Saturday, March 16, 2024

Sigrid Undset, Saga of Saints


Opening Passage: 

The stranger, the tourist who "does" Norway, visiting it as part of a cruise that takes him in and out of the fjords, sees a narrow strip of shore at the foot of the mighty mountains, which are green-clad near the water's edge, and higher up are gray with fallen rock, towering up into the soft blue sky which shimmers over the glistening snow fields further inland.

The rifts in the mountains open out where a river tries to thrust its way out to sea. Along the banks fo the rivers leafy forests show their brilliant green, and small farms, each surrounded by their fields and little patches of plowed land, cling to the sides of the valleys. But very small and lowly is this little strip of land which steals along close under the overpowering mountains and on which men can make their livelihood. (p. 3)

Summary: The Norwegian title for Saga of Saints, Norske Helgener, just means 'Norwegian Saints', and in some ways it's probably best to see this book in those terms, as essentially a collection of biographical sketches of various Norwegian saints. It does, however, have a more-or-less unified arc, which is that of Norway itself. In "The Coming of Christianity to Norway" we begin with the earliest human habitation and the development of a pagan society, into which the earliest Christian missionaries come. The missionaries mostly get no traction, but it's a period in which the various chieftainships of Norway are coming into much broader contact with the world; missionaries keep trickling in, and, perhaps more importantly, the noble classes, who are much more likely to have connections abroad, occasionally convert when living abroad, and come back to start building an infrastructure of support. The key figure in this very limited radication of the Church is King Haakon the Good, a chieftain who had been fostered by Aethelstan, attempts to live as a Christian king among his pagan people, and while it's an uneasy situation in which both Christian king and pagan people have to make compromises they don't like, a lot of people find that they actually like their king, who is one of the best kings they've ever had. The interaction between pagan and Christian see-saws back and forth until King Olav Tryggveson manages to unify a significant number of chieftainship into an officially Christian principality, where Christian baptism provides the thread of unity among these many diverse warring clans and tribes. Christianity, unification as a people, and monarchy begin to intertwine, and they will shape the course of Norway for the next millenium.

This is effectively an idea that Undset is pulling from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, which makes essentially the same point. But the Heimskringla follows the monarchy thread, and the arc of this collection follows the thread of Christian sainthood. We get a short look at Saint Sunniva, who in a way is our representative of the semi-legendary period of Christianity in Norway, where Christianity is slowly making gains but in ways that are difficult to see historically. St. Sunniva (or Sunnifa) was an Irish princess who fled a Viking invasion with a band of others and ended up on the Norwegian island of Selje, which was mostly used by coastal farmers for safe pasturing of cattle. Landing on Selje was unfortunate, because the locals assumed that they were there for a cattle raid. The people with Sunniva hid in fear in a mountain cave and prayed not to fall into the hands of the heathen. Their prayer was answered: the roof of the cave fell in and they all died. Olav Tryggveson becomes aware of it and sails to the island, where he and others find the body of St. Sunniva, incorrupt, and he builds a church dedicated to her. How much of it is true? We may not ever know; but Undset herself certainly thinks there is at least something to it, and thinks that dismissals of it are, as we would say, elitist dismissals of the people, whose traditions are often not set to paper until long afterward and yet nonetheless, in their rough and loose and stylized and sometimes floridly adorned way, often carry a closer connection to the actual saints. The Christianization of Norway is structured around the kings, yes, but it was also a unification of a people, and to be such there had to be a movement flowing down among the people, whose traces are found only in legends and traditional practices.

 Norway becomes Christian ultimately through St. Olav Haraldsson, who becomes the Perpetual King of Norway (the King of Norway to All Eternity, as it is given here), consolidating the land through his Christian kingship and even more through the devotion to him that develops after his death. After the tale of St. Olav, the next several sketches cover the period of this consolidation. St. Hallvard was a young man who stood up to protect a woman accused of theft; he failed, and was murdered along with her. He was remembered by the local Christian population and eventually at the altars, and became the patron saint of the diocese of Oslo -- one more step in binding the people of Norway together. We then get a more famous saint, St. Magnus, Earl of the Orkney Islands, which in those days were a territory under the kings of Norway, and see the cultural confrontation of pagan ethos and Christian ethos, which leads again to the death of the saint, but also thereby the triumph of the saint. In the tale of St. Eystein, Archbishop of Nidaros, on the other hand, we see the development of the Church in Norway as a political force, and its full organization into the Church of Norway, and in both that tale and the next, that of St. Thorfinn of Hamar, proliferating connections with the rest of the Church.

And then comes the break. In the 14th century, a union begins to develop between Norway and Denmark, and while technically Norway is self-governing, in reality it has the worst of the deal, and goes into a period of deterioration. This will culminate in 1537 when Christian III of Denmark conspires with the Danish commanders of the various coastal fortresses and seizes control of the country. In the course of doing so, he imposes Lutheranism as the official religion. This did not turn Norway Lutheran overnight; it was still a very diverse nation with a large rural population who mostly kept on as they had been. Norway Lutheranized less from any major conversion of the people and more from the slow drying-up of the pool of available priests. Slowly, though, it happened, and Catholicism in Norway again enters a period as obscure as its semi-legendary days. There were still scattered Catholics; they mostly kept quiet and only came into view by accident, and often left the country when discovered, never to be heard of again. And thus we come to the last tale, that of Father Karl Schilling, who was a young painter studying in Dusseldorf who, after having accidentally committed a faux pas during a Eucharistic procession, decided to learn more about the Catholic faith of the family with whom he was staying, and converted, becoming a Barnabite priest. I though it was interesting how Undset depicts his own family's handling of the news of his steady Catholicization -- horrified, but not in any way vicious or malicious about it, trying to be supportive while nonetheless very worried, as a good Lutheran family of the day certainly would have been. After all, being a Catholic priest essentially meant that he could never go home again, and he spent most of the rest of his life in France and Belgium. Undset covers him because of the cause of canonization that was established for him, and was going on at that time, making him the first post-Reformation Norwegian priest to be considered for canonization. (It is still proceeding; he is now Venerable Karl Schilling.) 

And of course, this is the point. One of Undset's concerns is to show that the Catholic Church and Norway are not alien to each other. Catholic kings and saints formed Norway as a nation.While the Lutherans were right that there were many pagan traditions still floating around among the people, the reason for that was that it was the Catholics who converted the pagans to Christ in a long, ongoing process. Lutheranism was not an original development, like the old paganism, nor was it an organic diffusion and development, like medieval Catholicism; it was literally imposed by the Danes. This is not so much a criticism of Lutheranism itself as part of an ongoing argument through all of these tales that Lutheranism was a break in the history of Norway, and that Catholicism is not, in fact, foreign to Norwegian life but essential to its integrity. Whatever one may make of that argument, the point is that the often intense anti-Catholic prejudices of Norwegians in Undset's day are not set in stone. In people like Ven. Karl Schilling, one sees what might well be the first sign of a thaw. Catholicism might yet bloom again in the land. And, after all, St. Olav is still, and always shall be, the Perpetual King of Norway.

Favorite Passage: An interesting story about an event a century after Norway had become Lutheran:

In 1637, a Norwegian-born Catholic priest came secretly to Larvik. In his correspondence with the College of Propaganda, he called himself Johan Martin Rhugius. He had been sent up in response to the request of a Norwegian nobleman to be received back into the Church. The wording "received back" makes it apparent that he had been a Catholic before. There were some isolated Catholics in Norway, especially in the coastal districts -- many of the men were able to receive the Sacraments when they went abroad or on journeys. That priests had secretly visited the country and administered the Sacraments seems very probable, since in a small town like Larvik Rhugius found a congregation of twelve. He also regularly visited Catholics who were spread abroad in the land. He received quite a number of converts into the Church, and among the farmers he found not a few who adhered to the old Faith. Many of these were "so innocent" that they did not even know that a religious revolution had taken place. They certainly realized that much they had treasured in the old days had disappeared, but they believed that these were alterations which the Pope had ordered "all over the world." (p. 237)

Recommendation: Recommended. It's a good way to learn about Norwegian saints and history, and makes a fairly good pairing with the Heimskringla. While the original title had nothing about a saga, the connections with the Heimskringla do make Saga of Saints a very good title for the work.


Sigrid of Undset, Saga of Saints, E. C. Ramsden, tr., Cluny Media (Providence, RI: 2022).