Latin in Swedish Genealogical Records

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Until the time of the Protestant Reformation, church, government and many other documents in Sweden were written in Latin. Even in later times, the use of Latin terms and abbreviations are common. The genealogist is well-served by understanding the role that Latin played in the evolution of Swedish records and its interpretation today.


Prior to the year 1,000, the people of Sweden had little contact with the cultures to the south where the Latin language was at one time spoken as well as written. Viking expeditions to these areas did result in some coins and other artifacts with Latin inscriptions making their way north, but it was with the introduction of Christianity at the beginning of the second millennium that Latin was formerly introduced in Sweden. The use of Latin increased in Scandinavia during the 1100’s as this new Christian faith became more well-established.

By this time, Latin had become the language of learning in continental Europe. While the spoken languages of these countries had evolved into unique dialects, the most common written language was still Latin. A considerable church-sponsored educational system involving cathedral and monastic schools had been developed both on the continent and in England. The curriculum in these educational institutions centered on grammar, rhetoric and dialectic…all three subjects involving the use of Latin. These schools were taught in Latin and often had libraries made up of Latin texts. Formal education was conducted by the church and the language of the church was Latin.

Latin was the language for lectures and debates and by the 1100’s was also the language of the aristocracy. Written communication, especially formal documentation, was done in Latin by clerks educated in church schools. Even merchants and other businessmen made use of Latin in their dealings.

By contrast, there was limited use of Latin in Sweden during this time with the exception of the Catholic mass. One reason for the relatively slow rise in the use of Latin in Swedish society is the fact that the earliest monasteries in Sweden were not scholastic, but centered on agriculture and were located in more remote areas. It was not until the mid 1200’s that Latin learning and usage became more widespread in Scandinavia, especially among church leaders and administrators. As the church became more involved in organizing and directing formal education in Sweden, the use of Latin became more prevalent.

From 1250 until 1527, Latin was the primary language used in most documents. Government adopted Latin as the language of administration and diplomacy. During this period, Latin was even the most common language used in private documents. A driving force in this expansion was the emergence of Latin literature during the 1300’s and 1400’s. As Swedes began traveling more to foreign destinations such as Germany, France and Italy, they found that Latin was the vehicle for international communication, especially with regards to written documents. Many Swedish students and clerics found themselves studying abroad. Latin was used as both the spoken and written language of universities. This travel and study abroad greatly improved the Latin language skills of clerks, students, diplomats and businessmen who brought that knowledge with them back to Sweden. By the end of the 1400’s, sons of Swedish aristocrats and even some commoners were studying at universities abroad, especially in France, Poland, Germany and Italy. This resulted not only in their increased ability with Latin, but brought a flood of Latin literature back with them to Sweden. Bishops, priests and other church officials also traveled abroad and brought back books of Latin literature and poetry. By the mid 13th century, orders of Dominican and Franciscan monks had established themselves in Sweden and unlike their predecessors placed major emphasis on literacy and education, establishing vast libraries of Latin texts. From this time forward, Sweden had become a part of the broader European Latin culture.

Many documents in Latin have been preserved from the early Middle Ages. All church records from that period were written in Latin as was much of the governmental and diplomatic correspondence. Legal documents including bills of sale, receipts, wills, probate and land transactions were often recorded in Latin up until the late 1300’s. By 1380 the use of Latin had begun to decline. Still the official language of the church, fewer documents both official and private were being written in Latin. The reasons for this decline outside of the ecclesiastical realm are not totally clear. However, up until this time, most men of means had clerks trained in Latin who conducted their correspondence. The question now became whether a true nobleman should read and write his own correspondence and if so, would he need to learn Latin to do it? The cultural influence of Germany was on the rise in Scandinavia and while most nobles were fluent in German, Latin was deemed less important unless one had dealings with those who did not understand German or Swedish.

A major factor in the decline of Latin in Sweden came with the protestant reformation. In 1527 the riksdag (parliament) at Västerås ushered in the evangelical faith in Sweden and the Catholic Church with its Latin culture was dismantled. In spite this dramatic event and the apparent disdain that leader Gustaf Vasa had for both Latin and formal education, it soon became clear that the use of Latin in Swedish culture could not be totally abandoned. By the 1540’s, Sweden was being swept up into broader cultural influences, especially those of Germany. With greater involvement and interaction with the international community taking place, a new roll would emerge for Latin in Swedish culture.

In spite of its abandonment of Roman Catholicism, the Swedish church could not abandon totally the language in which many Bible commentaries and other religious literature was written. Nor could the government abandon the language of international correspondence. Those with Latin language skills remained important and valuable, including those involved in education. Prior to the end of the 16th century, most Swedes pursuing higher education had to travel abroad. Universities in Germany, France and Italy continued the use and teaching of Latin. With the establishment of a university in Uppsala and the establishment of other local educational venues, Latin continued to be the basis for most of the literature and learning. By the end of the reign of Gustaf Vasa and his sons, Latin had regained much of its former influence in Swedish society and culture. The following statistics reflect the effects of this period on the use of Latin in Sweden:
Percentage of books printed in Sweden in Latin
• Prior to 1520 70%
• 1520—1560 15%
• 1560—1599 30%

During the century that marked the period of Sweden’s greatest international influence (“Stormaktstiden”) 1611—1718, Latin not only regained much of the influence it lost during the 1500’s, but became even more prevalent. As Sweden gained greater power and influence abroad, Latin’s role in diplomacy, international commerce and education was strengthened. In addition, the cathedral schools and monasteries that had once been the training ground for priests had now relinquished that role to the universities. With Latin firmly entrenched as the language of higher learning, these priests were well-schooled in its use. Where the students at Uppsala congregated for meals, for example, one was obliged to speak only in Latin. After graduating, these divinity students found practical use for their Latin as many of them began their service as teachers (obliged to teach Latin) and at the same time, Latin continued to be used in the church as many of the records and much of the ecclesiastical correspondence was still conducted in that language. During this time, Latin continued to be the language of much literature and was even used by the educated in their private correspondence.

The following century marked the beginning of decline again for the use of Latin not only in Sweden but in the rest of Western Europe as well. Beginning with the universities who first suggested that formal dissertations be made available in Swedish, the movement towards a more populist approach, making education and literature more accessible, gained momentum. By the middle of the 18th century, many lectures and courses taught in Swedish schools were being done in Swedish. People began to question why one should write in a language one did not speak. The debate continues today between those who proclaim Latin as the language of learning and true literature and those for whom it has no practical application.

The church was one of the last organizations to abandon the formal use of Latin in Sweden. Many early Swedish church records, including those most valuable to genealogical researchers, were written in Latin. By the end of the 18th century, most parish records were being written in Swedish, but certain Latin words and/or abbreviations were still used and can be important in understanding the record.