The Medieval Review 11.05.06

Bagge, Sverre. From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom, State Formation in Norway c. 900-1350. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010. Pp. 441. $78 ISBN 9788763507912. .

Reviewed by:

Angus Somerville
Brock University
asomerville@brocku.ca

If this review had a limit of two words, they would be "balanced" and "thorough," but they would fall far short of suggesting the excellence of Sverre Bagge's latest book. Professor Bagge has produced a work of remarkable subtlety, even-handedness, and, not surprisingly, scholarship of the highest order. The narrative is always compelling, frequently gripping.

From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway, c.9001350 is a part of two related projects: Periphery and Centre in Medieval Europe and The Nordic Countries and the Medieval Expansion of Europe: New Interpretations of a Common Past, homed at the Universities of Bergen, Gothenburg, Odense, and Helsinki. Sverre Bagge is Professor of Medieval History and Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Bergen.

In this book, Professor Bagge focuses mainly on the degree of "stateness" achieved by Norway in the period from c.900 to 1350, as measured in a variety of areas such as the military, ecclesiastical, bureaucratic, and political. He avoids asking over-simplifying questions such as "did Norway become a state in this period?" and, instead, engages in a finely-nuanced discussion of continuities and differences in the organization of Norway between the Viking Age and the High Middle Ages.

Most striking is the subtlety with which Sverre Bagge discusses a rich variety of historical approaches to his subject matter, for example, agrarian, Marxist, and nationalist views of the development of Norway and the state. As a review of the scholarship alone, his book is invaluable. His strengths lie in an analytical ability to see what is best in the differing approaches and to weave that together with his own carefully argued position. The inclusiveness of Bagge's argument is impressive.

The first chapter, "The Formation of the Kingdom of Norway," begins with the rise of the Scandinavian kingdoms and moves rapidly to a thorough introductory discussion of the many forces, internal and external, which led to the emergence of Norway as a successful dynastic player in the world of Scandinavian politics in the High Middle Ages, that is, from the reign of Harald Finehair to the mid- fourteenth century. War, military organization, and their relationship to social change are the substance of the second chapter. Most notable is the continuity of the leidang (military levy) in Norway from the Viking Age to the later period; in contrast, other kingdoms were developing élite military forces and increasingly expensive military technologies. Norway's strength was always sea- power, and the leidang system was well-suited to providing the rowers necessary for a large fleet. Later chapters emphasize that sea- power and the threat of its use remained a crucial element in Norwegian influence in the High and Late Middle Ages. As a consequence, Norway did not develop the system of frequently independent aristocratic military vassals found in much of medieval Europe.

With chapter three, "Religion, Monarchy and the Right Order of the World," comes an examination of the huge effect of the conversion of Norway to Christianity. This chapter introduces the serious scrutiny of a major theme for the rest of the book: the relative power and influence of king, Church, and aristocracy. Christianity brought with it changes in the distribution of wealth and the ownership of land, as well as a new ideology of kingship which was later adopted (and sometimes adapted) by kings of Norway. Not least important was the introduction of an extremely complex ecclesiastical bureaucracy which had a powerful effect on how people were governed as well as providing a model for royal administration.

Canon Law and Roman Law were part of the intellectual baggage imported with Christianity. Chapter three introduces the topic of ecclesiastical law and chapter four looks at its effect on the Norwegian conceptions of law and traditions of administering justice. In the administration of justice, too, the tension between Church and king comes into sharp focus. Bagge's approach is particularly subtle in this area, and he finds that there was a degree of continuity between traditional and newer legal codes. He shows, nonetheless, that, with its unified legal code and system of professional judges, Norway was relatively advanced and, in legal matters, took its largest step toward state-development in this period.

Chapter five takes up the question of how far a "real bureaucracy" developed during this period in Norway. Ecclesiastical and royal administrations are compared and examined in fine detail. Particularly interesting are the sections on the transition from oral to written administration and the lengthy examination of written practices in the royal administration. The chapter argues that Norway moved a long way from the Viking Age when rulers governed by means of patronage, and charisma, but stops far short of suggesting that the new bureaucracy was close to being a modern "rational" bureaucracy.

In the next chapter, Bagge looks at the division of power within the kingdom. He opens with an account of the enduring tension between king and Church concerning matters such as tax and property, but chiefly jurisdiction. Bagge's conclusion is that, on balance, the king came out on top by retaining a good deal of discretion concerning what sort of cases might fall within his jurisdiction. The Norwegian aristocracy was relatively poor, in comparison with other aristocracies and with the Norwegian clerical aristocracy. Members of the aristocracy did not necessarily inherit royal functions and were thus more dependent on royal favour than, for example, the Danish aristocracy. At the beginning of the period, the king or chief listened to the advice of an assembly of "the best men." At the end, the best men had really become royal functionaries, some of whom were members of a group approaching the status of a royal council, whose advice the king might or might not heed. With a relatively weak aristocracy, the king did not need to develop a particularly strong bond with the peasantry. There are signs, though, that such a bond did in fact exist to some degree. For example, as late as 1263, Hakon IV could confidently call upon the leidang for a foreign expedition to Scotland.

In sum, Norway was initially united by military means, but developed by the "civilian" element in its culture. That is, the degree of "stateness" of Norway depended heavily on the development of a relatively strong monarchy with a credible legal system and bureaucracy. The conversion was crucial in that the Church brought with it Western European forms of organization and government. Norway's uniqueness dwells in its "soft" (as Bagge puts it) version of stateness, in which many continuities with the Viking Age are evident. Norwegian foreign policy in the High Middle Ages offers an interesting confirmation of this argument. Apart from Hakon V's disastrous war with the Swedish dukes, foreign military adventures were rare and largely took the form of demonstrations of sea power (such as Hakon IV's foray against the Scots). Foreign policy in the period was mainly dynastic and diplomatic.

While the main focus is on Norway, Professor Bagge intends his book to add to our understanding of medieval (particularly Scandinavian) state-formation in the period. He achieves this goal with tantalizing brevity. This brevity constitutes the only almost-negative criticism of the work. Most sections of the book refer to contemporary developments in the rest of Europe; the reader, however, is left with the feeling that Professor Bagge knows much more than he is saying. Perhaps that calls for another book rather than simply another chapter in the present one.

Obviously, this book is required reading for anyone with a serious interest in areas such as medieval state-formation or the emergence of Norway from the Viking Age to the High Middle Ages. For readers with limited access to scholarship in, for instance, the Scandinavian languages, Professor Bagge provides an excellent overview.

Finally, we owe to Sverre Bagge extraordinarily perceptive readings of vernacular texts such as The King's Mirror and the seriously underestimated Hakon's Saga of Sturla Thordarson.