Kristin Lavransdatter – Mistress of Husaby

The second book of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy is really the anatomy of a marriage.  Sigrid Undset sculpts an realistic profile of a difficult marriage.  Kristin has to face the weaknesses of her husband; eventually, with the help of her father no less, she sees some of her faults.  Early on, she compares her daily life with that of her parents.  There is a contrast in the orderly manner in which her folks carried on their affairs and the reckless neglect that has been the M.O. of her husband’s estate.  Studying the three marriages in this book (Kristin’s, her parents’, and her sister’s) would be fodder for some great discussion.

Which makes me wonder: how much of an issue is housekeeping in a marriage?  Not just sweeping the floor and doing laundry, although it includes that; but, how do we reconcile different approaches, different mindsets to work and leisure? 

In the first section, The Fruit of Sin, Kristin struggles with the guilt of her sexual immorality and disloyalty to her parents.  She embarks on a solitary pilgrimage, walking twenty miles by herself to the Archbishop, who can give her absolution.   When she arrives at the cathedral she ponders the architecture.

Human beings had never compassed this work of their own strength – God’s spirit had worked in holy Öistein, and the builders of this house that came after him.  Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – now she understood the words.  A reflection of the glory of God’s kingdom witnessed in these stones that His will was all that was fair.  Kristin trembled.  Aye, well might God turn in wrath from all that was foul – from sin and shame and uncleanness. (snip) The singing cut into her like a too strong light. (snip) The undeserved mercy broke her heart asunder; she knelt, crushed with penitence, and the weeping welled up out of her soul as blood flows from a death-wound. (pp 100-101)

In a parallel scene her husband takes a risky, solitary trip on foot to Lavran’s estate and seeks to make peace as well as make amends with his father and mother-in-law.  We see in Erlend a man who can charm and persuade, a fearless warrior who leads men into battle, but a man who finally lacks self-control.  Undset does such a good job of showing strengths and weaknesses: in Erlend, in Kristin, and in their marriage.

“You must have known it yourself, Erlend – a thicket of briers and thorns and nettles had you sowed around you – how could you draw a young maid in to your side and she not be torn and wounded and bleeding –” (p.87)

The rest of this book is not driven by plot as much as character development.  Kristin and Erlend have seven sons.  As Kristin’s marriage struggles wax and wane, the love between her father and mother becomes deeper and more secure. 

…all other love is but as an image of heaven in the water-puddles of a muddy road. (p.139)

And she tried to shut out from her mind all care for things wherein she could take no hand.  She would only think of those matters in which she could do some good by her carefulness.  All the rest she must leave in God’s hand.  (p.167)

For in her soul sin still had its being, as the root-tissue of the weeds is inwoven in the soil.  It flowered and flamed and scented the air no longer, but ’twas still there in the soil, bleached, but strong and full of life. (p. 281)

I haven’t finished the trilogy yet and I’m ready to begin re-reading it.  I have read the older Charles Archer translation.  Next time I’ll read Tiina Nunnally’s 1997 translation.  There are other Sigrid Undset books on my list. Another new author to explore.  Sigh.  Life is good.

Cahill, Again

Thomas Cahill is on a mission.  In his series, The Hinges of History, he is telling the story of Western Civilization in the context of gift giving. 

But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those
blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something    
for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something     
beyond what was required by circumstance.                                   

After his books on the Irish, the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Greeks, Cahill turns to medieval history.  He focuses on the story and influence of a few people:  Hildegard of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Francis of Assisi, Abelard and Héloïse, Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Giotto and Dante.  

Cahill’s Mysteries is very accessible, an easy to read book classified as pop history.  Without becoming too facile, he employs non-academic words, current idioms, and recent events in his writing: calling the Franciscans the first hippies, comparing earlier Islamic-Christian conflicts with the 9-11 attack by bin Laden and the war on Iraq. 

To name a child Astralabe [speaking Abelard and Héloïse’s love child]     
was to suggest that he was destined to be a very modern (and starry)       
trendsetter. It brings to mind the avant-garde rock musician Frank Zappa,
who named his daughter Moon Unit.

The book contains many rich, colorful illustrations and photographs, especially of the art he reviews.  His style of footnoting is my absolute favorite: on the same page on a side column in a slightly smaller font.

The biggest blunder of this book is its title.  There are no cults in the book and the mysteries invoked in the title are intended to denote a sacramental wonder.  The subtitle doesn’t work at all.  At the end of the book Cahill looks at the current state of the (Roman) Catholic church.  I sense that a love for the (his?) church is the motivation for pages of text on the current priestly pedophilia crisis.  He argues for optional celibacy (married clergy, I think) and popular election of clerical positions which are now appointed.

I don’t think Cahill has ever matched the quality of work he did in How the Irish Saved Civilization.  I am grateful to have read Mysteries for two particular reasons:  His resounding recommendation of Kristin Lavransdatter; and his last two chapters on Dante which have primed my pump for reading The Divine Comedy

But I am thankful that I didn’t buy this book.  One read through was enough.


Fishing, Octaves and Chesterton

An Afternoon Fishing, 1917
Nikolai Bogdanoff-Bjelski
Art Renewal Center

Ah, the joys of boyhood!  I had been thinking of donning a docent’s cap and explaining some stuff I’ve learned about late medieval art; but when I saw this print it shouted “Summer!” “June!” “Boys!” and medieval art faded away.

☼     ☼     ☼

Words are simply delicious.  Yesterday I was reviewing intervals with one of my piano students.  When we came to eighths I said, “You rarely hear the term eighths; normally we say octaves.”  She sucked in her breath, eyes as big as stop signs, and repeated, “Eighths – octaves!  Like octagon!  I. never. knew. that. before.”   Cha-ching!!

☼     ☼     ☼

More from Thomas Cahill, a hat tip to GK Chesterton: 

The introduction of Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse
will no doubt strike some readers as irrelevant, since it is
an early twentieth-century, not a medieval work;
and the incident Chesterton gives us–
Alfred’s vision of the Virgin–
has no historical basis.
But for me, as in my earlier recommendation
of Kristin Lavransdatter,
there is here a genuine evocation of the feeling and fabric
of the High Middle Ages that is worthy of our attention.

☼     ☼     ☼

Off to clean my house today.  Those gooky corners of my windows.  The dusty bookshelves.   The scuzzy underneaths.  Nothing says “I love you” louder to my husband than walking into a fresh, clean house; that is, walking into his own house and finding it fresh and clean. 

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart.
Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling
and scatter there Thy cheerful beams.

~   Augustine

Somebody Loves Me

Two somebodies went together and replenished my favorite tea.
Thank you JAB and KGB!!
Did you see how many bags?  240
You know what that means, don’t you?
I’m prepared to offer you a proper spot of tea. 
My teapot and cozy are on standby status.
Party, anyone?

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~  

The kitchen project is humming, about 1/3 done. 
If I had known I would get such a lift from clean cupboards,
I would have started finished them earlier.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) is a favorite carol.  It was the first carol we learned in Latin.  A few years later I discovered Athanasius, who fought valiantly for the deity of Christ.  Every time we sing “Ver—–ry God, Begotten, not created” I get choked up and say a prayer of thanks for Athanasius, God’s gift to the early church. 

In addition to Athanasius, I will think of translations when we sing that verse.  This, from Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill:

This early exaltation of Mother and Child already demonstrates
the innovative Christian sense of grace, no longer something
reserved for the fortunate few–the emperors and their
retinues–but broadcast everywhere, bestowed on everyone,
“heaped up, pressed down, and overflowing,” even on
one as lowly and negligible as a nursing mother.
In the words of a famous Latin hymn,

“God…is born from the guts of a girl.”

The hymn is “Adeste Fideles,” composed in the eighteenth
centry (in a very medieval spirit) by John F. Wade.
The full text of the cited quotation is
“Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine
Gestant puellae viscera”
The second line was unfortunately translated
in the nineteenth century by Frederick Oakley as
“Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb.”
p. 103

Lavransdatter and Learning

Buried in the end notes of Thomas Cahill’s Mysteries of the Middle Ages:

There is no single work that gives one a more intense and extensive understanding of the Middle Ages than Sigrid Undset’s astonishing three-volume novel Kristin Lavransdatter, set in Norway in the first half of the fourteenth century and covering the life of one woman from birth to death.  It has recently been republished (1997-2000) by Penguin in a much improved translation by Tiina Nunnally.  If an interested reader were to undertake but one more study of things medieval, Undset is your woman.  Her other medieval novels, The Master of Hestviken, a tetralogy and Gunnar’s Daughter, are almost as masterful.

This is the kind of thing which delights me on several levels.  When anyone enthuses about a book I love, I am ready to curl up into a ball and start purring.  When other books are mentioned in the same breath, I mark them on my ever expanding list of books to read.  But it is a particularly sharp jab of joy to learn something and soon after see a reference to it and recognize it. “Hey! We’ve just met!”  I’ve written about this synthesis here and here.

The process of learning can be compared to Velcro strips.  The loops of new information need little hooks to connect with.  This is a great reason to read a broad scope of material.  Every thing you learn is a new growth of little Velcro hooks that will snag some idea floating around.  In the absence of hooks, of connections, whatever you are learning won’t stick to you. 

I had the most hilarious Velcro moment while reading this sentence in Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages, originally written in Dutch in 1919.  

“Beneath the medieval-satirical dress here is fully formed the mood of a Watteau and of the Pierrot cult, only without moonlight.” 

A month ago I would have read that sentence, shook my head and shrugged in ignorance.  Pierrot cult, without moonlight?  However, I’ve been listening to Professor Robert Greenberg’s How to Listen To and Understand Great Music, where he explained and played several portions of Arnold Schönberg’s 1912 composition Pierrot Lunaire [Moonstruck Pierrot].  Pierrot, a clown figure from French Pantomime, shows up in the music, poetry and art of the early twentieth century.  Europeans understand the connotations of Pierrot in the same way that we know what Uncle Sam or John Doe means.  Who knew there’d be a connection between such disparate studies?

Pablo Picasso’s Pierrot


finished one book, I’m starting three. 

Three books, three introductions. 

K. Le Guin’s opening paragraph to Buffalo
Gals and Other Animal Presences
resonated with me.  I, too, prefer to read the introduction after I’ve read the book, a behavior
I’ve never heard spoken of before.  Any
one else do this? 

Having done introductions before, I
have found that many readers loathe them,
reviewers sneer at them, and critics
dismiss them; and then they all tell
me so.  As for myself, I rather like
introductions, but generally read them
after reading what they were supposed to introduce me to.  Read as extra-ductions,
they are often interesting and useful. 
But that won’t do.  Ductions must be intro, and come first, like
salad in restaurants, a lot of  cardboard
lettuce with bits of red wooden cabbage soaked in dressing, so that you’re disabled for the entrée.


Cahill’s latest book in his Hinges of History series, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art
from the Cults of Catholic Europe
, is a lush, beautiful book.  The type, sidebars, illustrations, yea, even
the paper announce: this book is special. 
I’m unsure of his premises and am feeling a bit reserved about the book.  But these words warmed me:


All across Europe,
a pilgrimage in company with others was a life-defining event and one of the
principal satisfactions of a well-tuned life. […]  I invite
you on a pilgrimage, dear Reader.  Come
along with me (and many others) to places
we have never seen before and to people we could  otherwise never have expected to know. We are surely
sundry folk, as Chaucer would have
called us, and we shall meet sundry folk even more exotic than ourselves.  “By
adventure”—by happenstance—we have fallen into


Tuchman’s introduction to A Distant
Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century
  provided the best reason I’ve
ever read for learning historical dates– in one short sentence.  Oh man, this revved my engine.

Dates may seem dull and pedantic to
some, but they are fundamental because
they establish sequence—what precedes and what follows—thereby leading toward an understanding of cause and effect.

Here’s a sequence I’ve pondered, one I’ve never seen mentioned in
print.  What does The Fall of Constantinople
to the
Ottoman Empire in 1453 have to do with
Luther’s Reformation of 1517?  Have you
ever wondered why Martin Luther died from natural causes at the age of 62, when
many reformers/heretics were burned at the stake before and after him?  Charles V wanted to deal with Luther, but the
Ottoman Turks were knocking at the door of
Hmm.  So the threat of Islam gave
the Reformation a small period of incubation. 
I talked to a missionary to Turks living in
Germany and posited this
theory.  He nodded vigorously and said
that the connection is something many Moslems are aware of.


Kristin Lavransdatter

This photo was taken from the campground where we just spent two days with my husband’s folks.   We spent one day mushrooming (boy-howdy, did we get the morels) and one day bass fishing.

Curt and I have an understanding:  I bring a book and read until the fishing is hot.  Then, and only then, will I fish.  Otherwise, he gets to run the boat, cast away, reel in to his heart’s content.  Better yet, he doesn’t have to untangle lines.  We’re both content and get to be together doing what we love.  We soak up the quiet, punctuated by the plop of a  fish jumping, the quiet hum of the trolling motor or the gossipy chuck-chucking of a chukar on the bank.

My book fascinated and occupied me.  I first heard of Kristin Lavransdatter reading a book list; I took note when Elisabeth Elliot named it her favorite novel.  Set in medieval Norway, it tells the tale of a young woman who grows up her father’s favorite child, but refuses his choice of husband preferring a morally unsuitable man.  [I read the first book of the trilogy, The Bridal Wreath.]  Well.  This is a tale of universal application – girl loves the wrong boy. 

What I appreciated about this book is the same thing I liked in Anna Karenina. It is an honest portrayal of love, lust, sex and everyday life after the roll(s) in the hay.  The wages of sin is death, but we’re dishonest if we pretend that the advance draw isn’t delicious.   Sigrid Unset does an excellent job revealing the deceit, the subtle changes in thinking, the isolation and the separation that follow Kristin on the path she takes.

And sometimes in church, and elsewhere too, she would feel a great yearning to take part in all that this meant, the communion of mankind with God.  It had ever been a part of her life; now she stood outside with her unconfessed sin. (p.166)

When I was a girl at home ’twas past my understanding how aught could win such power over the souls of men that they could forget the fear of sin; but so much I have learnt now: if the wrongs men do through lust and anger cannot be atoned for, then must heaven be an empty place. (p.174)

It is painful to see the tight knit love between Kristin and her father Lavrans snag, tear and unravel.

You have wrought sorrow and pain to many by this waywardness of yours, my daughter — but this you know, that your good lies next to my heart. (p.211)

“Father,” said Kristin, “have you been so free from sin all your life, that you can judge Erlend so hardly–?” “God knows,” said Lavrans sternly, “I judge no man to be a greater sinner before Him than I am myself.  But ’tis not just reckoning that I should give away my daughter to any man that pleases to ask for her, only because we all need God’s forgiveness.” (p.226)

People in the midst of self-gratification seldom think of the effect their actions will have on other people, or how many people they will affect. 

“Much have I done already that I deemed once I dared not do because ’twas sin.  But I saw not till now what sin brings with it — that we must tread others underfoot.” (p.259)

In the end, Kristin gets what she wants – minus the joy.  What she thought would fulfill her doesn’t satisfy.