Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Medieval Home

I recently watched a series on youtube called "The History of the Home" hosted by the delightful and brilliant Lucy Worsley (Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces). She has a book along the same lines: If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home.

The video series is in four parts, one on the Kitchen, the Bedroom, The Living Room and Bathroom and each part examines the history of that part of the home from medieval times to the present. While she is focusing on the history of English homes, I think that life was very similar in medieval Norway.  I found the first section of the Bedroom and Living Room series so helpful to me in trying to imagine what it was like to live in Kristin Lavransdatter's world. I'll share them here for you to view. Let us know what you think!

The Bedroom



The Living Room

Elf Maidens and Christianity Converge, Notes on Kristin Lavransdatter

Statue of Kristin Lavrasdatter in Sel, Norway
I found this interesting blog post written by Emily over at eveningallafternoon.com.

I trust Emily's perspective because she has a miniature dachshund named Mr. Bingley.

But, I digress...

In this post, she discusses the portrayal of Christianity in Kristin Lavransdatter. Being a topic several of us have mentioned, I thought I'd share this snippet with you:

"To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of The Wreath is its portrayal of the process of Christianization. Kristin's family are devout Christians; it's established in the early pages of the novel that they're more pious than average: "...the other people in the valley felt that God's kingdom had cost them dearly enough in tithes, goods, and money already, so they thought it unnecessary to attend to feasts and prayers so strictly or to take in priests and monks unless there was a need for them." Yet even for the extremely pious in Undset's novel, it seems that their world has only been partially Christianized: in the villages and cities Christian beliefs apply, but in the mountains, away from civilization, live the elves, dwarves and trolls of the old, pre-Christian belief system. It's as if the medieval Norwegians perceived the work of religious conversion as applying more to the actual land itself than to the people living on it - as if the act of buildling churches and cities transformed a region from the territory of the old beliefs to a Christian region. Even Lavrans, who gives ample proofs of his piousness, sees no contradiction in continuing to believe in other kinds of supernatural beings in the mountains. Before seven-year-old Kristin has her titular vision of a blonde maiden with a golden wreath beckoning to her from beyond a pool, Lavrans admits that "I've seen herds of cattle and sheep, but I don't know whether they belonged to people or to the others." And after the little girl runs terrified back to her father, saying that she thinks the vision was a "dwarf maiden," nobody thinks to contradict her:
"Oh, that must have been the elf maiden - I tell you, she must have wanted to lure this pretty child into the mountain."

"Be quiet," said Lavrans harshly. "We shouldn't have talked about such things the way we did here in the forest. You never know who's under the stones, listening to every word."

He pulled out the golden chain with the reliquary cross from inside his shirt and hung it around Kristin's neck, placing it against her bare skin.

"All of you must guard your tongues well," he told them. "For Ragnfrid must never hear that the child was exposed to such danger."
So the Christian ethos, while real for these characters, is something that needs to be guarded and invoked, rather than something that naturally permeates the whole world around them. And threats to a Christian enclave are often localized and external - similar to a modern person's bodily fear of venturing into a "bad neighborhood." It's a take on religious conversion I'd never run across before, and one that fascinates me."

Nonneseter Chapel, all that remains of the Nonneseter Abbey in Bergen, Norway
I like this thought: "It's as if the medieval Norwegians perceived the work of religious conversion as applying more to the actual land itself than to the people living on it - as if the act of buildling churches and cities transformed a region from the territory of the old beliefs to a Christian region."

And then, today, I read Steven Greydanus's review of Brave over at the National Catholic Register. This Pixar film is set in medieval Scotland (which was invaded many times by the Norse Vikings, so they could be relatives of Kristin for all we know). Greydanus writes about Brave:

"It’s no spoiler to say that magic is involved; we meet the ghostly will-o’-the-wisp fairy lights in the opening scene, when little Merida gets her bow and King Fergus loses his leg to a monstrous black bear. 
In folklore, fairy lights that recede or extinguish as one approaches are often thought to mischievously lead travelers astray from well-trodden paths into marshes or bogs (compare the elvish camp fires in The Hobbit) — but Elinor tells Merida that some say the wisps can lead you to your “fate.” Where the fairy lights lead Merida now, and what happens as a result...."

This got me thinking once again about that strange elf maiden scene at the beginning of the book. One gets the impression that it means something. But what? What do you think? Do you see a greater meaning in the elf maiden encounter, and how does the portrayal of medieval Christianity impress you?

Monday, June 18, 2012

If you would like to spend a day reading up on Sigrid Undset, here you go...

There are so many articles and resources about Sigrid Undset and Kristen Lavransdatter, I thought I would put them all in one place for you. If I had tacked them on the end of my author intro post it may have crashed the blog :).

I'm sure I'll be adding to this list, so check back.

Here we go:

Removing the Grime by Tiina Nunnally on her translation  (this is a treasure!)

Character chart of Real Characters in Kristen Lavransdatter

Character chart of Fictional Characters in Kristen Lavransdatter

A Tour of Bjerkebæk, Undset's home in Lillihammer  (be sure to select the english version of the site)


Sigrid Undset: Catholic Viking by Steven Sparrow

A Life Worth Celebrating: Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset from an online LDS magazine (he he)

Under Her Heart: Motherhood in Kristin Lavransdatter by Carrie Frederick Frost at FirstThings.com  (beautiful!)


A fabulous set of posts written by Webster Bull at Witness2Christ (these are great!) :
Taking Back Our Sister 
Catholic Culture Needs More Champions
Are Brothers Taking Back Our Sister?
Free Will, Even in a Snake Pit
Rembering Kristen Lavransdatter
Question: Are You Saved?  "writes Undset, 'no Catholic would dare to say more than that he hopes for salvation.'"


Undset's essay, "Catholic Propaganda", mentioned in above article. 


"The end is a stunner, and as right as rain—worth every hour it took getting to." ~ Webster Bull. Keep writing, Mr. Bull!

Sigrid Undset Crosses Russia from the Brussels Journal  

Why I am Catholic: Because This Book Really is Beautiful by our good man Webster Bull, published at Patheos.com

Sigrid Undset's Time Warp from CatholicCulture.org

Her Introduction from Penguin.com

Interesting Biography from the Great Norwegians website

Reading Sigrid Undset from catholiceducation.org

Translation of Undset's "Kristin Lavransdatter" Trilogy Gets Much-Needed Face Lift from Norway.com

A tour of Jorundard



Sunday, June 17, 2012

on Sigrid Undset, author of Kristen Lavransdatter

Dubbed by some as the "Catholic Viking", Sigrid Undset might be one of the most overlooked authors of the 20th century. Although, recent buzz in media circles seems to cause one to wonder if that may be changing.

Undset was a timeless woman, in some sense. As an adult she lived in a home she had restored to medieval Norwegian style. Yet, she also wrote essays on feminism that could have been written in 1960. However, her conclusion to feminism was that a woman finds her ultimate worth or demise in her role as a mother.  Her famous novel, Kristen Lavransdatter, has a heroin set in ancient Norway, with thought, desires and struggles that could be faced by any woman today.  Unset has been paraded as a Norwegian feminist author and at the same time pushed aside as a Catholic author with an agenda. Sigrid Undset, at least to me, is as complex and intriguing as her most famous character.

Sigrid Undset became a Catholic in 1924 and four years later was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Only nine women have ever received that award and Undset was the third and at 46 one of the youngest ever recipients.

Sigrid Undset was born in May 20, 1882 in Kalundborg, Denmark and died June 10, 1949. At the age of two, her family moved to Norway. 

Undset's father was a respected Norwegian archeologist and her mother was his illustrator and secretary. Both were atheists and raised their 3 daughters to think likewise. They were 'free-thinkers', went against the mold and sent their daughters to a controversial progressive, co-educational school. Their mother had them wear pants under their dresses. Undset's parents attempted to resist the strict and sometimes repressive nature of Norwegian Protestantism.



From a young age, Undset's father entranced her with the tales of ancient Norse sagas. So much so that as a child, Sigrid was motivated to learn to read in Old Norse and Old Icelandic. This passion was to carry through later in her novels. Her later writings included not just novels, but essays about Medieval Norway and translations of various Norse sagas and myths. It was not unknown for University lecturers in Medieval European Studies classes to advise their students that the best way to gain an insight into the medieval period is to read Undset's sagas.

After the death of her father when she was just 11, Undset went to several schools. Her family was poor and did not have the resources to send Undset to art school, as was her wish. So, at the age of 15, she attended a one-year secretarial school and took a job soon after as a secretary at the German Electric Company. She thought the work dull, but supported her mother and two sisters for 10 years, and wrote her first two novels during that time.

Her first manuscript, finished when she was 22, was rejected. “Don't try your hand at any more historical novels,” wrote editor Peter Hansen. “It's not your line.” He told her to stick to contemporary topics. In order to get recognition as an author, at the age of 25 she published Mrs. Marta Oulie, set in modern-day Norway.  The opening sentence, “I have been unfaithful to my husband,” guaranteed that the novel would be talked about in literary circles.

Eventually, she was able to make enough money from her writing to quit her secretarial job. Receiving a literary scholarship, she traveled Europe to write, ending up in Rome. There, she met Anders Castus Svarstad, a Norwegian painter, whom she married three years later. He had been married previously and had 3 children by his first wife. He and Undset had three more, one of whom was severely handicapped. The marriage was not a happy one and after Sigrid moved to Lillihammer with her children to prepare a new home in 1919, they were divorced. 

With her children, Anders and Maren Charlotte


The onset of World War I and the turmoil of her marriage caused Undset to look once again at her opinion of religion. Being raised an atheist, she was taught by her father to be a 'free-thinker' and to question the world around her. Evidently this pursuit of truth lead her to the ultimate truth of the Catholic Church. Seeing the immorality and ethical decline of her culture caused her to question the foundation of her beliefs. She first began her research of the ancient Norwegian Catholic Church from a purely academic standpoint, but this knowledge, combined with her love of medieval Norway, began the turn the tide against atheism. Where as before she had believed that man had created God, she now knew that God had created man.

Concerning her journey to the Catholic faith, she notes that “the war (World War 1) and the years afterwards confirmed the doubts I always had about the ideas I was brought up on — (I felt) that liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is.”

In 1920, she began writing Kristen Lavransdatter. In 1924, she entered the Church on All Saints Day. In 1927 she published the last book of Kristen Lavransdatter. In perfecting her passion, by seeking out success as an author, and by following her father's knowledge and love for her culture, Undset found the Church.
At her desk at home, writing Kristen Lavransdatter



In the 1920's, Catholics in Norway were practically non-existent. Her conversion was very controversial. She was preached about from Lutheran pulpits and ridiculed by her contemporaries. However, this only spurred her on to write more. 

Sigrid Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She was given prize money worth $42,000. In today's estimate, that would be worth ten times the amount. She donated the entirety of the prize to a charity assisting families with disabled children. 

The following is from Elizabeth Scalia's essay published at FirstThings.com, titled "Sigrid Undset’s Essays for our Time" written on May 29 2012 (are we timely, or what?!):

Sigrid Undset’s life was a heavy one, and it seems if she could not have joy, she was determined to have light; unwilling to live her life in ideological self-containment, it is not surprising that Undset would eventually come to call the Catholic church “home,” or that she would credit the saints with delivering her to its doors. Undset’s fiction is populated with vividly drawn characters—people of action whose narratives are built very precisely upon “human nature as it really is,” including the propensity for doubt and regret. To discover genuine men and women living boldly—not excused from those same propensities yet mysteriously delivered of them in the promise of a life in and with Christ, must have been for Undset a moment of staggering, irresistible illumination. 
(from Undset's biography)
"But if you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it. And in a way we do not want to find the Truth—we prefer to seek and keep our illusions. But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about ‘God’s friends,’ as the Saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit.
But if you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it. And in a way we do not want to find the Truth—we prefer to seek and keep our illusions. But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about ‘God’s friends,’ as the Saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit.
By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those queer men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness—his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellow men, his everlasting fall from grace. Now it occurred to me that there might possibly be some truth in the original Christianity."
When Joseph Stalin's invasion of Finland touched off the Winter War, Sigrid Undset supported the Finnish war effort by donating her Nobel Prize Medal on 25 January 1940.  Her disabled daughter died in 1940, and her oldest son was killed in action shortly after.  She fled to the United States because of her opposition to Nazism and the German occupation of her country.  There, she untiringly pleaded her occupied country's cause and that of Europe's Jews, in writings, speeches and interviews. She returned to her home in 1945. During the war, the Germans had used her beautiful home as a brothel. She tried to write, but struggled. Sigrid Undset died four years later, on June 10, 1949.  Her home is now a national monument.

Undset on Norwegian 2 Kroner stamp, painting by her husband in 1911.
The 500 kroner note is of Sigrid Undset



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