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Sigrid Undset on St Sunniva

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

St Sunniva from an altar piece from Finnmark

From the earliest times of Christianity, the Catholic Church has raised women to the highest honours by their veneration as saints. Besides the Mother of Christ, other biblical figures such as Mary Magdalene and Elizabeth have been venerated as examples for women. Throughout the first centuries, there were a host of female martyrs counted among the greatest of Christian heroes, seven of whom were included in the Nobis quoque peccatoribus prayer of the Roman Canon of the Mass by the end of the sixth century, less than three hundred years after the final great Roman persecution of Diocletian.[1]From these beginnings, the Church has constantly presented holy women of all nationalities, times and states of life as people to be venerated and emulated by the Christian faithful.[2]

 

Sigrid Undset wished to emphasise the Church’s esteem for holy women and did so especially with three essays and a book. In the essay “St Sunniva and the Selje-Men”,[3] Undset relates the story of the Irish daughter of a chieftain whom the Norwegians adopted as their own. After Sunniva had promised herself to God and refused marriage with a Viking chief, she called her men and invited those who would to follow her in her abandonment to Christ. Without sail or oar but trusting entirely in God, they set out onto the sea. Finally, they come to the island of Selja and settled as hermits there, one kilometre to the west coast of Norway and opposite the village of Selje. At some point, inhabitants from the mainland grew concerned for their livestock they had agisting on Selja and mistook the hermits for foreign marauders. After an appeal to the Earl Haakon Sigurdsson (Norway’s leading man from 975-995) armed men were sent to the island to put an end to the suspected foreigners. Sunniva and the men of Selja prayed that God would grant them a good death rather than be delivered to the Viking heathen, not known for their humane treatment of the conquered. Undset writes of the cave in which they prayed collapsing, killing them all. At length, they were discovered first by a pair of travellers who saw a strange light shining over the place and discovered a skull, glowing white. Haakon Sigurdsson’s successor, the Christian King Olaf Tryggvason (reigned 995-1000) made pilgrimage to the island and discovered the bodies, revealed after a landslide. Sunniva was found to be incorrupt. A chapel was built there, but Sunniva’s relics were brought to Bergen, where they remained until the iconoclasm of the Reformation. A Benedictine monastery was founded on the isle of Selja around 1100.[4]

 

Undset, ever the honest historian, admits the historical controversy of this story.[5] Not merely given to devotion and her advocacy of the holiness of Sunniva and the men of Selja, she advocates for the historicity of the tale: “It is, of course, impossible to say accurately how much historical truth there is in the Sunniva legend. Non-Catholic historians maintain that the whole thing lacks historical background. The bones which were found in the caves were probably, they say, the remains of prehistoric inhabitants of the island.”[6] Giving more credit to the people of the tenth and eleventh centuries than her contemporaries, she suggests that no fuss would have been made over the findings if there were not some extraordinary circumstances. Undset returns to the question of Sunniva’s incorrupt body, which she notes is entirely rejected by modern authors. “Lastly, it was undoubtedly the story of the perfectly preserved body of the holy woman which seemed to historians of the last century to be wholly improbable. It is generally known that the finding of uncorrupted bodies of the saints is not a rare occurrence even if in itself it is not a sign of holiness, for it has often happened that when the grave of a reputed saint has been opened there only remained the bones”.[7] She continues that even if the story of Sunniva resembles other stories of virgins consecrated to Christ, and who fled an unwanted marriage, there is no justification to conflate them. Moreover:

 

Non-Catholic historians, who here in Norway, at any rate, are ignorant of the meaning of the Mass and the Breviary, rather naturally ignore the fact that in the oldest liturgies there is evidence that the Mass of the Selja-men – on the feast of St Sunniva and her followers – has been celebrated ever since a calendar of feast days has been in existence in Norway. That the priest should have remembered “the Holy Ones who rest in Kinn and Selja” when offering Christ’s Body and Blood on the Altar, if they had not themselves been quite sure that their martyrdom was a reality, is highly improbable.[8]

 

King Saint Olaf himself stopped at Selja to pray for success in his local campaigns. Undset, too, made her own pilgrimage to Selja and described what she saw: “A little lamb jumped up on a ledge in the back wall [of Sunniva’s church] where the Saint’s shrine had once stood. It settled down as if it understood and lay there – a symbol”.[9] In Undset’s style, this might well be interpreted as a side swipe at rationalist historians, that perhaps a dumb lamb has more sense than them.[10]

 

Undset’s presentation of St Sunniva depicts a strong, independent woman who would not be forced into a marriage against her will but who had the courage to leave the expectations of her family and society. She is a woman of great faith in God, abandoning herself to providence in spite of the dangers of the high seas. Rather than have her virtue despoiled, she preferred to embrace an unknown and even violent death. It is important to note how she demonstrates the Catholic Church’s esteem for this female saint – regardless of whether there is historical foundation for the story – and its veneration of the virtues Sunniva embodied. While post-Reformation Norway has all but forgotten St Sunniva and the Selja Men,[11] the Catholic Church still actively promotes this devotion. The cathedral school in Oslo, founded in 1865, is dedicated to St Sunniva,[12] Catholic churches in Molde (between Ålesund and Kristainsund)[13] and Harstad in North Norway[14] are dedicated to the saint, and a pilgrimage to Selja is held every year with an anniversary Mass and Vespers in the ruins of the Benedictine monastery on Selja.[15] Undset made her contribution in the context of the Catholic veneration of this and other female saints, heroines for Christ and a powerful example to all.


For further information on St Sunniva and visits to Selja, see Ragnhild H. Aadland Høen's excellent blog: Sta. Sunniva av Selja (in Norwegian).




[1] “This prayer, like the Communicantes, belongs approximately to the period of [Pope] Symmachus [498-514], for it was only then that several of the saints enumerated became the object of special veneration in Rome. It is even probably that the list was only definitively established by St Gregory [the Great, 590-604].” François Amiot, The History of the Mass (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1959), p. 108. See also Jerome Gassner, The Canon of the Mass: It History, Theology, and Art (St Louis: Herder, 1949), p. 387.

[2] As of the end of 2023, the latest female saints canonised (15 May, 2022) are Saints Anne Marie Rivier (1768-1838), Maria Francesca Rubatto (1844-1904), Maria Domenica Mantovani (1862-1934) and Carolina (Maria de Gesù) Santocanale (1852-1923). Catholic News Agency, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/251242/pope-francis-canonizes-10-new-saints-of-the-catholic-church, retrieved December 13, 2023.  According to chronology, the most recent female saint is the Spanish María de la Purísima Salvat Romero (1926-1998). Leonella Sgorbati (1940-2006) was beatified 26 May, 2018. ACI Stampa, https://www.acistampa.com/story/8776/somalia-la-beatificazione-di-suor-leonella-sgorbati-per-un-paese-da-costruire-8776, retrieved December 13, 2023.

[3] Published as a chapter in Sigrid Undset, Saga of Saints [E. C. Ramsen, trans.] (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1934), pp. 68-86.

[4] Den katolske kirken, "Norges kloster i middelalderen: Selje kloster, http://www.katolsk.no/praksis/klosterliv/artikler/kap_23, retrieved December 15, 2023.

[5] See, for example the entrance on Sunniva in the Store Norske Leksikon: “It is highly unlikely that Sunniva was real. The Irish queen Sunniva seems to be a legend which developed after the finding of an anonymous bone on Selja… Christian virgins who chose death rather than marriage are a widespread theme in the legends of the martyrs, already from the earliest Christian period. The legend also has much in common with St Ursula from Britain, who suffered martyrdom together with 11,000 virgins.” Store Norske Leksikon, “Sankt Sunniva”,  https://snl.no/Sankt_Sunniva, retrieved December 15, 2023. This article admits the medieval veneration of Sunniva throughout the entire archdiocese of Nidaros, which encompassed not only all of Norway, but also Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe and Orkney Islands, the Hebrides and the Isles of Shetland and Man.

[6] Undset, Saga of Saints, p. 80.

[7] Op. cit., p. 82.

[8] Op. cit., p. 83.

[9] Op. cit., p. 86.

[10] The body of Sunniva was lost with the Reformation’s stance against the veneration of relics though the name Sunniva (and its variants) continues to be popular in Norway's west country: Store Norske Leksikon, op. cit. There is also a female Gregorian Chant choir in Trondheim named after Sunniva, which seeks to revitalise lost music of medieval Nidaros: Schola Sanctæ Sunnivæ, https://www.sunnivae.com, retrieved December 15, 2023.

[11] However, interest in Sunniva seems somewhat to have been renewed, even outside the Catholic Church. An annual Lutheran service has been established on the feast of Sunniva: Seljumannanese, https://www.seljumannamesse2023.no, retrieved December 15, 2023. Also, a book was published in 2021 (in Norwegian and English), exploring the influence of the story of St Sunniva on Norwegian history, art and literature through the ages. Alf Tore Hommedal et al. (eds.), St Sunniva: Irsk droning, norsk vernehelgen / Irish Queen, Norwegian Patron Saint (Bergen: Eide Akademisk Forlag, 2021).

[12] St Sunniva Skole, https://stsunniva.no

[13] St Sunniva Katolske Menighet, https://molde.katolsk.no

[14] St Sunniva Menighet, http://harstad.katolsk.no

[15] See for example, Den Katolske Kirke, «St. Sunniva: Kvinne og båtflyktning», https://www.katolsk.no/nyheter/2023/07/st-sunniva-kvinne-og-batflyktning, retrieved December 15, 2023.



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