Birgitta of Vadstena (Saint Bridget of Sweden), founder of the influentiel Birgittine order of nuns, is by virtue of her individuality considered to be one of the first Swedish writers. She emerges as a strong-minded woman who viewed the gradual changes of her day with open eyes, but at the same time she had no clear awareness of her own self. She allowed herself to be encircled and absorbed by making God her hiding-place. A sense of self gradually developed, meanwhile, through identification with Christ.
The view taken by the Christian Church of women who wrote on holy matters, evangelised, preached, prophesised or in other ways acted as God’s mouthpiece has been inconstant: at times accepting, at times non-committal. Opinions have been determined by the Church’s need for messengers and by pressure exerted on the Church by various interest groups. We can identify four periods of relative latitude as regards these speaking and writing women. First, the period preceding the official establishment of an organised Church (c. second century AD); secondly, the expansion of the Church in Europe during the seventh to ninth centuries; thirdly, lay Pietism of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and fourthly, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Pietist movements in the wake of Reformation and Counter Reformation.
No woman and no deity in the Middle Ages attracted the poets like the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ. Marian poetry was initially written in the international language of religion, Latin, and might later have been translated. Original poetry was also written, in many genres and in the ‘vernacular’.Lyrical, epic, and dramatic Marian poetry is found throughout the Nordic area. There are approximately fifty extant Marian texts in the Norse language. Some of these Norse Marian poems might have been written in Norwegian monasteries. In Sweden, poems to the Virgin Mother were written in Latin and in Swedish. Swedish-language Marian poetry exercised influence on its Danish counterpart through, in particular, the Birgittine order. Marian poetic work in Denmark comprises Latin poems written by Danes as well as original and translated poems in the Danish language.
There are many indications that women were largely responsible for the oral tradition in Norse literature, not least the eddic narrative poems which by and large thematise women’s experience and have a female perspective. The poetry was linked to the art of divination known as seid and to the healing arts, both of which were predominantly female spheres; that is to say, poetry, seid and healing arts were components of one and the same system, forming a ritual unit. In range, Norse literature spans the transition from paganism to Christianity and from an oral to a written culture. There is a concurrent movement from a strongly women-centric to a virtually one-sided male-dominated culture. With monotheism, and later Christianity, monasteries, writing, and schools, this women-centric culture was repressed and/or usurped by the male culture. The introduction of Christianity deprived women of many important roles in the execution of pagan rituals, and they did not learn to write, either. This meant that the women’s oral tradition was, in a very literal sense, silenced by the pens of the male culture.