The publication Sveriges Medeltida Ballader (Sweden’s Medieval Ballads) consists of five volumes and comprises 263 ballads or ballad types – all the songs known at the time of publication defined by the editors as medieval ballads. For each ballad type up to 25 variants are given. If more variants are known, they are listed with references as to where they may be found.
The songs are divided into six main categories: ballads of the supernatural, legendary ballads, historical ballads, ballads of chivalry, heroic ballads and jocular ballads. These categories were created as part of the preparatory work for the catalogue The Types of the Scandinavian Medieval Ballad (TSB) by Bengt R Jonsson, Svale Solheim and Eva Danielson. In this work, ballads from the entire Scandinavian language area are catalogued according to their main textual subjects. These categories have been created by collectors and scholars, but have not been used by the people who have sung the ballads through the centuries.
Ballads of the supernatural
The narratives of these songs contain supernatural strains. These strains might appear in the shape of various beings from the folktales (water – sprite, mermaid, werewolf, etc.), but also as magical actions or objects, name magic and such. The supernatural strains may dominate the entire ballad or be present only in certain variants of the song. A couple of supernatural ballads are presented in complete versions in this web presentation: Den bergtagna (The maid and the mountain king, SMB 24), about a woman who is incarcerated in a mountain by the king of the mountain, and Den förtrollade barnaföderskan (The enchanted childbearer, SMB 14), about a pregnant woman whose mother – in – law puts a spell on her, forcing her to stay pregnant for seven years. Two other well – known songs in this category are De två systrarna (SMB 13, also known as Den förtrollade harpan), concerning rivalry between siblings and an enchanted harp, and Herr Olof och älvorna (SMB 29), with a subject similar to that of Erlkönig. (All four are also found in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, by F. J. Child: Hind Etin, Willie’s lady, The two sisters and Clerk Colville, respectively.)
The texts of legendary ballads are often connected with Christian legends and subjects. Biblical characters such as Jesus or the Virgin Mary feature in some songs, whilst others can tell of saints or merely concern a miracle. On this site we present Maria Magdalena (SMB 43), a ballad about a woman who must do penance for her sexual deeds, and Herr Töres döttrar
(Sir Töre’s daughters, SMB 47) which, amongst other things, was the basis for Ingmar Bergman’s film Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring). Among the legendary songs we also find many variants of Sankte Staffan (SMB 39), a song about St. Stephen sung annually around Christmas. (Ballads about topics similar to the latter two are also found in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: The bonnie banks of Fordie and St. Stephen and Herod.)
It is assumed that historical ballads refer to actual historical events. The historical songs were an important part of the material for the mid-20th century scholarly debate concerning the age, origins and dissemination of the ballad genre. This debate was based mainly on ballad texts as linguistic and historical sources. Among the historical ballads we find a couple concerning bride abduction – one of them is Vreta klosterrov (The abduction from Vreta convent, SMB 59), which is presented on this site, and Drottning Dagmar (The death of Queen Dagmar, SMB 57) which tells of a Danish queen who has been depicted as a very kind-hearted person. Other historical ballads may be connected with military events which are known to have actually taken place, such as Slaget vid Lena (SMB 56), assumed to refer to a historical battle in 1208 in the South-West of Sweden.
Ballads of chivalry
This is the largest group of medieval ballads, set in the world of the aristocracy from around the 12th to the 16th centuries. Here we often find conflicts between individuals and the social and gendered norms of a hierarchic society. The patriarchal character of the ballad universe is perhaps most clearly displayed in the ballads of chivalry. These ballads tell of romantic and/or erotic love versus family, pregnancies and matters of honour, tests of fidelity, betrayal and conflicts of loyalty – often featuring violence and killing. The mood can shift between romance with a happy ending, sometimes with a drop of humour, and violent (including sexual) assault, death and tragedy. Many of the ballad types common to Scandinavian and other European traditions are found among the ballads of chivalry. Two of the most widespread and well – known types are found on this website: Rudegull seglar bort med sin trolovade (Rudegull sails away with his true – love, SMB 72 – known by several other titles) – about a successful abduction – and Sven i rosengård Sven in the rosy grove, SMB 153), about fraternal murder and its consequences. Two more well-known ballads of chivalry are Ebbe Skammelsson (SMB 125), about betrayal and outlawry, and De bortstulna konungadöttrarna (The stolen princesses, SMB 195), about two abducted princesses who return to their home and give proof of their identity with the help of a tapestry.
The central motif in an heroic ballad is a struggle between supernaturally-strong characters, though in some ballads in this category other motifs can be central. The borderline with ballads of chivalry might be porous. Here we present Ramunder (SMB 217), which, on account of its exaggerations, borders on the jocular ballad category, and the riddle ballad Sven Svanevit
(SMB 205), in which the physical combat motif has itself been lost in many of the variants. In this category we also find Tors hammarhämtning (Tor fetching his hammer, SMB 212), with its Old Norse motif, and Den stridbara jungfrun (The warlike maiden, SMB 207) with, for once, a female warrior in the leading role.
A jocular ballad is a type of ballad normally set among people of the lower classes or with animals as symbolical characters. The order of society is often turned upside – down, and satire is aimed at the authorities or the priesthood. The gendered balance of power may shift: a wife might beat up her husband, yet a maiden might be enticed by a sexual partner in disguise. The humour is often crude and burlesque. In the older categorisation of ballads (Grundtvig’s, for example, in Danmarks gamle Folkeviser l – XII, Copenhagen 1853 -1976), jocular ballads were not categorised as medieval ballads, but were later redefined. A couple of the more widespread jocular ballads are presented on this website. Bonden och kråkan (SMB 248) (The farmer and the crow, SMB 248) is generally seen as a satire on tithes – the portion of agricultural produce that farmers were forced to pay to the church; its analogue exists in the English ballad The Derby Ram, (Roud 126). In Leja tjänstepiga (Hire a serving-lass, SMB 258) a prospective maid demands a generous wage, thus toppling power structures concerning class as well as gender.
Olav Solberg: Den norske balladen
Byrman, Gunilla & Tommy Olofsson: Om kvinnligt och manligt och annat konstigt i medeltida skämtballader. Stockholm: Atlantis 2011
Häggman, Ann – Mari: Magdalena på Källebro. En studie i finlandssvensk vistradition med utgångspunkt i visan om Maria Magdalena. Helsingfors: Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland, 1992.
Lindberg, Boel: Patriarkatets höga visa. Balladen om Tiggargubbens brud in: Gamla visor, ballader och rap – från muntlig förmedling till publicering på nätet. Red. Boel Lindberg. Möklinta: Gidlund 2013.
Solberg, Olav: Den omsnudde verda. Ein studie i dei norske skjemteballadane. Oslo: Solum 1993.
The Types of the Scandinavian Medieval Ballad. A Descriptive Catalogue. Red. Bengt R. Jonsson, Svale Solheim, Eva Danielson. Stockholm: Svenskt visarkiv/Oslo: Universitetsförlaget, 1978.
Åkesson, Ingrid: Mord och hor i medeltidsballaderna – en fråga om könsmakt och familjevåld. Noterat 21. Stockholm: Svenskt visarkiv, 2014.