Fighting injustice in medieval Sweden

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Örebro is in an area of central Sweden called Bergslagen, which was particularly important in medieval times because of the rich deposits of iron, copper and other minerals. The mines are largely derelict now, lost to time, but in the 1400s they were an important part of the Swedish economy. The miners were, of course, poor. The mine owners were wealthy. As well as being an important commodity for local production iron was an important export providing income for the wealthy mine owners through sales and for the nobility through taxes. For the poor it provided employment and meagre wages to support their families.

The king in the 1430s was a certain Erik of Pomerania. Like many of the royalty of Sweden in those times he did not even live in Sweden, but in Denmark. Having said that, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland were joined as the so called Kalmar Union at that time, much as Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are now joined in the United Kingdom. Erik ruled over all. He spent much of his time, and lots of money, fighting wars with neighboring Germany. These wars were financed by taxes collected largely from the meagre earnings of the miners and farmers of Scandinavia who had little or no interest in the king’s foreign adventures.

Nobles were appointed by the king to collect the taxes. Many were unscrupulous, even downright brutal in their execution of this privilege. One who was particularly hated for his cruelty and inhumanity was the sheriff of Västerås. He was known for his practice of punishing tax offenders by hanging them in smokehouses to suffocate them. Their wives would be forced to drag wagons piled high with hay through the streets. Pregnant women were not exempt, and contemporary writings record the premature labour and stillbirths that resulted.

The poor had, however, little power or opportunity to react to this injustice. Like the poor of all ages they tended to accept their lot, paralyzed by a fatalistic sense of impotence. They were angry certainly, but they lacked military training or resources, and most importantly, organization and leadership. Into this vacuum, however, stepped a man called Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson. He was a mine owner from the small mining community of Norberg, north of Västerås. His wealth and power made him in many ways closer to the nobility than to the workers and farmers. But in one important way he was completely different: he did not see the men and women of the communities around him as a faceless source of income for personal enrichment, but rather as people with their own intrinsic value. Hearing them, and seeing their suffering, and recognizing the injustice and cruelty of the nobility of the land, he decided to stand with the poor, rather than the wealthy and influential. He was a man of compassion and mercy. He was also a charismatic speaker and a leader.

The Engelbrekt uprising that resulted is a central event in Swedish history. It is the story of a fight against injustice, a fight that succeeded in a way that no rebellion of the common man had ever done so in Sweden’s past history. Sadly, Engelbrekt came to a tragic end, murdered by a fellow noble who had a grudge against him. He was only around 40 when he died. But he has lived on in the consciousness of Sweden as a figure symbolizing the strength of the ordinary people united against injustice. Within a few years of his death he was canonized and stories started to circulate about miracles happening to pilgrims visiting his grave. The Reformation put an end to his recognition as a saint, but he became instead a folk hero, and lives on even now in the minds of modern Sweden as a leader of the people.

Örebro is rich in memories of Engelbrekt, for Örebro Castle was his home for a short time after his military successes and before his violent death. In the town square there is a statue of Engelbrekt, erected in the 1800s, although it is an imagined likeness since no contemporary images of Engelbrekt exist. His name is seen on street signs and there is even an Engelbrekt school.

I am inspired by this man because of his willingness to follow what I understand to be the values and principles of Jesus. Despite his wealth and privilege, Engelbrekt threw in his lot with the poor. He was committed to justice and mercy. He stood against the evil he saw around him. His methods, it is true, were violent – armed rebellion – which is not the way of Jesus. But Engelbrekt lived in violent times, and perhaps knew of no other way to right the wrongs he saw around him. How much he understood the Bible and the mind of God we cannot know. Indeed, few people read the Bible in those days; it was not available in the language of the people. People were dependent on the biblical interpretation of churchmen who were educated in Latin. Who knows what they said.

We cannot know what Engelbrekt thought. We have no record of what he spoke to the miners and farmers who rallied around him. But we know what he did, and we know how he was remembered. And that tells me that he was a follower of Jesus, knowingly or not.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18, 19

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