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Death sermons as sources revealing the ideology of the Danish nobility after the Reformation

After the Reformation, the Danish nobility developed a tradition for published death sermons written by the clerical elite. These death sermons were highly idealised portraits of the nobility as a Christian authority and have seldom been used for historical studies. This blog entry suggests how they can be used by Early Modern historians.

Danish death sermons
In my recently defended doctoral thesis, Nobility between God and People after the Reformation, I studied the surviving death sermons produced for the members of the Danish Council of the Realm between 1565 and the beginning of the 1620s. The aim was to investigate the extent to which the Danish nobility was influenced by a Lutheran ideology of authority. From the middle of the 16th century, it became fashionable to publish a death sermon when a member of your family died – often in a very lavish design. The trend was especially popular in the Lutheran territories of Northern Germany and Scandinavia, but there are also examples of Catholic and Calvinistic death sermons. In 16th and 17th century Denmark, the genre was largely monopolised by the nobility, making death sermons a valuable but hitherto neglected source of information regarding the ideology relating to this elite social group.

Death sermons
In terms of their form, these sermons were very similar, consisting of a preface, a traditional Bible sermon, and then a biography of the deceased. The actual sermon was the longest part; but the preface was often relatively long too, and the preface and biography combined normally made up half of the whole text. In total, the death sermons from the period could range from 150 to 300 pages. One of the main topics of these sermons focused on how the deceased had lived his/her life as a true noble and Christian authority. The sermon presented the way in which the deceased had been raised and educated as a true Christian, how he/she had lived a Christian family life and acted towards their fellow humans in a true Christian manner, and not least how the deceased had ended his/her life in this world as a faithful Christian. Even though these death sermons cannot be seen as an accurate description of the life of the deceased (which is why they have often been regarded as unreliable sources), they do provide a unique description of how the elite understood itself and the authority which the nobility possessed in Early Modern Denmark.

The nobility as Lutheran authorities sanctioned by God
In my dissertation, I argue that these death sermons can be seen as a noble version of the Fürstenspiegels – princely mirrors – that became very popular in the period. Like these mirrors, death sermons defined what the nobility were and how they needed to act if they wished to be perceived as true and genuine nobles. This genuineness was linked to their family, their heritage and (for the men) a warrior ideal as well. But all these different kinds of ideals were always dwarfed by the ideal of the nobility as a Christian authority. An authority that was sanctioned by God. This can be seen (for instance) in Niels Kaas’ sermon by Bishop Peder Vinstrup from 1594. Here it was stated that the nobility were “tools of God / pious godly men / as the blessed Mr. Chancellor was / [these men God had] granted his Powerfull Spirit”. Holger Rosenkrantz’s sermon by Bishop Lauritz Bertelsen from 1576 stressed that “the nobility was [a member] of the order of the magistrate, that was given by God.” And in Oluf Rosensparre’s sermon by the parish priest Peder Hie from 1624, he was simply described as a “Man of God”.

This type of idealisation of the nobility was not only evident in death sermons – it also seems to have been the view of leading clergymen. Some clergymen actually idealised the nobility even more than the nobles themselves. One example of this can be seen in the very influential reformer Hans Tausen’s sermon collection from 1539. Here, the nobility were described as gods: “for whose sake God lets them [the nobility] be partakers in His own name, and let them be termed as gods”. Regardless of you asked either a nobleman or a clergyman from the 16th or 17th century, I think it is fair to conclude that the nobility as a social group used religion to legitimise its position in society.

How to act as an authority sanctioned by God
The question is which form of confession was dominant in connection with the legitimisation of the Danish nobility. Did some nobles keep their pre-Reformation faith (which research has shown was quite strong up to the Reformation in 1536), or did they immerse themselves in the new Lutheran confession? This question is not as easy to answer as it is to ask. In the sermons the nobility are not described as Lutherans, and not even as evangelists, but just as Christians. And none of the many deeds and duties that the sermons regarded as vital for any nobleman wishing to be defined as a Christian authority can be said to be uniquely Lutheran.

But if one looks closely, it becomes apparent that the death sermons of the Danish nobility attempted to inscribe the nobility in the Lutheran confession. I have identified three duties that the sermons always mentioned irrespective of the gender, family and social status of the individuals involved, duties which can therefore be regarded as essential: poor relief, education and religion. Here I will only touch on the first duty: poor relief.

The differences between the actual poor relief provided in the late medieval ages and the poor relief provided after the Reformation were very small. Food and clothes were donated, annual grants were given and so on. But there was a significant difference in terms of the reasons for helping the poor. In the late medieval period, poor relief was donated because the giver needed a better standing in the afterlife. But in the death sermons this egoistic point of view was not present. Instead, the giver donated because he or she “loved their poor subjects,” as mentioned by parish priest Hans Lauritzen in his sermon for Anders Bing in 1590. And in the royal preacher Mads Medelfar’s sermon for Breide Rantzau in 1618, it was stressed that poor relief was an “instruction and command / that God had given them [the nobility] in their office”. The ideal of poor relief no longer focused on the afterlife of the giver concerned, at least according to the sermons. Instead, the sermons focus on this world. It was the duty of the Christian authorities to support the poor, and in Denmark this resulted in a large number of poorhouses which were owned by the nobility to help the poor in their own particular local area.

Ideological movements
The point I want to make here is that even though the Danish nobility acted as they had done before the Reformation – for instance in relation to poor relief – the ideological motivations for these actions had changed. I do not claim that every single nobleman became Lutheran overnight. But the nobility do seem to have adopted the new, dominant Lutheran confession relatively quickly, reproducing its core elements to some extent. And the death sermons which can be used as a main source of information regarding the ideology of the Danish nobility undoubtedly support this conclusion.


Skovgaard Jakobsen, Rasmus

2019. Adel mellem Gud og folk efter reformationen. Adelsvældens øvrighedsideologi belyst gennem de publicerede ligprædikener. Unpublished PhD dissertation at Aarhus University and the Danish Research Centre for Manorial Studies.

2018. The Burden of the Highborn. The Nobility and Lutheranism in Late Sixteenth-Century Denmark,” in Lutheran Theology and the shaping of society, Bo Kristian Holm & Nina Javette Koefoed eds., Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen: 241-259.

2018. “Idealer og pligter. Konfessionel iscenesættelse af den danske højadel, 1559-1617,” in Religion som forklaring?: Om kirke og religion i stat og samfund: Festskrift til Per Ingesman, Nina Javette Koefoed, Bo Kristian Holm & Sasja Emilie Mathiasen Stopa eds., Aarhus University Press, Aarhus: 287-306.