Engelbretsdatter, Dorothe (1634–1716)

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Engelbretsdatter, Dorothe (1634–1716)

Norwegian poet, known as the first great female writer of hymns in Denmark-Norway. Name variations: Dorothe Engelbrechtsdatter. Born in Bergen, Norway, on June 16, 1634; died in Bergen on February 19, 1716; daughter of Engelbrecht Jörgensen (originally rector of the high school in that city and afterwards dean of the cathedral); apparently received no education other than that supplied by her father; married Ambrosius Hardenbeck or Hardenbech (a theological writer famous for his flowery funeral sermons who succeeded her father at the cathedral in 1659), in 1652 (died 1683); children: five sons and four daughters.

Dorothe Engelbretsdatter was born into a pious and highly educated family of Bergen, Norway. Her father was Engelbrecht Jorgensen, a professor of theology, and Dorothe received an excellent education, strong in theology. (The name she is known by means "daughter of Engelbrecht.") As a young girl, she spent the years 1647 to 1650 in Copenhagen, capital of the Dano-Norwegian kingdom. At 18, however, she was back in Norway and married Ambrosius Hardenbeck, another professor of theology, who took over her father's vicarage at the cathedral of Bergen. They lived together for 31 years in an apparently harmonious marriage, and had nine children, seven of whom died early. Dorothe's grief at her children's deaths was one source of inspiration for her early writings, which she published in Copenhagen as Själens Sangoffer (The Soul's Song Offering) in 1678. It is a collection of morning and evening prayers as well as hymns to be sung on special days and holidays. The underlying question of these pieces is how a man's—or a woman's—soul may prepare for its encounter with God. Her books sold well, especially Själens Sangoffer which over the years has been published in 30 editions. She thus established herself as a full-time professional writer in an era when such was an unusual occupation for men as well as women.

In addition to religious works, Dorothe Engelbretsdatter's poetry includes occasional, sometimes satirical, verses of a secular nature. Written in simple language and metaphors borrowed from everyday life, her poems are indigenous to the religious and local traditions of the day. Her hymns and prayers were composed in the context of 30 years of war, plague, fires, and famine—disasters beyond human control—and the strong element of penance in her poetry is underscored by a voice of sincerity, intensity, and eroticism.

The writer of these hymns was a controversial figure in her day. Male students especially refused to believe she had written them herself, alleging that her minister husband Ambrosious Hardenbeck was the real author. Dorothe defended herself, arguing: "God wills the birds to sing because that is the way He had created them. Likewise, women are a part of God's nature and to be included in God's culture."

After her husband's death in 1683, she became more lonely and financially straitened, so to give vent to her grief and to supplement her meager widow's pension, she wrote a second volume of hymns, published in 1685 as Taare Offer (Offering of Tears) and dedicated to Queen Charlotte Amalia of Hesse . This work portrays the sinful woman along the lines of Mary Magdalene who through repentance and service works her way to a meeting with the divine for her subsequent salvation. Engelbretsdatter traveled to Copenhagen to initiate publication of her husband's funeral oration and Taare Offer, the latter of which was published in 1685. Her journey prompted rumors of romantic liaisons which infuriated the virtuous hymn writer and occasioned several satires from her hand. Self-assured and well aware of the status and position granted her by the learned societies of both Norway and Denmark, she managed to acquire the rights to decide who would publish her writings, a significant privilege after she had suffered the humiliation of seeing her work printed incorrectly and carelessly for the sake of "insatiable people's worldly profit." Henceforth a fee was levied against pirated versions, which caused a drastic reduction in their circulation.

During her stay in Copenhagen in 1684–85, Engelbretsdatter also obtained exemption from taxation, granted by the king of Denmark. The "poet's stipend," as it might be called, enabled her to continue her life as minister's widow and writer without having to remarry for financial reasons. She lived a quiet and relatively uneventful life at least until 1692 when the great fire in Bergen robbed her of her house and possessions. She made a second appeal to the king for help but did not live under her own roof again until 1712.

Popular during the 1600s, her poetry came under attack during the following two centuries. Critics alleged that her poems lacked originality and that her success was owed to her male admirers being more interested in her sex than her output. Her use of irony was considered vulgar, her satire coarse. Her poems showed too much emotion. She used too many words; she was too "mystical," too severe, too sincere, and too womanly.

Norwegians still sing her hymns, however, and to her undiminished credit she was among the first to demonstrate publicly that use of the pen as a tool is no male prerogative. Nor has anyone disputed her claim to be "the first she-poet in the Dano-Norwegian kingdom." Dorothe Engelbretsdatter died on February 19, 1716, confident in God and with expectations of being reunited with her family in the hereafter.


Danske kvindelige forfattere. Edited by Stig Dalager and Anne-Marie Mai. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1981.

Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie. Edited by Elisabeth Moller Jensen. Copenhagen: Rosinante/Munksgaard, 1993.

Inga Wiehl , Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington

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Engelbretsdatter, Dorothe (1634–1716)

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