Märta Berendes’ story of her life and Christina Regina vom Birchenbaums song “Een Annor Ny wijsa” reflect the language models and interpretive patterns of the times. The texts are examples of the many independent and resilient seventeenth-century women, brought up in an era of numerous wars and obliged to take care of family and property.
The ideal of womanhood, as described in the eighteenth-century moral tales and bourgeois stage comedies, was not hushed and inarticulate. But it became so. For many women writers of the period, putting pen to paper seems to have been a welcome opportunity to break the silence that had descended on women’s lives in the first half of the nineteenth century – a rhetoric of silence.Novels and stories written by Nordic women in the mid-1800s often give a quiet, powerful female figure a central position in the gallery of characters. The good womanliness was hushed and self-sacrificing; but the women who began to speak and write also saw themselves as good women and envisaged that their voice and action could be the ideal, that the camp of the mute had something to say that could be of benefit to the nation and to human society.
In the history of Swedish literature, Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht is usually credited with introducing subjective poetry. She was the first writer in Swedish literature to view her writing as a vocation, an assignment, a cultural calling in itself. This is in turn linked to her status as one of the first Swedish cultural personages to live by her pen. As Levertin writes of Mrs Nordenflycht: “She is the first modern individual in Swedish literature.”Throughout her writing career, Mrs Nordenflycht pleaded for an improvement in women’s status. She spent much time and energy refuting the contention of women’s weakness, demonstrating that the woman is just as mentally capable as the man, and arguing that she, like him, should be permitted to use her abilities and mental powers.
Sweden’s first woman writer Sophia Elisabet Brenner’s work was in the form of poems for special occasions. She paid tribute to royalty and people of high rank on their weddings and their birthdays, and after victories in battle, and she wrote poems to the bereaved and to the deceased. She did not forget her friends, of course, but the majority of her recipients were higher up the social ladder.Two-thirds of her collected occasional poems were addressed to the uppermost social class; they were the ones it was worth paying your respects to, and we know from her contemporaries that Mrs Brenner’s poems were in demand and valued highly. It was not totally unknown for panegyric poetry to be written in honour of talented intellectual or artistic women of the day, and she also wrote poems on the deaths of women and children.
The seventeenth-century Danish noblewoman Birgitte Thott was the foremost Danish learned woman of her day, a “femina docta”, a “femina illustris”. She is one of the few Danish women whose passing was marked with tribute poems in Latin, and probably the only one to have been honoured by poems in Greek too. She would have been delighted by the poems. In her treatise Om et lyksaligt liv (On a Happy Life), she praises the Romans for having introduced a law stating that women should also be accorded funeral orations in which they are praised according to their deserts, just like men. A long, printed funeral address in Latin by professor at Sorø Academy Jørgen Rosenkrantz has been preserved. The text provides an impression of her life. Funeral oration is by nature a eulogistic genre with scope for exaggeration, but Birgitte Thott’s language skills have been corroborated by so many others that we may take Rosenkrantz at his word. Her translations speak for themselves in bearing out her talents, even though they might not cover all the languages she apparently actually spoke.
“Gynaeceum” is Greek and means ‘women’s chamber’. In the Renaissance the word was used as a genre designation for a literary historical category: a catalogue of women who were notable by virtue of their writings or some other form of artistic or intellectual activity.The gynaecea typically had a systematic or alphabetic structure, making them suitable as reference works. By looking up a famous woman’s name, the reader is introduced to her family via a few laudatory adjectives and her own intellectual achievements. The information is often kept brief.The Nordic region has an excellent collection of home-grown gynaecea. The genre is particularly well represented in Denmark. This small collection of Swedish biographies, and the quite numerous Danish and Norwegian biographies included in the Danish gynaecea, makes for a picture of active artistic and intellectual circles of women in these Nordic countries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And we can only presume that the same could be said of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Finland. And that there were women in the Nordic region who considered themselves members of the European ‘club’ of cultured women.