National perspectives on the Eufemiavisor


Ingeborg of Sweden, Euphemia’s daughter. Euphemia commissioned these translations in the context of Ingeborg’s engagement.

I am working at the moment on a trio of Swedish texts from the early fourteenth century known as the Eufemiavisor. They matter because their translations of stories from the European ‘mainland’ represent a beginning – not only of narrative literature in Swedish but also of the literary use of rhyming verse, as opposed to prose, in the Scandinavian vernaculars as a whole.

Anyone who is acquainted with these texts will know that most of what I have just written simplifies things quite a bit. One reason for this lies in the fact that the status of these works has been contested a lot, not least because of the competitiveness that can become bound up with identifying things as  ‘first’. Thus, there have been arguments about whether the rhyming form was imported from Germany or whether it has precursors in earlier, ‘native’ Swedish sources; and whether the true achievement actually belonged to the Norwegian language: rather than commissioning the translation of the foreign sources directly into Swedish, might Euphemia instead merely have arranged for pre-existing Norwegian translations to be converted into Swedish? I have been looking in quite some depth at the scholarship on these questions while preparing an article on the relationship between one of the poems, Hertig Fredrik av Normandie, and the literary scene in northern Germany. If anything, doing this has reminded me of just how important it is not to lose sight of the details when looking for explanations and summarizing complex material in literary studies.

What do I mean by that? Well, at first glance, these works seem to offer the perfect example of how nationally oriented paradigms lead to slanted views of literary history. It is, after all, easy to see that national interests will have played a role in the discussion of questions such as those I mentioned above. Indeed, this very link has been drawn in the past: some early-twentieth century summarizes of previous research , for instance, tended to associate the theory of direct translation into Swedish with scholars who were themselves Swedish. Thus:

‘Demgegenüber vertraten eine namhafte Reihe vor allem schwedischer Gelehrter, unter ihnen die Herausgeber Klemming, Stephens und Ahlstrand […] den Standpunkt, […] Eufemia habe sie aus ihren ausländischen Quellen unmittelbar ins Schwedische übersetzen lassen’ (Lütjens 1912, p. 20),

and, without the qualifier: ‘Die schwedischen Herausgeber […] nahmen die Aussagen der Epiloge wörtlich, so daß also die schwedischen Gedichte direkt aus dem französischen […] resp. deutschen […]  Originalen übersetzt sein sollten’ (Schröder 1916, p. 717).

All well and good. But who is this Stephens (whose views were actually set out in his introduction to the edition of Hærra Ivan – another of the Euphemiavisor – that he produced in collaboration with J. W. Liffman)?  His name, I thought, did not sound particularly Swedish…

From Liverpool to Copenhagen via Sweden with George Stephens, esq.


Stephens’ grave in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, with inscription from his ‘Danish friends’. Photo by kind permission of www.gravsted.dk.

On looking into this a bit further, I found that Stephens was born in Liverpool in 1813 and had studied at the newly founded University College, London. But he did not remain in England. As a newly-wed, he left his homeland and moved with his wife to Sweden in 1834, where, according to one source, ‘he pursued his passion for Nordic antiquities while earning his living as a teacher of English’. His Scandinavian career saw him relocate again in 1851, when he was appointed to a position in English at the University of Copenhagen. He died in that city in 1895.

Alongside his linguistic-philological and runic interests, Stephens was also involved in the publication of early Swedish literary texts – such as the Ivan edition that set me off looking into him in the first place. I’d need to do more research to find out what motivation he could have had for supporting the view that Ivan was translated directly into Swedish; for now, though, two thoughts.

First, as Sawicki 1939, p. 2, points out (unlike those other scholars quoted earlier), Stephens did in that same introduction to Ivan also acknowledge the possibilty that the opposing position could be correct. Second, extending the idea that such complexity is not easily simplified, we should note that the story behind his name shows that early responses to the Eufemiavisor weren’t quite so reducible to national perspectives as Lütjens and Schröder wanted them to be.

In this, I think, there is a lesson to be had for the present-day research scene a century later, for it can also – albeit for very different reasons – be preoccupied with establishing links between nationality and belief in earlier scholars.

And I?

A figure like Stephens obviously has a certain resonance for this particular Englishman who has moved to Scandinavia to work on its medieval literary culture … but it would be wrong to idealize him. Many of his views have been superseded. Stephens also had his own prejudices, in particular a pronounced aversion to the German philological tradition (there is thus another irony in the fact that it is two German scholars, Lütjens and Schröder, who overlooked his Englishness in the quotations I gave!). The connection that I want to highlight here is therefore of a slightly different nature.

My NORNS project is unashamedly positioned in the context of a contemporary need to move beyond approaches to medieval literature that follow contained national paradigms. But writing this post has been a reminder that we should beware, when assessing the work of those who have gone before, of trying to make sense of it (or indeed writing it off entirely) by turning them all into exponents of the national categories that we’re so keen to overcome. It may be a tempting rhetorical strategy with which to foreground how different we think we are … but we would not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, would we?

References and further reading

‘he pursued his passion’ quotation: from the online programme for a symposium at the University of Copenhagen in 2013.

Articles on Stephens by Andrew Wawn in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26383, accessed 1 June 2016], and, freely available online, in the Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon (in Swedish).

Freely accessible article on Stephens in Danish by Inge Kabell here.

Herr Ivan Lejon-riddaren, ed. by J. W. Liffman and George Stephens (Stockholm, 1849).

August Lütjens, Herzog Friedrich von der Normandie: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen und schwedischen Literatur des Mittelalters (Munich, 1912).

Stanislaw Sawicki, Die Eufemiavisor: Stilstudien zur nordischen Reimliteratur des Mittelalters (Lund, 1939).

Schröder, Edward, review of Lütjens, Herzog Friedrich, in Göttingsche gelehrte Anzeigen, 12 (1916), 716–23

Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge, 2000).

Image credits

Stone carving identified as Ingeborg in Linköping Cathedral, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

Stephens’ grave in Frederiksberg, photo used with permission from www.gravsted.dk.