On a late July day in 1361, the island of Gotland witnessed one of the bloodiest battles of the medieval period. In the fields just outside the walled town of Visby, over 1,800 Gotland farmers lost their lives fighting against the well-trained soldiers of the Danish army led by King Valdemar Atterdag. This brutal clash came to be known as “The Battle of Gotland” and its remnants have provided archaeologists with invaluable insight into medieval warfare.

Gotland is an island located in the Baltic Sea belonging to present-day Sweden. During the Viking Age (793-1066 AD), Gotland served as an important trading and Viking raiding center. The people of Gotland known as Gotlanders were skilled seafarers and merchants who participated in Viking expeditions and discoveries. To this day, Gotland possesses many remnants from the Viking period including ruins of fortresses, burial grounds, and picture stones – carved stone slabs depicting battle scenes, ships and other activities of the Vikings. Genetic studies have also revealed that Gotlanders share close ancestral ties with other Scandinavian Viking groups.

By the mid-14th century, Gotland had become an autonomous province paying tribute to the Swedish crown. However, in 1361, King Valdemar Atterdag of Denmark launched an invasion intent on bringing the strategic island under his control. On July 22nd, he landed an experienced professional army on Gotland’s west coast near Visby. Partway to the town, some 1,500 Gotlandic farmers confronted the Danish forces in the marshlands of Mästerby but were severely defeated after a brief skirmish.

A few days later on July 27th, a larger Gotlandic peasant army mobilized to defend their island and stop Valdemar’s advance towards Visby. They engaged the better equipped Danish troops just outside the city walls. Despite being poorly armed compared to the enemy, the Gotlandic forces were comprised not just of fighting men but also the elderly and children who had joined in the island’s protection. But against Valdemar’s professional soldiers, it was a hopeless battle.

The archaeological site known as Korsbetningen graves just outside Visby’s northern gate has revealed what happened next. When excavated in the early 20th century, archaeologists unearthed over 2,000 skeletons densely packed in five mass graves. Analysis of the remains has provided insights into the human cost of this brutal clash. It is estimated that around 1,800 Gotlandic defenders lost their lives, while casualties on the Danish side were much lower. Stable isotope analysis on the skeletons also indicated that over a third of the Gotlandic forces consisted of adolescents and older adults, underscoring the island’s desperation in summoning every able body to fight.

Among the artifacts recovered from the mass graves were mail shirts, helmets, gauntlets and other pieces of armor, as well as weapons like maces, swords and arrowheads. One mail shirt in particular is thought to have belonged to two Dutch brothers named Bavo and Schelto Roorda who served in Valdemar’s army. Other findings include a small leather pouch containing coins that was discovered alongside another soldier. Studies on the skeletal injuries and bones have allowed archaeologists to reconstruct fighting techniques and identify the types of weapons used.

After the disastrous battle, the citizens of Visby had no choice but to surrender to avoid further bloodshed. To spare the town from plundering, they paid a large ransom to King Valdemar. Despite this, he still looted several churches and monasteries before leaving Gotland under Danish control. When Albert later became King of Sweden, he claimed Gotland but Danish presence on the island remained intermittent until it was finally secured as part of the Danish kingdom in 1376.

Today, the story of this Medieval Massacre is memorialized at an exhibition of the same name hosted by the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. Unique artefacts recovered from the Korsbetningen site along with information on recent studies of the skeletons provide a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers who fought and died in 1361. Visitors can learn about the Gotlandic and Danish forces engaged in battle through the stories of individual soldiers reconstructed based on analyses of their skeletal remains and equipment.

Going to the exhibition offers an opportunity to reflect on the realities of medieval warfare and the human toll of such violent conflicts throughout history. The well-preserved skeletons, mass grave photographs and displayed weapons serve as a sobering reminder that cruel acts in war are recurrent phenomena across eras. For children and sensitive individuals, some sections may be disturbing but it remains an important way to memorialize this little-known medieval massacre and those who lost their lives defending their homeland over 650 years ago on the fields outside the walls of Visby.

Texts, photos and videos from the exhibition are available through your smartphone, tablet or computer. The application is primarily designed to be used in the digital touchscreens at the exhibition. We hope that you may still enjoy viewing the material via your phone, tablet or computer. The address is http://massakern.historiska.se/?lang=en. The application does not support Microsoft Internet Explorer. Please use another browser, Firefox, Chrome or Safari (for Apple products).

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