Mention the Middle Ages and you may well elicit a negative response, as this period has been widely imaged as one of cruelty and superstition. Suggest further that you have a great admiration for that period of history and many might think you are overdue for a psychiatric assessment.
However, in the last couple of hundred years, a number of authors have challenged this stereotype, one of them being the Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 primarily for her recreation of life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.
Although largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, Undset is rightly one of the great Catholic novelists of the 20th century and deserves to be ranked alongside other greats such as Chesterton, Waugh and Greene. The publication by Penguin Books of a new translation by Tiina Nunnally of her greatest trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, in 2005 signals a revived interest in the English-speaking world.
Born in Denmark in 1882, Undset moved with her family to Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925), Norway, while still a small child. The interest in the medieval period began in her childhood. Forced to leave school at age 16 to help support her family, Undset worked as a secretary by day and wrote novels by night, the first of which to be published was when she was 25.
During a sojourn in Rome in 1909, she met her future husband Anders Castus Svarstad. After he had obtained his divorce, they were married in 1909 and their first child was born the following year. Although the marriage was to break down in 1919, Sigrid's experience of married life and the First World War profoundly influenced her spiritual journey.
Raised in a background of atheistic scepticism, she sought a solution to the ethical decline during the period. Through writing her novels she reflected on the human condition and realised there was an element of mystery to life that could not be explained.
Significantly her most famous work, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, was written in the early 1920s, during this period of spiritual searching that culminated in her conversion to Catholicism in 1924. Spanning the first half of the 14th century, the 1,100 pages of the novels that make up the trilogy, The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross, span the life of the protagonist after whom the trilogy is named.
Betrothed in marriage to Simon Darre, Kristin falls in love with the widower Erlend Nikulausson. Despite her parents' objections, she weds him, pregnant with their first child. Although deeply in love with Erlend, in the following years, Kristin experiences both joy and sadness in her marriage. After becoming embroiled in a treasonable plot, Erlend loses his land and eventually lives separate from his wife. The story ends with the tragedy of the Black Death.
Central to Kristin's world view is her faith, which sustains her. Although not a Catholic at the time of writing, Undset presents a very sympathetic treatment of Catholicism. Some of the most beautiful and moving passages in Kristin Lavransdatter employ the stream of consciousness style of writing employed by other early 20th century writers such as James Joyce, in which Kristin reflects on sin and the mystery of redemption. Although there is much suffering in the trilogy, and it ends with the tragic events of the Black Death, it remains imbued with Christian hope.
Undset's conversion to Catholicism in 1924 that followed publication of Kristin Lavransdatter was bitterly opposed by family members and friends and was a public sensation. The Catholic Church in Norway was small and regarded with hostility by the bulk of the population who were at least nominally Lutheran. However, it seems to have had little impact on her developing reputation, as it was no surprise in the international community when Undset was announced the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.
A vociferous opponent of Nazism, Undset fled in the wake of the 1940 German invasion of Norway to Sweden and thence to the USA, returning after the end of World War II. She died in 1949.
That Kristin Lavransdatter was extremely well received at the time is reflected in its wide dissemination and translation into English a few years after its publication.
However, Tiina Nunnally states that part of the rationale of her translation is that the tone of the original was altered by the original translator. For example, archaic forms of English were adopted that did not fully reflect the original Norwegian and many passages in which Undset employed stream of consciousness were altered.
Similarly, some passages (ironically some of the most powerful ones such as Kristin's dialogue with Saint Olav in Christ Church) were simply omitted. Such is the significance of Nunnally's translation that she won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize for The Cross.
Kristin Lavransdatter is an extraordinary literary work. It is hard to put down and provides a grand panorama of the human condition in the light of faith. Its republication is a welcome antidote to much of what currently masquerades as literature.
The Penguin Classics edition of Kristin Lavransdatter is readily available.
Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset, trans. Tiina Nunnally, Penguin Books, 2005.
'Sigrid Undset', Wikipedia, downloaded 9 Mar 2007.