by Annmarie Savarese
A medieval storehouse was a sanctuary as well as a desolate prison for the girl who survived Europe’s bubonic plague.
Jen Mehan’s poem “The Girl in the Staveloftet” was inspired by a Norwegian legend dating back to the 1300s. According to legend, the owner of the Stave farm kept his daughter hidden in the Staveloftet, a medieval storehouse, to protect her from the bubonic plague, which killed one third of Europe’s population. Scientists estimate 1340 as the date of the farm building’s construction, basing their calculation on the analysis of wood and historic records.
The bubonic plague is commonly referred to as the black plague or the Black Death. In the Middle Ages, the disease spread quickly due to lack of knowledge about how it was carried and transmitted as well as poor sanitary conditions. The plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, was carried by rats and transmitted by fleas biting infected rats that subsequently bit humans. Sanitary conditions as well as poor hygiene magnified the spread of this disease.
While the setting and time period of this poem are historically accurate, the story of the girl is legend. The well-preserved Staveloftet still stands. It was moved in 1908 from its original location on the Stave farm in Al to its current location in Nesbyen at the Halingdal Museum in Norway. The reaction and panic of the people of Europe during the outbreak of the bubonic plague were real, and this poem portrays the panic and isolation.
There are many details still unknown about the history of the bubonic plague in Europe. There are few sources from the Middle Ages that specifically focus on the plague outbreak in Norway. Therefore, it is hard to pin down exact events during the epidemic. The Hallingdal Museum website provides information about the Staveloftet as well as a link to an article written by Science Nordic about the scientific analysis of the structure. Information about the cause and spread of the plague came from Medline Plus, which is a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and The National Institutes of Health.