Signets of Power: The Late Middle Ages in Denmark, 1340-1536

Artikler

Introduction

The watershed that marks the transition from the High to Late Middle Ages is the great plague epidemic, the Black Death, which struck Europe in 1347-52. This, along with the many future epidemics, would have significant consequences for the following development of society. Most importantly, the dues the peasants had to pay to the landowners dropped, and almost all farm holdings were reorganised into middle-sized family holdings. The peasants who survived the plague would live under improved conditions.

During the following 100 years, the influence that the royal power had in society strengthened once more, and at the end of the 1300s, the now powerful Crown would spread its influence to Norway and Sweden in connection with the birth of the Kalmar union. In 1439, there was a turning point when the Council of the Realm definitively established itself as the representative of the wealthiest clergymen and noble landowners, and demanded greatly increased influence on the ruling of the country. Despite many disputes between landowners and the Crown in Denmark and especially in Sweden, the central power continued to strengthen. Furthermore, in connection with the Reformation in 1536, the Crown succeeded in placing the church and its property under what from this point forward can be referred to as the state.

The Reformation meant a rupture with the Catholic Church under the leadership of the Pope, and with that the end of the cultural conformity that had resulted from the influence of the multinational, Catholic Church on medieval Europe.

Content

Valdemar IV and the Rebuilding of the Royal Power 1340-75

Margrete I and the Kalmar Union 1376-1412

Erik of Pomerania’s reign after the death of Margaret I

Crisis and development in the countryside

Social conflicts

Conflicts between Crown and aristocracy, 1440-1481

Conflicts between the Crown and aristocracy, 1481-1523

Religious and social tensions, 1523-36

The State

Nobility

The Clergy

Towns and Commerce

Culture and Everyday Life

 

 

Valdemar IV and the Rebuilding of the Royal Power 1340-75

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During the 1320s and 30s, the king’s revenues – and with that, his power over the whole country – had been turned over to foreign, in particular Holstein, princes as well as the Swedish king. The pawned revenues functioned as security for large amounts that were in part lent to finance the Crown’s failed policies, and was partly the result of political blackmail.

In actuality, these so-called pledgees held all the castles of the kingdom, and therefore had the physical power in the country while at the same time collecting the royal incomes, by means of which their dues yielded interest. After eight years without a king, Valdemar IV was appointed king in 1340. During his 35 years as king, he succeeded in establishing a monarchy of unprecedented strength; among other things, he secured absolute control over the church, and through dominion over a fairly tight network of castles he secured efficient physical power over all areas of the country.

With the gradual collapse of the royal power in the 1320s and 30s, the country was plunged into increasing chaos. The foreign pledgees and their subcontractors intended to take full advantage of the situation while the opportunity was there. Foreign merchants and Danish clergymen were exposed to regular muggings, and the broad population was certainly also severely affected. For the squires, who could increasingly be characterised as nobility with inherited privileges, this development also meant that they lost their traditional opportunities for income and power as the administrators of the Crown. This led to a violent revolt, at least among the Jutlandic squires, which culminated with Niels Ebbesen’s killing of the Jutlandic-Funen pledgee, Count Gert, 1 April 1340.

Prior to this it had, with the help of foreign pressure, begun dawning on the pledgees that the situation was untenable. It would be preferable to escape in good order  with their money rather than be thrown out by military force. So shortly after Count Gert’s death, his sons and Count Johan of Holstein made a highly complicated agreement with the son of Christoffer II, Valdemar – who would later be known as Valdemar IV. This resulted in Valdemar becoming king of the northernmost parts of Jutland, with the possibility of acquiring the rest of the country from the pledgees. Skåne, Halland and Blekinge were not included in these arrangements, as the Swedish-Norwegian king Magnus Eriksson had seized control of these areas in 1332.

The subcontractors employed by the pledgees, however, proved difficult to control, which meant that nearly every castle on Zealand and Lolland-Falster had to be taken by force. Things went more smoothly in Jutland, while Funen also required military force; this would prove to be a protracted process. In 1360, however, Valdemar had come so far that he decided to use a golden opportunity to conquer Scania, Halland and Blekinge from King Magnus Eriksson.

Subsequently, the rest of Valdemar IV’s reign was generally marked by foreign-policy power struggles with Hanseatic cities, Mecklenburgers and Holsteiners. The great clash came in 1368, when they joined together and with great success attacked Denmark. However, because they could not agree on the goals of the war, Valdemar managed to survive with just a few concessions, one of which was the Treaty of Stralsund in 1370. The foreign enemies were supported by most of the Jutlandic noblemen, who had twice already rebelled against their king. As a result of this, they were forced to surrender much of their estates to the Crown as punishment for their disobedience.

During all of this, Valdemar IV succeeded in gaining control of the church. In return for suitable economic concessions to the Holy See, Valdemar managed to convince the former that it would be in the best interests of both parties for the Pope to appoint the bishops and clergymen Valdemar wanted. He also managed to consolidate the finances of the Crown and develop the royal court of justice, the Retterting, into a formidable instrument of power.

Towards the end of his life, Valdemar successfully worked toward securing control over the duchy of Schleswig, as the lineage of dukes died out in 1375.

Margrete I and the Kalmar Union 1376-1412

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Despite struggling against the Mecklenburgian line of princes, the daughter of Valdemar IV, Margrete I, managed to seize power over the three Scandinavian kingdoms. The key to this was presumably the fact that the noblemen of all three kingdoms feared that the Mecklenburgian royal house would rule by means of Mecklenburgian noblemen, thereby forcing the native magnates out of their customary positions.

Valdemar IV died in 1375 without leaving a son to succeed him. Two daughters, who had been married to King Haakon VI of Norway-Sweden and a duke of Mecklenburg, respectively, had each given birth to a son in the meantime, and thus the battle for succession was between them. After a good deal of war, racket and difficulty, a new kingdom was consolidated under one of the grandchildren – the Norwegian King Oluf.

Oluf, however, died at the early age of 16 in 1387, whereupon his mother, Queen Margrete I, seized the reins of power for good. In 1380, King Oluf had assumed the kingship of Norway, which included dominion over Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands among others, after his father; thus, these also came under Margrethe’s leadership. In Sweden, fortunately for Margrete, it so happened that the Swedish noblemen rebelled against King Albrecht of Mecklenburg. Through the joint efforts of the nobility and Margrete, they managed to defeat King Albrecht, after which Margrete could assume control over most of Sweden, including Finland.

Subsequently, Margrete ruled over Denmark, Norway and Sweden, even though it would be a while before she could secure control over all of Sweden. However, in 1397 Margrete had come to the point where she could have her nephew and successor, Erik of Pomerania, crowned king of all three kingdoms at Kalmar. Meanwhile, an attempt that just barely failed was made at creating a constitution for what has afterwards been known as the Kalmar Union.

Despite the crowning of Erik of Pomerania, Margrete maintained control until her death in 1412. She continued the efforts of Valdemar IV to unify the power around her figure by effective control over the church, and by reducing the influence and wealth of the powerful landowners. She also managed to establish a strong power in Norway, while things moved more slowly in Sweden.

In 1386, Margrete had been forced to leave the duchy of Schleswig to the Holstein counts because of the power struggles following the death of Valdemar IV. During her final years, she tried with a considerable amount of success to remedy this, although by the time of her death there was still much work to be done.

Erik of Pomerania’s reign after the death of Margaret I

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Following the death of Margaret I in 1412, Erik of Pomerania was finally able to rule by himself. His biggest challenges would be wars with Holstein and Hanseatic towns, followed by a rebellion in Sweden. As a result of this, he was deposed in 1439.

Erik of Pomerania immediately turned to completing the acquisition of the duchy of Schleswig from the Holstein counts, which Margaret I had busily worked on during her final years. Yet even though he could use the combined resources of the three Scandinavian kingdoms in his war, things went poorly in the long run. In addition to that, he also had a falling out with the Hanseatic cities, which lead to a war with them as well. He fared much better in this area, but he was unable to prevent the Hanseatic cities, Lübeck and Hamburg in particular, from lending military support to the Holsteiners as well as giving them a virtually unlimited amount of credit, for fear that Erik would become too powerful. Before things had calmed down, he imposed a duty on everyone passing through the Sound (Øresund). With that, the Sound Dues had become a reality – again to the chagrin of the Hanseatic cities.

In 1432 Erik was forced to enter a not particularly glorious truce with both the Hanseatic cities and Holstein, which in reality meant that he had to acknowledge the loss of Schleswig and accept that the Hanseatic cities would continue to enjoy far-reaching privileges in his kingdoms, as well as freedom from paying duty in the Sound.

Erik carried on Margaret’s strongly centralised governing of the Kalmar union. In order to secure as much as possible from Sweden and Norway in terms of taxations and soldiers for his wars, he increasingly installed Danes and Germans as local administrators in these countries, which gradually led to discontent among the native populations.

In 1434, a rebellion rose in Sweden against Erik’s harsh fiscal policy. The rebellion started out as a popular revolt, but soon the Swedish magnates saw the opportunities to use the rebellion to secure their desired influence on the rule of Sweden. In 1436 a revolt also broke out in Norway, for the same reasons as in Sweden, and during a conciliatory meeting the king, prompted by the Council of the Realm, was largely forced to yield to the wishes of the Swedish nobility.

Meanwhile, it would turn out that Erik of Pomerania did in fact not wish to be a ‘yes man’ for the magnates as he claimed. He decided on the, for a king, highly untraditional and went on strike.  He settled on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, and earned his living via piracy, while hoping that Scandinavia would descend into chaos and he would be asked to return on his own conditions. In 1438 he briefly visited Denmark where he organised something akin to a coup d’état in favour of the cousin he had envisioned as his successor, before returning to Gotland along with the national coffers.

Shortly afterwards, a far-reaching peasant rebellion broke out and the Council of the Realm decided to summon Christoffer, the son of Erik’s sister, in order to keep things in check. As soon as Christoffer of Bavaria had arrived, the Council denounced Erik of Pomerania as king in 1439. In order to ensure foreign-policy security, an armistice and alliance was made with Holstein and the Hanseatic cities. Soon afterwards, Erik of Pomerania was also deposed in Sweden and shortly after that in Norway as well.

Crisis and development in the countryside

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From 1349 onward, Denmark was struck by several plague epidemics. At first, this caused a severe lack of labour with which to keep the means of production going. The result of this was big changes in the organisation of agricultural production and large social displacements.

The Black Death struck Denmark in 1349-50. By comparing to better-known conditions elsewhere, it is estimated that it cost around 40% of the Danish population their lives. However, the plague returned in 1360, 1368-1369 and 1379, and possibly other years as well. This caused a big inroad into the following generations, who could have otherwise filled the holes left by the dead, and around the year 1400, it seems probable that the population had been halved.

This lead to a pronounced lack of manpower. Large numbers of farms were deserted and settlements disappeared. However, this provided most of the remaining population with a good starting hand. Wages increased in the cities, and in the country, the rent that the landowners demanded from peasants was cut almost in half. Furthermore, the production system found on the large estates was gradually rearranged. This system had previously been characterised by relatively big farms, along with small ones, whose main task consisted of providing labour for the larger farm holdings. The large farms were now divided and the smaller farms merged, with the result that villages eventually consisted of rather well sized family holdings – that is to say that the reasonably productive soil of land belonging to a copyhold farm averaged around 20 hectares.

Since there was now an abundance of land, it freed up more space for animal husbandry. Particularly oxen sold in domestic and foreign cities grew increasingly important throughout the 1400s, becoming a highly profitable export-commodity in the 1500s. The relatively equal distribution of cultivated land among the farms in the villages meant a democratization of village life – the community of copyhold peasants became significantly more influential concerning the running of production and other matters in the villages.

For the landowners, the lack of labour caused great difficulties. Many teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, while others took advantage of the situation by buying land as the prices plummeted. The lesser squires by far got the worst of it, however. The so-called lesser nobility was largely forced to give up their noble status and become freeholders, or sell their land and become merchants in the city. Others managed to maintain their position by becoming administrators for the large landowners. On the other hand, these landowners gradually came to possess significantly more land per landowner. This occurred by means of inheritance as well as purchasing land from their less fortunate counterparts. Around 1500 it is possible to find individual landowners who owned around 1000 farms.

Social conflicts

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Around the middle of the 1400s, the situation was stabilized following the large number of deaths caused by the plague outbreaks, and the subsequent changes in the production system caused by the lack of manpower. The population was gradually increasing once again. The stage was now set for increasing social tensions, and the last 100 years of the Middle Ages were greatly marked by peasant rebellions and social unrest.

Once the drop in population had stopped, the landowners no longer needed to compete for labour, and the demands on the copyholders could slowly be increased again. Apparently, increasing the rent for the land itself was not feasible; at least, this did not occur. A due was imposed at the accession of a copyhold farm, which in turn was adjustable in line with demand. In addition to that, the landowners were able to exploit the fact that they were protectors of the farmers, physically as well as legally. In the medieval relationship between protector and protected, the farmers were considered servants of the landowners in exchange for their protection. This included an obligation to serve their master through work, when needed, as well as to provide food, drink and accommodations for the landowners and their retinue, when they were travelling around. In time, these obligations were usually replaced with fixed dues.

In the final years of the 1400s, the vornedskab was introduced on Zealand, Lolland and Falster. This meant that the sons of a copyhold farmer were legally obliged to remain on the estate where they were born. The peasants were thus subjected to serfdom, and with that lost the option of moving if they were discontent with their current living conditions. Finally, the landowners extensively monopolised forests and fishing waters, which meant that peasants had to pay for admission to these natural resources. Hunting absolutely remained a monopoly for the landowners, however.

This development was accompanied by a wish from the landowners to gain increased judicial power over the copyholders. This culminated in 1523 when the landowners received what could be translated  into ‘right to neck and hand’ of their copyholders which meant that rights of policing and punishment of criminal peasants was left to the landowners, while the right to pass sentences on them was still left to public courts . This also meant that the landowners received the fines imposed on their subjects. Access to these fines was, naturally, profitable for the landowners. Some of the richest landowners were even, by royal privilege, assigned the right to establish their own courts of justice for their peasants.

For the sixth of the peasants who were freeholders, development formed in a rather strange way. As the lack of labour increased, it became increasingly important for the Crown to put a stop to freeholders selling their farms to landowners and becoming copyhold farmers. Valdemar IV apparently managed to fight this. Margrethe I, however, hit the nail on the head in 1396 by insisting that freeholders were under the protection of the Crown, and therefore forced to remain on their holding, or taking possession of one if they were in line to inherit it; otherwise, the Crown could not protect them. Freeholders thus became serfs of a sort. Because they were unable to move away, during the reign of Erik of Pomerania, most freeholders could be subjected to rents and dues so sizable that they became virtually indistinguishable from copyhold farmers.

The Late Middle Ages thus became a time of unrest and upheaval. This was also reflected by a number of peasant rebellions and disturbances. In 1438-41 peasant rebellions arose all over the country; in 1472 there was a rebellion in Schleswig; 1523 and 1531 there were disturbances, particularly in Jutland; and 1523-1525 saw a rebellion in Scania. It all culminated with the so called “Count’s Feud” in 1534-36, including the instigation caused by Skipper Clement in Jutland 1534.

For den sjettedel af landets bønder, som var selvejere, kom udviklingen til at forme sig ganske mærkeligt. Jo større manglen på arbejdskraft blev, jo vigtigere blev det for kongemagten at sætte en stopper for, at selvejerbønder solgte deres gård til en godsejer og blev fæstebønder. Valdemar Atterdag havde tilsyneladende held med at bekæmpe dette. Margrethe 1 slog imidlertid hovedet på sømmet ved i 1396 at insistere på, at selvejerbønder var under kongemagtens værn og derfor havde at blive på deres brug eller overtage ét, hvis de var arving til det. Selvejerne blev altså underkastet en slags stavnsbånd. Hermed blev der åbnet op for, at de fleste selvejerbønder i løbet af Erik af Pommerns regeringstid kunne blive pålagt så betydelige afgifter til kronen, at de i realiteten ikke var til at skelne fra fæstebønder.

Senmiddelalderen blev altså i høj grad en social brydningstid. Dette gav sig også udtryk i en række bondeoprør eller –uroligheder. 1438-41 var der forskellige bondeoprør over hele landet, i 1472 var der oprør i Slesvig, i 1523 og 1531 var der uroligheder især i Jylland, 1523-1525 var der oprør i Skåne. Det hele kulminerede i forbindelse med Grevens Fejde 1534-36 herunder Clementsfejden i Jylland i 1534.

Conflicts between Crown and aristocracy, 1440-1481

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Christoffer of Bavaria was elected king of Denmark April 9 1440 and shortly afterwards of Sweden and Norway as well. The Kalmar Union had been restored, but now worked under entirely new conditions. The Councils of the Realm in all three countries had secured power by deposing Erik of Pomerania, which meant that instead of the heavily centralised and relatively absolute Danish reign – as had been the case under Margrethe and Erik of Pomerania – there was now one king who was forced to negotiate with the three councils.

The politics of the councils worked to ensure that only domestic nobles got leading posts in the administrations of respective countries; that there was a national government to rule when the king was in one of the other countries; and that the revenue of the individual country was not used for purposes irrelevant to it. In addition to this, there was a gradually increasing interest in acquiring more noble privileges, as well as right of veto for the Councils of the Realm in all important government matters.

The increase in the power of the Councils of the Realm eventually meant that the need to have a common king was questioned in Sweden and Norway. Despite some crises, the Danish kings managed to keep hold of Norway, while their influence over Sweden faded.

Christoffer of Bavaria died childless at an early age in 1448. Once again it was necessary to look abroad in order to find a successor with royal blood in his veins. Someone must have had the idea to kill two, or three, birds with one stone and secure a future union of Denmark with Schleswig and Holstein. At first, the Danish Council of the Realm turned to a former enemy of the realm, Adolf, duke of Schleswig and count of Holstein and offered him the crown. He in turn referred to his sister’s son, count Christian of Oldenburg, who Adolf – who was childless himself – must have chosen as his own successor in Schleswig and Holstein. Christian was also related, albeit very distantly, to the Danish royal family.

Thus, the Council of the Realm decided on Christian I – with the future consequence that the Oldenburg family sat on the Danish throne until 1863. However, before this Christian had to sign a coronation charter, which forced him to involve the council in all major decisions. The choice of Christian was a breach of an earlier agreement by the three Scandinavian Councils of the Reign to jointly elect kings, so the Swedes likely felt justified in electing the native nobleman Karl Knutsson (Karl VIII) as their king. Following this, there was a race between the two to become the king of Norway. Both candidates had support among Norwegian magnates. In the end, however, Christian I came out on top, presumably because he was able to mobilise the most resources. These and other problems found a temporary solution in 1450, when it was agreed to restore the Kalmar Union at the first opportunity.

That opportunity would present itself in 1457, when a rebel Swedish party allied with Christian sent Karl VIII packing. History would repeat itself in 1464, this time the other way around as Christian was deposed and Karl returned as king. Apart from a few brief exceptions, this would prove to be the end of the joint rule between Denmark and Norway on one side, with Sweden on the other. The issue remained a part of the political agenda until 1523, however. Sweden was in this period marked by political power struggles of varying amounts of violence between different factions, who either supported or were against the Danish king taking the Swedish throne (or merely used the point of contention to further their own ambitions). In Denmark, the king’s efforts to claim the Swedish throne by means of war or diplomacy drained the national coffers. The consequences of this were additional taxes on the population and occasionally large concessions to the political interests of the Danish aristocracy.

In 1460, Christian I managed to secure dominion over Schleswig and Holstein after his maternal uncle, Count Adolf, died. Since Christian was not the sole heir, however, it took colossal amounts of money to buy out the other heirs, as well as necessitating large political concessions to the Schleswig-Holstein aristocracy, who managed to ensure that the areas would never become incorporated into the kingdom of Denmark, and that Schleswig and Holstein should forever remain united. With that, Christian became duke of Schleswig, which was formally a dukedom under the Danish crown, and count of Holstein that formally belonged to the German realm. In 1474, he managed to persuade the German emperor to upgrade Holstein to a duchy.

Conflicts between the Crown and aristocracy, 1481-1523.

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Following massive military efforts, King Hans and Christian II managed to extend their kingship to Sweden in 1497-1501 and 1520-21, respectively. Both were ousted as the result of rebellions, however, and when the Swedes elected Gustav Vasa as king in 1523 while Christian II at the same time was deposed in Denmark, the Kalmar Union, and eventually also the eternal Swedish unrest, came to a definitive end. Both Hans and Christian II had their power severely restricted by the Council of the Realm at their accession, but disregarded their coronation charters almost completely during their governance. When Christian II was deposed in 1523, he was forced to realize that ruling Denmark while being at odds with the wealthy aristocratic landowners was impossible.

Christian I died in 1481 and it would seem to be an easy task for his oldest son, Hans, to succeed him as king. Prince Hans had a baby brother named Frederik, however, who had claims to inheritance in the duchies. The result of this was that both Schleswig and Holstein were divided into a royal and a ducal part. In addition to that, hope was that the Swedes would yield and accept Hans as their king. This hope would turn out to be futile in 1483, and Hans was subsequently elected king of Denmark and Norway after signing an extraordinarily strict coronation charter.

As mentioned earlier, King Hans did not pay much attention to the promises made in his coronation charter. He favoured untitled people and low nobility as administrators on the royal castles, as well as Danes as administrators in Norway, in order to keep a hold on events. In addition to that, King Hans led a highly provocative policy towards the Hanseatic cities, particularly Lübeck, which led to war. His most famous act as king was a completely unsuccessful attempt at forcing the peasants of Ditmarschen, west of Holstein, into submission. The year after that, he was ousted from his brief dominion over Sweden. A year after that, he seems to have been unfortunately implicated in the murder of his leading official and the largest landowner in the country.

King Hans died after falling from his horse in 1513 and was succeeded by his son, Christian II, after the latter signed another strict coronation charter. If possible, however, Christian paid even less attention to the charter than his father did. He began a huge project to modernise the country, an important aspect of which was to strengthen the cities along the Sound as trading posts in cooperation with Dutch merchants, but at the expense of the Hanseatic cities. Furthermore, he began modernising the legislation by replacing the old provincial laws with nationwide statute books for country and city, respectively.

These projects were certainly ahead of their time, in the sense that it was impossible to rally sufficient political support to counter the reluctance of the high nobility. Disaster did not strike until 1521, however, when he used the opportunity as newly fledged Swedish king to rid himself of the Swedish opposition by executing more than 80 Swedish noblemen and leading citizens in the so-called Stockholm Bloodbath. This led to a fierce rebellion in Sweden, as well as the ousting of Christian. In 1523 followed a denunciation of the oath of allegiance by leading Jutlandic magnates in collaboration with Christian II’s paternal uncle, Duke Frederik of Schleswig-Holstein, with support from Lübeck. After that the laws of Christian II were symbolically burned. After receiving the denunciation, Christian II decided to escape and seek aid from his powerful brother-in-law, Emperor Charles V, after which Frederik I was made king of Denmark. The same year, the rebel leader Gustav Vasa was elected king of Sweden, which definitively ended the Kalmar Union and a common Swedish-Danish king. The union with Norway would last until 1814, however.

Religious and social tensions, 1523-36

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The Late Middle Ages were in most of Europe characterised by social tensions. In many places, authorities were questioned – especially the rich and powerful Catholic Church. In 1521, Martin Luther – under the protection of a German prince – definitively split from the Pope and the Catholic Church. Luther, however, was only the tip of the iceberg, and several religious reform movements asserted themselves in Germany in these years. These currents were also felt in Denmark, where the Lutheran Reformation became a reality in 1536. Until then, the deposed king Christian II still played a role; partly because it was feared that his brother-in-law, the emperor Charles V, would lend him military support to reclaim the Danish throne, and partly because he became a symbol of unity for the dissatisfaction with the ruling system.

Frederik I did nothing to stop the religious reform movements that quickly spread throughout Denmark, especially in the cities. He was sympathetic to the Lutheran ideas of reformation, and more or less supported these discretely. This obviously led to dissatisfaction among the catholic majority of the Council of the Realm. The king did manage, however, in 1526 to exclude the Pope from influence on bishop nominations in Denmark, which meant that contact with the Holy See was in reality broken.

The aid that Christian II had hoped to receive from Emperor Charles V following his deposition was long in coming, however. But the fear of the emperor, as well as possible Swedish efforts to expand following its independence, necessitated a state of military alert which carried with it further taxes and protests.

In 1531, Christian appeared in Norway with a fleet recruited from the Netherlands, in the hope of conquering Norway and subsequently moving on to Denmark. Things turned out differently than he had hoped, and he entered into negotiations with his safety guaranteed. The safe-conduct was broken, however, and Christian II was captured, put on a boat and sailed to Sønderborg Castle, where he was imprisoned for most of the rest of his life.

Frederick I died in 1533, after which the Council of the Realm gathered to elect a new king. Frederick’s eldest son, Duke Christian, had by then implemented the Reformation in the northern part of Schleswig, which had been left for him to rule. This made him a completely unacceptable choice for the catholic members of the council, led by the bishops, while others were opposed to different solutions, which meant that the council parted without having elected a king.

Lübeck decided to take a gamble in this situation and financed an army that would, in collaboration with rebellious citizens of towns and peasants, reinstate Christian II. Lübeck was thus hoping to regain control over the Danish trade and traffic in Danish waters. The following (civil) war was named after the leader of the mercenaries funded by Lübeck, Count Christoffer of Oldenburg, and known as the Count’s Feud (1534-36).a

Count Christoffer managed relatively quickly to seize hold of Zealand, Scania and Funen with the help of citizens of towns and peasants. One of Christian II’s followers, Skipper Clement, managed to raise a peasant rebellion in all of western and northern Jutland, and defeated an army consisting of noblemen. Before that, the Jutlandic members of the Council of the realm had conferred and then approached Duke Christian, who arrived in Jutland with a mercenary army at the end of 1534, and was hailed as Christian III (1503-1559). He would soon secure power in Jutland and during the following year also Funen, Zealand and Scania as well, thanks to his army. After a siege lasting a year, Copenhagen also surrendered. Following this, the catholic bishops were imprisoned, their lands and riches as well as that of the monasteries were confiscated by the Crown, and a Lutheran national church was established under the king’s leadership. The Danish Reformation had thus been implemented.

The State

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With the Reformation, the two medieval public authorities – the Church and the king – had merged. The Crown had taken over the Church, which was made quite apparent when 35% of the land, hitherto owned by ecclesiastical institutions, was more or less consolidated with the 12% owned by the Crown and the 16% owned by freeholders. In some ways, this was a natural consequence of the strengthening of the central power, consisting of the king and his administration as well as the Council of the Realm, in the preceding period. These may have disagreed on a great many things, but together they gradually secured a monopoly on legislation and jurisdiction, as well as the power to wage war. With that, Denmark had a government in earnest.

The Council of the Realm elected the kings up until 1660, which ensured that its power and influence was defined in coronation charters. The coronation charters affirmed that king and council would rule the Kingdom of Denmark jointly. These two bodies ruled as had been the case for most of the 1400s the legislative power. The things were from about 1400 ruled by judges appointed by the king. In connection with the Reformation, the ecclesiastical courts were abolished and shortly afterwards a more consequent system was introduced ensuring that sentences could be appealed to a higher thing, up to the royal court, whose authority was exercised by the king and the Council of the Realm. With some exception of the judicial power held formally and especially informally by the landowners, the judiciary had become subordinate to the power of state.

The king’s realm included, apart from Denmark, the kingdom of Norway as well as the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Norway had its own Council of the Realm up until the Reformation. Then it was abolished in Christian III’s coronation charter, after which the Danish council also represented Norway. However, Norway maintained its own legislation and administrative systems and thus kept its particular identity. The duchies were ruled separately in collaboration with the native noblemen. The state of the Oldenburgan kings thus was a so-called conglomerate state.

The military power was also centralised. During the 1400s, the noble cavalry gradually lost importance to professional foot soldiers in conjunction with the development of new weaponry that made trained infantry superior to noble cavalry. This type of professional soldiers had to be hired in northern Germany, and that was only economically possible for the Crown. This development was strengthened from the beginning of the 1500s, when firearms and especially cannons became truly effective. With that if not before it became nigh impossible to rebel against the king, unless his power was seriously weakened, from inside as was the case in 1523. Only the Crown possessed the resources necessary to purchase cannons and build fortresses able to withstand cannon fire. This development in military technology played a large part in the centralisation of power in the Late Middle Ages.

The local administration was organised in so-called fiefs. Most of these – about 40 – had as its centre a royal castle watched over by a royal steward who was responsible for the military and judicial system in the area. Furthermore, he was in charge of collecting royal taxes, dues and fines as well as rent from the Crown’s estates in the fief.

Nobility

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The social development in the countryside during the late Middle Ages led to the creation of an upper aristocracy among landowners, while the lesser landowners became rarer. The larger landowners were with time able to seize power over the Council of the Realm, which gave them significant influence over the ruling of the country. In the beginning of the 1500s, the word 'nobility' was introduced to describe people who were landowners and considered themselves above everyone else because of their lineage. In 1526, they were told to use fixed family names in order to raise themselves above the general population, who continued the tradition of creating their surnames by adding ‘søn’ (son) to their father’s name, for instance Jens Hanssøn or Hansen (son of Hans). Most of the noble families looked to their coat of arms and came up with names such as Gyldenstjerne (golden star) or Rosenkrantz (rosary) or whatever inspiration they could get.

During the Late Middle Ages, the nobility received a monopoly on the land already owned by them which amounted to one third of all land in the country; in other words, land in the possession of nobles could only be passed on to other nobles. They also received a monopoly on all higher royal offices and to a large degree to the higher ecclesiastical offices as well so long as the Catholic Church existed. Finally, they managed to stop almost all new entries into nobility. In 1645, the nobility consisted of around 1800 persons divided among about 500 households and making up around 0.25 per cent of the population. The proportion of noble persons was somewhat larger during the Late Middle Ages, but it decreased over time. The nobility was a small, exclusive caste.

The Clergy

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The clergy was very much a compound group. Seven bishops, who owned great properties as well as seats on the Council of the Realm, led the clergy. These were often – though not always – nobility. To help with the administration and church services, they were aided by chapters consisting of canons who also disposed sizable properties due to their offices. Bishops and canons were usually educated at North German universities, although usually in law rather than theology. They were primarily administrators and politicians whose career paths went through the royal central administration. Apart from that, cathedrals and larger churches also employed a number of altar priests, whose job was to carry out the church services associated with the countless donated altars that characterised the largest churches of the Late Middle Ages.

The parish priests were usually recruited from the peasantry or from priests’ sons, who in order to become priests themselves had to get a dispensation from the Pope for their ‘birth defect’. Catholic clergymen were obliged to lead an unmarried, celibate life. They were normally educated at cathedral schools. They provided for themselves via the farms that came with the office, along with part of the tithes.

Lowest in the hierarchy were the vicars, whose job was to take care of other clergymen’s offices in line with the consolidation of several ecclesiastical offices. This was particularly a consequence of the decrease of income from land after 1350, which necessitated larger holdings to maintain the same standard of living. This was achieved then by combining several offices and leaving the work to be done to underpaid vicars.

1479 saw the beginning of a new ecclesiastical institution, when Christian I, with the permission of the Pope, founded a university in Copenhagen. In reality, however, it was a theological college that struggled to compete against the well-established northern German universities. This necessitated a ban against studying abroad until students had spent two years at the University of Copenhagen.

The ca. 100 monasteries and convents of Denmark housed a rather large population of monks and nuns. These consisted mainly of two groups:  the monasteries that owned land and were located in the countryside and the mendicant monasteries found in the cities, where the monks depended on donations from the population. The wealthiest monastery was Sorø Abbey, which owned around 625 farms. Several new monasteries were also founded during the 1400s, which led to new orders such as the Bridgettines, Carmelites and the Order of the Holy Ghost establishing them in Denmark; usually sponsored by the kings.

Towns and Commerce

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The overall conditions for Danish trade changed drastically during the Late Middle Age. By the 1400s, the Scania Market had lost its position as an international goods market. Focus instead shifted to herring trade, which culminated at that time with an export of around 300,000 barrels of salted herring per year – about 35,000 tonnes – not including domestic sales. The by far most important players in the herring export trade were merchants from the Hanseatic towns on the south-west coast of the Baltic Sea, headed by Lübeck.

The change in the Scania Market to exclusively trade in herring meant that the Danish towns could no longer import goods directly from the Scania Market, but had to establish direct trading routes with the Hanseatic towns.

During the 1400s, the Northern German and Pomeranian Hanseatic towns were facing increasing pressure in the form of competition from the English and in particular Dutch towns. These were able to sail directly through The Sound to their destinations on the Eastern coast of the Baltic and in Prussia, where they especially picked up grain and where the Dutch sold their textiles. Because of this, the Northern German Hanseatic towns lost a significant part of their traditional roles as mediators between the Baltic area and Western Europe. This led to several wars when the Hanseatic towns attempted to keep the Dutch out of the Baltic Sea by force. In the beginning of the 1500s, the Northern German cities had pretty much lost the struggle, and their economic importance diminished significantly.

As a whole, the populations of the Northern European towns grew steeply during the 1400s. This led to an increasing demand for food, which benefitted Denmark. Apart from grain and herring, the Danish export turned to slaughtered and live cattle. During the 1400s, the export of live oxen increased drastically, culminating in the 1500s with significant gains, particularly for merchants and landowners.

This also led to growth in the Danish towns, with regard to numbers as well as size. Around 20 new cities came into being after 1400 – predominantly in areas that previously had not had many towns. Most of the existing also grew, particularly the ones new and old along The Sound.

As early as the 1300s, towns began demanding monopoly on all trading. Furthermore, towns became a political factor in the 1400s and fought to make sure that all trade went through them. This was widely successful, in particular because the Crown had an economic interest in supporting the growth of the towns. However, it was impossible to prevent the large ecclesiastical and secular landowners from doing their own foreign trades with the yields of their estates, just as the peasants on the south-facing coasts sailed their products directly to the Northern German towns.

The towns were run by co-opting town councils recruited among the wealthiest merchants, who took care of the administrative and judicial system in the towns in co-operation with a royal bailiff. On the other side was the increasing number of artisans who organised themselves into guilds. The guilds adjusted the prices, quality and quantities of their goods and services under the supervision of the town councils, which meant that the two often opposed one another. The largest portion of the growing town population, however, consisted of poor day-labourers and unskilled labourers. By the end of the Middle Age, the town population made up almost 10% of the total population. Most towns were very small; on the other hand, there were many of them – ca. 100 at the end of the Middle Age. Copenhagen was the largest with around 4,500 inhabitants at the beginning of the 1500s.

Allerede i 1300-tallet begyndte byerne at kræve monopol på al handel. Og i 1400-tallet udviklede byerne sig til en politisk faktor, som kæmpede for, at al handel skulle gå igennem dem. Dette lykkedes i vid udstrækning, især fordi kongemagten af hensyn til sine egne indtægter var interesseret i at støtte byernes udvikling. Men man kunne ikke forhindre de store gejstlige og verdslige godsejere i at drive deres egen udenrigshandel med afkastet fra deres godser, ligesom bønderne på sydvendte kyster drev en livlig sejlads på de nordtyske byer.

Byerne styredes af selvsupplerende byråd rekrutteret blandt de rigeste købmænd, som varetog byernes forvaltning og retsvæsen i samarbejde med en kongelig foged. Over for disse stod en voksende mængde håndværkere, som organiserede sig i lav. Lavene regulerede priser, kvalitet og mængder af deres varer og ydelser under kontrol fra - og derfor ofte i modsætning til - byrådene. Den største del af den voksende bybefolkning var dog fattige daglejere og arbejdsmænd. Ved middelalderens udgang udgjorde bybefolkningen vel hen imod 10% af den samlede befolkning. De fleste byer var meget små; til gengæld var der mange af dem - ca. 100 ved middelalderens udgang. Størst var København med ca. 4.500 indbyggere i begyndelsen af 1500-tallet.

Culture and Everyday Life

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The Late Middle Age was characterised by a growing individualism, probably related to the social upheavals of the time. This was reflected in the increased interest in the individual’s fate after death. According to Catholic teachings, one could expect to spend time in Purgatory, where the unpleasantness and duration of the stay was directly proportional to the number of sins one had committed in life – and there were many ways to sin. To help the priests keep track of all these sins, special guidebooks were created. These contained more than 100 different questions that the priests could then ask the penance-seekers. Afterwards, these sins could be offset by carrying out a corresponding number of various good deeds.

The surest way to ensure a positive balance on this account was through donations to religious institutions. Best of all was to set up one or more altars, at which priests could pray for one’s soul for all time. This was accomplished by ceding a portion of land to an ecclesiastical institution, which could then use the income from said land to employ a priest to tend to the altar, as well as financing the equipment and maintenance of the altar. The larger churches were gradually furnished with a large number of these altars; the cathedral in Lund, Scania, held more than 60 such altars, and one can imagine the constant noise in these churches from the perpetual stream of prayers and chants. Most of these alters were – naturally – paid for by nobles and ecclesiastical landowners who would then be buried in front of the  altar under a finely cut headstone. However, the less wealthy could band together in societies, who would then collectively pay for an altar and a priest to pray for the souls of the deceased members.

Absolution was, however, also available for purchase from the Pope. This developed into a large industry, where the papal pardoners travelled and sold letters that cancelled out a certain number of days in Purgatory. This became an important premise for the Reformation’s break with the Pope, since many people with time came to consider this an unchristian practice.

During the 1400s, there was a new wave of church building. Most churches were outfitted with towers, porches and chapels for holding altars and funerals, as well as vaults and large Gothic windows, while new churches were built in most towns. Most churches were also furnished with (new) murals. All of this was done in the so-called Gothic style, which gained a footing in the 1200s. It was characterised by striving towards the heaven and light, with pointed arches and high ceilings rather than the Romanesque low, rounded arches. The church building of the 1400s was strongly influenced by the brick architecture found in the Northern German Hanseatic towns.

A single larger chronicle – Chronica Sialandie (Danish: Yngre Sjællandske Krønike) – is known from the 1300s, which, among other things, closely follows the activities of Valdemar IV. The 1400s are characterised by a mysterious lack of surviving larger works of literature, but in the early 1500s, historiography and debates about religion and society once again flourished, aided to a large degree by the relatively new art of printing. The best-known names from this period are Poul Helgesen and Christian Pedersen, who were both inspired by the so-called humanism of the Northern European renaissance.

During the Middle Ages, a considerable immigration took place, particularly by German nobles and merchants. Furthermore, during the Late Middle Age, the Danish language was heavily influenced by the Northern German dialect (Low German). The Danes of the Late Middle Ages were conscious of the fact that they were Danish, however. According to contemporary statements, what separated Danes from others was their language, laws and customs/culture.

Om artiklen

Forfatter(e)
Anders Bøgh
Tidsafgrænsning
1340 - 1536
Medietype
Tekst
Sidst redigeret
19. marts 2019
Sprog
Engelsk
Udgiver
danmarkshistorien.dk

Om artiklen

Forfatter(e)
Anders Bøgh
Tidsafgrænsning
1340 - 1536
Medietype
Tekst
Sidst redigeret
19. marts 2019
Sprog
Engelsk
Udgiver
danmarkshistorien.dk