Acho Johannis

From Medieval

by Roger Andersson

Acho Johannis (d. 1453), priest brother at the Birgittine abbey of Vadstena, Sweden, 1416–1442; bishop of Västerås 1442–1453; famous preacher and composer of sermons.


As with all the inhabitants of Vadstena Abbey, the main primary source for the life of Acho Johannis is the Abbey’s memorial book, Diarium Vadstenense. Another important source is his correspondence. The most thorough biographical study of Acho is EKSTRÖM 1939, who draws on earlier works such as SILFVERSTOLPE 1898. Later contributions are MALINIEMI 1942, 28 ff., KLOCKARS 1975, KLOCKARS 1979, 12 ff. et passim and ANDERSSON 2001, 202–5.


Acho Johannis is first mentioned as prebendary in Västerås in 1413 (SD 1750). Despite suggestions that he was of Danish origin, he probably came from the diocese of Västerås (EKSTRÖM 1939, 152). On 28 May 1416 he was offered a place as one of the thirteen priest brothers in Vadstena Abbey (SD 2245) and he entered the Abbey on 15 July the same year (DV 267) although his parents seem to have disliked his dedication to the religious life (SD 2246). Very little is known about his first years in the Abbey but he seems to have been held in esteem by the rest of the convent. In 1428 he was chosen to accompany the confessor general >Gervinus Petri to the king in order to obtain permission for a journey to Rome for negotiations concerning the Rule (Regula Salvatoris). The planned journey never took place (DV 387, 389), but five years later, on 27 September 1433, Acho Johannis and Gervinus Petri left Vadstena in order to take part in the Council of Basel (DV 435). Before going to Basel, Acho visited Rome for negotiations about the “double monastery” system (both a male and a female convent within the same unit). For his function as a representative of Vadstena at the Council of Basel, see FREDRIKSSON ADMAN 2003, 21 ff.. The exact date of his return to Vadstena is not known. In 1438 and 1439 (DV 480, 489) Acho visited Finland to negotiate about land and property for the foundation of a daughter house in Nådendal (KLOCKARS 1979). In Finland he and his companion Laurentius Haquini seem to have made a good impression on the bishop of Åbo, Magnus Tavast, who tried without success to persuade Acho to remain in Finland (the letter from the bishop is edited in KLOCKARS 1975, 29–33). Since the proposed location for the new monastery was not judged suitable, another one was chosen in 1441; Acho played an active part in obtaining permission to use the new location from the Council of the Realm (DV 510, FMU 2398).

Acho’s popularity in Vadstena Abbey may be reflected in the fact that on 27 February 1442 the Abbey directed a letter to the archbishop, urging him not to approve the choice of Acho as bishop of Västerås (Stockholm, National Archives, A 21, fol. 62v). The protest was in vain: on 29 April the same year Acho was consecrated bishop (DV 520). During his episcopate (see EKSTRÖM 1939, 155–62) he issued indulgence privileges for many churches and chapels and he appears in a series of documents concerning the property of the cathedral of Västerås. As a bishop he also appears to have acted powerfully in political issues and to have partaken actively in meetings with the Council of the Realm. At the same time he maintained close relations with his old abbey, returning there on several occasions, for example to consecrate new sisters. His plain monastic habit irritated the king, who sent a request to the Pope that he should be allowed to dress in a way which better befitted a royal councillor, but without success. Acho’s own preferences in the matter of dress are not known, but that he remained faithful to his original calling is shown by the fact that his last wish was to die within the walls of Vadstena Abbey. He expired there on a bed of straw, 17 April 1453 (DV 633).


Acho Johannis stands out as one of the most important and productive preachers and sermon composers in the medieval Abbey of Vadstena. During his time in the Abbey (1416–1442) he composed or compiled some 240 sermons, now preserved in different manuscripts in the C-collection of the University Library of Uppsala (ANDERSSON 1994, 6 ff.). His major collections are C 326 and C 335 (fols. 156v–340v), containing 133 and 61 sermons respectively, both de tempore and de sanctis. Other sermons are found in C 343 (fols. 108v–220r; the identification of the scribe is discussed in HALLBERG 1997, 4) and (most probably) in C 382 (fols. 166r–192v). To the above figure may be added reportationes or tachygraphed versions of fourteen sermons delivered orally by Acho on different occasions 1428–1430 (HALLBERG 1995, 1997). A sermon by Acho for Christmas Day is discussed briefly in HÄRDELIN 1990 (100), where it is claimed that the author makes use of rather audacious imagery. Special interest has been directed towards a few of his sermons for the feast of Dedicatio ecclesiae. Thus, in BORGEHAMMAR 1990 one such sermon is discussed as regards form and content in comparison with two other Vadstena sermons for the same feast. The same three sermons are used in FOGELQVIST 1990 in a study of the contemporary understanding of the Church as both material and spiritual (ecclesia materialis et spiritualis). This theme is further developed in HÄRDELIN 1998 (165 ff.) using a broader selection of sermons for Dedicatio ecclesiae. In the latter work the author also briefly discusses two sermons by Acho intended to be delivered in Latin to the clergy (207 f.) and a sermon treating the subject of marriage (216 f.). HALLBERG 1995 and 1997 discusses the above-mentioned reportationes, and edits two of them (on such reportationes, see further >Sermones Birgittini). HEDLUND 2000 (esp. 141) studies the ways in which Acho ends his sermons, and claims that his perorations are varied and testifies to the author’s rhetorical proficiency. HÄRDELIN (2006) examines further his oratorical skill, especially his use of introductions (prothemata) to his sermons. The structure of Acho’s sermons seems to be the conventional one for his time, with thema, prothema (or exordium), recapitulatio thematis, divisio and expositio with authoritative quotations and exempla. He often quotes the Revelations of >Sancta Birgitta. ANDERSSON 1998 describes how one of his sermons was used by other preachers in the Abbey in order to compose a model sermon which was subsequently copied into several Vadstena manuscripts. His own use of model sermons is studied in ANDERSSON 2001, 86 ff., 90 ff..

The fact that Acho’s sermons were often excerpted or copied by his younger colleagues testifies to his popularity as a preacher. Sets of such copies are found in C 364 (fols. 1r–30v) and C 356 (fols. 90r–179v). It may be noted that >Jacobus Laurencii (dead 1460) seems to have been especially fond of Acho’s sermons, since he often uses them in his own collections; and in 1497 Michael Nicolai still quotes from his writings (C 243, fol. 60v). When he left the abbey to embrace his mission as bishop of Västerås, Acho obtained permission to bring his two main sermon collections (C 326 and C 335) with him; after his death, Vadstena Abbey required that they be returned to its library (Stockholm, National Archives, A 20, fol. 196v). The plain and lucid style of Acho and his mastery in explaining the Bible may be studied in the following prothema taken from a sermon for the 21st Sunday after Trinity: “Erat quidam regulus, cuius filius infirmabatur.” Joh. iiii (John 4,46). Karissimi, videmus bene, quod vix vmquam accidere potest, quod pater aut mater filii videat dolorem eius vel incommodum sine cordis magna tristicia et sine sollicitudine auxilium inquirendi. Et ideo non est mirum, si iste bonus homo, de quo loquitur ewangelium hodiernum, filio suo quesiuit auxilium a Domino nostro Iesu Christo dicens: “Domine descende, priusquam moriatur filius meus.” (John 4,49) Nec mirum, quod sic rogabat eum regulus iste, vt sanaret filium eius, quia ipse erat medicus tocius orbis, secundum quod dicit Augustinus (Serm. 175, PL 38,945): “De celo venit magnus medicus, quia per totum mundum magnus iacebat egrotus.” Sicut igitur regulus iste compaciebatur filio suo infirmo corporaliter, sic beata Virgo, que est mater omnium peccatorum, per suam misericordiam compatitur peccatori, qui est infirmus in anima spiritualiter. Vnde habetur vi Libro Celesti, capitulo xx, quod ipsa dicit: “Ego sum quasi mater, que habet duos filios, sed hii non possunt tangere vbera matris, quia nimis frigidi sunt et in domo frigida commorantes. /…/ Tunc respondit mihi filius meus: ‘Mater dilecta, propter te mittam scintillam in domum, vnde copiosus ignis accendi potest et filii tui calefiant, vt recipere valeant vbera tua.’” (Rev. VI,20) Fugiamus igitur ad ipsam dicentes humiliter ”Aue [Maria gracia plena etc.]”. (C 326, fol. 46r–v). (“There was a certain ruler, whose son was sick.” (John 4,46). Beloved, we understand clearly that it can hardly ever occur that a father or a mother sees the pain or ailment of their son without a great sadness in their heart and without any concern to seek for help. Therefore, it is no wonder that the good man in today’s Gospel asked our Lord Jesus Christ to help his son, saying: “Lord, come down, before my son dies!” (John 4,49) Nor is it any wonder that this ruler prayed that the Lord heal his son, since the Lord was the healer of the whole world. Thus Augustine says: “From the heaven came a great doctor, since over the whole world a huge sick person lay.” (Serm. 175) In the same way as this ruler felt pity for his son, the holy Virgin, who is the mother of all sinners, through her mercy feels pity for the sinner, who, spiritually speaking, is sick in the soul. About this she speaks in the Liber caelestis, chapter twenty: “I am like a mother who has two sons, but these can not take the breasts of their mother, since they are very cold and dwell in a cold house. My son Jesus said to me: ‘Beloved mother, four your sake I sent a spark to this house, from which a copious fire can inflame and warm your sons so that they can take your breasts.’” (Rev. VI,20) Let us therefore flee to her and say in humility: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’ etc.)


One sermon (C 326, fols. 279v–281r) is edited in MALINIEMI 1942, 143–50; two others from the same manuscript (C 326, fols. 118r–122r) together with the corresponding reported versions (C 392, fols. 264v–265r, 270r–v) in HALLBERG 1997, 22–42. In FREDRIKSSON 1990 and VITALIS 1991 two sermons from C 335 (fols. 284v–287v and 237v–241r respectively) are edited, in both cases with an apparatus of variants from a number of other manuscripts. The latter is translated into Swedish in BORGEHAMMAR 1992, 251 ff.. In BORGEHAMMAR 1989 another sermon (C 326, fols. 48r–50r) is translated into Swedish.


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