The Medieval Review 12.12.05

Strauch, Dieter. Mittelalterliches Nordisches Recht bis 1500. Eine Quellenkunde. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Alerumskunde. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011. Pp. xxxvi, 886. $300. ISBN: 978-3-11-025076-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Anders Winroth
Yale University

Professor Dieter Strauch in Cologne is the German scholar most knowledgeable of Scandinavian medieval law, as his long series of contributions within this field to the new edition of Hoops's Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde demonstrates. He has now summarized what we know about Scandinavian law in the Middle Ages in a mighty volume of almost 900 pages. This work stands in the best tradition of German scholarly handbooks: it is thorough, detailed, and complete. The bibliography alone occupies almost 140 pages, and the very full indices stretch over 60 pages. The richness of this work impresses. One can open it almost anywhere and find an interesting miniature essay on some aspect of medieval Scandinavian law.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each covering a geographical area: Norway, Iceland (with Greenland), Denmark, Normandy, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Subheadings under each chapter address individual lawbooks as well as other chapters. With plentiful sub-subheadings, this is a book that has two tables of contents: one "Inhaltsübersicht" that helps the reader to orient himself in general in the tome, while the real and detailed table of contents contains all the headings. The introduction treats the general history of each Scandinavian country--with special attention to legal history and the history of Christianity--in addition to general advice on how to find sources and literature in the field (including information about which German libraries have the most complete collections in Scandinavian medieval history; Kiel is, unsurprisingly, the winner). Everything is up to date, including, impressively, the URLs to the various digitizations of source publications that are available on the internet.

Each chapter is organized according to the same principle: after a brief survey of available sources to legal history, each of them is treated individually and at suitable length. Every lawbook is given its own section, in which historical context, manuscript transmission, recensions, content, language, and other aspects are treated. Strauch treats in this thorough manner some fifty law books, and he understands that term broadly, so that, for example, both the Norwegian and Swedish mirrors of princes ("Konungs skuggsjá" and "Um styrilsi konunga och höfdinga") are given separate treatments. Similarly, the legal history of Scandinavian emigrant communities, in Greenland, the English Danelaw, in Normandy, and in Russia are each given separate sections in which Strauch discusses the influence of Scandinavian law. Each chapter ends with (relatively brief) sections devoted to documentary and literary sources.

This is probably not a book that anyone will read through from the first page to the last, although the narratives of Scandinavian legal history found in the Introduction are illuminating and well worth reading. Here Strauch not only provides potted histories for each of the Scandinavian countries, but he also outlines his understanding of Scandinavian legal history. In his very sensible reading, the introduction and development of Christianity are key to understanding the history of Scandinavian law, which develops by being continuously negotiated in the power field among political rulers, the universal church with its learned culture, and local society (including the local church, which is not always on the same page as the papacy). In this context, he repeatedly puts himself in opposition to the ideas of the Swedish legal historian Elsa Sjöholm, who radically argued that each of the Scandinavian law codes should be seen simply as expressions of political power at the time of their promulgation and that its laws, thus, were new at the time of codification. Sjöholm argued, of course, against the old and now largely disawoved idea that Scandinavian law codes simply registered ancient law that had previously been orally transmitted from generation to generation since heathen antiquity. Strauch's approach is more sensible with his recognition that any one lawbook contains both old and new laws.

A self-avowed handbook like this is, otherwise, not the place to present a new synthesis or to present far-reaching new interpretations. The book calmly registers where research stands on each of the texts and issues that are treated. The attitude is intelligent and critical, but the text is, at it were, held captive by whatever research has been done already. We can see this in the example of the Icelander Ulfljot, who in c. 930 was supposedly sent to Norway to learn Norwegian law and to put together a collection of laws suitable for Iceland ("Ulfljot's Law"). He learnt his compilation by heart and recited it to an admiring thing in Iceland, which immediately accepted his law. It is hard to read this story, registered only in the twelfth century, other than as a literary creation, an origin myth to explain Icelandic law and its similarities to Norwegian law, as Sigurður Líndal forcefully argued more than forty years ago in an article that Strauch does not mention ("Sendiför Ulfljóts," Skírnir 143, 1969, 5-26). Yet, there is no suggestion in Strauch's straightforward prose that we, as legal historians, might not want to take the story at face value. He also appears beholden elsewhere to traditional views.

Overall, Strauch is impressively well oriented in the most up-to-date literature on Scandinavian law in every relevant language. Perhaps there are points, such as the treatment of "Ulfljot's Law," where one would have wished for broader reading beyond legal history narrowly construed, for example in scholarship using literary and anthropological approaches, but that is churlish criticism when the work is so full of riches. It is similarly petty to point out that the book has a lot of typos for coming from a quality publisher. What is more important to emphasize is that Strauch's admirable magnum opus from now on must be the obvious starting point for anyone who wants to work on Scandinavian legal history.