Dorothe Engelbretsdatter: The First Female Author and Feminist in Norway

Dorothe Engelbretsdatter, born on January 16th, 1634, in Bergen was the first woman who wrote and published books under her name in Norway. She was also the first feminist in her country, long before that term became known. Dorothe was born into a pious, educated family. Her father was a professor of theology. She received an excellent education and spent three years in Copenhagen before returning to Norway as an 18-year-old. Dorothe married a professor of theology, Ambrosius Hardenbeck, who later took over her father’s vicarage.

During thirty years of marriage, they had nine children. However, as was often in those times, seven died at an early age. Dorothe’s grief inspired her early writings, published in 1678 in Copenhagen. The Soul’s Song Offering (Siælens Sang-Offer) is a collection of prayers and hymns for special days and holidays, genres that were popular in her time. Many of the hymns were written to popular contemporary tunes and appeared with corresponding sheet music. Dorothe’s hymns became very sought-after and were reprinted more than twenty times during her lifetime. Even today, Norwegians sing the hymns of “the first she-poet in the Dano-Norwegian kingdom”.

Dorothe Engelbretsdatter occasionally wrote secular poetry. Her verses were sometimes satirical, written in simple language, which made them widely acknowledged. However, many refused to believe that she had penned her works herself, claiming that her husband was the real author. Dorothe fiercely fought against the notion that writing is a male prerogative. “God wills the birds to sing because that is the ways He had created them. Likewise, women are a part of God’s nature and to be included in God’s culture,” she retorted in the manner of the religious times.

She became a widow in 1683 and wrote her second book of hymns Offering of Tears (Taare Offer) to supplement her meager widow’s pension. Dorothe dedicated her second book to Queen Charlotte Amalia of Hesse. This devotional book is about preparing one’s soul for its encounter with God and becoming worthy of it by being humble.

Dorothe traveled to Copenhagen to settle the publication of this book, published in 1685. That journey prompted rumors of a romantic affair, which inspired her to pen several satires. She managed to acquire the rights to decide who would publish her works. That right, equivalent to today’s copyright, meant that those distributing pirated versions had to pay a fee. That means that Dorothe established herself as a professional author in a time when that was radical for men, let alone women. Engelbretsdatter managed to get a tax exemption from the King, which enabled her to provide for herself with her works instead of remarrying for financial reasons.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that Dorothe Engelbretsdatter became an ideal for female authors in Nordic countries.

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