Gotland steps back in time

Fiona Basile dons her tunic and watches Gotland turn back the clock hundreds of years for Visby's Medieval Week.

I can only stand and watch as, shrieking and terrified, the residents of the Gotland countryside desperately run toward and bang at the towering southern gate of Visby, in a bid to escape the Danish forces.

This was the scene that greeted me in the usually peaceful capital of the Swedish Baltic Sea island. The apparently terrified rural residents were, of course, only acting, but they were playing out events that really took place in Gotland hundreds of years ago.

They are among thousands of medieval-clad visitors to have been converging on Visby for the 24th Annual Medieval Week (Medeltidsveckan) Festival, which reaches its climax this weekend.

Medieval Week Secretary General Marie Flemström says the festival focuses on the era starting in 1050 and stretching right through to the 16th century.

“We want to awaken people’s imaginations and their interest in history,” she says.

“We don’t just focus on the entertainment; we also provide educational and historical courses throughout the week. This is what sets us apart from the rest.”

Standing in the middle of historic Visby, it doesn’t require too much imagination to think yourself back in Medieval times. The 3.4 kilometre stone wall that surrounds the inner city was built during the 12th and 13th centuries; the wall and its 36 towers still exist today and are integrated daily into the festival’s activities.

The shrieking rural inhabitants are taking part in a powerful re-enactment of the Danish Invasion. On the 27th July 1361, Danish King Valdemar Atterdag and his professional army slaughtered 1,800 Gotlandic people in the country-side before entering the city through its southern-wall gate.

This date is one of the most important dates in Gotland’s History.

“It’s known as the Battle of Wisby,” says Flemström. (Wisby is the old Gotlandic spelling for Visby). “It’s a tragic and true story that is re-enacted each year during Medeltidsveckan so that you can get an understanding of what happened”.

Various events in the history of medieval Gotland are portrayed at different points in the week.

At the heart of Medieval Week lies the daily market. Set within the city walls, by the sea, the scents, colours, sounds and tastes are a feast to the senses.

Dressed in my own medieval wear, I join the thousands of others who’ve donned colourful fabrics of a time gone by: tunics, dresses, scarves, flowing shirts, trousers and accessories galore.

The stalls sell products linked to the medieval era: armour, jewellery, clothes, crafts, furniture, and even swords and knives.

We listen to the musicians, laugh at the jesters and gaze at the flexible acrobats and brave fire-eaters. Even the food is medieval: roasting meats, warm melting toffees and honey-coated nuts.

Visby’s numerous medieval church ruins host Medieval musical acts such as Patrask, Hildegards, Gemma and Ulven, Räven and Haren. Jousting Tournaments are also a popular element of the week’s entertainment, with modern visitors entertained by dashing knights on horseback fighting for the honour of their fair maidens.

The festival is a big draw for tourists to Gotland. About 150,000 visitors attended the festival last year, according to official estimates. About 8,000 people passed through the market gates alone each day the previous year.

“We attract visitors who are already interested in history and medieval times, as well as sparking interest in those who didn’t know anything about it before. We really want our visitors and participants to feel like they are traveling back through time,” says Flemström.

Fiona Basile

Further information:

Medieval Week Website:

Practical information:

Gotland can be reached by ferry from Nynäshamn, near Stockholm, and Oskarshamn. It can also be reached by air from Stockholm Arlanda and Stockholm Bromma (services operate year round). Summer air services operate from Gothenburg, Ronneby, Ängelholm, Norrköping, Linköping, Sundsvall, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Oslo and Helsinki.

For information about flights, ferries and accommodation on Gotland, visit


Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google’s questions

Why is Sweden called Sweden? Why is Sweden so depressing? Why is Sweden so rich?  In a new series of articles, The Local answers some of the most common questions that appear when you type "Why is Sweden..." into the Google search engine.  

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google's questions
Why is Sweden actually called Sweden? Let's find out. Photo: Google screenshot

The short answer to “why is Sweden called Sweden?” is that it’s not. It’s called Sverige

When The Local asked Henrik Williams, a Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University, he also gave the question a short answer: “Because it’s inhabited by Swedes.” 

We can trace some form of the name back to at least the 13th century, when it was called Swearike in Old Swedish. That translates to “the kingdom of the Swear”.

Two thousand years ago, some of the people living in what is now known as Sweden were called Svear or Suiones, depending on which language you spoke and on how you spelled things (spelling varied greatly). 

The Roman historian Tacitus gives the first known description of the Svear in a book written in the year 93 CE, Germania

Everything comes down to this word, Svear, the name of the people. It means ‘we ourselves’. The Svear lived in Uppland just north of where Stockholm is now, until about the 11th century when they started expanding their territory. 

“It’s very common that people call themselves, either ‘we ourselves’ or ‘the people’” said Professor Williams. 

“We are ‘the humans’ and everybody else is something else. Everyone else is ‘them'”.

Of course, nobody uses the word in that way now, but it still forms the basis of the word Sweden.

The 8th century epic poem Beowulf gives the earliest known recorded version of the word Sweoland, land of the Swear

But at that time, there was no Sweden. Instead, the land was occupied by little kingdoms of Swedes and Goths (in present-day Götaland) and warring tribes of Vikings.

It’s unclear when the King of the Swear started referring to himself as the king of a country called Sweden, but it was probably around the time the country adopted Christianity in the 11th century. 

“Sweden” only came into regular use after 1750, when it replaced “Swedeland” in English. But in Scotland, “Sweden” had been used since the beginning of the modern era.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 17th century, people would use Sweden as the name of the people, and Swedeland as the name of the country. 

The first attested use of ‘Sweden’ was in a Scottish timber accounting log in 1503, which refers to “Sweden boards.” 

Most countries went from the Old Norse word Svíþjóð (which is still used to describe Sweden in Icelandic today) and turned it into something in their own languages, like the Old English Swíoríce, the Middle Dutch Zweden and High German Schweden

But it’s not called Sweden everywhere. 

In Finnish, Sweden is Ruotsi, in Estonian it’s Rootsi, and in Northern Sami Ruoŧŧa.

This comes from the root-word Rod, as in modern day Roslagen the coastal part of Uppland. It means rowing, or people who row. And because Finland was invaded by people from Roslagen, that’s how Finns referred to them.