Island Of Gotland
( Originally Published 1881 )
ANOTHER winter had gone; the pleasant weather had re-turned ; the sun was getting warmer every day, though the air was chilly ; vegetation was more forward than the year before. The southern shores of Sweden, on the Baltic, were now clad in the mantle of spring ; the birds and swallows had come back, and the warbling of the nightingale was already heard in the groves by the sea. The days were fast lengthening, the sun rising nearly at three o'clock, and the long twilights added much to the charm of the mornings and evenings.
On the 22d of May I was once more sailing on the Baltic; in the distance the soft outlines of an island rose above the sea—it was Gotland. Approaching its shore, the view became beautiful, the extensive line of coast being marked by yellow limestone cliffs, dotted with dark woods, thrifty farms, and windmills, while the ancient town of Wisby, with its ruined but massive walls, upon which the old dark towers stood like sentinels, seemed to watch over the place as in the days of old, and to frown upon the sea. The city rose in the form of an amphitheatre, and the white queer-shaped houses and the ruins of churches, partly hidden by groves of trees, made the place appear still more venerable in the bright sunshine.
Gotland, the largest island of the Baltic, is between 56 55' and 58° lat., lying almost in the midst of the sea, opposite the province of Courland, in Russia, and the Swedish province of Smaland. It is nearest to the Swedish coast, with which it runs parallel. This island was once a seat of great power, the chief emporium of the trade of Northern Europe, and in it: day had no rivals. The time of its settlement is lost in the dimness of antiquity, and the only record we have of its most remarkable history is found in the"Gotlands lagarne," thought to be a supplement to the laws of the country. This saga is supposed to have been written about the year 1200, and is in the old Gotlandish language. Gotland, or Gutland, means the land of Gotarne or Gutarne (Gotmen), and these settlers were supposed to belong to the race which came from the Black Sea, overran Germany, and settled in the southern part of Sweden and in Norway.
"In the days of old," says the saga, "a fair and beautiful island, low and dim, floated on the sea by night, and the people beheld it as they sailed to and fro; but each morning, at sunrise, it disappeared beneath the waves, until the evening twilight had come again, when it would rise and float over the surface of the Ostersjon (Baltic) as before. No one dared to land upon it, though the belief was general that it would be-come fixed if a fire was lighted there. Thjelvar, or Thjalfer, with his men, finally landed in a little bay of the floating island, and lighted a fire, and the island became stationary," and to this day there is a bay called Thjelvarvik, and a heap of stones near by is supposed to be Thjelvar's grave; but the time of his landing, and where he came from, the saga does not mention.
This saga also says that " afterwards the people so increased that the land could not feed them all; then they drew lots, and every third person was required to leave ; but they refused, and fortified themselves at a place called Thorsburg, whence they were expelled. They afterwards went to Farb, but were again driven away; they then went to Dago, and built a city there, but were not there long before they were once more expelled ; finally they went towards the river Dana, in Russia, travelling till they came to the Byzantine Empire, on the Black Sea."
The original inhabitants of Gotland were also heathens, and offered human sacrifices in holy groves on the hills, and these were enclosed. They believed in Thor and Odin, and many of the names of the farms and places to this day remind one of the gods and goddesses of the Walhalla. The word thunder in the Gotland language is certainly meant for Thor (God of Thunder), who, when angry, struck terror into the hearts of the giants then dwelling in the North.
The island is one of the richest places of. the North in relics of former times, especially the eastern shore, where there are numerous burial hills, or tumuli, remains of ship forms, called slonkers. Great numbers of antiquities discovered in the earth in many places show that piracy and commerce were the chief occupations of the inhabitants, who grew rich by plunder. But few relics of the stone and bronze ages are found, most of those thus far discovered belonging to the iron age. Among the most interesting remains are the memorial stones, standing erect and rough, with rude markings, some representing a Viking's boat, with mast and sails and high prow, with many men on deck, and above these others, all engaged in fighting; over these are figures of men and animals, so roughly done that it is difficult to recognize them.
One of the delights of the stranger travelling through the island is to meet everywhere these tokens of the past, dating either from the heathen times or from the earliest dawn of Christianity.
The tumuli, or the oldest graves, like those found opposite in Ostergotland and in the southern part of Scandinavia, are very scarce in Gotland, there being only two. The great number of old graves here are made of small boulders thrown together in heaps, in the midst of which is an urn of clay containing ashes. By the side of the urn are often found charcoal and burned bones. There are very few unburned skeletons. The stone tumuli are often encircled by a single or double row of rounded stones. Small burial-places are made of four slabs, with an urn containing ashes. There are tablets with Runic characters, but the writing of most is so defaced that it cannot be read. The number of these inscribed stones already found is very great. They are found standing or prostrate, and were most probably memorials placed over graves. There are also memorial crosses, belonging to the Christian period, as late as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, also bearing Runic characters. One also sees many old fortifications, with a round wall of earth, or surrounded by rough stone walls.
There is no doubt that the inhabitants of the island, like those of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and the eastern coast of the Baltic, once consisted principally of Vikings, who made long and dangerous expeditions, and every record left on the island points to the conclusion that all were of the same race. But as the Gotlanders became richer, they excited the envy of the piratical bands or neighboring chiefs inhabiting the shores of the Baltic, and thus became constantly involved in war.
There is always something very impressive in visiting old ruins. It is seldom that the merry sounds of mirth are heard by those wandering under the shadows of crumbling walls, or among the fallen pillars which have battled against centuries, and at last succumbed. They seem to sober the thoughts, and impress one with the littleness of man ; one feels that those who built them, long since dead, were men of like nature with himself. It is not difficult for us to imagine the scenes of life of which they were once witnesses; but the silence which surrounds the spectator impresses him with reverence and sadness. The fortifications and the old churches of the town were built, to all appearance, of stone from the quarry upon which the city stands, and the whole aspect of the place, as one wanders through its streets, is strange. Here and there, among the more modern buildings and cottages, appears an old Hanseatic house, or an odd-looking warehouse, with crumbling walls, covered with ivy, and overhung by linden, walnut, mulberry, and elm trees. Picturesque ruins, dating back hundreds of years, and silent graveyards are mingled with the dwellings of the living, who here adorn the porches of their houses with tomb-stones, engraved with names, queer inscriptions, or fanciful carvings.
The period of the foundation of the city, as well as the settlement of the island, is uncertain ; but, whatever may be its ancient history, in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries it rose to great commercial importance, and carried on a very extensive traffic. Traders came from England, Holland, Russia, France, and from the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe. In the year 1237 King Henry Ill ..of England allowed the people of Gotland to import or export goods without payment of duty. Some of its merchants were enormously wealthy, and they were found trading with Asia and different countries of Europe. All the merchants of the world were admitted within its walls. At that time the traffic from India, Persia, and other parts of Asia, came by the river Volga as far as Novgorod, and the trade increased as the wars in the East took place. The wealth of the people became fabulous, and the mania for building churches then commenced.
The city had an eventful career, and was subjected to many sieges and sackings. The walls now standing were built in the year 1288; thirty-six towers were erected by the inhabitants of the island, each ting (county or parish) building one. The' walls are loop-holed, and two towers guard each gate. There are still visible the remains of the narrow slits through which the garrison could pour boiling oil, hot water. or molten lead upon the enemy. Besides these walls and towers three ditches were built outside of the walls. There now remain twenty-eight towers, many of which are from sixty to seventy feet in height, and a few smaller ones between are yet standing.
The town once numbered over 12,000 burghers, and a great number of artisans lived outside the walls when the place be-came too small for their accommodation,. The city was then independent, made its own money (of which many pieces are yet found), and raised its own military forces.
The island is especially rich in coins. In 1870, at Sindarve, in Hemsd, more than 1500 were found in one place, weighing over ten pounds—they were imperial coins from the west-ern part of the Roman Empire, of standard silver—most of them dated in the last half of the first century after Christ. They were small and thick, with welllcut images of emperors and empresses, and were called denarii. Other coins are often found, much worn, showing long use before they were buried. In some places are found Roman gold coins, called solidi; these are never discovered in greater quantities than forty or fifty together, and are generally of the dates of the fourth and fifth centuries. A great many Kufic coins are also found, which came from Kufa, Bagdad, and also from Samarcand, Bokhara, and other Asiatic cities ; these are generally large and round, without effigies, and covered with Arabic inscriptions on both sides ; more than 10,000 of these have been discovered on the island ; the oldest are from the sixth, and the newest from the tenth century. English coins, with badly executed faces of kings, from the ninth and tenth centuries, and great numbers of German pieces, and others bearing representations of bishops, cities, etc., are of the above period.
I procured a silver coin which a farmer had just ploughed up, bearing the image of the Roman Emperor Commodus, son of Marcus, who ascended the throne A.D. 180; and died A.D. 192. Valuable ornaments have been exhumed, consisting of rings, plain, twisted, or braided ; simple rings for the neck or arms, made of silver or gold, and sometimes decorated with pearls ; ornaments of bronze; shoe-buckles; figured belts and girdles; hair-pins; silver, and twisted bars of silver and gold, made to be cut up in pieces, and probably used as mediums of value; beads of amber, and of glass, and clay of many collors; combs of ivory, and many other things.
Some of the seals of the once powerful guilds are still pre-served, each inscribed with the name of a patron saint.
The city, in the height of its prosperity, possessed within its walls not less than fifteen churches and two convents; outside the walls, one church, and one convent for nuns; many of them were built by merchants of other countries residing in the town. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries more than one hundred churches were built on the island, most all of which now stand, and public worship is held in them; some are very beautiful in their architecture.
This remarkable city was several times besieged, its wealth provoking the envy of powerful neighbors. Notwithstanding its fortifications,Wisby was taken by storm, in the year 1361, by Waldemar III. of Denmark : the old treaty had long before become a dead letter, and Sweden could do nothing against the power of Denmark. The plunder was enormous, the gold and silver ornaments of the churches forming a great part of it. Waldemar entered the city through a breach at the southern gate, near which now stands, as a solitary monument of the siege, a cross, put up to the memory of the slain, with a Latin inscription, still legible, of which the following is a translation : "In the year 1361, the Tuesday after St. James's Day, the Gotlanders fell before the gates of Wisby by the hands of the Danes. They lie buried here. Pray for them."
But the booty which the victorious king carried away with him did not reach Denmark, the vessels conveying it foundering in a storm near the island of Carlso.
Ruins tell the story of the rise and fall of the town, and re-mind one forcibly of the instability of human things. There was no doubt a time when the princely merchants of Wisby thought that the greatness of the place would endure forever, and its wealth accumulate—but such dreams have passed away. The people of those days are forgotten ; they lie unknown under the tombstones or the sward of the churchyards, where they were buried hundreds of years ago. The silent' mementos of the past have no tale to tell of the baiter and festivity of former times.; but the pages of history and the record of the crumbling ruins show that this was one of the most famous commercial cities of mediæval Europe.
Let us linger awhile in the midst of this strange town, now fragrant with the perfume of cherry, plum, and apple blossoms; let us walk by Hanseatic mansions and warehouses, once the residence of Danish governors, or owned by wealthy merchants—some still kept in good order, while others are neglected, appearing to mourn over the good times that are gone; by houses with rough steps and stoops floored with old slabs, once tombstones, upon which are engraved coats of arms, mono-grams, inscriptions with dates, scrolls; by humbler cottages, with windows green with creeping plants, shrubs, or flowers ; by gardens, and old or crumbling walls, thickly covered with ivy, green and fresh, the growth of hundreds of years—sometimes falling in heavy, graceful festoons. We pass beneath the overhanging branches of the linden, elm, walnut, maple, mullberry, and other trees mingling together, coming now and then to a grand old ruin ; while the old walls and towers appear here and there, with the deep-blue sea in the background, and the fishermen's boats stranded on the shore of the little port of Wisby. Sea-eagles are flying over the water, watching for, their prey, and the shrill cries of the gulls are heard. Deep caves have been cut in the face of the cliffs by the waves, which during the warm days of July are a favorite resort for those who are fond of marine views.
One of the finest ruins of the city is that of St. Katarina (St. Catherine), erected by the Franciscan monks about 1233, later rebuilt as a convent. The body of the church is an oblong square with twelve octagonal pillars standing in two rows, while the choir is pentagonal in shape. Originally the edifice was constructed in pure round-arch style, but has since been transformed into that of pointed arches. The roof is gone, and only these arches remain, which appear as if ready to fall. The grass is the only floor, most of the stone slabs having been taken away for door-steps and other purposes ; but I noticed one upon which was chiselled the figure of a priest, and in his hand a chalice, on which was cut the date of 1380. Tinder the southern part of the church there is a small crypt.
From the top of the ruined church of Helge - Ands (Holy Ghost), built in the beginning of the thirteenth century, I obtained a fine view of several other ruins, and the outside of the church of St. Göran (George), which has a sort of crypt, above which is the main church ; the lower part is 84 feet long by 47 wide, upheld by four pillars about 14 feet high ; the windows and doors are rounded. The upper part is supported by four round pillars 10 feet high, and from this a flight of stairs leads to the roof; in the walls are several deep crevices, said to have been caused by an earthquake in 1540. Back of this church is the hospital of the parish.
Not far from Helge-Ands are the ruins of Sankt Lars (Laurentius) and Drotten (Holy Trinity), within twenty or thirty yards of each other. St. Lars was built in the shape of a Greek cross, and, like its neighbors, belongs to the middle of the twelfth century. There is another church of that style of architecture in Gotland. Inside it is 106 feet long by 76 wide. Along the outer wall is a gallery extending around three sides, approached by two flights of stairs on each side, and each gallery is separate; the arches are rounded. St. Lars is said to be nearly half a century older than Drotten.. St. Maria, said to have been consecrated in the year 1225, is the only church in Wisby where public worship is perform ed. It is 173 feet long by 75 wide, floored with ancient slabs of different periods, inscribed with monograms, Runic characters, Latin inscriptions, scrolls dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, in old Gotland, German, Dutch, and Danish.
This is the resting-place of many important personages connected with the history of Gotland, among them Philip Axellson Thott, Danish governor over the island at the time, who died in 1464. In front of the altar were three very fine specimens of these slabs, and it seemed a pity that continual wear should gradually efface their antique designs. In the church-yard were some gravestones, dating also from 1300 to 1400 ; some had been used several times, as appeared by the succession of dates. Near this church are seen the bones of a whale, which were believed, in former times, to be the remains of a virgin giantess who had built the edifice. I asked Dr.L, my informant, who was the wicked fellow who had dared 'to hint that those were the bones of a whale: "No other than Linnaeus,'" said he. ' In the old chronicles it is related that a fish was caught near Wisby which screamed like a man, that all who heard and saw it marvelled, and that it was hung up in the church of St. Maria.
From St. Maria I went to St. Nikolaus (Nicholas), built about 1240, which is a beautiful ruin, and was the largest church in Wisby. It belonged to the Dominicans. It has a mixture of round and pointed arches; the inner width is 65 feet, and the length 199 feet; ten square pillars remain standing two of which are damaged. The main building has twenty-two windows; on the west side are three, very gracefully pointed.
Among the churches, of which hardly any vestige is left, is St. Gertrude, built by the merchants of Holland, which lies one hundred paces south-east from St. Nikolaus; its length was about 65 feet, and 23 feet broad.
St. Hans is one of the oldest and largest in Wisby. It was the church in which the first Protestant minister preached, about 1525; hardly anything is left of it. St. Jakob and St Mikel were entirely destroyed.
From ruin to ruin I rambled on, until all had been examined, and I finally found myself once more by the dark, gray, gloomy walls and towers, every one of which had a history of its own. The ringmuren (fortifications and walls), which encompassed the whole town, enclosed an area of 135 tunnland (about 170 acres).
Leaving Wisby by the old Norreport (north gate), flanked by two towers built to defend it, I found myself at once in the country. Roads crossed in every direction, so that one could travel wherever he pleased. A few of the farms appeared thrifty ; but the majority of the population live in small houses, plastered over. The winter wheat and rye looked well, and the people were busy in the fields; many were planting potatoes. The country is fine in many districts. The houses were small, but clean and white, with steep slanting roofs, the windows filled with potted plants, surrounded by gardens and orchards, smiling fields and meadows, and hop plantations, showing that the farmers were in good circumstances. The land here is divided among many persons, and each tries to make his small estate as productive as possible.
Now and then we would come to one of those graceful churches in which the island is so rich. There was something so quiet and restful about them that it almost made one feel as if, when the time should come, he would like to rest there. The lilacs in full bloom, the violets amidst the grass, the green fields and meadows, all added to the charm of the drive; several fine oaks grew by the roadside, and the plum, pear, cherry, and apple trees were in full bloom. The spring seemed to begin here at about the same time as in the neighborhood of New York city in ordinary years. The birch, oak, elm, ash, hazelnut, poplar., mountain-ash, and aspen are found in many districts, and to the south the walnut and mulberry flourish..
The farmers were ploughing, and starlings followed in the furrows to pick up the worms. Many farm-houses were neat but small. Each farmer seemed to have a mark of his own; the agricultural implements and other articles being stamped differently. This old custom is called .Bo-marken, and each family has inherited its distinguishing mark from its ancestors. Each parish has its own Bo-marke. Along the road, in several places, the limestone crops out above the soil ; we passed forests of fir, pine, ash, with a few oaks, and encountered boulders and swamps from time to time. Several women were busy cutting potatoes, which were to be planted on the following day. The dwelling-houses in many places were built of lime-stone, roughly covered with mortar, and generally roofed with red tiles, but some were roofed with planks, and others were thatched. Little boxes were fastened to the trees in the yard for the use of the birds; everywhere we heard the thrushes singing, and skylarks filled the air with their notes.
The country near the sea is charming. The cliffs form a high ridge, and upon them are fine groves of pine and other trees; while the fresh green tints of spring lend additional beauty to the landscape. Walking along the beach, distinct and unmistakable evidence of the slow rising of the land meets the eye everywhere ; in some places, at a considerable distance from the shore, large and high pillars of limestone have been hewn out of the cliffs by the action of the sea, and they stand there as marks of the ancient shore against which the waves have beaten.
The architecture of many of the churches is very graceful, and that of Garde gives a fair idea of the style.
There is a special militia for defence, which cannot be called away from the island. Every man from the age of eighteen to fifty has to drill six consecutive days every year; and afterwards belongs to the reserve till he is sixty. Heads of families, tenant-farmers, professional men, and a few others, are only called in case of pressing necessity. The commissioned officers are nominated by the king ; the non-commissioned officers are chosen by the men.
The census of 1870 gave a population of 53,946 inhabitants, of whom 28,205 were female. The island, at that date, possessed 11,000 horses, 8500 oxen, 1000 bulls, 14,000 cows, 4800 heifers under two years, 38,000 sheep, 700 goats, and 5700 pigs. Cattle, sheep, and grain are exported.
The climate is milder even than that of the most southern part of the Swedish main-land, this being due to the influence of the sea. In this respect the island is like England, compared with the adjacent countries. The elms are very fine; mulberry and chestnut trees grow to a large size, and grapes thrive well in espaliers. The flora is very rich, comprising more than 960 varieties of plants.
The geology of the island is very interesting. In many places, after removing the soil, sometimes for thirty feet, you come to the limestone rock, which has been polished and striated by glaciers. The superincumbent earth has preserved the rock from the action of the weather, and it is as smooth as glass—so much so that it resembles enamel. In several in-stances the grooving is a foot deep. The general direction of these grooves is from north-east to south-west; the glaciers, no doubt, came from Finland.
From Högklint (High cliff), not far from Wisby, 150 feet above the sea, and the highest point on the island, we obtained a most extensive view of the country. The indented shores and cliffs to the north could be seen for a long distance. The Baltic was perfectly quiet, and its waters so clear that the eye could penetrate to a great depth, even close to the shore. Between the cliffs were old bays and sea-beaches, not more than thirty, forty, or fifty feet above the present level of the sea, while in the water, at some distance from the shore, we could see unmistakable traces of a submerged beach, which, if the island continues to rise, will again show itself above the surface. There are places on the island where forty or fifty different tide-marks may be counted, lying one above the other on- the beach, proving incontestably that the land has risen slowly in the course of ages. Could this have been the origin of the legend before described? Geology has demonstrated that there have been alternate risings and sinkings of land at different periods, in this region as elsewhere—a demonstration which leads the thoughtful to reflect upon the great progress of the different branches of science—yet the attempts to correct the erroneous ideas of former times have been, and are even now, received with vituperation and obloquy by those who foolishly fear from these discoveries the overthrow of religion. But as new facts are brought to light year after year, the more beautiful the world seems to us, and the more marvellous does the wisdom of the Great Creator appear to our feeble understanding. It is sad to think that the only reward of diligent investigators has often been scorn during their lives, and that good people, from false notions of what they believed to be right, have too often heaped abuse upon the devotees of science. Happily for the cause of truth, these are undismayed by what frequently appears a conflict in which they must be crushed; for, their statements of fact being unanswerable, the power of unreasoning fanaticism is brought to bear upon them. Every one knows that no true progress can be made in investigation without discussion; but vituperation is not argument, and denials without demonstration of facts do not throw any light on a subject in controversy. True students have no other aim than that of the enlargement of knowledge. They work hard, and think still harder—often spending sleepless nights, carried away by the intensity of their enthusiasm, and forgetting the rules of health, till at last they are sometimes left like wrecks stranded on the shore. What is their object? To gain riches? No; for it would have been better for them and their families if they had thought a little less of science and more of the world. To gain knowledge, and to impart that knowledge, has been their purpose, and is to this day the aim of the true scientist.