At the end of last year’s school year, I was thinking ahead to the coming year’s history studies. We have been working our way through Story of the World II: The Middle Ages (and still are, since there’s too much information to cover in nine months). I wanted to coordinate some of my personal reading with what we were studying. I asked Carol at Magistramater for a book suggestion on the Middle Ages. She recommended Kristin Lavransdatter.
Kristin Lavransdatter is a saga in three parts (The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross) by Sigrid Undset. At the beginning of her story, Kristin is a young girl of noble birth in 14th century Norway. She is beloved by her respected and highly religious father, and enjoys the carefree life of a daughter of wealth.
When Kristin becomes of marriageable age, her father betroths her to Simon Andresson, an honorable young man and the son of a neighboring landowner. During her betrothal, Kristin falls in love with the handsome but reckless Erlend Nikulausson. Erlend has been living in sin with another man’s wife, and has two children with her. Erlend seduces Kristin, and Kristin uses her influence over her father and his grief over the death of another daughter to coerce him to approve her betrothal to Erlend. Kristin gets her own way, and her willfulness will haunt her for the rest of her life.
Carol was right – these books give a descriptive and complete picture of what life was like during the 14th century. While reading Kristin’s story, I learned so much about the religious customs of the day, about the way government and legal matters were handled, about the day to day life of a woman on an estate, about how children were raised, about how the plague devastated complete towns.
I also learned that human nature is the same, no matter what the century. Marriage is difficult and requires much self-sacrifice. Raising children is a continual letting-go process that some parents handle with grace and others struggle to get through. God is gracious to forgive, but the consequences of our sin can reverberate down through generations. Forgiveness is required of us for our own good. Sacrificial love is only possible with God’s grace.
Kristin Lavransdatter is a long work, but it is more than worth the time spent reading it. I read the Penguin Classics versions that were translated by Tina Nunnally, and the prose is beautiful and vivid. These characters will stay with me for a long time.