By and large, what we can find out about Ingeborg Grytten, one of Norway’s two seventeenth-century poetesses, has to be gleaned from her hymns. We do not even know the year of her death. But we know that she was familiar with Dorothe Engelbretsdatter’s Siælens Sang Offer, because she borrowed material for her melodies from it.Thus the west coast of Norway produced the first two female Norwegian poets. They came from the same supernational clergy class that was, at the time, the custodian of writing – and of women’s writing too.
Dorothe Engelbretsdatter drove a wedge into patriarchal male society. She is known as the first female hymn writer in Denmark-Norway to assume a sermonising poetic voice representative of the genre. Her verse found its way into the oral and popular tradition, the realm of most women, as well as the ceremonious, male-dominated, and learned house of God. Depictions of the virtuous and the female were themes that linked low and high, the nursery and the church. Unlike her male poet colleagues, she had no other occupation than that of writing. She faced the God of the old ‘estate society’ not as bishop, officer, or schoolmaster, but as woman. She wrote between sixty and seventy hymns and prayers, mostly collected in Siælens Sang-Offer (1678; Song Offering of the Soul) and Taare-Offer (1685; Offering of Tears), a versified rendering of devotions. She ended up making her livelihood by writing, supplemented by a paltry widow’s pension. Dorothe Engelbretsdatter thus became an early example of the professional author who made her living through the pen. This was exceptional at the time.
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.
If nineteenth-century women could not become pastors and if they could not without conflict devote themselves to intellectual work, the closest they could come to the pulpit was by way of writing hymns. Lina Sandell called herself “a good scribe’s pen”, an expression that combines lack of pretence with high self-esteem. The hymn-books of the free-church communities came to be, and still are, totally dominated by Lina Sandell, beginning with the first edition of Pilgrimsharpan (1861; The Pilgrim’s Harp).In order to create a female tradition, the female Christian writers were looking for models among the figures of the Bible. Together with Charlotte af Tibell, Lina Sandell wrote the book Bibelns qvinnor (The Women of the Bible), and Betty Ehrenborg-Posse chose the Bible’s Deborah, Miriam, and the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist as her models. These learned and poetical women, she thought, had been authorised by God to write spiritual songs, even though some might consider this task to pertain exclusively to the clergy. But the position she obtained offered more room for her preaching than she would ever have had as a pastor.
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.
In Denmark and Sweden in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women sometimes recorded hymns and sacred songs, either from collector’s zeal or for use in private worship, and on occasion perhaps purely as material for a translation or writing exercise. Towards the turn of the seventeenth century, an increasing number of women, primarily in Denmark, not only made copies of other people’s hymns but also wrote their own. There is a marked difference between women’s hymn writing in Denmark and in Sweden. In Denmark we can find the names of writers with an extensive output, women who published a number of collections in their own name. These women found themselves in the contemporary spotlight, the subjects of tribute poems and requests for reprinting of their song collections. In Sweden, on the other hand, women primarily wrote single hymns for Pietist and Herrnhuter communities. The hymns were included in hymn books published from around 1730 onwards.