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From royal prince to mendicant friar – the story of Jakob of Dacia

In one of my recent posts, I wrote about Hans II of Denmark and his wife, Kristina. Not a marital union that ended all that happily—not after Hans became so infatuated with the fair Edle he forgot that key word discretion, thereby humiliating his loyal wife before the entire court. Well, so thought the queen at any rate, and she does seem to have been supported by her eldest surviving son, Kristian.

Prior to Edle, the Hans/Kristina union seems to have been relatively harmonious, and over the years she presented hubby with six children. The first two boys died very young. Losing a child was something most people in the 15th century experienced at least once. The innocent was gone to join its heavenly father and in some cultures displaying too much grief over a dead child was therefore considered inappropriate. Huh. I imagine the loss of a child was as painful then as it is now.

Kristina must have felt an element of relief when the two boys next in line survived those critical first few years. It is likely both Kristian and Jakob were born before their older brothers died (Kristina seems to have beend elivered of one child a year) which may explain why Jakob was destined for the church. As a fourth son, he was sort of expendable—the succession was already assured. Well, until it no longer was, what with brothers Johan and Ernst dying, leaving Kristian as the eldest.

Kristina was very devout—as were both Kristian and Jakob. I imagine it pleased her to have one son dedicate his life to the church, but I wonder just how happy it made her hubby when Jakob chose to join the Franciscan order. After all, a royal prince who chose a religious path was expected to make a career out of it, becoming a powerful dignitary within the Holy Church.
“A friar?” Hans II may have exclaimed. “My son, a mendicant friar? No, no, I will not have it!”
Except that Jakob was already committed to his new life.

Now, before we go on, I think it is important to introduce a little caveat. You see, not everyone is convinced Jakob, Prince of Denmark is the Danish Fransiscan this post is about. Jakob was not an unusual name, and some have objected that a prince would not have embraced such a hard life voluntarily. Thing is, we know very, very little about Jakob the royal princeling, but reasonably if he’d ended up somewhere else there would have been some mention of him. Unless he too died very young—except there is no mention of that either.  So for teh sake of this post, I am going to assume Jakob, Prince of Denmark = Jakob of Dacia.

With that caveat in place, let us leap back to our Jakob. His parents believed in educating their children. Little Jakob wss taught to read and write in Danish, German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. As a friar, he resided several years in Malmö—my hometown—and spoke out loudly against the Reformation. In Malmö, the Reformation was quite a violent event, led by Claus Mortensen who seems to have detested the Franciscan friars. I have tried to find out why, but have not been able to discover a reason for Claus’ dislike. Maybe the Franciscans were merely a convenient symbol of the Catholic Church.

In 1529, a mob led by this passionate reformer attempted to force their way into the Franciscan church. They did not succeed, but some months later the remaining friars were forced to leave. Among them was Jakob, who returned to Denmark. But the Reformation was spreading like wildfire in Denmark as well, which had Jakob fleeing to Mecklenburg where his brother-in-law still held on to the old faith (in serious opposition with his wife, Jakob’s sister, who embraced the Lutheran faith with a fervent passion. She was forced to flee her hsuband’s lands to avoid being locked up…)

While in Mecklenburg, Jakob became the head of the Franciscan province of Dacia, which essentially encompassed all of Scandinavia. It was as Jakob of Dacia he made his way to Spain where he learned Spanish and Arabic, and in 1540 or so, he landed in Veracrúz, México, there to contribute to the Franciscan efforts to convert the locals to the true faith.

Jakob of Dacia – according to a 20th century portrait

At the time, Jakob was pushing sixty. Rather brave, IMO, to set sail across the vast ocean for lands unknown at that age. But no matter his (relatively) high age, Jakob took on his new challenges with determination and energy, founding convents all over México. (And yes, I imagine a few brows going up re the use convent for a religious community for men, but the Franciscans have rarely defined their houses as monasteries but rather use convent—or friary)

Six of the twelve Franciscan “apostles”

Jakob was by no means the first Franciscan to tread the soil of México. Already in 1524, the so-called twelve apostles landed in México, all of these apostles being Franciscan friars pledged to bring the word of God to the natives. Hernán Cortéz was big on conversion and brought a priest with him when he set out to claim the lands of México in name of the Spanish king. Okay, so I suspect Cortéz was more motivated by gold and riches than by a burning desire to bring the heathen natives into the welcoming embrace of the Holy Church, but presenting yourself as a staunch defender of teh faith was never a bad idead. . .  According to Spanish law and the Holy Church, the local people were to be considered legal minors, which effectively meant they were considered incapable of managing their own affairs–and especially their spiritual health. The one benefit this brought to the people who now ended up more or less under the control of the Spanish settlers and the Holy Church was that they could not be hauled before teh Inquisition-atleast not initially. Why? because they couldn’t be expected to understand the complexities of the one true faith. They needed guidance,not torture, and fortunately for them (?) missionaries were more than happy to provide such guidance – Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians arrived in large numbers to the new Spanish dominions.

A gory illustration to de Las Casas book about the Spanish conquest of teh Indies

Jakob was vociferous in his defence of the rights of the natives which did not always endear him to his superiors – even if he was likely cheered on my some of his fellow monks. After all, people like Bartolomé de Las Casas, a wanna-be encomendado (person who was given a lot of lands and a number of natives to work it for free) who had found God and become a Dominican monk, were loud in their criticism of how the Spanish – and the Church – brutalised the indigenous people. Bartolomé even wrote a book – Brevissima relacion de la destrucción de las Indias – where he describes the atrocities he has witnessed. Did not make him the most popular person in the world…

Friar Bartolomé de las Casas defending the natives – like Jakob probably did as well

Jakob never wrote a book – at least not one that has survived. But this did not stop him from trying to convince his superiors that the local “Indians” should be allowed to become priests.
“What?” the Spanish bishops said, looking as if they’d choked on something unpalatable. “They’re simple savages! Besides, we already tried that, remember?” True. The initial Franciscans did set up a school with the purpose of training native priests, but they found the natives incapable of living the life require of a religious man. They lacked the required discipline. . .  Jakob was of the oipinion one should try again. Plus, he bristled at the use of the term simple savages, finding the people he now lived with to be just like him or any other white person. This caused something of a collective shudder among the higher-ups, but it endeared him to the people he was ministering to. It also helped that this talented linguist soon became fluent in Nahuatl.

Jakob seems to have found his new home away from home in México. He spent the last decades of his life in a country no one had even knew existed when he was born. When he died in 1566, he was buried in the convent of Tarecuato, a convent he founded himself.

So ended the long life of a man who was born in the chilly north, who chose his faith before worldly glory and braved the oceans to see the world while spreading the word of God. Somehow, I think his Mama would have been proud!

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