Christina Regina von Birchenbaum is a figure whose existence is queried by some whilst others have hailed her as the “first poet of Finland”. She is believed to have authored a Swedish-language poem which dates from 1651 and is titled En annor ny visa and recounts the hard life endured by a widow.
The poem tells, in the first person singular, the tale of a woman who had travelled across Europe during the time of the Thirty Years’ War and whose husband, a cavalryman, had been killed in battle. The poem contains the acrostic C-H-R-I-S-T-I-N-A R-E-G-I-N-A V-O-N B-I-R-C-H-E-N-B-A-U-M. A copy of the poem has survived in the so-called Samuel Älfs handskrivna visbok which is held in Linköpings Stiftsbibliotek (diocese library). This book of songs includes many poems and songs, some also containing acrostics, and it may have been written in Finland.
The narrative voice in the poem claims to originate from Karelia: “Roosz vthan, iagh vprunnen, är i Carele landh” (roseless, I originated in Karelia). The belief that Christina Regina von Birchenbaum had written the poem which bears her name in acrostic form arose during the 1800s and thus she became known as a female poet from Finland. However, there is no definitive proof that she had ties to either Karelia or Finland – in fact, her surname has Baltic connections.
The poem, comprising just over thirty verses, is an autobiographical account. The style is typical of its era: it focuses on the many deprivations people experienced at that time. The narrator of the poem loses her father in childhood, whilst two of her children die as youngsters and her third child travels far away from her with her husband. The narrator’s own husband has died in battle following just a few years of marriage. According to the poem the wife travels five hundred miles across the battlefields of the Thirty Years’ War seeking her husband, only to find out that he is dead.
The narrator recounts surviving shipwreck, fire, and destitution. Following seventeen years spent alone as a widow she apparently finds new love in a man from a respectable family. However, she is once again disappointed by her lover and they part ways following “arga tungors list” (angry words). Happiness on earth remains fleeting and it is only in death that she will be able to enjoy eternal happiness in heaven.
Despite doubts as to the actual existence of a person named Christina Regina von Birchenbaum it is still apparent that an individual of that name did live during the mid-seventeenth century. The Swedish National Archives holds two letters written to Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie which are signed by a woman of that name. These brief letters provide accounts of the poverty and misery she has suffered as a lone widow.
The entire last line of the letter reads: “Christina Regina von Birchenbaum Sah[lige] Majorens Axel Paulij Liljenfeldtz effterlåtne högbedröfwade och älendige Enckja” (Christina Regina von Birchenbaum the highly distressed and poor surviving widow of the late Major Axel Paulij Liljenfeldt). This final line was typical for the time and emphasised the distress the sender was in and the sender’s need and entitlement to support.
Major Axel Pauli appears to have belonged to a family which, following ennoblement, lived in Livonia. However this major’s direct connection to the first ennobled Liljenfelt is uncertain. He appears to have served as a captain at Dalarö redoubt in 1661 and to have died in 1662, eleven years after the poem was allegedly written. This means that the cavalryman described as already dead in the poem must be another person or a fictitious character.
During the 1800s the En annor ny visa poem was mistakenly attributed to a male author, namely Lars Wivallius. However, upon realisation that there was an acrostic in the poem and its subsequent attribution to Christina Regina von Birchenbaum the poem became cast as an example of folk expression and a typically feminine piece. The dominant preconceptions of the time regarding women’s poetry appear to have influenced this interpretation. Christina Regina von Birchenbaum’s role in producing the poem can be queried for other reasons as well: the acrostic may well refer to the author but it could equally refer to the person who commissioned and received the finished work. The same book of songs that contains En annor ny visa has, for example, a poem also written in the first person singular about a man who has been condemned to death. This poem also has an acrostic but this has not given rise to an interpretation of the poem as an autobiographical work.
Despite all this the text of En annor ny visa is characterised by experiences of a personal nature. The poem can therefore indeed be viewed as portraying Christina Regina von Birchenbaum’s life, whether written either by her or another person who helped her write it. In terms of a representation of a seventeenth-century woman’s life, loves, and losses the poem and the person of Christina Regina von Birchenbaum remain integral to the history of women and literature in Scandinavia.