Question: On what island were over 100 churches—one for every mile of its length—built in a medieval religious frenzy, only to be left to the mercy of nature?
Answer: Gotland, Sweden
A Swedish island only a hundred miles long, Gotland once seemed absolutely determined to have the highest number of churches possible. Christianity had come to the isle as the Norse religion waned in the 12th century, and soon cathedrals and parish churches were sprouting up like dandelions.
One of the grandest structures on the island was Saint Catherine, a Franciscan church in Visby that took 15 years to construct, opening in 1250. As its congregation grew, so did its importance, and it was elaborately expanded in a near century-long process spanning most of the 1300s. Rose clerestories, relics of saints, and a massive organ were hallmarks of the see-and-be-seen cathedral.
For a time, this inspirational building boom seemed unstoppable. There were 15 major churches, 94 local parish churches, and two abbeys, which meant the local faithful were nearly tripping over places to worship. At one point, Visby alone had 12 churches open within city walls. You could even choose by theme and language, attending a Russian-specific service, or one for German sailors, or another dedicated to the poor who lived in almshouses.
But a trifecta of change signaled the end of the era. The Black Death depressed trade at the end of the 14th century, attackers from Lubeck raided Gotland in the 1500s, and the Reformation led to a push for fewer stand-alone churches. The result was that most of the cathedrals folded and some of the parishes combined. Visby closed almost all its churches and Saint Catherine literally collapsed on itself: part of the stonework fell onto parishioners during a service. It was eventually abandoned, its finest fixtures carted away by interlopers.
The smaller towns fared better. Though the number of houses of worship dwindled into the dozens for a period, they have steadily recovered, and today there are 91 open parish churches. In the city, however, only Visby Cathedral remains a working church. Nonetheless, St. Catherine—its soaring arches open to the blue sky, and green grass growing where once there were pews—has become iconic. Ever the grande dame, it no longer presides over religious life, but rules as the best known of the structures that give Visby the nickname “City of Ruins.”
9 More Things Visby is Known For
- Vikings: Before it was Christian, Visby was a major Viking outpost. The ninth-century settlement was established by the seafaring warriors, who gave it its name (which simply means “Village”).
- Pirates: For the last decade of the 14th century, Visby was at the mercy of pirates known as the Victual Brothers, who continually plundered the city. Teutonic knights wrested control at the turn of the century, but pirate raids continued for a century more.
- The Ring Wall: The medieval wall surrounding Visby was built in two waves, with periods of construction first in the 13th century and again in the 14th. The UNESCO World Heritage Site runs more than two miles long and boasts 36 of its original 51 towers.
- The Botanical Garden: Since the 19th century, the “Botanical Garden of the Bathing Friends” has been one of the city’s crown jewels. Botan, as locals call it, boasts giant redwoods and sequoias, roses, rhododendrons, magnolias, and (not surprisingly) the ruins of a church.
- Politics in the Park: Almedalen park—a harbor that dried up and became a popular green space—has become the stump speech epicenter for political life, and every major Swedish party sends its politicians to the park to plead their case in public each July.
- Medieval Week: The biggest medieval fair in northern Europe (and one of the biggest anywhere), Medieval Week brings tens of thousands to the island for a reenactment of the Battle of Visby and the ransoming of the city by the King of Denmark.
- Ice Cream: Visby loves its frozen confections. Some locals champion the biggest ice cream parlor in Sweden (the two-story Glassmagasinet) while others sing the praises of Gute Glass, the organic ice cream maker selling traditional flavors like saffron and salmbär (dewberry).
- Ecology: The historic city is concerned with the future of the planet, as the headquarters of the World Ecological Forum, which works with governments, NGOs, research institutions, and corporations to steer the planet toward sustainable practices.
Experience the many things Visby has to offer when you visit the city of ruins on our Grand Baltic Sea Voyage Small Ship Adventure.