At times, it has seemed a dubious, rather barbed distinction: to have been baptised with the names Lorentz Coulehan Lossius. The middle name, Coulehan, is my mother’s maiden name, and is Irish enough to be easily swallowed (or warbled) in an English-speaking country. But the syllables “Lorentz Lossius” never went down well in small-town Victoria or New South Wales. Indeed, during my first hour at school at Mansfield, in sawmill country north of Melbourne, I turned around and greeted, in a piping, seven-year-old voice, the lads sitting in the desk behind me.
“Hello, my name is Lorentz Lossius, and I come from Norway!”
‘“Glorence Glussioso”, what kinda fucken’ name is that?’
And so it went.
As I grew older, art and history teachers got it right after a try or two. But to woodwork, or technical drawing teachers, or sports instructors, I was always “Lewisuss,” or “Lowschius,” or “Glossius.” For a short period of time, “hey, Glossy-Ass” was, in a friendly-enough fashion, translated as “hey, Shiny Bum,” but I practised not minding, and it didn’t last. In senior high school and at university, friends insisted on pronouncing it in the romantic, Italian fashion, “Loh-rennz,” (a cause of much eyeball rolling on visits home, where it was pronounced “Laurence”). Later on I moved to the US and became Larry.
“Larry” got around pretty smoothly on the streets of New York City.
I am not sure who was responsible for naming me after the founder of the family in Norway. It might have been my mother, who being a Celt has a deeply romantic streak. Or my father, who comes from a family mildly obsessed with its ancestors. I am back in Norway now, known as “Loo-rents,” both syllables stressed.
Norwegians, along with Mormons, need their family trees. It’s a religious requirement for Mormons to list their ancestors. You’re not saved if you’re not on the list, apparently. For Nordic Lutherans, I am not so sure of the reason. It might have more to do with long dark winters. What else was there for a bookish man to do but compile and revise the family tree? A good set of ancestors might add lustre to a backwater bride’s dowry, if it was lacking in shiny goods. My great-great grandmother is remembered in the family book as having brought in a long table of names going back to the Viking kings. It starts with the ninth century Harald Fairhair, and runs, via Saint Olav and a few more kings, to second sons and daughters, through dukedoms and earldoms in Denmark and the Teutonic lands, then borne northwards again by merchants, army officers and land owners, to the girl who married my great-great grandfather in 1857. I suppose the significance lies in the visible record. No Norwegians are too distantly related. And everyone alive has masters, slaves, dreamers, crooks and dullards as forebears.
There have been several Norwegian Lossius family books over the past couple of hundred years. My grandfather revised the one highlighting our branch of the family in the ‘60s, and a cousin of mine did so again recently. I’ve dipped into it. As far as I can tell, apart from the first Lossius, we’ve been, on the whole, a rather sedentary lot; a few priests, military officers, landowners, a fishing magnate, (according to a friend in Oslo the Ålesund Lossiuses are supposed to be the Bacalao kings of Norway). There was a minor novelist, Kitty Lossius, and, in my immediate male forebears, several generations of musicians. My great-great grandfather Morten was a fiddle player. He was born in 1804 and married when he was 53, a girl 31 years his junior, the one who bore the thousand-year list of names in her dowry. Their son Kristoffer was Hitra’s finest fisherman and fiddle player, and his son Morten, my grandfather, a towering figure of majesty I am told, was a parish organist, violinist and a composer of ballads and melancholy country dances.
On my recent visit to Hitra, the island where our branch has thrived for the past couple of centuries, I asked my cousin about any black sheep in the family (for example, was I one?). He laughed, and mentioned great Uncle Hans who had drowned off the coast one night in the 1920’s. It had been a stormy night, and his fishing boat was wrecked returning from a liquor smuggling run to some foreign ship waiting out at sea (the liquor and smuggling part is omitted from the written record).
‘Oooh,’ I said, ‘why don’t you write more about him?’
‘Oh, we’ll have to wait at least another fifty years for that,’ he replied.
On the return train trip, from the Trondelag region south to Oslo, I stop off to visit the ancestral town.
Røros, in the high country south east of Trondheim, is a mining town built of wood. It had been burned a couple times in the 1600s by Swedish troops marauding across the border not far to the east, but much of it remains. The renaissance street layout, split timber houses of Swedish, Norwegian and German tradition, a few palatial looking wooden residences, a church tower with a green copper spire, and the original mine buildings and machinery have made Røros a Unesco World Heritage Site. The black hillocks of tailings and the old split log buildings give parts of the town a Wild West feel, as though it were somewhere in the high valleys of Colorado. Running parallel to Kjerkgata and Bergmannsgata, the street of log and rubble houses leading up the hill to the smelting house museum is called Lorentz Lossiusgata.
The Røros church is huge and cold, one of the biggest in Norway. It is an octagon of stone with a barrel vault and a thick, tall tower. The interior is a chilly white chamber with high galleries of timber boards and Corinthian columns, marbled in white and pale blue, and gilded with baroque furls and curls. The present church was built in 1784 after the previous wooden one had been destroyed by fire. The town was at its peak with the copper mines employing up to 1,500 men every season, and the new church was erected as a testament to the wealth and prestige of the owners and managers. Its architectural style and decoration are about a hundred years out of date for the time it was built. There is a curtained, columned gallery up the back for the royal person and the town bigwigs, but apparently, in the old days, no royal ever came to use it. Only the bosses and their families sat up there.
The new building contains much that was saved from the old one. High in a gallery over the altar sits a fine pipe organ from 1742, and to the left and right of the sanctuary hang portraits of the town fathers, the largest one being of old Lorentz Lossius, engineer and founding director of the mine.
So who was he then? From the latest Lossius book, and a few other sources on Norwegian history websites, I’ve translated and made the following brief digest.
Lorentz was born in Saxony in 1589, into a family of academics and clerics going back to the 1400s. In 1594 his father, Christoffer Lossius, was banished from his post as pastor of Stolberg in Zwickau on a charge of unfaithfulness to his wife. Four years later he was restored as pastor of St. Jacob’s church in Göttingen, having, it seems, eventually married the second woman.
Lorentz studied draughtsmanship and mathematics at the university of Leipzig, and started his mining career in the Hartz mountains. In the 1620s, the time of the thirty years’ war, he was sent by Christian IV of Denmark to help develop the silver mines in Kongsberg, Norway. Some years later, after exploring further north near Kvikne in the Trondelag district where ore had been found, he started up operations, perhaps before royal permission had been granted. By 1634 he had been made official general manager of the copper works there.
The yields were of poor quality, and moreover, the cash-hungry king had pawned the operation to a Danish firm to pay for his son’s wedding. The new owners in Copenhagen complained about the poor yields and put pressure on the locals to do better. In the meantime Lorentz and a companion discovered a rich vein of copper ore in the hills to the southeast, and the first Røros mine was developed in 1643. It was found to be a highly lucrative prize, and Lorentz’ fortune was set to be made as he had rights to a significant share in the mine. He received official sanction from Christian IV of Denmark in the 1640s, and the town sprang up.
Things soon changed.
In 1646 one of Christian IV’s ministers, Joachim Jürgens (also known as Irgens), a personal friend to whom the king owed huge sums of money, acquired, as a liquidation of accounts outstanding, tracts of land in Denmark and Norway, including rights in the mining district of Røros. The manoeuvring began. Irgens managed to wrangle a majority share of the company. Lorentz Lossius’ ownership stake was eventually reduced to one thirtieth. Then Lossius lost his job and his remaining stake, apparently on the grounds of his initial, unofficial undertaking at Kvikne. He was “honourably demoted,” on the excuse that some mining equipment had disappeared, apparently diverted to Lorentz’ personal mining claim at Rauhåmmåren.
By 1652, Irgens (who spent little time in the boondocks of Norway) and his proxies had completely taken over Røros. Irgens’ brother Henning was in charge. Quick to anger, very tardy with wages, he is said to have made the miners and their families suffer.
Life around Røros was brutal for most. Summers can be warm, but as the town is quite far from the coast and the effect of the Gulf Stream, the winters are bitterly cold with a great deal of snow. A stark Norwegian film, An-Magritt (1969), directed by Arne Skouen and starring Liv Ullman, tells a tale of poverty and exploitation in the mining district of Røros in the 1670s. The synopsis: An-Magritt, the heroine, struggles alone and survives by collecting stones for the Chancellor. The stones are turned into ore, and the Chancellor grows rich while the villagers fall deeper into poverty.
And in Copenhagen and Amsterdam Joachim Irgens grew richer, rising, in the end, to a Danish barony. Lossius, accused of not paying back borrowed money, and unpaid for two years, withdrew to his wife and children at the family homestead near Kvikne. He spent a couple of melancholy years in retirement before dying in 1654. He had two sons and a daughter, and it is from his son Christoffer, who became the pastor of the church at Kvikne, that the Norwegian Lossius family stems.
There’s something curiously anachronistic about the large dark portrait hanging high up in the Røros church (the image shown is a 1930’s copy which hangs at eye level in the Røros police station). A coarse painting, with a lengthy testimonial in Latin underneath, it is possibly a version made many years after the original sitting. Old Lorentz has a fine cavalier head of long dark locks, and a sharp, serious, almost amused expression on his face. However, the coat he is wearing is of a style commonly worn a generation after his death.
It happened that Swedish troops destroyed the town during the war in 1679, after which it was completely rebuilt. Perhaps the original painting had been ruined in one of the fires, with enough being salvaged so that a visiting portraitist from 30-50 years later could copy his features onto a canvas he had brought with him. Dutch painters hungry for commissions are said to have journeyed north with rolls of half-finished canvasses, tapestries and torsos already painted. The person sitting for his or her portrait would choose a torso that they felt best suited them, to which their face was added during a local sitting.
By contrast, the portraits of Lorentz’s son, pastor Christoffer, and his son’s wife Mette, are clearly of the mid 1600s, and reveal visages and garb of almost Spanish solemnity. The first generations of Lossiuses seemed to have had dark hair and big dark eyes.
I am shown around by the church music director, an Englishman comfortably ensconced in Røros with a Norwegian wife and children. He takes me up to the high gallery under the roof and over the altar, inviting me to have a go on the old baroque organ. It is small, in a fine case gilded and marbled white and blue, with one manual, no pedal board, and 10 voices. For 1742, the time it was built, the organ is about 100 years out of date. It has a lovely sparkly sound, and is tuned to mean tone, (unequal temperament) so you can’t play Bach on it, but it is very good for music from the 1500 to 1600s. I rattle off a couple of minor keyboard toccatas of Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck before the organist leads me down some rickety and very narrow stairs to have a another look at the old pictures.
Before we walk from the side room into the main part of the church he draws my attention to an impressive double portrait hanging darkly where it cannot be seen. The painting is of Henning Irgens and his wife, hidden behind the altar wall, away from general view. One of the pastors of the earlier Røros church, knowing the history of his rule, and knowing the miners and townsfolk could not bear the memory of him, had insisted the portrait be hung out of sight, where tradition has kept it.
Would Lorentz Lossius have been the better man, had he outmanoeuvred Irgens and retained his power in Røros? Probably not, had he been as good at scheming as he was at mining. Perhaps his scholarly, clerical background instilled some lasting ethics. Perhaps his father’s scandal and rehabilitation led him to withdrawal.
Another Oslo friend put it bluntly; ‘they were all exploiters, those Danes and Germans who came north.’ But while Joachim and Henning Irgens seem largely reviled by those who like to delve into regional history, old Lorentz Lossius is remembered as a venturesome underdog. His lonely and bitter demise has a romantic and melancholy Norwegian whiff about it.
And his loss may well have been the family’s gain.
Most of the historical material for this essay has been translated from Lossius-Slekten i Norge edited by Gunnar Lossius, Hitra 1999.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org