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Dorothe Engelbretsdatter, Norwegian author, 1634–1716

By Inger Vederhus, Oslo University College

Dorothe Engelbretsdatter was the first woman who published books under her own name in Norway. In keeping with contemporary genres she wrote hymns and various occasional poems, and rewrote pieces of didactic devotional literature. The Lutheran Reformation initially provided possibilities for consolidating religious writing in the national vernacular, while the art of printing and the distribution of printed writing created a demand for poetry, even by women. The hymn- and prayerbook Siælens Sang-Offer ("The Song Sacrifice of the Soul") was published for the first time in 1678. By then Dorothe Engelbretsdatter had lost seven of her nine children, and her two surviving sons had left their native town of Bergen. Dorothe Engelbretsdatter was married to theologian Ambrosius Hardenbeck, but was widowed before her second book, the cycle of devotional poems Taare–Offer ("Tear Sacrifice"), appeared in 1683.

The term ”sacrifice” in religious poetry was endowed with a feminine sign in Dorothe Engelbretsdatter’s writing. Respecting the conventions of her contemporary stratified society, she was open about herself writing as a woman, especially as a mother, wife and later as a widow, and in religious terms as a sinner. One of her frequent rhetorical formulas is the formula of modesty, i.e. becoming worthy by appearing as humble. The Taare-Offer cycle is about the weeping and kissing Mary at the feet of Jesus, anointing Christ ”with the hair of her head”. By concentrating on such feminine images, Engelbretsdatter created dignified, active women so that she herself might achieve authority as a poet and professional writer. She endeavoured to be someone who supplied dignified ”sacrifices”, preaching and meditative poems which were in principle available to anyone who was able to buy and read them. In her day this was a radical thing to do, and certainly a great leap for a woman.

Many of the hymns were written to popular contemporary tunes and appeared with the corresponding sheet music. They became immensely popular: Siælens Sang-Offer, for instance, appeared in 25 printings until 1868. Dorothe Engelbretsdatter defended herself fiercely against allegations that a man, and not she herself, wrote her texts, and sarcastically defended her poems against unauthorised reprints by printers wanting to make money without having the author as a co-owner. Surprisingly she was granted a tax exemption by the King, so that her writing also contributed to her livelihood. She became an explicit ideal to subsequent women writers in the Nordic countries and was hailed by prominent contemporary Danish poets in the Dano-Norwegian network of civil servants as a ”Muse on the Parnassus”.


Key works:

  • Samlede skrifter, ed. by Kristen Valkner. Foreword, Laila Akselen, Inger Vederhus (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1999).

Criticism and Comparative Analysis:

  • Sarah Paulsen, ‘Dorothe Engelbretsdatter: Poetess of the Baroque’, in Female Voices of the North. An Anthology. Eds. Inger M. Olsen and Sven H. Rossel (Wien: Praesens Verlag, 2002), 117–24.
  • Inger Vederhus, ’“Den første “Hun Poet J Arve-Kongens Lande”. Dorothe Engelbretsdatter (1634–1716)’, in Norsk kvinnelitteraturhistorie, Vol. 1 (Oslo, 1988), pp.19–26.
  • Inger Vederhus, ’“Kieck i pennen, kieck i Bleck”. Om Dorothe Engelbretsdatter’, in E. M. Jensen et al., Nordisk kvindeliteraturhistorie, Vol 1, I Guds navn. 1000–1800 (Copenhagen: Rosinante, 1993), pp. 163–175.

AsK November 2010

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