Anna Fickesdotter Bülow was an abbess of Vadstena abbey. She was also an author and a translator.
Anna Fickesdotter Bülow was one of the most prominent female authors to emerge from Vadstena abbey. She entered the abbey on 23 November 1462 at her parents’ instigation, as was common at that time, and remained a nun in the motherhouse of the Brigittine order until her death in 1519. She was probably about 18 years old when she entered the abbey as that was the minimum age specified in Birgitta Birgersdotter’s regulations for the order. At some point after she had joined the order she served as a cantrix, meaning that she was one of two nuns responsible for the choir. At the end of 1486 or in early 1487 she was appointed prioress, by the process of an election held amongst the nuns. This was the second-highest position within in the abbey. The prioress was responsible for the internal management of the abbey, which role Anna Fickesdotter Bülow held for 15 years. She was then elected abbess on 21 February 1501, making her solely responsible for the entirety of that large and wealthy abbey’s concerns, including managing its properties and contact with the outside world. Her appointment was confirmed by Archbishop Hemming Gadh and in January 1502 she was ordained abbess by Brynolf Gerlaksson, the bishop of Skara diocese. She remained an abbess until her death.
Vadstena abbey was the largest landowner within late-medieval Sweden and was a dominant power-holder within both the spiritual and political spheres. In the mid-1300s Birgitta Birgersdotter had laid the foundations for an order which was intended to place women’s spiritual needs and authority in focus. Thus the abbess had – as per the original rules – power over both the nuns and the monks in this double monastery. The position was intended to reflect the Virgin Mary’s powerful role. The abbey housed 60 nuns and was adjoined by a monastery which accommodated 13 priests and 4 friars. The highest ranking male position was that of the confessor general. The minimum entry age was relatively high, set at 25 for men and, as noted above, at 18 for women, and was a function of the fact that entry was to be voluntary and result from an individual’s own inner calling.
Earlier research has been based on the idea that the monks, who in most cases were well-educated and consecrated priests, tended to have sole access to education and academic training. Their library became quite extensive and the Vadstena abbey male scriptorium produced a considerable amount of texts. However, more recent research has revealed that the nuns had their own library, albeit a smaller one, and that the nuns also devoted themselves to producing texts.
It was in this role that Anna Fickesdotter Bülow emerged as particularly important. She had mastered both Swedish and Latin and authored one of the first biographical accounts within Swedish literature, the so-called Chronicon genealogicum, in which she mainly recounted her own family’s history. Although the original text has not survived, later copies reveal that she herself authored the entire genealogy. It is dated to 1515, approximately. The bishop of Linköping at that time, Hans Brask, had commissioned her to complete this task as he wanted material to help him determine whether future marriages within the aristocracy would be permissible according to canonical rules regarding forbidden degrees of relationship.
By investigating her mother’s and father’s family trees Anna Fickesdotter Bülow was able to portray marriage connections that tied not just the Swedish but also the Danish aristocracy into complicated and often problematic patterns. This was something which the abbess herself highlighted. Following her introductory presentation on her numerous and widespread ancestors – who extended to England, France, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – she emphasised that she used to rebuke members of the family for marriages which brought together people that were far too closely related. Their responses tended to be that they were unaware of these familial connections. Using this as a starting point Anna Fickesdotter Bülow then produced a graphic depiction of the family’s many exploits. She was particularly careful to emphasise the close connection to Saint Birgitta which dated from the 1300s. One of her predecessors had been a follower of Birgitta’s both before and after her stay in Rome. Her father’s family had come to Sweden to offer financial support to King Albrecht of Mecklenburg, and subsequently developed favourable relations with King Erik of Pomerania and Queen Filippa. Anna Fickesdotter Bülow was particularly proud of her paternal grandfather, Johan Bülow, who had paid for a glass window above the southern entrance to Vadstena abbey which included an image of the family arms. These were the only arms on display there.
Research has generally held that genealogical studies can be considered highly reliable from the 1460s onwards, namely from the period when Anna Fickesdotter Bülow herself was an adult and could remember various relationships, and that genealogy is less reliable for earlier periods. As her father, Ficke Bülow, was apparently quite old when he married her mother, Hebbla Albrektsdotter, her account of her family history covered most of the 1400s. Of equal significance is the fact that Anna Fickesdotter Bülow afforded the matrilineal lines equal importance to the patrilineal lines. Although the aim of the work was to provide a genealogical map, the accompanying text offers an inventive and imaginative account with personal insights. She reports that her upbringing was very disciplined and delivered by a very strict mother. Her pride in her own family, given its international and unsettled character, is also striking.
When Anna Fickesdotter Bülow entered Vadstena abbey in 1462 her paternal aunt, Anna Johansdotter Bülow, was already a Brigittine nun, as was her cousin Ermegard Larsdotter. The abbess expressed regret in her genealogy at not having benefited from the opportunity to listen to her parents and to the aforementioned older relatives, but, as she wrote, youth and wisdom tend not to be contemporaries. Beata Fickesdotter Bülow, the abbess’s sister, entered Vadstena in 1462, and died there in 1487. Several women in the abbess’s family had been nuns at Vadstena during the 1400s, whilst others had joined the Danish Brigittine convent of Maribo. Her family ties to the Brigittine house were numerous and strong.
The genealogy was Anna Fickesdotter Bülow’s most distinctive piece of work as it was the result of her own authorship. It was not, however, her sole contribution to the literary output at Vadstena. Even when she was a cantrix she contributed to two choral books. Whilst she was a prioress she translated the legend of Saint Joachim and Saint Elisabeth’s visions from Latin into Swedish. She also had a procession book produced as well as three volumes for table reading use by the nuns. She was, indeed, the only Vadstena nun who was given the epithet of litteratissima – extremely well-read – in the Vadstena abbey diary kept by the monks.
Anna Fickesdotter Bülow’s literary output should be seen within a wider context. During her period at the abbey there were several nuns who were active as writers. Christina Elofsdotter translated a text from German. Abbess Margareta Clausdotter authored a chronicle of Birgitta Birgersdotter’s family. Christina Hansdotter Brask was perhaps the most significant text-copier; she worked with the likes of Birgitta Gudmundsson and her sister Katarina Gudmundsson, as well as with Elseby Giordsdotter. These collaborations were organised. For example, in the early 1500s Anna Fickesdotter Bülow gave Elseby Giordsdotter the task of producing manuscripts of table readings. Elseby, and presumably Anna Fickesdotter Bülow, would proofread the final product. Cautious estimates further indicate that at least one fifth of the nuns were directly involved in producing texts and it is likely that the actual number was higher. There was widespread access to books, to complement the nuns’ linguistic and literary skills, and there was an apparently healthy contact with the wider world.
Anna Fickesdotter Bülow was active at a time when the abbey was culturally flourishing in many ways. Her own texts provide insight into her life, which has become better known through the latest research which has taken a new, more open approach to the nuns. The surviving correspondence, the so-called ‘diplomen’, reveals traces of Anna Fickesdotter Bülow’s administrative leadership. She worked alongside the confessor general and managed both national and international duties, and she took decisions on important land transactions. The Vadstena diary is also a source for her life and the monks revealed their high opinion of her in their acknowledgement: ‘In the year of our Lord 1519 the noble lady, our mother, Abbess Anna Fickesdotter died, during the 57th year since her appointment. She was extremely well-read (litteratissima) in terms of what can be expected of her gender.’
Anna Fickesdotter Bülow died in Vadstena in 1519.