Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (1900-1940) – an important scholar of Celtic languages and mythology

One of the problems with my current project on Indo-European thought in France is how male-dominated it is. If you look at a photograph of the Collège de France in 1967, you can perhaps see why. It wasn’t much better at the Collège de France almost 20 years later (1985).

Professors at the Collège de France, 1967; source: Collège de France archives 4 Fi 4

Marie-Louise Sjoestedt is one exception, though she died at the age of just 40. She was the author of several technical works on the Welsh and Irish languages, but also Dieux et héros des Celtes, which is translated as Gods and Heroes of the Celts. Her thesis was supervised by Joseph Vendryes, she studied with Antoine Meillet, was a colleague of Émile Benveniste at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études, and one of the editors of Études celtiques. She attended some of Georges Dumézil’s classes but he also notes that he was also her student, and that he taught him Welsh and Irish. Dumézil references her work in Mitra-Varuna, and in the preface to the second edition mentions her as one of those lost in the war – “she was not to survive France’s first misfortunes”.

Natalie Zemon Davis, in a valuable essay on “Women and the World of the Annales” situates Sjoestedt in relation to a wider intellectual network.

Joining [Germaine] Rouillard at the Ecole Pratique in 1926 and under like auspices was a young woman whose family was of Swedish origin, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt. She had published her doctoral thesis that year, a technical linguistic study directed by the great Celtic specialist at the Sorbonne, Joseph Vendryes. Vendryes had just taken over the Celtic program at the Ecole Pratique and brought Sjoestedt along as Chargie de conferences to teach both middle and modern Irish. She continued to work as his associate over the years: in 1936, when the Etudes Celtiques were founded (published by Eugénie Droz), Vendryes was the editor and Sjoestedt was the Secretaire de la Rédaction, while writing reviews and articles for the journal. But, a Directeur d’études from 1930 on, she also developed on her own, marrying a fellow linguist who worked on Baltic languages and Latvian myth, discussing linguistic matters with her colleague at the Ecole, Emile Benveniste, and returning often to Ireland for field work in language and folklore. In 1938, she reviewed a new History of Ireland for the Annales. Her important book on the structure of Celtic myths about gods and heroes was under press as the Germans invaded France. She committed suicide in early December 1940 at age forty; her Dieux et héros des Celtes appeared a few weeks later.

Reviewing the book in the first Annales to appear under the Occupation, [Lucien] Febvre praised Sjoestedt’s ‘remarkable knowledge of the languages, beliefs and customs of the Celtic world’ and regretted that she was gone when so much was still to be expected from her labour.

Natalie Zemon Davis, “Women and the World of the Annales“, History Workshop Journal, 1992, 126-27

A collection of tributes – including ones by Benveniste and Dumézil and a brief biography by Louis Renou was published in 1941: Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (1900–1940). In Memoriam, suivi de Essai sur une littérature nationale, la littérature irlandaise contemporaine (Paris: E. Droz, 1941). Vendryes’s obituary was published in Études Celtiques. Her entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography gives some more details.

This entry was posted in Emile Benveniste, Georges Dumézil, Indo-European Thought, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (1900-1940) – an important scholar of Celtic languages and mythology

  1. Pingback: Indo-European Thought in Twentieth-Century France update 12: working in some UK archives; Benveniste’s EPHE teaching; some talks on the research | Progressive Geographies

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