The Reformation in the Baltic in 1570, Diercke International Atlas.
The Reformation in the Baltic in 1570. Source: Diercke International Atlas.

In the case of the former states of the Teutonic Order that would form Prussia, Livonia and Estonia, the Germans became masters of areas inhabited by different ethnic groups in a relationship of subordination and cultural asymmetry. In these parts, Christianization only took place from the 13th century onwards, amidst the processes of the Crusades in Northern Europe (Christiansen 1997).

In the city of Rīga, in Livonia, Andreas Knopken and Silvester Tegetmeier took Luther’s ideas, which spread rapidly already in 1524 among the strong bourgeois extract of the city, which was often at odds with the Teutonic Order and its masters. In that year, the city council supported Lutheranism, and a series of population revolts culminated in attacks on churches and the expulsion of monks and nuns (Feldmanis, 2010). A similar circumstance occurred in the general urban states of Estonia (Kitelsons 2002). Several Catholic church properties were secularised this way, and until 1539 the same would happen in the rest of Livonian cities (Daniel-Rops 1996, 428).

The region of Prussia was secularised and made a hereditary possession by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Albrecht (1490-1568), under the advice of Martin Luther, in 1525. Nephew of the Polish Catholic King Sigismund I, whose vassal he would become, Albrecht sympathised with Lutheran Reformed ideas. He was the first European ruler to establish Lutheranism as the official religion of his territory.

Albrecht confiscated the lands and properties of the Roman Catholic Church, which he distributed partly among the nobles, and which he used to strengthen his own position, setting an example to other Northern European rulers who would do similarly. The native population was mainly comprised of Prussians, a people from the Baltic branch of the Indo-European ethnolinguistic family that had only been superficially Christianized.

In Scandinavian nations, the adoption of Lutheranism was equally rapid. In Sweden, whose process we will detail shortly, the break with Rome was already approaching in 1524 and would be completed with the Council of Örebro in 1529. In 1527, after the Diet of Odensee, the free practice of Lutheranism was established in Denmark; the following year, after the Diet of Copenhagen, the adoption of Lutheran doctrine and liturgy was established, and until 1535 the Catholic hierarchy would be suppressed, and Lutheranism decreed a state religion by Kristian III (Daniel-Rops, 1996. Pp.428- 430).

Unlike the Eastern Baltics, Christianity had already been established in Scandinavian nations since the eleventh century. The German urban and mercantile presence influenced the region linguistically, economically, religiously and ideologically, but a relationship of political domination was not established there as in the areas further east. Roman Catholicism would have a brief life span of four to five centuries in Scandinavian nations. During that time, it would take on native characteristics while at the same time propitiating what is sometimes called the “westernisation” of Scandinavia (Sawyer & Sawyer, 2003; Opsahl, 2013).

The Lutheran Reformation in Sweden marked two significant ruptures at the religious and political levels, processes that, despite their constituent specificities, cannot be dissociated from each other. In addition to specific transformations in the religious field, the medieval Swedish administrative system of submission to the Danish kings and partial subjection to the papacy gave way to the government of monarchs committed to strengthening the royal power, seeking to suppress other pillars of resistance.

In Sweden, the monarch responsible for such processes was Gustav Vasa, or Gustav I, king from 1523 to 1560. Active in Sweden’s liberation wars fought against King Christian II of Denmark, Gustav was elected king in 1523.

Gustav Vasa, as painted by Jacob Binck (1542)
Gustav Vasa, as painted by Jacob Binck (1542).

As part of the measures to strengthen royal power, Gustav Vasa broke with the papacy after a period of confrontation regarding the appointment of archbishops. In disputes involving the archbishopric of Uppsala, ecclesiastics appointed by the pope and in favour of Rome were exiled or fled the country, while sympathisers with Lutheran ideas gained prominence.

Gustav Trolle, the former archbishop, was exiled and replaced by Johannes Magnus, the archbishop chosen by Gustav Vasa himself and still a supporter of Roman Christianity. The replacement was not accepted by Pope Clement VII, who demanded the repositioning of Gustav Trolle; Considered an ally of the Danes in Stockholm, Trolle was evidently not welcomed by Gustav Vasa.

In the meantime, the position of Johannes – always faithful to the Roman Church – was weakened in Sweden and, as the result of such disturbances, Laurentius Petri, a supporter of Lutheranism, was placed in 1531 in the chair of the archbishopric. Together with his brother Olaus Petri, Laurentius spent the 1520s fighting for the insertion of Lutheranism in Sweden, publishing several texts of a Protestant nature and taking measures associated with the movement – such as the marriage of Olaus, an ordained cleric and the translation of the New Testament into the vernacular, in 1526.

Johannes Magnus (Swedish: Johan Månsson, 1488–1544) and his younger brother Olaus Magnus (Swedish: Olof Månsson, 1490–1557), aligned with Rome, went into exile, residing in Danzig/Gdánsk, Poland from 1530, fearful of returning to Sweden in the face of the advance of Lutheranism in the country. Johannes insistently petitioned the pope for recognition of his position as archbishop of Sweden, but this came belatedly; ironically, Johannes was de facto archbishop under Gustav Vasa, but without papal support; by the time he would receive recognition from Rome, he had not held the position for years, which had become merely nominal.

In 1530 Johannes’ estates in Sweden were confiscated, and his income was cut off. From then on, he and his brother Olaus began to survive on savings, donations and charity.

The brothers spent from 1537 to the end of their lives in Rome; both eventually gained the position of Roman Catholic Archbishops of Uppsala. Johannes, at first, in Sweden itself in the period before his exile; without papal recognition, but with the attributions, responsibilities and privileges of an archbishop, attributed directly to him by Gustav Vasa; Olaus Magnus, in name only, in Rome itself and after his brother’s death. After that, the position was extinguished.

Both wrote works with historical pretensions; Johannes’s Historia metropolitanae ecclesiae Upsaliensis and Historia de omnibus gothorum sueonumque regibus were probably drawn up at the time of his exile in Poland in the 1530s when the ecclesiastic was gathering as much information as could corroborate his claim to the archbishopric.

Johannes died in 1544; his works were posthumously printed in Rome in 1547 and 1554, respectively, by his brother Olaus – who completed them – and were translated into Swedish only after 1620. Making extensive use of Jordanes’ Getica and Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, Johannes constructed the image of the Swedes as successors to the Goths of antiquity, being fundamental to later Swedish “Gothism”.

Olaus continued his brother’s work, expanding on his monumental Historia de Gentibus septentrionalibus – History of the Northern Peoples – printed in 1555 in Rome, just two years after his death in 1557. While well known in Europe, having been translated into several languages, only in 1909 would it receive a translation into Swedish itself, even though it had its fruits in the Scandinavian literate environment enabled to read Latin.

Part of its success on the continent is due to the descriptions of wonders and exotic locations for central and southern Europeans, as well as the diverse customs of the northern peoples described there. The work also presents narratives and descriptions of a historical and ethnographic nature and, in a spirit of continuity to his brother’s work, develops the “Gothicism” of the Swedish Renaissance (Neville, 2013). In marked contrast to the references made to Hellenic, Latin and Christian authors, a small number of Scandinavian works are employed by Olaus in his history. There is a specific exception, which emerges as a reference work for Olaus Magnus: the Gesta Danorum, by Saxo Grammaticus, written in the transition between the 12th and 13th centuries and published in Paris in 1514.

4. Heretics in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus

Kurt Johannesson (1991, 143) identifies three distinct types of heretics – a denomination that we will prefer to call “deviations from the faith considered orthodox” for Olaus Magnus in his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus: the not yet Christianized, such as the pagans of Lapland and the Muslims, the Muscovite schismatics, as representatives of Greek Orthodox Christianity, and those whom we will call heretics proper, as per Olaus – the Lutherans.

Martin Luther, as painted by Lucas Cranach, the Elder (1528)
Martin Luther, as painted by Lucas Cranach, the Elder (1528)

Although Olaus cites his brother Johannes’s Historia metropolitanae ecclesiae Upsaliensis as a work that teaches about heresy and how to refute it (Johannesson 1991, 11), Olaus’ own attitude is different. Diverse not in the sense of tolerance but in the sense of how much effort should be expended in order to debate heretics.

Olaus Magnus’s attitude is markedly anti-intellectualist, and his speech is negligibly theological; in contrast to the large amount of description of empirical processes, customs and curiosities of the different peoples and regions presented in his work, it is worth noting the small amount of reflection and discussion of a more abstract and philosophical nature.

Perhaps this position has to do with the appreciation that Olaus had for Gregory the Great, for whom intellectual debates caused disgust and speculations would generate deviations from the correct faith, whose depositary was the only holy and universal Roman church (Johannesson 1991, 157; Muceniecks, 2013); citing the biblical text of 1 Samuel 15:22, Olaus would write in a letter that “obedience is better than sacrifice” (Johannesson 1991, 157).

Still, the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus abounds about heretics and other practitioners of deviance in the faith with whom the Swedes maintained some form of contact; his attitude towards them is, however, not one of biblical and theological debate, as is common in conflicts between Lutherans and Catholics, but one of reproach and condemnation for other reasons. Analyzing selected excerpts from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus allows us to analyze Olaus Magnus’ opinions concerning heretics, schismatics and pagans in a more orderly way. We will focus here mainly on his relationship with the Lutheran heretics and the Muscovite schismatics, to a greater extent, and in a lesser instance, the European pagans of Lapland. An analysis of Muslims is beyond our scope.

4.1 Lutherans – the heresy

Lutherans are the heretics par excellence in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Described as “demons” that tormented King Gustav Vasa in book IV, chapter 22, they would be responsible for preventing the visitations of Johannes Magnus in Sweden.

Although we can see on occasions that Olaus Magnus’ dislike of Lutherans interferes with his attitude towards Germans, his opinion – when speaking of Germans – is not, in all references, negative. There are passages where the author’s tone is “neutral”, especially when describing customs or differences between regions – for example, different names given to fish (e.g. XX:26; XXI:2-3). On these occasions, Olaus maintains the “scientific” tone, renaissance, of the wise man who offers his readers data, information and curiosities about a range of peoples – a man whose curiosity is more significant than his prejudices (Sjolhom 2004, 245ff).

In some circumstances that we will analyze shortly, however, even though the chapter’s objective is different, Olaus makes some connection with the theme of heresy, using the description of customs, military tactics or even animals as a kind of allegory.

In chapters 21 and 22 of book XII, for example, Olaus comments on fires that occurred in some cities and were put out by friars, fires that he compares with the one caused by “a certain friar from Wittenberg” – an obvious allusion to Luther. This fire could not be put out. On another occasion (X: 06), he comments on existing chains in the port of Lübeck, comparing them to “chains of heresy”. As already stated, however, this attitude of evident depreciation is not found throughout the text; on many occasions, it is perfectly possible to read the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, including passages with references to the Germans, without any perception of the antagonism that its author had towards them.

Nevertheless, Lutherans have a special place in refuting the heresy of Olaus Magnus. It must be said that the author’s objective in his work is far from being a theological treatise or debating against heretics and Lutherans. Indeed, in fulfilling this task, Olaus considers his brother to have been more successful, explaining that a further discussion of the heresies, including ways to refute them, could be found in the Metropolitan History of Uppsala, written by his brother Johannes Magnus (Johannesson 1991, 11).

We organize Olaus Magnus’ references to Lutherans into some central axis that allows a better elucidation of his view on such heretics.

4.1.1 The Lutherans – the change of customs – focus on the adiaphora and the break in continuity

A first axis that can be established for understanding the idea of heresy in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus is directly connected to the idea that we suggested at the beginning of this article, related to heresy as a break with established tradition.

In some passages, it is clear that Olaus’s complaint about the Lutherans takes place in aspects that have nothing to do with theology but instead with traditions and practices.

In book XIV (De variis conditionibus aquinarium populorum, “On the various customs of the peoples of the north”), chapter 05 (De ritu Regalium nuptiarum, “On the rite of royal marriage”), Olaus Magnus’ criticism is built by describing the execution of the royal wedding; whilst the Council of Trent would later reaffirm the sacraments, including the question of marriage, and Olaus’ own participation in it is cited in reference to the question of marriage, his criticism in his own work is more focused on the form of execution. Olaus is bothered by the different ways Lutherans practised the king’s marriage.

Olaus criticizes Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558), Luther’s collaborator in Pomerania, who, in 1537, had officiated at the coronation of King Christian III and Queen Dorothea and had been instrumental in defining the new ordinances (Kirchenordnung) in several cities of northern Germany and Denmark. Olaus’ criticism focuses on the use of oil to anoint the monarch, which he defends by citing the anointing of David and the custom of Catholic kings since the institution of Christianity.

In a similar episode in book XVI (De ecclesiasticis disciplinis, “On ecclesiastical disciplines”), chapter 6, Olaus Magnus describes the use of candles in religious ceremonies, centring his criticism on the fact that Lutherans would not use them (XVI:16). Olaus’ lack of theological-philosophical depth in his criticism of the situation is particularly notorious when an inherent contradiction is noted in his argument; by commenting in the exact text, as well as in the later chapter (XVI:17) on heathen times, he asserts the antiquity of the custom, predating even the conversion to Christianity, and common not only to the heathens of Scandinavia but also Romans.

Therefore, one notes in the criticism in question a peculiar and particular attitude of the author, based on attitudes, feelings and personal considerations of the author, rather than a theological and doctrinal aspect. The heathen Swedes employed a custom which had been retained, in “redeemed” form, at the time of conversion; the nobility of this custom would be, in a certain way, reaffirmed with the authoritative use of classical authors – in the case in question, a quotation from Livy. The disruptive aspect of the Lutheran heresy would therefore be more harmful than the continuity of a custom referred to as pagan.

Of the same nature are Olaus’ comments regarding the different ways in which Catholics and Lutherans practised suppers and feasts. In all these circumstances, it is noted that Olaus’s vision is focused on questions called adiaphora, not central to the matters of faith, peripheral to the heart of the theological discussion – precisely the kind of aggravation condemned by Erasmus, in his search for minimum dogmata, but which would indelibly mark the religious disputes of the 16th century.

4.1.2 Lutherans – demoralization and the spread of evil customs

This axis connects to the previous one, by emphasizing aspects of external devotion and praxis, to the detriment of theoretical, doctrinal or dogmatic discussion. Olaus will comment on some episodes in which he argues that Lutheranism would have brought a loosening of customs and a demoralization in various fields of society.

On such occasions, it is common to find a critique of heretics outlined in subjects far removed from theology, involving economic, commercial and even artistic issues.

In book XIII, chapter 44, for example, the author comments on the salt trade and the difficulties of transporting it to the north. His brother Johannes would have taught the Swedes how to extract it in Sweden itself, in the Norrland region. However, the greed of Stockholm merchants prevented the development of such an undertaking, as the development of local salt extraction would undermine the trade from which they profited. Olaus Magnus completes the passage by stating that these Lutheran heretics wanted to “stone” or cast out Johannes, their own “father”. In chapter 47 of the same book, a similar criticism is made by the author; the Lutherans, when weighing and selling merchandise incorrectly, would not make returns.

It should be noted that in these cited episodes, Olaus’ criticisms are directly linked to the city, urban and commercial environment of the Baltic, in which German merchants had a decisive influence. In this specific situation, therefore, the same Germans who carry heretical ideas are identified with those who exercise predatory commercial practices, maintain a monopoly on specific activities, or prevent the Swedes themselves from developing more effectively.

On other occasions, Olaus’ criticisms are quite diverse, often disjointed or based on personal preferences, some not necessarily grounded in reality. A striking example is found in Book XIII (De Agricultura et Human Victu, “On Agriculture and Human Food”), Chapter 50 (Adhuc de Pictoribus Aquilonarium regionum, “More on the Artists of the Northern Region”), when Olaus complains that Lutherans had brought artwork depicting naked people, a clear sign to him of their demoralization.

In fact, there were Protestant works depicting nudity in the Renaissance, such as the “Judgment of Paris” (ca.1528), by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). Cranach, a court painter of Saxony and a friend of Luther, was noted for his portraits of leaders and influential people related to the Lutheran Reformation. However, the number of Catholic artists – mainly Italian – portraying human nudity was incomparably more significant, as well as the popularity and relevance of their works, such as “David” by Michelangelo (1475-1564) or even the Sistine Chapel.

In book XIV (De variis conditionibus aquinarium populorum, “On the various customs of the peoples of the north”), chapter 02 (De pudico virginum ornatum, “On the chaste ornaments of maidens”), when commenting on the birth of a monstrous calf near Wittenberg in the year 1517 as an omen of the heresy that Luther, Olaus makes the connection that the people of the country, in particular women, would be abandoning modesty. One of the pieces of evidence presented by Olaus that would demonstrate this depravity reaching the north would be the frequent adoption by these women of the use of another colour in their clothes: clothes with “glauci coloris”, which can be translated as shades of grey, blue-green and even yellowish and before would have been considered extravagant, now they were used, imitating foreign customs.

The criticism of the demoralization of customs carried out by Olaus, although carried out in a shallow and unsubstantiated way, echoes the more generalized discussion within the scope of the Lutheran reform, and is linked to its more profoundly theological aspect.

One of the main points of Lutheran’s argument would consist of salvation by faith, regardless of the believer’s works. Possibly it was between the years 1512 to 1517 that Luther’s conversion took place and the initial steps in his soteriological theology, based on the reading of Romans 1:17: “since the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, from faith to faith, as it is written: the just shall live by faith.”

Hitherto Luther’s personal anguish had been marked by his sense of constant guilt and sin; his Anfechtungen – a term usually translated as “temptations” but also implying inner afflictions – constantly plagued him, making him live in a state of despair and anguish. After confessing to Stauplitz, he would not infrequently return a short time later, having remembered some minor fault he had committed. The Roman doctrine that gave faith, works and sacraments the role of salvific effect assumed excessive weight for Luther, who in no way managed to satisfy the justice of an all-powerful and omnipotent God.

The turning point in Luther’s theology was when he began to perceive deliverance from it through faith and grace instead of focusing on the terrible aspect of divine justice. With the theology of justification by faith, Luther freed himself from a tremendous burden on a personal level. However, he also shook a fundamental point in Roman theology, detaching the salvific experience from the institution and releasing the faithful to perform institutionally regulated rites and procedures in order to obtain means for free: “Luther’s doctrine of justification fell like a bomb on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism (…) it flattened the entire theology of merits and (…) the penitential-sacramental basis of the church itself” (George 1994, 73).

The doctrine of justification would be the main topic of Luther’s doctrine, being glimpsed in the early years involving the episode of fixing the 95 theses. Due to its broad impact, referred to above, it would also consist of one of the focuses of heaviest criticism and resistance from supporters of the Roman church, whether they were defenders of orthodoxy or humanists of broader and more conciliatory thinking, such as Erasmus. If from Luther’s point of view, the doctrine could bring peace to the troubled soul and liberation from its anfechtungen, for its opponents, justification by faith exempted the Lutheran Christian from any obligation of a moral, practical nature.

Indeed, the accusation of lack of morality weighed heavily against many Lutherans who saw an opportunity in the new faith, whether in the political field or simply as a form of liberation from a church considered oppressive. It is a severe mistake, however, to claim that Luther exempted the Christian from the empirical evidence of internal transformation; this can be seen early on in his theology, in the theses posted in the church of Wittenberg, of which the first three logically develop the need for repentance, the internal change involved with it, and the practical – hence moral – consequences of the same.

Thus, even though Olaus’ criticism lacks sound arguments, it reflects broader discussions involving changes in dogma and doctrine and the direct consequences for Christian praxis.

4.1.3 Lutherans – situations used allegorically

In some specific cases, Olaus reports or describes circumstances that have no direct religious relationship but end up serving as an allegorical example for situations in the religious field. We mention a similar case in XIV: 02 when the ecclesiastic mentions the birth of a monstrous calf and makes an unusual connection with what he calls the abandonment of modesty.

On this axis, Olaus’s connections are more tangible; the narrated cases are presented as spiritualizations or even applications of situations that occurred.

The first reference to this modality is found in book X, which deals with maritime warfare (“De bellis naualibus”). In Chapter 6 (“De nauibus ferratis”), Olaus talks about the use of armoured ships in order to break large chains often placed in harbours to prevent the approach of enemy warships. Olaus’s description features a source, used in a distorted form, and is not confirmed by other authors; apparently, it is a creation or a misunderstanding of Olaus himself, who claims that there are ships with a keel armed with a large saw.

The vessel would be propelled by strong winds, abundant in the north. When the chains broke, the population moved towards the stern of the vessel, thus freeing the bow from its weight, which rose and exposed the mountains; finally, the saw broke the chain (see Figure 01).

De nauibus ferratis. In: Olaus Magnus. History of Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome, 1555
Figure 01: Vignette, X: 06 – De nauibus ferratis. In: Olaus Magnus. History of Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome, 1555, p. 333.

Olaus claims that the Götar and Swedes liberated the city of Lübeck by means of this technique, and later cites Vandalia, sive Historia de Vandalorum jerq origine, etc, by Albert Krantz (1450-1517), published posthumously (Cologne, 1518). There are several distorted quotations and reworkings that permeate the text:

 Kranz’s work, together with his Chronica regnorum aquinarium Daniae, Sueciae, et Noruagiae (published post. 1546), was one of the sources employed by Johannes Magnus in his Historia Gothica. In Book XIX, Chapter 15, Johannes comments on a siege of Lübeck by the Swedes in 1238; Kranz does not name the Swedes, but the Danes, as those who carried out the siege of the city.

What Kranz mentions in Vandalia is the use of saws and large shears on ships to break the ropes of enemy vessels; his description is very different from that of Olaus, who adds much of his own craft to his narrative, therefore.

Finally, Olaus Magnus gives a moral opinion; again, the city of Lübeck is captive; this time, however, by apostasy. Olaus makes explicit his desire that the city, once pious, be freed from the heavy yoke of heretics through the lime and the saw of the wise council (lima serraque prudentioris consilii).

The second case in this axis is found in book XII, chapters 21 and 22. Book XII is entitled De structuris aquinaribus, “On the constructions of the North”, bringing information on stonework, houses, wood and trees, but also on themes that have little connection to the general topic but some connection to the specific subjects covered. Some chapters will deal, for example, with the resin of trees, more specifically amber, and the bridge to the subject is evidently the previous reference to wood and the trees from which the resin comes.

In chapters 21 and 22, Olaus talks about ways to put out fires in cities. Starting from the theme, treated empirically in chapter 21 (De incendiis extinguendis, “On extinguishing fires”), albeit with some embellishment – Olaus starts to comment on the loyalty of friends in times of fire and, finally, makes a connection with heresy–both in chapter 22 (De fidelibus amicis tempore incendii probandis, “On how the faithfulness of friends is tried in time of fire”).

The chapter comments on friars who, being men of physical vigour and often awake during the night, were the first to fight fires that occurred during the night time. Another friar, however – Martin Luther – had the opposite procedure, putting out a fire that neither “monks, nor all religious orders, nor citizens, nor magistrates, dukes, kings, emperors, nor supreme pontiffs could put out completely”. That fire kindled by Luther and kindled with pleasure by his followers, continues Olaus, was the same in which the rebels would be burned.

Finally, Chapter 27 of Book XXI, entitled De Porco monstroso Oceani Germanici (“On the Monstrous Pig of the Germanic Ocean”), presents a peculiar account of the apparition of a monstrous sea pig. The book, probably one of the most popular in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, treats “about (the) monstrous fishes” (De piscibus monstrosis). Olaus reproduces information from a pamphlet published in Rome on October 15, 1537, by Antonio Blado (1490-1567), which described a strange creature found in the North Sea. The Magnus brothers were in Rome from October 5, 1537, until April 23, 1538, taking notice of the pamphlet at the height of its popularity (Granlund 1998, 1148).

Vignette, XXI: 27 - De Porco monstroso Oceani Germanici. In: Olaus Magnus. History of Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome, 1555. Olaus quotes a monstrous pig as a symbol to heresy.
Figure 02: Vignette, XXI: 27 – De Porco monstroso Oceani Germanici. In: Olaus Magnus. History of Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome, 1555, p. 756.

Olaus Magnus does not add new information to it, which is interpreted as a signal; the description of the specific parts of the animal presented in the pamphlet and reproduced by Olaus demonstrated the “piggish” life of the heretics. The head, which had a crescent moon on its back, demonstrated the distortion of the truth; the eyes found in the loins and belly were full of temptation, which is why they should be plucked out; reference to the biblical text of Matthew 5:29:

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you; for it is to your advantage that one of your members perish, and not that your whole body be thrown into hell.”

Finally, the dragon’s feet signified the evil deeds and desires of mankind scattered across the four corners of the world.
For Olaus, the pig was a symbol of the filthy men of his day, urging them to “abandon their monstrous habits and embrace goodness and benevolence” (XXI:27).

4.1.4 Lutherans – historical reflection as a critique to heresy

In book 11, entitled De bellis glacialibus, “On the ice war”, we find a reference that differs from the others to the Lutherans and deserves a separate mention. The book has a large amount of space devoted to Russians, who are characterized as another type of heretics – in this case, schismatics, and to which we will return shortly; at the present time, the isolated reference to Lutheranism deserves special mention.

Chapter 15 does a little historical reflection mixed with advice on proper forms of government. The topic discussed is the governors of the king of Sweden in the north (“De praefectis Septentrionalibus Regis Suetiae”), and Olaus advocates the need for wisdom in governors dealing with difficult peoples rather than the use of dictatorial measures.

Olaus compares the Swedish rulers Sten Sture the Elder (1440-1503), regent between 1470-97 and 1501-03, to King Karl; the first had ruled for 24 years wisely yet vigorously, while the second had been exiled for seven years because of the violence of his governors. King Karl mentioned is probably Karl Knutsson (ca.1408-1470), whose reign in Sweden was interrupted twice and who also ruled Norway between 1449 and 1450.

 Next, he lists several renowned kings and emperors in history as examples of successful governments when their reigns were supported by the work of wise rulers and officials acting together: Alexander the Great, Pompey and Constantine the Great.

Finally, Olaus Magnus concludes his exposition using the example of the relationship between Charlemagne and the papacy; only through this alliance, says Olaus, was it possible to bring harmony and peace to the Saxons, described as “strict” (austerissima). The comparison is not fortuitous; the last sentence of the chapter clarifies the purpose of the analysis: in their own time, the Saxons continued to bring problems, this time by the “seditious doctrine” of the Lutherans (seditiosam doctrinam Lutheranorum).

4.1.5 The Lutherans – possible indirect references or ironies

In Book IV, Chapter 22, already mentioned, Olaus had called the Lutherans the “demons” who tormented the king. A possible further comparison of Lutheranism with the demonic appears in another reference, though not explicitly. In this case, a derogatory comment about the Germanic language may serve as a pretext for conveying the author’s negative feelings towards both the Germans and Lutheranism.

The passage referred to is in Book III, “On the Superstitious Cult of Demons of the People of the North” (De superstitiosa cultura daemonum populorum aquinarium), to which we will return in greater detail later. In chapter 22, “On the services of demons” (De ministerium daemonum), there is a reference that Granlund’s own commentary (p.191) claims is unaware of the provenance: Olaus claims that demon-possessed people would speak in many languages, but mainly with the “squeaky” sound of Upper Germania. Although far from the north ca. “600 miles”, through that sound, the demon calls by name whomever he wants, albeit with “confused terms”.

The whole chapter comes close to a mini treatise on demonology, explaining the works that demons do, how people possessed by evil spirits would act, and giving examples from the classics and the Gesta Danorum of actions that the author considered to have been the work of demons. Overall, the chapter’s tone is fairly neutral and academic.

We consider it possible that the reference to the high Germania sound is a reference to the ideas of Martin Luther; a small irony in a chapter that demonstrates the actions of demons, giving many of his words an accent close to that of the main heresiarch he fought.

5. The Muscovites – The Schism

The Council of Florence began in Basel in 1431, moved to Ferrara in 1438, and to Florence in 1439, where it concluded in 1449. It was marked by attempts at reconciliation between the Roman and Greek Orthodox Churches. Faced with the Turkish threat in the East, it was the last attempt at reconciliation between the two churches. 

The Byzantine emperor, John VII Palaiologos, was anxiously seeking help from the West concerning the Turks. Some theological decisions were taken in the search for unity on terms quite favourable to the Latins. Although Isidore of Kyiv, Metropolitan of Kyiv and all of Russia, was in favour of the union, the Russian Church vehemently rejected the conciliar decisions long before the Greeks themselves, deposing Isidore and electing their own patriarch, independent of the Greeks (Wells 2011, 264).

The fall of Constantinople, four years after the end of the Council, was seen by Russians as a clear sign of divine disapproval of the Greeks. In 1492 Metropolitan Zosima, from Moscow, elaborated the idea that Russia would be the last responsible for safeguarding Christianity in the world before the definitive return of Christ (Taveira 2007, 170); in the words of the Russian monk Filofei, writing in 1525,

(…) the Church of ancient Rome fell by its heresy; the gates of the second Rome, Constantinople, were broken down by the axes of the infidel Turks, but the Church of Moscow, the Church of New Rome, shines brighter than the sun in all the universe. […] Two Romes fell, but the third resists; there will not be a fourth .

apud Filofei, in Wells 2011, 265

Religious life in Russia at the beginning of the 16th century was marked by change: the Russian-medieval Orthodox Church had been markedly a monastic church, whose authority – over clerics and lay people – had a markedly charismatic character.

 During the 16th century, there was a decrease in this monastic influence, accompanied by two resulting processes that ended up compensating for the emptying of power generated: the strengthening of the structure and bureaucracy of the church and the proliferation of popular religiosities, such as miracle cults (Bushkovitch 1992, 10).

The aristocratic class, most intimately involved in religious life until then, in the second half of the century will decrease its involvement with religious activity without necessarily taking place a change in form; the boyars were more involved with the complicated politics of their time (Bushkovitch 1992, 32).

There was the emergence of a new religious ideology, Josephism, in the first half of the century. Traditionally, the connection between ideology and tsarism was emphasized due to its autocratic and intolerant attitudes towards difference, a conception that has recently been more relativized due to the excessive weight it places on the political factor to the detriment of the religious (Idem 1992, 14 ).

Josephism, founded on the teachings of Josif Volotskii, who died in 1515, initially fought the heresy of the Judaizers and those who questioned the trinity, among other aspects; in general, it would promote a sharpening of the dispute against heresy (Bushkovitch 1992, 15). It is curious to note, therefore, that in the same century that the decline of traditional Russian and Orthodox forms of religion occurred, there were also movements both for the proliferation of popular religiosities and the intensification of dogma.

This brief historical overview of the Russian Church in the two centuries that preceded the writing of the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus explains some of Olaus Magnus’Magnus’ choices and placements. If, for the author, the Lutherans consist of a model of heretics, the Muscovites would fulfil the same role in the case of the schismatics instead of the Byzantines; not only would they have derived from the schism, but they would have been particularly obstinate with regard to their own dogmas.

There are very few references to the Byzantines in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. We can observe that this is not only due to the location of Byzantium in the southern, Mediterranean geographic scope but also due to the constant association that is made of the Russians as transmitters of the Greek legacy, neutral, negative or positive:

Olaus states, for example, that in the same way as the Swedes, the Russians would be considered ” true northerners” (valde borealis), differing from them by dressing in the Greek fashion. In contrast, the Swedes would dress in the German way (IV:04) . Already in VI: 13, he describes that Muscovite merchants like to deceive their neighbours, having learned to do it from the “Greeks”.

In an isolated passage (XVIII:32), Olaus calls the Russians Roxolani, a term taken from ancient Greek authors for tribes inhabiting the territories north of the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine – nucleus, therefore, of the first medieval Russian principality, Rus from Kyiv.

Muscovites (moschovitae) or Ruthenians (rutheni) are the two terms used by Olaus to refer to the Russians, being equal terms, for example, in XI:07, “moschovitarum seu ruthenorum”. A considerable part of the medieval Kievan Rus, and what would later become Russia, was in the sixteenth century under the control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including territories of present-day Ukraine and Belarus. The Duchy of Muscovy, a vassal of the Mongols since the 13th century, would give rise in 1547 to the Tsarate of Russia (Русское царство), with the coronation of Ivan IV the Terrible, as its Tsar, predecessor of the 18th century Russian Empire.

The already mentioned Book XI, “De bellis glacialibus” (On the War on the Ice), talks about Muscovy practically in its entirety, and the references are far from complimentary. In his first chapter, when explaining the vignette that opposes Livonians and Russians on two banks of the river on the border in Narva, Livonia, Olaus makes his vision of the Russians clear: Christianorum livonensium et altera schismaticorum Moschovitarum

Portrait of Ivan IV by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897
Portrait of Ivan IV by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897.

That is, on one side, there were Christians, Livonians; on the other, schismatics, the Muscovites; to the schismatic, the very definition of a Christian is denied.

Vignette, XI:01 – From bellis glacialibus. In: Olaus Magnus. History of Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome, 1555, p. 358
Figure 03: Vignette, XI:01 – From bellis glacialibus. In: Olaus Magnus. History of Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome, 1555, p. 358.

This same spirit is presented in book XIV, chapter 07 (De equitibus auratis, et eorum iuramento, “On the golden knights and their oaths”), where the Russian schismatics are referred to in a similar way to the Turks and Saracens as enemies of the faith (hostes fidei) fought by Christian knights, both on the eastern borders of Sweden and Finland, and in the crusades.

To the Russians, Olaus spares no terms and negative attributes; their armies would lack discipline and seek to plunder rather than battle (XI:03). They would be arrogant (XI:05), pirates, thieves and treacherous, who plundered cruelly in the White Sea and the Gulfs of Finland and Rīga, throwing people into the sea (XI:07); practically every chapter of the book contains some negative word about them.

In some passages, Olaus Magnus tries to employ a sense of humour and irony; in Chapter VI, after ironically calling the Duchy of Moscow vast (amplissimus) and mighty (potentissimus), he lists the titles that were used by its ruler in his charters in order to demonstrate this power. The commentary on the marginalia states: 

These titles occupy more space on the paper than he actually possesses in his domains / Titulus hic in chartis Maiorem locum occupat, quam in veris dominis obtinet possessionem nem.

Olaus Magnus, XI: 06

This contrast between what is said about oneself and what one actually is is explored by Olaus on other occasions; the ecclesiastic seeks to demonstrate as many occasions as possible the character of duplicity, deceit and falsehood of the schismatics without, however, presenting theological arguments, focusing on descriptions of negative behaviour.

In chapter 10 (De modo recipiendorum oratorum apud Moschovites, “On how envoys are received by Muscovites”), a meeting between the Russian prince and some foreign envoys is described, depicting numerous rites and displays of ostentation and, again, duplicity, deceit and falsehood. Olaus Magnus tells an anecdote: on such occasions, according to him, the Russians took as many tall commoners as possible with white hair and long beards, dressed them nobly and placed them next to the prince in order to give the impression of simulating a magnificent assembly of nobles. Experienced envoys, however, would see through the deception.

Vignette, XI:10 – De modo recipiendorum oratorum apud Moschovitas. In: Olaus Magnus. History of Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome, 1555, p. 367.
Figure 04: Vignette, XI:10 – De modo recipiendorum oratorum apud Moschovitas. In: Olaus Magnus. History of Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome, 1555, p. 367.

The same chapter recounts another occasion, which occurred in 1551, when the King of Poland, Sigismund II, sent a certain Matthaeus Bartolomievicz Kniaz Gedroitzki; “kniaz” would mean “prince” in Russian, “Giedrojcki” in Polish, with the same meaning, would eventually become a name. 

The meeting did indeed take place, with negative consequences for Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy relations. Ivan IV, “the Terrible”, had been crowned Tsar in 1547, a title that Olaus Magnus did not accept; the envoy, probably a Lithuanian prince by the name of Giedraitis, had refused to recognize the title and had called Ivan “prince” by letter; Ivan, for his part, had refused to recognize not only the title of prince but would refer to the King of Poland himself, by letter, without the title of king. 

The marginalia, once more, is merciless: “the Duke of Moscow wants to be called Caesar of Russia” (Caesar Russiem appellari vult Moschorum dux).

There are only two explicitly religious references to Muscovites; one is clearly misrepresented, an alleged reference to orthodox baptism as early as Book XI. 

Chapter 32 tells of a punishment employed by the Swedes of old during the winter: throwing obstinate and insolent people into holes cut in frozen rivers; tied by a rope, they would be pulled and removed through another open hole nearby. The schismatic Russians, says Olaus, would make this immersion in the water a religious ceremony, diving and withdrawing their infants in the same way.

There was no record of any baptism performed under these circumstances (in the open air, on ice) in Muscovy, with the exception of the specific form of the rite; Russian Orthodox practised infant baptism by immersion, unlike Roman Catholics and Protestant Lutherans or Calvinists (Ware 1997, 277f); only when there was a risk to the life of the baptized person – for example, a health problem – is baptism allowed by sprinkling water on the baptized person. 

The only other practitioners of baptism by immersion in Europe at the time were various groups generically called Anabaptists. However, there is no connection of any kind in the text in question.

The second reference, in chapter 11 of book XI, De Italico oratore crudeliter occiso (“On the cruel murder of an Italian envoy”), has a more obscure meaning, which we believe can be elucidated in the light of the events narrated at the beginning of this section. 

Granlund (1998, 576) demonstrates that the anecdote told in the chapter is erroneously referenced – while Olaus cites the aforementioned Wandalia, by Albert Kranz, as a source, Granlund finds its origin in Münster and Brunus, in a Walachian narrative linked to the story of Count Dracula; the tale in question tells of a certain Italian envoy who, failing to fully uncover his head before speaking to the Muscovite prince, had his hat nailed to his head.

Regarding a reference in the chapter, however, Granlund (1998, 576) claims to ignore its meaning: Olaus state that the same had happened to a particular Italian cardinal, who had been zealous in propagating the name of Christianity ( propagandi Christiani nominis), restore understanding in the Church of God (unitatisque in ecclesia Dei reparandae) and try to promote acceptance of the unity of faith and concord with the Muscovites (qui cum […] Moschovitis concordiae ineundae, unionisque fidei suscipiendae ). 

It seems reasonable to us to interpret the passage, if not as a memory, as a reference to the Council of Florence’s events and the Russian Church’s rupture not only with Roman Catholicism but even concerning the Greeks.

The not entirely factual but nonetheless cautionary and exhortatory nature of the passage in question is left with the concluding remarks of the chapter: Olaus laments the existence of large numbers of princes in the north who, before possessing the government, behaved with humanity, kindness and modesty, but who, after gaining power, acted with stupidity, avarice, ferocity and inhumanity. It is impossible not to understand the reference as a criticism of their own king, Gustav Vasa, who, although not directly mentioned, by inference, ended up, in Olaus Magnus’ eyes, behaving in the same way as the schismatics.

6. Lithuanians and Non-Christianized Groups

Book III of the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus is devoted entirely to the description of what Olaus terms “the superstitious cult of demons of the people of the north” (De superstitiosa cultura dæmonum populorum Aquilonarium). 

In this book, the author presents various religious practices of northern peoples in varied historical clippings; for example, the same book describes in detail the customs of the Sami people, contemporaries of Olaus – and who would arouse great curiosity in Europe – and of the ancient Goths.

It should be noted that, despite the title of the book and the very derogatory nature of the adjective “superstitious” (superstitiosa), on many occasions, Olaus’ attitude towards people practising such superstitions outside of Christendom is much more benevolent than on occasions when he refers to the very agents of difference within Christendom, namely, Lutheran heretics or Muscovite schismatics.

Much of the book’s content can be better understood when collated together with Book IV (De bellis et moribus sylvesterium paganorum ac vicinorum, “On the wars and customs of the heathen residing in the wild [regions] and their neighbours”), in which, among other topics, Olaus discusses the reasons why certain peoples had not been converted to Christianity.

The topic is covered in particular in chapters 17 to 19; At the outset (chapter 17, De baptizandis pueris syluestrium incolarum, “On the baptism of the children of those who live in the wild”), Olaus raises the question: the pagans of the North – specifically, the Lapps – remained in this religious condition mainly because of their location geographic. The distance they resided from the nearest dioceses made the work of their conversion difficult. Olaus emphasizes, however, that when they were converted, they became good and devout Christians.

The theme is thorny, and Olaus’ ability to deal with it can be questioned. Indeed, the topic was a controversial issue between Catholics and Lutherans, used by Lutherans to criticize Roman Catholic zeal in converting the Scandinavians’ northern neighbours. 

Soon after, in chapter 19 of book 4, entitled “On the reasons for the delays in the conversion of the northern peoples”, Olaus brings more information about the controversy.

Olaus Magnus seeks to refute the criticism made by the humanist and Lutheran theologian Jacobus Ziegler (ca.1470-1549) – whom he called “the maintainer of Luther’s madness” in his work Quae intus continentur Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Aegyptus, Schondia, Holmiae , Regionum Superiorum, published in Strasburg in 1532 and usually referred to as Schondia,

For Olaus, Ziegler would suggest that the peoples of the North were not effectively converted because he anticipated that they would have to pay an intolerable amount of taxes to the Pope after the adoption of Christianity (Ziegler 1532, XCV) – evidently, put that way, the topic it is presented as a shallow and reductive criticism of more complex and multifaceted realities; the very similarities and agreements between Ziegler and Johannes Magnus about Danish oppression and taxation in Scandinavia are omitted by Olaus (Skoovgard-Petersen 2002, 219).

Olaus’ rebuttal of the attack, however, is similarly shallow; in addition to the distance already alleged in chapter 17, for him, the church in southern Scandinavia was already infested with heresy, and its bishops could scarcely cope with the work of protecting their own flocks in the southernmost dioceses.

Indirectly Olaus places part of the blame on the diocese of Uppsala, giving the example of the work attempts that his brother Johannes would have done earlier in Jämtland. In chapter 20 of book 4, Olaus completes the accusation against the Lutherans who, according to him, would have repaid his brother’s kindness with hatred when he returned from his visit to Jämtland.

The refutation of Ziegler’s criticism, which was not the only one, is, therefore, limited to two or three main arguments:

  1. Distance from centres with more consolidated and structured Christianity
  2. Work overload for ecclesiastics
  3. Criticism of supporters of Vasa and the Lutherans

The author seeks, in this case, to change the focus of the question itself to its adversaries.

This small theoretical discussion, however, is quite brief and not very representative of the general content of books III and IV. Before an apologetic discussion, the theme of the pagans presents grounds for Olaus to carry out a discussion more marked by an antiquarian spirit, describing customs and wonders; a speech, therefore, closer to the emulation of travellers of classical antiquity, mainly Herodotus.

The lack of criticism of Sami paganism has already been explained as a result of Olaus not considering it as something directly threatening, even if reprehensible (Sjoholm 2004, 253), but we consider such an explanation quite insubstantial compared to what we stated above.

Comparisons with Greco-Roman authors abound in the description of pagan peoples. In the just mentioned book III, in chapter 2, for example, the pagan customs of the Sami, inhabitants of northern Scandinavia, are described in a discussion permeated with classical references but reticent of theological criticism or apologetic discussions.

Sami and Finns are discussed again in chapter 16 of the same book, after a long gap of chapters in which Olaus turns to the description of the Goths. The ecclesiastic introduces the Gothic deities – three major ones in chapter 3 and three minor gods in chapter 4.

In this specific Gothic case, the primary source used is the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, but Olaus Magnus’ construction significantly distorts the original narrative. 

Characters who were heroes in the medieval Danish cleric narratives, such as Hadingus, giants such as Vagnhophtus, and even a villain described by Saxo as a usurper and false god (Mythotinus), are presented by Olaus as ancient deities venerated by the Goths, alongside characters more known from Scandinavian mythology as the god Freyr.

We will not dwell here in detail on the references to the Sami, which deserve a separate study, nor on the references to the Goths – about which Olaus’s description is long, but the critical opinion, small, due to the scholar’s agenda, seeking to connect Sweden from their times to the Goths of late antiquity.

We are particularly interested in the references made by Olaus to the Lithuanians. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity. Official Lithuanian paganism would only lose its place in the unification of the Polish and Lithuanian crowns in 1386. In the Early modern age, Poland-Lithuania consisted of the most territorially extensive state in Europe, marked by ethnic, linguistic and even religious diversity, bordering Muscovites and tartars.

Already in the preface of book III Olaus introduces Lithuania. Calling it by its official name – “grand duchy” (ducatus magnus) – he intends to explain the reasons for this opulence, presenting three reasons: First, Lithuanians had an abundance of wax, honey, cattle, furs and excellent horses. The Lithuanians would also be notable for defeating other heretics and pagans: Tartars, Muscovites and Wallachians.

Finally, Lithuanians would be remarkable for having been freed from the yoke of demons. Now, this liberation had come about through the work of the Poles, and the value of the Lithuanians, for Olaus, would be confirmed as they kept their agreements with the Poles.

In the first chapter of book III, right after the valour statements about Lithuanians and Poles, Olaus describes some customs of the pagan times of the Lithuanians, such as the worship of fire, forests and serpents. It is a description devoid of explicit derogatory judgment, interspersed with euhemeristic explanations, references, and comparisons taken from Herodotus and Virgil. 

The exception to this “neutrality”, more a historical conclusion than an explicit judgment, is the finding that the Lithuanians would have been cleansed of impiety in the year 1386 through the work of Prince Jagiello.

The Lithuanians will still be mentioned in various parts of the Historia Gentibus Septentrionalibus; XIII:24, his drink (“hydromelis”, “medus”) is praised; in other cases, peculiar or exotic customs would be described.

In XIV:9, it is stated that, like the Kurds, Muscovites and Ruthenians, the Lithuanians would have the habit of kidnapping their brides – no temporal context is provided for the reference and, therefore, it is not clear whether Olaus intends to discuss a custom from pagan times or still alive. However, a final reference in the chapter allows us to assume something contemporary. 

There is a comparison with the ancient Romans, but not necessarily a moral condemnation – precisely because of the parallel made with the classics – in this case, Livy – and Olaus emphasizes, both in the text and in the explanatory commentary, that the custom was mainly practised by the Couronians.

In the field of curiosities, Olaus comments on werewolves among Lithuanians, Couronians and Samogitians (XVIII:45) and bear tamers among Lithuanians (XVIII:32). Remarkably, even in cases where he describes some dishonesty done by the bear tamers, the derogatory judgments, harsh words, and accusations of pagans are absent; on the contrary, in the same passage, Lithuanians are described as a “strong” and “warlike” people.

Not so indirectly, therefore, and following an argumentative method similar to that presented in the discussion of non-Christianized pagans by indirect Lutheran merit, Lithuanians are a way to appreciate Catholic Christians, more specifically Poles.

The reference is not without context; it was the Poles who welcomed the Magnus brothers in their first years of exile; it is in them – and their king – that Olaus Magnus places hope that they can come to redeem his own Sweden. Although the discussion promotes the devaluation of other heretics and pagans, Muslims (Tatars) and Orthodox (Muscovites), the greater emphasis falls on the virtuous role of a nation that is, in the eyes of Olaus, genuinely Christian.

In all the passages, therefore, a certain attitude, benevolent and tolerant towards the Lithuanians, can be noticed even in matters related to religion, in marked contrast with the Germans.

There is a not-so-explicit significance to these specific differences in the author’s attitude in the apparently academic, antiquarian, and descriptive narratives of the heathen peoples of the north. 

Two Christian kingdoms in the midst of a myriad of pagans had different destinies and carried out the work of evangelization with different successes; on the one hand, there was the Polish example, governed by a pious Catholic king, through which the remarkable Lithuanian people were added to Christianity; on the other, there was Sweden, governed by a king who listened to Lutheran heretics and, for that reason, not only jeopardized their natural merits and virtues but also did not take advantage of the opportunity to convert the Sami, potential pious Christians. 

The comparison of the passages presents, therefore, two Christian peoples (Swedes and Poles) through which different results were obtained compared to two pagan peoples (Sami and Lithuanians). The promoter of this difference is heresy, responsible for the decline and distortion of the Swedish kingdom and people, once virtuous and exemplary.

There is yet another parallel employing the Swedes, this time in a valiant way when referring to the regions of Finland in IV:18 – a passage already quoted earlier in the discussion regarding the reasons for the difficulty of converting the northern pagans. 

The region, for Olaus, had been purified from impiety in 1155 by the work of holy men: King Erik of Sweden and blessed Henri, Bishop of Uppsala. The passage in question is one of the few in which the judgment made on pagans is harsh, and the theological terminology goes beyond the antiquarian spirit; the heathen superstition of the Finns had made them slanderous towards God and fierce towards their neighbours; the inhabitants of the Gulf of Bothnia would be fornicators, adulterers and murderers before their conversion. 

Olaus probably draws on the first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, which enumerates characteristics of the wicked, some of the same listed in the text of the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus; in addition to the repetition of terms (“contumeliosus” (slanderers), practitioners of “homicide” and “fornicatione”) and characteristics, both the epistle and the HGS emphasize the aspect of backbiting against God and conflicts with neighbours.

Olaus’s intention in enumerating such negative characteristics is probably to highlight the contrast of such previous depravity with the Christian virtues awakened after the work performed by the Christians of Catholic Sweden; from violent men towards their fellow men, the Finns have become extremely hospitable.

Most likely, Olaus was unaware of what was going on in the region at the time and of the transformations undergone by the church there. Särkilahti, a disciple of Luther who died in 1529, took reforming measures and defences during the 1520s, continued by Miguel Agrícola who, in 1554, became bishop of Abo (Arffman 2016, 256).

There is a widespread conception that the reform in Finland took place much slower and more cautiously than in Sweden, not causing the emergence of rebellions and revolts, unlike Sweden. Although more recent authors have problematized the issue and questioned the lack of resistance (Heininen and Heikkilä 2002, 60-68), it is possible to infer that at least the visibility of reform measures in Finland was much lower than in Sweden, even to the light of region’s peripheral character of the region in the Swedish kingdom.


Heresy and forms of heterodoxy in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus are characterized not by dogmatic and theological definitions of a theoretical or philosophical aspect. 

Rather, they manifest themselves through secondary, adiaphorist issues, such as changing customs and breaking traditions and what is considered as demoralization of customs. In this sense, heresy fits harmoniously with the development of the process of confessionalization and the intensification of differences.

A striking aspect of heresy is its characterization of the otherness – the other, being a member of the no longer monolithic Western Christendom, generates more strangeness and confrontation precisely because of its role in breaking what is known and comfortable. 

In this way, both the heretic and the schismatic are more harmful to Western Christianity than the pagan, for they are a new element, not entirely different from the Christianity centre, but dissimilar enough to threaten it. 

The heathens themselves are but potential Christians; the merit of those would-be Christians will merely reflect the merit of the Christians who Christianized them, whether orthodox or heretical.

Finally, heresy and heterodoxy, for Olaus Magnus, represent the negative of rupture, of breaking the continuity and comfort of tradition.


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Andris Mucenieks
Andris Mucenieks

Andris Mucenieks, Dr hist, is a historian, writer, and musician.
He is the author of Saxo Grammaticus: Hierocratical Conceptions and Danish Hegemony in the Thirteenth Century, several chapters and articles in English, Portuguese, and Latvian, and textbooks.
Andris taught History of Church, Archaeology, Medieval History, and History of Music for more than ten years in several institutions, including the Federal University of Ouro Preto, the Baptist Theological Faculty of Sao Paulo, and a short time as visitor at the Latvijas Kristīgā akadēmija.

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