Middle Ages: Christian scholars


Denmark becomes Christian

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At the end of the 11th century, monks arrived in the city of Odense. They came from Evesham Abbey in Britain and were charged with protecting the grave of King Canute IV, who had been canonised after being murdered on the altar of St Alban’s Church. The monks were also to live according the Benedictine Rule, laid down in the sixth century. The arrival of the monks in Odense meant the establishment of one of Denmark’s first abbeys, and the Benedictine monks soon became known for their knowledge and skill as builders. Their main task, to pray the Psalms of David together, was known as opus dei, the work of God., but the monks also engaged in manual labour such as copying and illuminating manuscripts, tending gardens and caring for the corporeal and spiritual needs of their guests.

Monks on the march
Shortly after the year 1100, Benedictine monasteries had been built elsewhere in the Kingdom of Denmark, including in Ringsted, Esrum and Sorø on Zealand, and in Veng in central Jutland. The monks sent a group from Odense to Ringsted to protect another holy grave, this time of St Canute Lavard. Ringsted was to become the site of Denmark’s first brick building, and when the abbey church was completed in 1170, it drew pilgrims seeking to pray at St Canute’s grave. Around the year 1300, one of the country’s largest frescoes was painted in the church. It showed the martyrdom of Canute Lavard, as well as the murder of King Erik IV in 1250.

Esrum’s glory
By the late 11th century, reform-minded monks in Europe were calling for greater fidelity to the Benedictine Rule. In 1098, a reform monastery was built in Bourgogne, France, and it dispatched brothers to establish affiliated monasteries. The order became known as the Cistercians. And after the Church the order became Europe’s first international organisation. The first Cistercians arrived in Denmark in 1144 and had soon converted the Benedictine Esrum Abbey in northern Zealand. Today, all that remains of the abbey is an impressive 15th century building. But in its day, Esrum was home to one of Scandinavia’s largest churches.

The movement grows
In 1161, the monks of Esrum established their first affiliated monastery in Sorø. The brothers’ presence led to more efficient agricultural production and the introduction of a wealth of knowledge that made Sorø and many other monasteries the learning centres of the day.
The Cisterciens established themselves across the country, including Vitskøl in the Liim Fjord, Holme (Brahetrolleborg) in southern Funen, and Løgum Abbey in South Jutland. The handsome brick church of Løgum Abbey remains one of northern Europe’s most impressive monastery buildings, and is to this day in use as a parish church. The traces of the past have been wiped out in most other places, but in Æbelholt, near Hillerød, excavations from the 1930s revealed some of the medical knowledge possessed by the brothers.

A country built on law
In the 12th century, the Kingdom of Denmark became an integrated part of Christian Europe. Young Danish clergymen such as Copenhagen’s later founder Absalon, and others from the Hvide family, headed to Paris to study theology and Latin, the language of knowledge in the Middle Ages. Taking his inspiration from Church law, King Valdemar II passed “Landscape Laws” for Zealand, Scania and Jutland. To this day, most people recognise the first sentence of the Codex Holmiensis (also known as the Jutland Code) - “With the law the country is built”.

Turning wood into stone
Starting in the late 11th century, a wave of church building got underway that saw the replacement of wooden buildings with stone ones. The hundreds of new churches were to make it possible for all Danes to go to church to hear the word of God being preached in Danish – not Latin, as is commonly believed. The parish church was where babies were christened, and the dead buried. At Easter, all adults were called on to confess their sins. The number of stone churches shows how deeply rooted the church was. But it remains unclear who built the churches, or whether the nobility as well as the peasantry contributed their money and their labour.

Construction boom
The country’s castles and castle mounds reveal that churches and abbeys weren’t the only buildings going up in the 12th century. The lead tablets buried with King Valdemar I in Ringsted Abbey Church in 1182 show that he built “a wall of oven-fired stone, known popularly as the Dannevirke, for the protection of the entire kingdom”. A tower built on the island of Sprogø in the Great Belt is also named. During his life, King Valdemar also oversaw the completion of Kalundborg Castle, Tårnborg Castle near Korsør, and Vordingborg Castle. The castles were intended as coastal defences against pirates. In Nyborg on Funen a castle used by the king to hold court in the late Middle Ages was also built.

Foreign know-how
Scattered throughout Denmark are the remains of castle mounds that were once part of medieval defences. One such example is Borgvold, built in 1314 by King Erik Menved in the centre of the town of Viborg. The landscape is dusted with structures that stand as evidence of the skill of their builders, who often sought inspiration from abroad, including the use of brick as a building material in the construction of the Dannevirke and Ringsted Abbey Church.

Consumed by the plague
The closing centuries of the Middle Ages (circa 1350-1536) are often described in terms of plague and warfare. The Bubonic Plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, first rolled in over Denmark in 1349. The ensuing waves resulted in a population decline, while the landscape was marked by abandoned homes and fallow fields. From the mid-15th century, things began to pick up again, especially in the countryside, where grain prices and highly valued agricultural labour meant newfound prosperity. The hundreds of rural churches in existence today bear witness to the prosperity of this period: wooden ceilings were replaced with stone vaults, while towers and porches were added. It was also during this period that artisans nationwide (including the Isefjord master) began painting church frescoes, transforming them to pictorial Biblical lessons. During the same period, in the towns of Maribo and Mariager, the first convents of a new order of nuns known as the Birgittines were established, while at the same time the country’s market towns were growing. Copenhagen, grown rich thanks to fishing in the Øresund, became the country’s capital. Secularly, as well as religiously, Denmark in the year 1500 was one of the more blessed members of what can be called the first European community: Medieval Christian Europe.