Brita Egardt was an ethnologist at Lund University. Her entire professional life was based at Folklivsarkivet in Lund.
Brita Egardt was born in Trelleborg in 1916. She was the second child, and first daughter, in the family. Her father was a postman with the railroad postal service and was later promoted to chief postman in the town. Both Brita Egardt and her sibling received thorough educations. Brita Egardt attended Högre allmänna läroverket för flickor (advanced general school for girls) in Malmö, gained her school-leaving certificate in June 1936, and enrolled at Lund University that same autumn. Her Bachelor’s degree comprised ancient Nordic and comparative studies, history of religion, and folklore studies, as well as Turkish language following a special dispensation. The fact that she studied Turkish indicates how demanding the international comparative aspect of folklore studies was at that time. Brita Egardt would maintain these high standards in her own work.
Brita Egardt married Otto Egardt, a banker, in 1941. Together they had two children, born during the 1940s. She was briefly employed as an assistant at the Lund University Historical Museum before she began to work for Folklivsarkivet in Lund. There she gradually worked her way up the ranks until she finally was promoted archivist, a position she held for almost two decades.
The recurring themes in Brita Egardt’s work are those of folk beliefs and customs, prejudices against or dislikes of particular phenomena, as well as elements of traditional meals. Her thesis, Hästslakt och rackarskam: En etnologisk undersökning av folkliga fördomar, which she defended in 1962, is a particular example of all of these. It was very positively received by many reviewers and was passed with an unusually high mark, and served as the basis of her qualification for appointment as a docent. Further, she also published articles in scientific journals such as Folkkultur, Rig and Ethnologia Scandinavica, as well as in more popular outlets such as Gastronomisk kalender, and in textbooks. In 1961 she was one of five editors of Schwedische Volkskunde, an ambitious anthology collated for the purpose of presenting and describing Swedish folklore studies for the benefit of a non-Nordic audience.
Brita Egardt held an appointment as docent in Nordic and comparative folklore studies from 1967 to 1973. During this time she also applied to become a professor of ethnology in Uppsala. She was declared qualified by four experts and was ranked third in the final round of voting for the position. During the early 1970s Brita Egardt tried to set up a research project on urban culture up to the modern day. Although her plans were never realised they have been described as the source of inspiration for the successful and influential project Kulturgränser och klassgränser run by later generations of ethnologists in Lund.
When considering Brita Egardt’s scientific efforts it is important to be aware of some historical limitations. The first is that she set out on her career path at a time when the discipline in Lund – known then as folk memory studies – was solely focused on spiritual/non-material folk customs, such as belief concepts, myths, sayings and traditions. The second is that in the mid-1940s the subject was restructured under the name of Nordic and comparative folklore studies as a “unified subject”, which was to include the material as well as the non-material aspects of folklore. Brita Egardt subsequently complemented her previously completed licentiate degree in folklore studies by gaining a further licentiate degree in the new subject. The third aspect to bear in mind is that during Brita Egardt’s most formative years the actual discipline, regardless of labels and requirements, was very closely tied to the sources contained within the folklore or folk memory archives. The person responsible for the collections in an archive was therefore responsible for a knowledge bank that was common to the whole discipline. Brita Egardt held this post for a very long time. Yet another limitation was that the three professors who represented the discipline – in Lund, Uppsala, and Stockholm – had always been men until that trend was broken in the early 1970s (and the subject later became established at other educational centres). As the writing of history has often been structured according to the order of succession at the higher centres of learning many other colleagues, including many women, tend to be hidden within a subject’s historiography. However, it is beyond doubt that Brita Egardt functioned as a figurehead, teacher, supervisor, critical friend and colleague in a manner which left an impact on the scientific environment to which she belonged.
Brita Egardt’s work was always based on a problem, in that it was always motivated by a determination to examine something which initially presents as unexplained, mysterious, or a paradox. Her thesis sought to explain why the person who slaughtered and flayed horses suffered scorn and contempt. The first step in the process was to test the oft-used explanation that these men were despised because they worked with horse meat which in its own right was imbued with and protected by magical and/or religious significance. Brita Egardt argues against that explanation by observing that repulsion towards horse meat and prejudice against horse slaughterers enjoy disparate ranges of distribution. This negates the hypothesis that the former gave rise to the latter. The explanation that she herself put forward placed the prejudices against the horse slaughterers within a wider social perspective, starting with the fact that they were considered to be dishonourable. By examining meanings, implications, and the extent of the concept of dishonourable Brita Egardt tracked down the source of the contempt for horse slaughterers to a strict hierarchical social system with both Continental and urban roots and showed how it spread to and influenced parts of the North. Thus her thesis in its synthesis extends the focus on the horse slaughterer to more encompassing issues regarding the social constructs they were part of, how this spread from the city to the countryside, and its regional spread across pre-industrial Sweden.
Brita Egardt’s scientific output has often been described as quantitatively limited and qualitatively excellent, with her own high standards serving as the link between the two characteristics. Her work is highly readable even today. It is intellectually challenging in its own right and often articulates – sometimes almost in passing – principle questions on scientific methodology and grounds for tenable conclusions. One example is her early article entitled “Problem kring hästskallar”, 1950. In it Brita Egardt thoroughly and definitively demonstrates the risks of undertaking intensive studies which do not adequately consider broad comparative material, whilst she also summarily rejects “sample collections” where the researcher does not apply any detailed analysis. In her own work she focuses heavily on the significance of details. Her texts also generally demonstrate her extensive material overview, her linguistic skills, and her ability to critically cross-reference different kinds of sources, including those from religious and legal history.
Brita Egardt retired in 1983 but still continued to work part-time until just two years before she died in 1990. She is buried at the Norra cemetery in Lund.