From The Paris Review:
The most common food in the medieval historical romance Kristin Lavransdatter, written by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), is oatmeal porridge, a dish I made elaborate perfection of during my children’s early years. The porridges in Undset’s book are good and nourishing but plain (though in one scene, a young Kristin eats hers with “thick cream” off her father’s spoon). Mine, on the other hand, were ridiculous. I blitzed half the oats in the baby-food blender before cooking. I tried different combinations of milk and water. I made fruit puree swirls. I had a two-year-old daughter, an infant son, and an office job, to which I fled every day in great relief to get a moment to myself and then struggled not to leak breast milk on my work clothes. My husband was unhelpful with the children. Childless people found my travails boring and embarrassing. I’d never thought being a woman mattered much, but suddenly it seemed to. I was miserable, and perfecting the oatmeal made me feel better.
Kristin Lavransdatter, which unfolds over the course of three volumes—The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross—is a woman’s story. It’s also a gripping read and an impressive feat of historical re-creation, which helped Undset win the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature. The epic’s structural and textual allusions are so numerous that, as the professor Sherrill Harbison dryly remarks in her introduction to The Cross, they “show no signs of being exhausted by scholars.” (She also—correctly, I feel—thinks the book is overlooked.) When writing Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset drew from sagas, ballads, Scandinavian oral tradition, and medieval texts of all types, notably the allegory Le roman de la rose, to tell the tale of a woman in the early fourteenth century, a time when society was changing for women, who takes her newish right to consent to her own marriage a step further and demands her own choice of husband. Not accidentally, Undset was writing in the 1920s, another time of rapid social change.
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The story follows Kristin, daughter of Lavrans, from childhood to death. Lavrans is a salt-of-the-earth Norwegian, “a strong and courageous man, but a peaceful soul, honest and calm, humble in conduct but courtly in bearing, a remarkably capable farmer and a great hunter.” As the treasured offspring of this strong and good man, Kristin is herself strong and good, and destined to carry on her family’s legacy of virtue. But in the book’s first section, Lavrans takes her up to the mountain pastures with a handful of children and servants to see to some land-management tasks. The group eats lunch outdoors amid the dazzling mountain views—“soft bread and thin lefse, butter and cheese, pork and wind-dried reindeer meat, lard, boiled beef brisket, two large kegs of German ale, and a small jug of mead.” Lavrans gives Kristin “all the ale she could drink, along with frequent sips of mead” and says: “God’s gifts will do you good, not harm, all you who are still growing. The ale will give you sweet red blood and make you sleep well.” The whole party falls asleep in the midday sunshine. Kristin, unaccustomed to drinking, wakes up with a headache and a dry mouth and accidentally wanders off down the wooded slope, where she is first captivated by her reflection in a stream and then sees an apparition, a woman with “a pale face,” “flowing, flaxen hair,” and “full breasts,” which are “covered with brooches and gleaming necklaces.” Kristin flees in terror, but the damage has been done.
The woman is an elf maiden. In Norwegian folklore, Harbison writes, the elf maiden represents “abduction and erotic abandon; her mischief is to lure young girls into the mountain for orgies with the mountain king.” Later, it will be Kristin’s fate to defy the counsel of her wise and good father, the values of her community, and the expectations of her religion, and reject an eminently appropriate betrothed, Simon Darre, for a different man, Erlend Nikulausson, with whom she falls in wild, besotted, sexual love. The reflection in the water is a reference to the myth of Narcissus, an inspiration for Le roman de la rose, which is about a dreamer who falls in love with a beautiful rose at the bottom of a pool but is eventually persuaded to make the more “responsible” choice: to marry a woman and reproduce. Throughout the entirety of Kristin Lavransdatter, the title character struggles with her decision to choose Erlend, herself, and her passion over her community’s values—which are also, with anguish, her own values. The motifs of Narcissus, the elf maiden, and the mountain king continue to appear.
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Familiarity with the source material invaluably deepens one’s appreciation of the book’s themes, making Harbison’s introduction to The Cross required reading. She explains that even the idea of romantic love the way Kristin experiences it was relatively new in the fourteenth century. Romantic, or courtly, love was “invented by poets in France in the twelfth century” and represented an advance in the status of women, because suddenly they were deemed worthy of inspiring heights of passion. (Prior to this, sex with women was considered a troublesome and low occupation that kept men from their real work.) Courtly love, though, wasn’t quite the same as how we view romance today—it claimed the highest status for doomed, forbidden, secret passions, usually between people who were married, but not to each other. The beautiful, unattainable rose at the bottom of the pool in Le roman de la rose is evocative of this kind of love. In an echo of its symbolism, Kristin and Erlend’s first outing together is in a rose garden.
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Everywhere there was food in medieval Norway, there was drink, and often many kinds on the same table—wines and meads, ales strong and weak. The ensuing drunkenness is another aspect of the books’ harsh realism and another example of the dual nature of God’s gifts. My spirits consultant, Hank Zona, found me not just meads but a mead trend, which serendipitously reflects both Kristin Lavransdatter’s pagan Catholic spirituality and some of our more modern struggles to live virtuously and situate ourselves in our wider human community. First, I spoke to a home mead maker named Eileen Coles, whom I met through the Norwegian immigrant community in Brooklyn. Coles brews mead as a sacred beverage in the Heathen tradition. (Heathen is a designation for the pre-Christian Scandinavian and Northern European religion.) Coles noted that mead is found worldwide, “wherever one would find beehives, in places as far-flung as India, Ethiopia, and China,” but that it and beer are more prevalent in Northern Europe because of the climate. Since grapes don’t grow well in the cold, “people made do with what was available—grains, herbs, and honey.”
Link to the rest at The Paris Review