Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kristin Lavransdatter: Sigrid Undset, 1928 Nobel Prize

Book Review:  Kristin Lavransdatter
Novel by Sigrid Undset
14th Century Norway
Update after visit 2013

The historical novel can be central in liberal arts education.  In cultures without vast written records, as the medieval Viking era, how else to humanize events, set disparate accounts from oral tradition into a more memorable context. where there were no scribes at the time taking dictation. The novel,  Kristin Lavransdatter, by author Sigrid Undset, serves that purpose well. I read the book then visited several sites in Norway where ruins and foundation of the homestead and its local compound remain, and the old church in the village, and then Trondheim, a pilgrimage site for the main character, Kristin Lavransdatter.  The book includes three separate stages of the story.

The side door of the church has been repurposed as a window.

Most of us in American schools had little of Scandinavian history in our texts. Mention of the Norse painted them as barbaric raiders, ignoring the equally barbaric forced conversions and slaughter of the Pope's ongoing Northern Crusades just to the south. The centuries of peaceful trading and acceptance of Celtic Christian missionaries came to a halt with the militant Christian branch of Rome on the march. The book develops well the changes that the  Roman version wrought, the imposition of rigid rules, confiscations of property, denigration of the old culture, conformity or death.

Sigrid Undset, Norwegian author born in Kalundborg, Denmark, wrote the novel  Kristin Lavransdatter and won the Nobel Prize for Literature for it in 1928.  It was translated into English in the 1950's, and is a tome worth close reading of the 1069 pages. A film was made of Kristin's story in 1995 film, Liv Ullman directing,; and at

Reviews of the story, however, are inadequate to the reality it weaves.  Mere fact summaries are like saying Moby Dick is about a man hunting a whale and who dies trying.  I have not yet seen the film.  Does it grasp more than the medieval scenery and stereotypes, Liv Ullman or no Liv Ullman directing.  Penguin came out with a paperback, see that at

Frame Kristin Lavransdatter not as the story of a medieval woman, but as a Womansaga, a 3D portrait of men and women, both.struggling with and against the role changes forced by a new breed of church, the militant, demanding institution that takes no prisoners. Submit. Kristin Lavransdatter paints full portraits of many men, but appropriately puts the woman and her role at the forefront. What is done to her being, when she is ordered to trail dutifully and decoratively behind the man, forced into subservience by an imposed set of orders, where her own culture did not.  For medieval life of the time, start at her beginning at Kalundborg: Womansaga, birthplace of Sigrid Undset.

The Ullman film also covers only the first of the three books.  It needs sequels, just as Harry Potter needed its sequels.

My notes in a ragged log are not clear:  Is this standing stone at Husaby (not an original stone) for one earlier era Viking chief, Einar Tambarskjelve, see Pilgrim Ways to Nidaros/   He dates from the 11th Century, however, 980-1050 or so, and a stone for him is in a place called Melhus, farther south than Skaun.  He was one of the most powerful in Trondelag, in a great line of Earls. He fought against the increasing power of the King, leading to his ultimate assassination.  The theme of ever-centralizing power in a monarch, and its effect on the people who were left worse off as their larger community under a landowner was fractured, is a theme in Kristin Lavransdatter.  

Could Einar Tambarskjelve have been the model for the husband of Kristin Lavransdatter? 

I do not have an electronic reader.  How can a tome like this, that thrives on flipping back, rereading, fit a small screen.  Someday I will try it, but only after those come out with "finds" for reviewing who characters are, the name forms are too unfamiliar to be absorbed in one contact, and until there is a way to jump from the footnotes at the very end, back into each chapter, time and again, the readers are uselessly small-screened. 

How accurate is this book's representation of Norse women on prosperous farm compounds of the high middle ages, 1200's?  Lives of women were not recorded except as to Icelandic women storied in Icelandic Sagas, see an earlier era, The Far Traveler, by Nancy Marie Brown, that puts various accounts of Gudrid of the sagas in one narrative, at

Women themselves did not record; is it true that only those at the spearhead of the new Roman church were literate in that way. Third parties with agendas, do we trust their viewpoints?  I prefer Sigrid Undset projecting onto Kristin, rather than an institutional cleric.

The history seems accurate.  There was plague, invasion of Roman christian officials in the wake of coercion-under-threat by the Holy Roman Empire.  These radically shifted the course of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, displacing the more gentle, contemplative monks of the more Celtic tradition. Wikipedia offers a history of Sweden that touches on Norway, but no separate topic for Norway.  Needed.

Violence, seemingly a part of any medieval culture, multiplied in Scandinavia as even the Inquisition hit the most northern parts.  Misogyny culminated in the 16th Century in the placce where Christians said the gates of Hell opened:  Finnmark. See  .  See the Steilneset Memorial for that time, at  That has to be for our next trip.  The point is, however, that the forced diminution of woman's autonomy, a threat to the Roman church, culminated, as elsewhere in Europe, in inquisitions, witch hunts.  Will this new pope ever recant (!) the use of the Malleus Maleficarum? It set the mindset still with us, is that so? FN 1

FN 1.  Institutional churches thrive on lemmings, is that also so?  Contrast that focal-point authority leading to property and authority all in the church, to the earlier independence of smaller groups. Those societies largely arranged for compensation and used outlawry instead of capital punishment and torture, I think.  Which is more enlightened?   Women used to have property rights and rights of inheritance (extensive), housing arrangements, respect for their herb remedies and healing simples, old ways persisting, nature there and its mosses, trees, scents, racing rivers, animals,  childbirth, chivalric kurteis or courtesy, courtship, bastardy (abstention did not work then, either), shame as death-tool, political intrigue, revenge, redemption, fostering, social strata, fates and great shifts of plot, guilds.

Reviews of Kristin Lavransdatter that narrow the scope to the place of motherhood in this novel are misleading. See, e.g., This is also a tale of how formal and aggressive, no alternative forced Christianization, to the institutional after centuries of benign helful missionaries and monks living in the communities, at farm churches, now compelled into bureaucracy, European ways including capital punishment.

A real place:  Skaun is southeast of Trondheim, the Husaby church-place, where there was a farm church in 1030. See it at

There is another church at the Skaun area, the Borsa kirka, also southeast of Trondheim, but near the fjord at Skaun 7353. I think this is it, but it is newer, much renovated, redone.  It is perhaps on old foundations.  Need more research.  Is there an older one somewhere that we missed, given references to the Borsa Kirke? Skaun had been part of the Orkdal clerical district, until it was redistricted in 1814 into the Borsa clerical district, so old references to Skaun or Borsa churches are confusing.

The Skaun Church also was renovated, but the addition is clear and the church's appearance still very old. The stone portion was completed in 1183.

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