Reading history

 

Christian Albrecht von Benzon (1816-1849) 1846 painting: The death of Canute IV of Denmark in the Church of Saint Albanus (1086). Photo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian-albrecht-von-benzon,_the_death_of_Canute_the_Holy.jpg

Christian Albrecht von Benzon (1816-1849) 1846 painting: The death of Canute IV of Denmark in the Church of Saint Albanus (1086). Photo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian-albrecht-von-benzon,_the_death_of_Canute_the_Holy.jpg

How’s the new year resolution going, I hear you ask. It has been a while since I wrote about what I read. And I have been reading. 16 books so far in 2015.

Recently, I have read historical fiction. I have a keen interest in Danish history – I have traced my roots to the history books. I am fascinated by writers who can animate historic characters in historic scenes and make it seem real and believable. Of course, historical fiction is just that, fiction, and should not be mistaken for real history. But when history is told in a fictional genre, it is certainly easier to remember who is who in a turbulent time of Danish history.

Under Christiansborg Slot that houses the Danish Parliament, you can see the ruins of the previous castle, Københavns Slot, including the foundations of Blåtårn, the prison where Christian IV's daughter Leonora Christina was imprisoned for 22 years. Photo: Mick. 2015

Under Christiansborg Slot that houses the Danish Parliament, you can see the ruins of the previous castle, Københavns Slot, including the foundations of Blåtårn, the prison where Christian IV’s daughter Leonora Christina was imprisoned for 22 years. Photo: Mick. 2015

As a kid I read, no swallowed, books by Herta J. Enevoldsen, who churned out novels for children – prepubescent girls in particular – about historical characters and events. Possibly not factually correct and probably more ‘romances‘ than literary novels. I was fascinated by princesses, queens, kings and their lovers. In 2013, four of her novels were rereleased: two about Christian VII, his Queen Caroline Mathilde and her lover, German doctor Struense, who had his head chopped off for treason in 1722 – you may know the story from the recent movie A Royal Affair – and two about Leonora Christina, Christian IV’s daughter to Kirsten Munk, who for 22 years to 1685 was held as a traitor in the prison of Blåtårn (Blue Tower) of København Slot. I particularly loved the story about the King’s daughter who could not call herself a princess, loved her husband so much she followed him into statelessness and spent years in a filthy, dirty prison, writing her memoirs. A few weeks ago we went under Christiansborg slot to see the ruins of Københavns slot underneath. The foundations of the Blue Tower are still there.

Marie Helleberg’s Den Hellige Knud (the Holy Canute – 2005) is not to be confused with King Canute the Great who ruled Denmark, Norway, England and parts of Sweden from 1016 until his death in 1035. This Holy Canute lived a bit later when William the Bastard or Conqueror established himself in England, potently aware that the Danes might well want to challenge him to reclaim the English throne. Born in 1042, Holy Canute was one of King Svend Estridsen’s many children. After King Svend’s death, William could rest easy, for Svend’s son’s fought each other to claim the throne for brief periods – they had little time for expanding the empire. Holy Canute became King Knud IV in 1080 and was killed six years later in Odense’s St Alban’s church by rebels from Jutland who were sick of his taxes. Though Canute enjoyed and encouraged his people to ‘viking’ – which was then a verb, not a noun (the collective noun for Vikings was Norsemen or Norman as in Normandy) – he was also fascinated by Christianity and supported the church – with taxes. His brother and successor, King Erik Ejegod (Ever-so-good) secured his sainthood from the Pope. This gave the royal family an air of anointment by the Christian God, even if St Knud never became a popular saint among the people.

Knud Lavard too was killed by his cousin, Magnus. Unknown artist: Knud Lavard blev dræbt i Haraldsted, 1131. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knud_Lavard_myrdes_(9288934341).jpg

Knud Lavard too was killed by his cousin, Magnus. Unknown artist: Knud Lavard blev dræbt i Haraldsted, 1131. Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knud_Lavard_myrdes_(9288934341).jpg

Helleberg’s Knud Lavard (2011) starts just 10 years after Holy Canute’s death. This Canute was born to Holy Canute’s brother King Erik Ejegod and Queen Bodil in about 1096. They died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem when Canute was about seven years old, and consequently he was brought up in the powerful Hvide family. As a young man he lived with the Saxon duke Lothar, who later became Emperor Lothar III. Though these alliances helped Knud through hard times, he never became king – the brothers and now their sons were still fighting. He married Ingeborg of Novgorod and named his son Valdemar after the Russian forefathers. He became duke of Schlesvig and the Wends in the borderlands. In 1131 his status as the son of a former king caught up with him when his cousin Magnus killed him. This murder caused a civil war that ended with his half-brother Erik Emune seizing the throne. Canute’s son, Valdemar den Store (the Great) was crowned in 1146. Valdemar made sure Knud became a saint – the saint for merchants in Denmark. Coincidentally, Valdemar’s foster brother was Bishop Absalon, who established Copenhagen as a merchant town.

The third novel jumps some five hundred years. Dyrets år (the year of the animal – 2014) is written by Lone Hørslev. Its main character is Marie Grubbe whose unshackled love-life has been subject of much literature, most famously Fru Marie Grubbe, J.P. Jacobsen’s debut novel from 1876. Dyrets år is about her time as wife of the Viceroy of Norway for ten years to 1670. Her husband spared her life and divorced her instead because of her extramarital affairs. On one level, the novel is an erotic novel with explicit, sensual descriptions of love-making scenes. But on another it is a feminist work that demonstrates how differently men and women’s sexual desires were dealt with. The witch hunt illuminates this point: a wise woman helps two young kitchen maids after their master, Grubbe’s husband, make them pregnant. Grubbe herself sought her perhaps less useful advice when her lover lost her interest in her. The ‘witch’ died from the cross examination and the maids are burnt at the stake, while Grubbe’s contact with the ‘witch’ is covered up. The Animal of course is a reference to Satan himself and the cause of men’s inappropriate sexual behaviours, actually not too remote from the argument we still hear: she was raped because of how she looked. The contrast between the haves and the have nots is starkly portrayed: in the name of God, the poorest pay for the un-godly behaviour of the wealthiest. But perhaps that too is no different today. While we sip our fair trade latte imported from Ethiopia and eat bananas from Columbia, it is the poorest nations that will pay for the excesses of wealthy nations and our dismissal of real action on climate change.

I enjoyed Hørslev’s novel the best because of the parallels to today. The other two were more like history lessons without reflection on the world we live in today. To me, the power of the historical novel is to highlight what we have, and have not, learned from history. And hopefully encourage us to take heed. After all, there is no reason to keep reinventing the wheel.

Do you enjoy historical fiction?

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