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ABSALON (AXEL): Archbishop of Lund (1178-1201), one of the principal figures in Scandinavian medieval history; b. on the island of Zealand, then under his father’s government, probably in Oct., 1128; d. in the abbey of Sorö (on the island of Zealand, 44 m. w.s.w. of Copenhagen) Mar. 21, 1201. He was brought up with the future king Waldemar, amid surroundings which befitted his birth. When he was eighteen or nineteen, his father retired from the world to the Benedictine monastery of Sorö, which he had built, and the lad went to Paris to study theology and canon law. He came back to Denmark to find civil war raging among the partizans of three princes. As he was already a priest, he probably took no part in the bloody battle of Gradehede near Viborg (1157) which finally decided the strife in favor of his old playmate Waldemar; but in the following spring he and his retainers repelled an attack of Wendish pirates who were ravaging Zealand. When Bishop Asser of Roskilde died (on Good Friday, 1158), the chapter and the citizens quarreled over the choice of a successor, and the armed intervention of Waldemar became necessary. At an election held in his presence, Absalon was unanimously chosen, and soon showed that he considered the defense of his country not the least among his episcopal duties. The Danes now assumed the offensive against the pagan Wends, and two campaigns were made against them in 1159. The next year Waldemar joined forces with Henry the Lion, with the result that Mecklenburg was added to the German territory, and the island of Rügen to the Danish.
All this time Absalon was busy building fortresses and providing guards for the coasts, sometimes undertaking perilous winter voyages to inspect the defenses, with the aspect of a Viking but the spirit of a crusader. At the same time he was laboring for internal peace by endeavoring to attach the partizans of the defeated factions to the king, and busily providing for monastic reform and extension. He brought to Denmark his old fellow student William, canon of St. Geneviève at Paris, and placed him over the canons of Eskilsö near Roskilde, whose house he later removed to Ebelholt near Arresö, helping them to build their new church and richly endowing it. After his father’s death (c. 1157) discipline had decayed among the Benedictines of Sorö, and Absalon brought Cistercian monks from Esrom to restore it, making it one of the richest of Cistercian abbeys. He and his kinsfolk were buried in the great church there which he began to build after 1174. In 1162 he accompanied Waldemar to St. Jean de Laune on the Saône, where Frederick Barbarossa solemnly recognized Victor IV. as the legitimate pope and banned Alexander III. and his adherents. Absalon was much dissatisfied with this result; he desired Waldemar to refuse the oath of allegiance to the emperor, and induced him to withdraw from the sitting in which Alexander was denounced. He also protested later when Victor IV. undertook to consecrate a bishop for Odense, and was supported in his attitude by the bishops of Viborg and Börglum and by most of the monastic communities, while Archbishop Eskil of Lund took the same position so strongly that he had to spend seven years in exile at Clairvaux. The bishops of Sleswick, Ribe, Aarhus, and Odense were on the side of the imperial pope.
In the fresh campaigns against the Wends, between 1164 and 1185, Absalon took an active part, winning from his contemporaries the name of pater patriæ. In 1167 the king gave him the town of Havn (Copenhagen), and he erected a strong fortress, which was of great importance for the development of commerce. He was active in establishing a system of tithes, which aroused much opposition. The disturbances in Eskil’s jurisdiction (he had now become reconciled with the king) induced him to resign his archbishopric, naming Absalon as his successor. The latter accepted his promotion unwillingly, and was allowed to retain the see of Roskilde for thirteen years after his assumption of the higher office in 1178. As archbishop he withdrew more and more from political activity to devote himself to the interests of the Church. The part taken by the Danes in the third crusade was no doubt due to his influence. He was a strong upholder of clerical celibacy, and the purity of his own life was universally admired. He is also credited with having done much for liturgical uniformity; and it was at his wish that Saxo, one of his clergy, undertook to write his Historia Danica, one of the most important sources for Danish history.
Bibliography: J. Langebek [continued by P. F. Suhm and Others], Scriptores rerum Danicarum medii ævi, 9 vols., Copenhagen, 1774-87; H. J. F. Estrup, Life (in Danish), Soröe, 1826, Germ. transl., Leipsic, 1832; Saxo Grammaticus, Historia Danica, part i., ed. P. E. Müller, part ii., ed. J. M. Velschow, Copenhagen, 1839-58.
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