Comets, parhelia and fighting troops in the sky. Joen Petri Klint and the portents of the sixteenth century
In the sixteenth century, uncommon phenomena like comets, northern lights and earthquakes were viewed upon as bad omens. European research in the last decade has shown that they were perceived of as messages from God, and that they, as such, played an important role during the reformation. Learned Protestants devoted themselves to interpreting the signs of nature in the light of negative events that followed. The signs were often regarded as portens of the imminent doomsday.
One of these Protestants was Joen Petri Klint, a priest and a member of the Swedish Parliament. His rich manuscript about portents and their consequences has been preserved to the present day.
The manuscript has until now mainly been viewed upon as an expression of sensation-seeking and previous research is limited. In this study, the belief in portens will be viewed as an important key to understanding the conceptions of the reformation / counter-reformation era.
The overall aim of the project is to attain new knowledge about the imaginative world of the Protestants during the sixteenth century, by analysing Joen Petri Klints collection of portens in the light of European writings on portents, and of the Swedish reformation proces
This project has explored one of the most peculiar manuscripts from sixteenth century Sweden. It is a 400 page thick folio about portents, where stories about deformities in people and animals are located next to visions of halos, comets, fighting troops in the sky and other phenomena: everything appears mixed at random with no visible order. The manuscript also contains hundreds of colourful drawings illustrating the different signs. The collection was created by Joen Petri Klint, who was a clergyman who served in the area called Vikbolandet in the province of Östergötland until his death in 1608.
The book has been previously known, but not scientifically studied. From the beginning I have had an ambition to do a broad contextual analysis of the manuscript in order to see what it can tell us about the period in which it was created. A number of questions have guided the research, including such general ones as: Why was the collection made? Which sources did this clergyman, Joen Petri Klint, have access to? What were considered portents, and how did Klint interpret them?
In addition to working with the questions initially posed, the project soon took a somewhat unexpected direction. I realized that the leaves of the manuscript had been bound together at random, not in the original order. After profound analysis of each leaf and a concentrated piecing together of leaves, the manuscript has turned out to be a chronicle of omens, mainly covering the period 1550-1601. Making this analysis became a vital part of the project that was necessary in order to ascertain what kind of text the manuscript represents.
Transcription was also necessary to make analysis possible. This process enabled the categorization of the different signs and also made the text searchable. The chronicle covers a period of time in Swedish history that was eventful and turbulent. The rearranged text provides a much more compelling source for a researcher than an unorderly manuscript, which is difficult to read. Thus one of the main purposes of the project has become to make the chronicle accessible for future research. A philological edition, in the original chronological order of the text, will be one of the main results of the project. This creates good possibilities for further research on the manuscript on topics such as natural science, theology, natural philosophy, linguistics and politics.
Placing Joen Petri Klint in an international context has proven fruitful. He was far from the only one who collected and wrote about portents. Recent research has illustrated that the notions about strange phenomena as divine warnings was a learned discourse in the sixteenth century, especially within the Protestant church (see, e.g., Ken Kurihara 2010 and 2014, Jennifer Spinks 2009, Philip M. Soergel 2012, Michaela Schwegler 2002, Julie Crawford 2005). The basis for this kind of text was found in works by Luther and Melanchthon, and the ultimate purpose was finding portents of the coming of doomsday. For example, broadsheets describing wonders in both words and images were often written by protestant clergymen and contained theological interpretations of the signs. They were printed by the thousands, mainly in the free southern German cities from which they spread over vast areas. The imagery and outline of Klint's stories resemble such broadsheets. The reason is partly because he actually copied some broadsheets, but he also drew illustrations when he cited books that lacked images. As in the broadsheets, Klint's images bear meaning, and the message could also be roughly understood by an illiterate person. The Klint manuscript belongs to the genre of "wonder books," which grew more common in the second half of the sixteenth century. In these works protestant clergymen described and analysed wonders from a theological point of view. This could be a possible subject for further research, i.e., a comparison of Klint's "wonder book" with other contemporary texts on the same theme.
The events that Klint connected with the signs followed the generally accepted categories of signs and events that were common. For example, comets often presaged war and sundogs falseness, whereas meteorological phenomena were also related to forthcoming weather. Visions in the sky were interpreted according to their nature: red northern lights were seen as signs of bloodshed. Such general interpretations were widespread and shared by Klint, and the connections that he made were typical of his time. Through his stories he inevitably revealed much about his worldview and his opinions on religious and political development. Catholics visiting Sweden was presaged by dragons and evil monsters; conflicts were preceded by ringing bells and sightings of fighting troops in the sky. The text reflects all the religious and political turbulence in Sweden during the second part of the sixteenth century, which was the world in which he lived and worked. The purpose of his book was not to interfere in the actual developments. The reason he wrote his observations was because such events were generally believed to be the results of signs. That we, through his text, happen to gain rather good insight into what was happening around him and what he thought about it, is an inevitable bonus.
In his interpretations of the different signs, Klint is more typical than extraordinary. He should be seen as a representative of a learned discourse shared by all Protestant areas in Europe, rather than as a representative of popular beliefs. Except for anonymous broadsheets, Klint names his sources by making short references in the margin. These include some fifteen books, both historical chronicles and "scientific" texts, and about thirty almanacs, which indicate that Klint was rather well-read. An analysis of his use of sources shows that the references to particular pages and content are correct. The source often tells about either a sign or a particular event. However, the interpretation of an event as a punishment following upon a sign have often been made by Klint himself.
In the printed works and broadsheets about wonders in this era it was customary to add a comment about the divine origin of the wonder and what God wanted with the sign. Even when Klint copied other texts, he deliberately left out such theological reasoning. That was probably not because he questioned it, but because it did not serve any purpose in this particular context. He does have many references to the Bible, and sometimes apocalyptic interpretations of signs shine through, but such occasions usually concerned ascertaining what concrete events in society followed the signs. This characteristic separates Klint both from the sources he used and from other wonder books from this time. Klint thus emerges more as a researcher than as a clergyman in his book. The ultimate goal was probably theological, and one can assume that Klint made use of the wonder stories when preaching, but in this particular text that goal took a back seat to the more direct investigative purpose.
The Swedish and International Context
The study of the wonder book by Joen Petri Klint can be categorized as a part of a quickly growing international research field. A number of studies have been published recently which have placed focus on the importance of strange signs in the early modern period. Many broadsheets and wonder books are also being digitalized, which enables more efficient research. I hope that this will lead to fruitful collaboration in the future.
The project has been presented and discussed with colleagues at seminars and conferences, from the higher seminar in history at Linköping University to the Society for Renaissance Studies conference in Manchester, UK. In addition to fruitful conversations about the project, with, e.g., representatives of different archives, the project has also been presented outside the scientific community through lectures for special societies, such as the Saab Art Society or the Guild of Saint Ragnhild in Söderköping, and for a broader audience e.g., the one at the Stifts- och landsbiblioteket (regional library) in Linköping. It has also received attention in radio interviews.
The results will be published in a monograph, which will be divided into two parts, one containing my analysis of the book and the second the transcription. The transcription will, most likely, also be published electronically.
Since there is strong interest in the manuscript abroad, there are also plans to publish an English version (possibly only the first part). I have published a short popular article about the manuscript in Sveriges historia, del III (Norstedts, 2010), and more popular texts will be published.
Manus under arbete: Joen Petri Klints järteckenbok 1550-1601.
Publikationer under projektets löptid:
“German influence in Swedish medieval towns. Reflections upon the time-bound historiography of the twentieth century”, Lars Bisgaard, Lars Boje Mortensen & Tom Pettitt (eds.), Guilds, Towns and Cultural Transmission in the North, 1300-1500, Odense 2013, pp. 109-130.
“Sale of Goods around the Baltic Sea in the Middle Ages”, Stuart Jenks, Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz (eds.), The Hanse in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Brill, Leiden 2012, 129-148.
"Ingen given konflikt: svenskar och tyskar i medeltidens Stockholm", Samfundet S:t Erik, årsbok 2012, s. 29-36.
“Governance of northern European towns in the Middle Ages: the benefits of a comparative perspective” in Jesús Ángel Solórzano Telechea & Beatriz Arízaga Bolumburu (eds.), La gobernanza de la cuidad Europea en la edad media/Governance of the European city in the Middle Ages, Logroño 2011, pp. 47-74.
”Tecken i skyn” i Dick Harrison & Bo Eriksson, Sveriges historia: 1350-1600, Stockholm 2010, pp. 372-377.
”Succession in Medieval Swedish Town Councils” in Finn-Einar Eliassen & Katalin Szende (ed.) Generations in Towns: Succession and Success in Pre-Industrial Urban Societies, Newcastle upon Tyne 2009, pp. 194-209.
”Comparability between the Medieval Swedish Town Law and the Lübeck Law” in Laura Beck Varela, Pablo Gutiérrez Vega, Alberto Spinosa (eds.) Crossing Legal Cultures (Jahrbuch Junge Rechtsgeschichte/ Yearbook of Young Legal Historians 3) München 2009, pp. 129-140.