History of Me, Part 4: The Lives of Medieval Women

In this episode of History of Me, I get a detailed front-row-seat look at what life was like for Scandinavian women in early- and late-medieval Europe. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

A Brief History of the Holy Roman Empire

Last time we focused specifically on the religious side of the coin, learning how Christianity grew and spread on the “trellis” of Roman infrastructure and trickled down from nobles to commoners. This is apparent in both of the books I read (more about those shortly); but first, I want to point out a couple other common themes that cropped up in this month’s Mighty Fortress reading:

  • Roman / Christian fusion led to Roman-Catholic ascendancy. This chapter looked at Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty of Franks (more on their terrible conversion practices in the last post). As Germanic tribes, especially the Franks, stepped into the vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian bureaucracy growing on the trellis of Roman administration became fused with the Frankish kingdom. When Frankish power passed into Saxon hands in 919, the seat of power was retitled as the new “Roman Empire,” which by the 1200s had become the Holy Roman Empire. As the title suggests, this role became deeply entangled with the Church and with the office of the Pope… but suffice to say that this formalized the hand-in-glove relationship that had already been going on for some time. (We can also see, however, how incorporating the church, and thus the Pope, into regional politics lays the groundwork for later corruption and the Protestant Reformation.)
  • Partible inheritance (sharing between multiple children) was more equitable, but also led to greater political instability. The practice of partible inheritance (as opposed to primogeniture, in which inheritance is passed only to the firstborn son) sounds really great — and in fact, it was “based in the moral and religious belief that parents should treat their children even-handedly” (Ozment p.44). The problem occurred when monarchs tried to do it with their kingdoms, as Charlemagne attempted. This led to the Frankish kingdom being divided in two, and eventually fragmenting into ruin, from which arose “five loosely organized duchies (Franconia, Saxony, Thuringia, Swabia, and Bavaria)” which were “thenceforth the foundation stones of a fragmented and competitive medieval German realm” (Ozment p.49). This fragmented regionalism is partially why when we get to the Renaissance/Reformation era (which we will next time), Germany is still a collection of smaller princely states whereas England and France are highly centralized monarchies.

These are the broad strokes of this era of transition from the ancient world of the Romans to the medieval world of kings, princes, and popes. Keep them in mind as we turn to our two books…

Gunnar’s Daughter: A Rape Survivor’s Epic

[As noted above, rape is a major plot point in this book, so proceed with caution, and also, major spoilers.]

The first book I read, Gunnar’s Daughter (by Sigrid Undset), is set in the 11th century and follows a pretty awesome maiden named Vigdis. She is courted by Ljot (pronounced Yot, but I keep saying Lee-ott in my head), a foreigner who visits her father’s hall. She likes him and is thinking about accepting his proposal… but then he rapes her and flees in shame. (He’s written as a reckless, hyper-sensitive man with a million red flags for toxic masculinity.) Vigdis, however, is left alone and pregnant with her family, and the rest of the book follows her life as she deals with her trauma and raising a child alone, as well as cultural expectations in an honor-based society.

This book, I’ve got to say, was AMAZING. It’s written in the style of a Norse epic — very action-packed — but with a rape-survivor single mom as the protagonist. (RIGHT???) I HIGHLY recommend it, so if you’re planning to read it go do that first before you read all my points below, because I will be discussing the ending. Here are some of the major themes from this incredible book:

  • The setting is a world in between paganism and Christianity. In the story, Vigdis has a “runic knife” and references some long-ago priestess kinswomen “at the high place in the grove here”, but tells Ljot during one of their talks that her father “believes in nothing but his own power and strength” (Undset p.7). Paganism is fading, but it’s clear that the common folk have not yet embraced Christianity; in fact, later in the book Vigdis and her people are baptized essentially for political expediency when they journey to the court of King Olav, the first Christian king of Norway.
  • Vigdis embodies many of the idylls of Norse epic heroes, and her being a woman does not interfere with that (and makes it even more badass!). Okay — imagine a book written about a rape-survivor single mom who escapes attackers via skis with her newborn on her back, then assassinates the man who murdered her father, overcomes her PTSD to raise her child as a single parent, protects herself and her child from outlaws in the forest by convincing them to go on a quest to the king’s court with her, resists the king’s proposal by instead agreeing that she and her people will be baptized, and rather than decide between her two rival suitors instead brokers other marriages for them that make them allies to each other and herself and secure their protection and tutelage for her young son. NOW imagine that book was set in 11th century Norway, and was written in 1909. (1909!) That book is this book, and it’s AMAZING. I’m also incredibly impressed that, although the story does check back in with Ljot, the suitor-turned-rapist, periodically, it never (in my opinion) drifts into rape apologism or excuses what he does in any way.
  • Vigdis’s character is also incredibly emotionally present in this book, working through trauma and emotional healing to learn to love her son. Undset does an amazing job of depicting the emotional realities of surviving trauma, healing, and learning resilience. At first, Vigdis ignores her pregnancy, and initially when she gives birth to her son (alone, in the wilderness) she abandons the infant to die. However a few months later, she learns that her step-mother (who noticed her pregnancy and helped her hide it from her father) found the boy and had given him to the care of a neighbor, and she decides she wants to raise the child. What follows is a really beautiful tale of Vigdis’s emotional healing and growth into a wise and capable leader and mother. Seriously one of my favorite book characters. There is, however, a tragic element to this story… [LAST CHANCE TO STOP BEFORE MAJOR ENDING SPOILERS]
  • The downside of Norse tradition is blood vengeance, which leaves families — and Vigdis — grieving and empty. The sad ending is that Vigdis’s son, Ulvar, grows up and meets his father on a ship — but Vigdis, in accordance with the “unrelenting social code” of the time, insists that her son avenge her by killing his father or she’ll never speak to him again. (Again, in no way does the book excuse Ljot’s actions, but it does paint Ulvar’s desire to know his father in a sympathetic light.) In the end, Ljot actually falls on his sword so Ulvar won’t have to do it, but Ulvar is so heartbroken and traumatized at his mother’s willingness to banish him that after delivering his father’s head to Vigdis he rides away and never returns, and Vigdis dies alone. Sigrid Undset wrote Gunnar’s Daughter during a revival of national obsession with their Nordic heritage as a critique of the “nationalist tendency toward isolationist race mythology” that perpetuated a “glorified image of the Vikings” but “obscured the fact that they had not been peaceful, diplomatic cultural ambassadors but brutal marauders, raiding, destroying, killing, and abducting innocent people” (Undset p.xiii). It serves as a reminder that cultural heritage includes things both beautiful and destructive, and as we deal with our own pain and issues we need to be conscious of how our reaction(s) to our trauma affect(s) our children.

Another reason this book was important to me is that I actually have a single mother in my family tree. According to family stories and my research, one of my immigrant ancestors, Bertha, arrived here with her parents and siblings in the summer of 1891, pregnant and unwed at 25, and gave birth to a son in December. No one knows who the father was, or whether Bertha was a willing or unwilling participant. Either way, she did not marry the father and in fact never married. So I picked this book specifically to spend some emotional time with Bertha, my single-mom foremother.

In thinking about Bertha in the context of Vigdis, I’m really glad that Bertha had lots of family around her to help her raise her son, unlike Vigdis. Both Bertha and Vigdis, though, raised their sons in a new land away from where they grew up, which is scary but also provides a way to leave old painful memories behind. I wonder if, like Vigdis, Bertha ever struggled with uncertainty about whether she wanted her child, or with PTSD, or with having to hide her pregnancy from her family. I visited her gravestone last summer, and spent a moment standing there, thinking of her. I hope her life improved. I hope she was able to love her son and enjoy him, and live life without too much bitterness or loneliness.

Kristin Lavransdatter: 14th-century Norwegian Immersion

The second book (really a trilogy of 3 books) I read was also written by Sigrid Undset and is a massive masterwork, and the primary reason why Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. It follows the entire life of Kristin Lavransdatter (daughter of Lavrans, as traditional Norwegian naming customs go) as she is betrothed to a respectable, reliable man; falls in love instead with a dashing rogue (Erlend); sleeps with him (which was a huge deal for a betrothed girl of noble lineage); persuades her betrothed to back out and her father to consent to her marriage to Erlend; manages Erlend’s rundown estate back to relative prosperity; gives birth to seven sons; loses her husband’s lands when he plots against the crown; becomes estranged from Erlend, who then dies; sees her sons grow up and scatter; and then enters a convent where she dies of the Black Plague.

Whew, that’s a lot! Honestly I’m impressed I could summarize it that short, since altogether it comprises over 1100 pages printed.

Reading Kristin Lavransdatter is definitely a commitment, but the beauty of it is that when you turn that last page you feel as if you’ve just lived a whole life. There is so much detail, and Undset does such a good job of letting you into Kristin’s infatuation with Erlend, struggle to manage motherhood and marriage, and wrestling with herself over the guilt she feels from what she sees as a massive sin and betrayal of God and her father, Lavrans. It’s truly an experience.

A couple themes that stuck out to me:

  • Christianity is much more omnipresent, but paganism still lurks here and there. Much of the language and fabric of Kristin’s world is shaped by the church — cathedrals and convents and priests and Hail Marys — but sprinkled here and there are things like the ancient practice of leaving offerings at the burial stone of the first owner of the estate, or describing odd babies as changelings. There is even one scene where Kristin, who is a healing woman, practices “sorcery” by laying grave dirt on a dying child to try to save his life. (She views this as a serious sin, but does it anyway out of debt to the child’s parent.) It is clear, however, that Christianity is ascendant and paganism is fast fading.
  • Conflict between feminism/self-determination and family honor. Kristin fights to marry the man she wants, and wins. And her own self-determination is a strong theme throughout the entire book, not just at the start. However, Kristin also wrestles with how to uphold or regain her family’s honor, when she’s clearly transgressed it with her defiance of her father. (In addition to getting pregnant before marriage, which was a huge no-no, Kristin also spends much of the book trying to offset the rash and unwise actions of her roguish husband, Erlend.) At times her self-admonishment comes off as extremely harsh on herself and there is a lot of self-denial for the good of her family and sons later, but at other times it’s amazing to see what kind of autonomy she has even as a woman in 14th-century Norway. One of my favorite things about this book was getting to see Kristin change her mind and vacillate between conflicting ideas, because that’s how life really is — it made her very human. (Side note: we again got to see the symbolism of keys as the markers of women’s ownership and management of the estate. When Kristin is married, her husband places the keys to his manor on her belt, and when Kristin’s son marries, she gives the estate keys to her new daughter-in-law to signify the transition to the next generation.)
  • Pervasive sense of fatalism, but with a strongly stubborn individualistic streak. If you remember back to the first post about Norse mythology, one of the big themes I highlighted was the belief that a person’s fate is already decided, but how people live their lives is up to them. The incredible detail and specificity with which Undset tells Kristin’s story reinforces both the sense of personal choice AND the sense of “your fate is your fate,” and in fact Kristin herself remarks toward the end of her life that “All that had happened and would happen was meant to be. Everything happens as it is meant to be” (Undset p.989).

Conclusion

I think this might be my favorite reading group so far, possibly because I love that I got to immerse myself in the lives of medieval women. The history in Ozment’s Mighty Fortress is a good overview of the religious and political upheaval that provides the backdrop for these stories, but to me the most realistic account of what life is like at any given time and place is getting to experience the everyday lives of women at that time and place. 

I feel like I so resonate with both the survival and emotional resilience of Vigdis (as well as her getting caught between healing and what society demands of her) and the daily grind of Kristin trying to balance her own happiness with caring for all her various family members as a daughter, wife, and mother. Although I read these books to gain more understanding of life as a medieval European woman — and I did — I also think these themes are still incredibly relevant to life today.

It’s still important to be connected to our families and our cultural roots; and those connections still bring us both joy and pain. I’m thankful for the ways these books have helped me to connect more deeply with both the joys and the pains of my ancestors, especially the women.

Tune in next time as we dive into the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation — just in time for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. 

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2 thoughts on “History of Me, Part 4: The Lives of Medieval Women

  1. I’m so excited to have found your blog! I’m getting inspired to do my own reading and research. I’ve been watching “Cleverman” on Netflix, which uses the Dreamtime mythology of the aborigines in Australia and New Zealand. I noticed how these communal stories unite people. Personally, I feel “story-less.” I don’t connect with Christian mythology. Your blog makes me think that I need to investigate and learn about what “is” my cultural story.

    Like

    1. Aww, glad you found it too!

      I definitely recommend learning the history of settlement/colonization in your country first — I began my journey learning about how white settlers (aka my ancestors) killed and relocated hundreds of Native American nations. And only THEN did I feel like I understood my current cultural context here in the USA enough to go back and learn about the country where my ancestors come from, because then when I get to the “coming to America” part I’ll more fully understand how there came to be space for them to arrive (aka via violence). To me, this is an essential part of learning about Norse/Germanic culture and history in an ANTI-RACIST way, which is very different from how white supremacists go about it.

      But yes, given that context, I highly recommend family history and genealogy research if possible, or at least some reading on the most ancient culture you can associate with your ancestors (in my case, Norse mythology was that). I think one of the saddest ways the idea of “whiteness” affects white folks is that it takes away our actual cultural roots and leaves us feeling “story-less” like you said. So learning some of our actual cultural stories can help begin the process of healing! And definitely find a friend or a community to do it with, if you can. My church community is a huge source of support for me, but lots of places you can also find anti-racist groups or other types of spaces where folks can start to process and talk through these things.

      Best of luck!

      Liked by 1 person

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