Medieval Visby and Gotland
Gotland was a very distinct region of Scandinavia, with settlements consisting of only single farms but without a landed gentry. Nevertheless the local resources were aboundant. Many farms included masonry houses and many of the parish churches were successively rebuilt into very large monuments. In the same way, Visby was unique among cities in northern Europe. Still today ruins of ten huge churches and about 125 masonry warehouses from 1200-1350 are preserved in the city, and probably 400-500 stone houses were originally built during that period. The best parallels to Visby are found very far away, in central and southern Europe.
Gotland and Visby were economically, socially and culturally closely linked to each other, although the competition between city and countryside resulted in a unique civil war in 1288. Visby gained the status of an independent city, but from the Danish conquest in 1361 and onwards the island as well as the city were successively more controlled by external powers. In the late Middle Ages trade routes changed as well, leading to a clear decline of the island and the city. In 1645, when Gotland was ceded to Sweden, it was a poor and marginal province.
Table of Contents
The introduction starts with a discussion about the intertwined relationship between the city of Visby and the island of Gotland. Secondly, the chapter dwells on the paradox between few written records about Gotland and the overwhelmingly rich material culture from the island. Finally, the chapter provides a short introduction to the study of Gotlandic history and the history of the archaeology on the island.
Part I Gotland
The chapter provides a short historical overview of the most important local contexts and events. The overview will cover the period from late prehistory (9-10th centuries) to the early modern period (circa 1645).
The chapter starts with a discussion about the transition to Christianity, inluding Christian cemeteries and burial grounds of pagan origin used contemporarily until the early twelfth century. The foundation of the Cistercian monastery at Roma in 1164 marked the final establishment of the western church on the island. From Roma, the chapter proceeds to a general overview of all 94 medieval parish churches in the countryside, in order to present trends in the building and rebuilding of the stone churches in time and space. The chapter ends in a discussion about the formation of parishes, since that may serve as an introduction to the much disputed issue on the social order of the island, which will be further discussed in the next chapter.
The chapter starts with a general overview of the unique settlement structure and social order on the island. The agrarian settlement consisted of about 2000 single farms, each with its own name. This section includes a presentation of preserved medieval farms as well as excavated and reconstructed farms. The chapter ends with an overview of the political order on Gotland. The island was divided into twenty small assembly districts (ting), apart from a division into three parts and six parts. At the top was a general assembly at Roma in the centre of the island. Each district was ruled by an alderman or judge, and the twenty aldermen ruled the island as a whole, with one alderman representing the general assembly.
4. Rural economy [+–]
The chapter provides a general overview of the rural economy, including animal husbandry, farming, producation of high quality tar, stone quarring, and fishing. Remains of most parts of the rural economy are preserved, such as 150 medieval meadows with pollarded trees, several medieval quarries, many medieval productions sites of tar and some medieval fishing habours. Apart from agriculture, the rural economy included handicraft and trade as well. Gotlandic baptismal fonts have been found all over northern Europe.
Part II Visby
5. Early Visby [+–]
The chapter provides an introduction to the much disputed question of the early history of Visby. At the site of Visby, a trading port probably existed already in the ninth and tenth centuries, because graves and objects from that period have been found in the later city centre. However, a more permanent settlement, together with an early church, can only be traced from the second half of the eleventh century. From the mid twelfth century Visby radiply expanded, with a dense urban settlement of wood, two stone towers by the habour and at least three stone churches. The most important was the German church, inaugurated in 1190 as a three-aisled basilica.
The chapter begins with an overview of the stone houses in Visby, built between 1200 and 1350. About 125 are preserved, but it has been estimated that maybe 400 or 500 were originally built. The chapter also presents the major public buildings in Visby, including a large merchant hall, at least two large guild halls and a possible dancing house. Furthermore, all the ecclesiastical institutions in Visby are presented, in order to underline the multicultural character of the city. The chapter ends with a discussion about the character of Visby before it became a Hanseatic city in 1354. The number of stone houses makes Visby unique not only in Scandinavia but in the whole of northern Europe.
Part III Visby and Gotland
The chapter starts with an overview of the known facts of this unique civil war between a city and its surrounding countryside, followed by a discussion about the backgound and consequences of the conflict. The chapter also includes a short overview of Gotland after 1288. Although the island lost its control over Visby, the countryside continued to be a wealthy region for several decades.
The chapter starts with a overview of the Danish conquest in 1361, and the material remains of this conquest. The chapter also includes a discussion of the background of the conquest and its consequences. Later, in 1398-1408, the island was ruled by different aristocratic groups and by the Teutonic Order in Prussia. These rulers left several small castles around the island, which were used for only a few decades.The Black Death, the human loss at the Danish conquest and the continued political unrest can be regarded as the start of the late medieval decline on Gotland.
The chapter offers an overview of the historical and archaeological knowledge of the Danish royal castle Visborg, built in the southern part of Visby in 1411 and blown to pieces in 1679. Two accountant books from 1486 and 1523 clearly show the dominant role of the castle on the island. The chapter also includes a discussion about some of the few remains from late medieval Gotland and Visby.
The chapter provides an overview of Gotland from 1526 when the island became a fully integrated province of Denmark. The integration was emphasised by many parish priests of Danish origin which began to work on the island after the reformation in 1536. In 1572 Gotland became a Danish bishopric with the former German church in Visby as its cathedral. Many Danish merchants replaced German merchants in Visby during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as well. The chapter will end with the peace treaty at Knäred in 1645, when Gotland was ceded to Sweden. In 1945 this was celebrated as a ”return” to Sweden, which it was not. Gotland had never been a Swedish province before, only a tributary land with loose links to the Swedish king.
The book ends with a short chapter about how the Middle Ages is used today on Gotland. Since 1995 Visby is a world heritage site, and since 1984 the ”Medieval week” in the middle of August is arranged in Visby and at some other places around Gotland. Apart from a huge ”medieval market” in Visby, the week often includes a reenactment of the Danish conquest in 1361.