Hello to the faithful few who made it through all of Kristin Lavransdatter! Unfortunately someone requested my copy of the book, which I actually finished reading over a month ago, so my thoughts will have to be a bit here-and-there and without page citations. I was so engrossed in the book I both did and did not want it to end!
I had two main themes that I was musing on as I finished the book. Feel free to toss out anything you may remember or questions you have in the comments section.
Independent woman or woman of the Church?
The back matter on the copy of the book I had describes Kristin Lavransdatter as being about a woman who “defies her family and her faith to follow the passions of her heart.” I beg to differ. Perhaps the book reviewer saw Kristin as an “independent woman” who does “what she feels is right” rather than being “confined” by the structures, traditions, and authorities of the Church. Perhaps they saw her sins, and thought that they put her outside the confines of the Church. But to me, this is an incredibly simplistic (and of course theologically incorrect) reading of a complex character. I don’t think I could have read a thousand pages about an “independent woman who defies tradition” -- there’s not much nuance to that, and I know I would have tired of it after a while.
I would like to propose that despite--or perhaps even because of-- her transgressions and weaknesses, Kristin remains both in heart and in deed in communion with the Church. The dialogue she has with Sira Eiliv (the priest she was close to throughout her early married life at Husaby) in the convent towards the end of the book, describes the dynamic of much of her life-- over and over again she chose her own will rather than God’s, and was broken by her choice. But from that brokenness came the fruit of lessons learned and wisdom gained.
Particularly illustrative of one of the main dynamics of Kristin’s spiritual life was Sira Eiliv’s question to Kristin-- when a child burns their hand on an ember, after their mother cautioned them not to, does the mother then take credit for the burn as her punishment of the child for transgressing boundaries she had set for the child’s own well-being, happiness, and health? Not really; the burn is merely the natural consequence of the action which the child must suffer, even if the mother might wish to shield her child from the suffering. In the same way, Kristin suffers the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries that the church has put in place for her well-being, but her suffering also bears fruit. This fits within the understanding of the Church that God can use all things for good, even the greatest evil, as the Cross teaches. A simplistic reading might understand the “fruit” of Kristin’s sin to be proof that the sin was not in fact sin at all, but I don’t think one could argue this as a point of the novel itself, given the internal suffering and conversion that Kristin must go through at each stage of her life. This is not a novel about turning away from God, about rejection; it is ultimately one about redemption.
Note how Kristin in a sense “began” her life (as an adult) in a brothel and ends her life in a convent. There are nuances in each tableau-- despite her willingness to succomb to her passion with Erlend, there remained a certain purity to her, in her childish demeanor and her blind trust in Erlend’s promises. Gunnulf, Erlend’s brother, heavily placed the blame for the couple’s sin on Erlend, particularly on the fact that he was taking advantage of a woman barely beyond childhood. Kristin herself knows that she was not forced into the situation, but there still remains the sense that what she was doing was beyond her own understanding. Within this “beginning” of her life, Kristin is involved in the death of Eline, Erlend’s mistress for years, and leaves the incident feeling somewhat responsible for her death.
At the end of her life, Kristin becomes a nun; turning from the world to God. She has made two pilgrimages to Nidaros--one as she began her life, to atone for her dramatic sin with Erlend, and one as she ended her life, to atone for the less dramatic, more persistent sins that laced their way through her life as wife and mother. Finally, she enters the convent to end her days. Yet she is not simply a nun; her person retains that sense of being “mistress” of Husaby and Jorundgaard; although much of her life running the household was peppered with the faults of her strong personality, it was also seasoned with her generosity, particularly with the poor and with her children. Her strength of character is finally a redeeming quality when towards the end of her life she saved the life of an innocent child and bringing the body of a poor woman to consecrated ground for burial, and in so doing brings upon herself her own death.
Throughout her life, Kristin experiences moments of consolation and desolation; times when her prayer is fruitful and easy; times when it wells up from the searing sorrow of her soul; times of business when prayer is sparse and almost thoughtless; times when her soul seems dead and unable to reach outside itself to God. A simplistic reading, perhaps of one not experienced themselves is the life of prayer, might see Kristin as someone who is “not pious”, someone who is not “within the church” but “out on her own“ given that she does not live a life of sugar-coated perfection or consistent mystical union with God. Yet anyone practiced in the spiritual life knows that it is not the way one feels about prayer or towards God that matters; “by their fruits you will know them”. Kristin is not a saint--she speaks harshly towards her husband, and bitterly holds within her heart many of his transgreassions. Many a time the book notes that Erlend did not hold on to Kristin’s faults with such stubbornness (illustrative I think of women/men in general); in fact his lack of rancor is pointed to several times as the main hope that his family and friends had after death that God would have mercy on his unconfessed, unabsolved soul. The contrast with Erlend makes Kristin’s stubborn holding on to his sins seem even greater. She clings too much to her children, she turns to pagan practices to save the life of a child (what she does-- taking dirt from the cemetery to lay on the child-- seems not to be all that big of a deal, but towards the end of the book, we realize what might happen if pagan practices are taken to their ultimate expression-- sacrifice of innocent blood.) Her action was small compared to those who would sacrifice a child that they might save themselves. [Anyone have any other thoughts on this topic…? I wrote this quite a while ago and Kristin’s virtues are getting fuzzy in my memory.]
Regardging Motherhood & housewifery
One thing that struck me about Kristin’s wifehood is the scale of it. She was considered an excellent wife and a skilled mistress. Perhaps some might say that this was out of the ordinary, because Erlend was so inept at household matters that she had to take over the role of a man. Yet later in the book, when we are able to get a glimpse into the household of Simon and Ramborg, it is clear that even in the hands of an able man like Simon, who purposely allowed Ramborg to be shielded from the typical duties of the wife, the medieval household needs a woman to take charge of some elements, otherwise there will be disarray.
I can’t help but reflect on the difference with our own time. A household was basically a small, somewhat self-sustaining town. Being a wife and mother did not mean sitting inside one’s house alone with small children, taking care of menial tasks, and never interacting or conversing with another adult from 8am until 4pm. I think when we “modern women” reflect on what the vocation of motherhood means, we need to reflect carefully on what precisely we are including within that vocation. A vocation, it seems to me, must have an enduring meaning outside the historical period within which it is lived. We see here a historical account of medieval women who are in charge of much more than just a couple kids, vacuuming, and cleaning bathrooms. Many times Kristin refers to herself as “ just a simple woman” or “a foolish woman”-- certainly the feminists out there must shudder at such terms-- yet the rest of the story proves her to be far from that, particularly in her moments of bravery--setting out alone on pilgrimage to Nidaros, first at the beginning of her life and then the end.
Another funny thing I’ve found within this book is solace in extended breastfeeding, child wearing, and cosleeping. Kristin connects her breastfeeding relationship with her children with the joy of their early years; their sleeping by her side with intimacy with them. Bjogulf, the child she need not nurse herself, is the child who is most distant from her; she was blind to his blindness for many years. Once her sons move to the loft bedroom above her, they are grown, distant, and mysterious to a certain extent.
For all the La Leche League propaganda encouraging breastfeeding, I never read anything as compelling as this book regarding the goodness, the satisfaction, and the joy of the breastfeeding relationship. Kristin is aggrieved when she is forced to turn her children over to a wet nurse due to circumstances beyond her control; in this I saw a comparison to bottle feeding. It seems it should not be a “first choice” but rather a means of nourishment for a child when there are circumstances that make it necessary.