“So it’s futile to regret a good deed… for the good you have done cannot be taken back; even if all the mountains should fall, it would still stand.” – Sigrid Undset
The final volume of Sigrid Undset’s three part saga of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, known by its individual title, The Cross, completes the story of its eponymous heroine and ends with her death during the bubonic plague pandemic of what Barbara Tuchman called “the calamitous 14th century.” Having lost her husband, Erland, her friend, brother-in-law, and secret admirer Simon Andresson, and four of her eight beloved sons already, one would expect that she is worn out by life’s heartbreak and suffering. But that is not the case. Kristin’s death comes as a result of her caring for the body of a plague victim after having saved the woman’s child from human sacrifice – an attempt by villagers near the convent where Kristin has become a nun to appease the evil spirit that they believe has brought the pestilence upon them.
Kristin remains to the end, then, Kristin: vibrant, tormented, beautiful, troubled, striving, frustrated.
But we’re ahead of ourselves.
After the return to Jorungaard, Kristin’s ancestral home where she and husband Erland have been forced to move because he has lost his ancestral estates at Husaby as punishment for his part in a plot against the Norwegian throne (detailed in The Wife, Book II of the trilogy), the marriage begins to break down. Erland has no interest in the running of the estate and less than no interest in making himself amenable to the small farmers of the valley where Jorungaard lies. He spends his time hunting, riding his horses, and amusing himself while Kristin runs the estate and worries about the inheritances of their six sons: Nicklaus (called Naakkve); Björngulf; Gaute; twins Ivar and Skule; and little Lavrans (named for Kristin’s late father).
Erland retains his charm and attraction for Kristin and they have a seventh son, Munan. The strain of a new child, the trouble and concern her sons cause her, and the cavalier attitude of Erland combine to bring Kristin to a breaking point. A needless (though understandable) alienation between Kristin and her sister Ramborg (who is married to Simon Andresson) further stresses the household. Kristin and Erland, now nearly friendless, begin to quarrel, mostly about the future prospects for their numerous sons. Finally, after a particularly bitter argument, Kristin insults Erland by comparing him unfavorably with her father. Erland quits the household and heads to his remaining property, a farm north of Jorungaard.
The estrangement of Kristin and Erland precipitates pivotal events of The Cross. Simon Andresson is slightly injured in a bar fight, but his lack of attention to his injury leads to his death from blood poisoning. Kristin nurses Simon in his last days and Simon admonishes her to reconcile with her husband even as he confesses that he has always loved her. Touched deeply by her brother-in-law’s death, Kristin visits Erland at his farm, Haugen. They enjoy a brief romantic idyll. Kristin leaves believing that Erland will return to Jorungaard; he lets her go believing that she will return to him at Haugen. Neither of them has the intention of doing what their partner believes they will do. From this interlude Kristin gives birth to an eighth son that she names, in a fit of pique, Erland, after his father – a defiant breach of custom which warns that a child named after a living relative will bring doom to both the relative and to his/her namesake.
And doom comes.
Local farmers dislike Kristin and especially her overseer Ulf Haldorssøn, Erland’s kinsman. Kristin is accused by Ulf’s wife, a woman jealous of Kristin, of impropriety with Ulf, the result of which is her new baby. The visiting bishop investigates and is convinced that Kristin is telling the truth when she explains how baby Erland was conceived. In conducting his official investigation, however, he imprisons Ulf and places Kristin’s estate under guard. Young Lavrans rides to his father’s farm in the dead of night and fetches him to help in clearing Kristin’s name – help she has refused to ask for. Erland arrives, orders the guards off his estate, and an altercation occurs. A local farmer who has held a grudge against Erland and Kristin stabs Erland with his spear, a mortal wound. The baby Erland who has failed to thrive also dies and Kristin’s personal holocaust is complete.
Her next youngest son, Munan, dies shortly after. Her twin sons, the rowdy – and hardy – Ivar and Skule leave with relatives to make their fortunes. Naakkve and Björngulf (who suffers from an eye condition that is slowly destroying his sight) eventually leave to join Erland’s brother Gunnulf as monks. Young Lavrans is traumatized by seeing his father’s senseless murder and leaves to live with Ramborg and her new husband, a wealthy farmer. He eventually emigrates to Iceland and Kristin never sees him again.
Kristin is left with the estate, now run by her son Gaute, the child she is closest to. Gaute eventually elopes with the daughter of a nobleman and brings her back to Jorungaard. Once the elopement is settled and Gaute and his Jofrid marry, Kristin is left to cope with a difficult daughter-in-law. Finally, her sons scattered (though all strive for – and sometimes find – success) and her responsibilities – and authority – taken away by her son and daughter-in-law, Kristin makes the fateful decision to go to Nidaros, the spiritual center of Norway, and join a convent.
This she does, as documented above. She sees her sons Naakkve and Björngulf again and realizes that they have entered the cloister to find peace they could not find in their family. Her son Skule visits her and, though visibly scarred (both physically and emotionally) by his life as a soldier, he and Kristin make peace with each other. She joins the convent and works her way from lay sister to nun.
Then comes the plague. Her son Skule survives, though he, like many during that terrifying time, retreats into a life of debauchery. Naakkve and Björngulf are not as fortunate; the plague decimates their monastery and both perish. Many of the nuns in Kristin’s convent also perish. By the time of the confrontation with those planning human sacrifice, the plague is dying out. Kristin’s final act mentioned above, saving the child about to be sacrificed and getting his mother a Christian burial, is her last act – one of striving to prove that faith is greater than superstition, that love is greater than hate. It costs her her life.
To the end Kristin strives for the ideal. Even on her deathbed it is not entirely clear that she has found it, but she does realize that her striving has not been in vain. As Willa Cather describes Neighbor Rosicky in her story of the same name, Kristin realizes that her life has been complete and beautiful.
We should all be so fortunate.