The Medieval Review 13.02.19

Imsen, Steinar. Taxes, Tributes and Tributary Lands in the Making of the Scandinavian Kingdoms in the Middle Ages. "Norgesveldet," Occasional Papers 2 - Trondheim Studies in History. Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press, 2011. Pp. 357. NOK 350. 9788251928250. . .

Reviewed by:

Viðar Pálsson
The árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies

The present volume is the second of a proposed four-volume series on Norgesveldet, "the Norwegian Realm," following The Norwegian Domination and the Norse World c.1100-c.1400, edited by Steinar Imsen and published in 2010. These are conference volumes offering the fruits of an on-going research project with the title "The Realm of Norway and its Dependencies as a Political System c.1270-1400," an international and comparative enterprise led by Norwegian historian Steinar Imsen. The two volumes already published collect together workshop papers from a conference held in Visby in 2010 and one held in Røros in 2008.

The project seeks to shed light on the high and late medieval Norwegian realm as a whole, especially with regard to the social, economic, cultural, and political connections between the Norwegian crown and its dependencies on the fringe, and the development and dynamics of these connections over time. In line with the wider historiographical turn away from the narrative of the national state, Imsen and his international entourage seek above all to discover and emphasize the diversity of these connections, and to examine how decisively local structures and customs fed into the formation of the economic and political cultures of each of these fringe dependencies. A conglomerate state emerges which in turn is compared with contemporary Danish and Swedish models; the Baltic region is drawn in more generally. I have already applauded The Norwegian Domination elsewhere, and the quality of the majority of the articles in both volumes raises high expectations for the series' forthcoming volumes, as does Imsen's authority for critically reevaluating the classic textbook narrative of medieval Norway.

There are a number of other notable and recent installments in this mould--it suffices to mention Randi Bjørshol Wærdahl's excellent The Incorporation and Integration of the King's Tributary Lands into the Norwegian Realm c. 1195-1397 (2011) and Sigríður Beck's I kungens frånvaro: Formeringen av en isländsk aristokrati 1271-1387 (2011). These attempt to recast the history of the Norwegian kingdom free from nationalistic trajectories that separate, on the one hand, the history of the dependencies from the history of the kingdom itself (beyond their formal submission to royal overlordship, that is), and on the other, the high medieval kingdom from its late medieval successor, by effectively equating the death of King Hákon háleggr in 1319 with the death of a Norwegian kingdom proper (and thereby its history proper). Beyond these latter boundaries, past historians commonly pictured a dreary hinterland world of political humiliation and other indignities, defeat and plague. The active, and often explicit, engagement of the contributors of the two volumes in the "Norwegian Realm" series with this historiographical inheritance is a characteristic feature that guides the project's revisionist efforts (with the recognition that these efforts had begun many years before).

Whereas The Norwegian Domination offers a broad view of the Norwegian realm as a political entity, and thus serves primarily as an introduction to the subject, Taxes, Tributes and Tributary Lands is sharply focused on the complex origins of taxation and its mechanism throughout the realm. Notwithstanding the alliteration, such close scrutiny of financial techniques and the conceptual dimensions of exchange would have prompted many to adopt a more inviting title. But this non-issue is forgotten once Imsen's straightforward introduction is underway, with its broad brush-stroke painting of the basic issues at hand and the ways in which the contributors grapple with them. The articles that follow are arranged geographically into four parts, allowing comfortable navigation around the Norse Britain communities, Iceland, eastern and southern Scandinavia and the Baltic, and the Scandinavian frontiers. There is no general conclusion and the authors are evidently free from demands for overall consistency with regard to their separate bibliographies.

More than a decade ago, Hillay Zmora observed that the "modern state was born in Western Europe in the fourteenth century, the natural child of war and taxation." (Monarchy, Aristocracy and the State, 8). His conclusion echoes the longstanding conviction among historians that the growth of a centralized and bureaucratic administration designed for extracting capital systematically and by force from its subjects, i.e. taxation, is a key element in the transition towards the modern state. This conviction is evidently shared by the authors of Taxes as consistently they identify the transition from tributes to taxes as universal evidence of state formation. Unlike Zmora, however, who argued that the driving force behind the process lay in the changing nature of conflict and the way it was managed and financed by state authorities, the authors of Taxes offer few if any concentrated thoughts on what forces exactly, whether warfare or something else, drove the changes they describe. Although this is admittedly not a prescribed objective of the volume, the absence of engagement with this subject is nonetheless puzzling at times. Other worthy issues are, however, brought to the fore, such as whether ouncelands and pennylands in the west reflect a Norwegian influence or native structures, whether Icelanders saw their dues to the king as a tribute or tax, or whether skattland, "tax province," should be treated as a general model in context of Scandinavian state formation or as a circumscribed category within Norwegian discourse.

Behind many of these debates lies the problematic ambiguity of terminology in the sources with regard to enforced payments or levies. Apart from Historia Norwegie's early (late-twelfth-century) and isolated heading De tributarii insulis, the term skattland only surfaces in, or was coined for, King Magnús lagabætir's late-thirteenth-century law codes. Moreover, the term skattland remains peculiar to Norwegian legal terminology while skattr, "a payment due," is universal and surely old. The difficulties of disentangling shades of meaning attached to terms such as skattr stem fundamentally from their prolonged and highly contextual application--aside from the evident fact that exchange in pre-modern societies is rarely free from political and social implications.

These difficulties are highlighted by Helgi Þorláksson's and Jón Viðar Sigurðsson's debate on what it meant to the Icelandic elite to submit to royal overlordship via regular payments in the thirteenth century. Jón Viðar insists that the skattr involved was primarily the negotiated results of friendship between the king and his Icelandic subjects, as evidenced by the mutuality of their agreement and the sources' application of the term skattgjafir for the occasion, literally "payment-gifts." This is problematic. Firstly, the mutuality of the relationship, that is the king's obligation to keep the peace and the non-violence of specified legal rights, is quite universal to medieval lordship and most certainly lies at the heart of pre-modern ideologies of kingship. Medieval and early modern kings commonly and successfully levied taxes without the slightest implication of them being exempt from obligations such as promoting peace and protecting the law. Nor is Gamli sáttmáli unique in this context in medieval history in any way: whenever the ruling class surrendered power to a higher authority such as a king it commonly ensured that the restrictions that came with it were spelled out. Political absolutism was foreign to them. Secondly, it is not obvious that there is a nuanced difference between skattr and skattgjafir. The latter term is infrequent in the Old Norse corpus compared to the former, and its application in the Icelandic manuscript AM 639 4to (ca. 1400, Pétrs saga postula), for example, alongside skattr does not suggest sharp distinction between the two (consider also skattgjafaskylda in Rímbegla's AM 732 b 4to manuscript from ca. 1300-1325). Furthermore, although the term is certainly used in Hákonar saga when referring to the payments in question, both Sturlunga saga and all extant versions of Gissurarsáttmáli and Gamli sáttmáli label it skattr throughout (the term is found nowhere in Sturlunga saga, which habitually refers to royal taxes and/or tributes as skattr). Helgi's sober treatment of the payments as a tax is more sensible and convincing. In summarizing the debate in his introduction, Steinar Imsen somewhat amusingly avoids the minefield altogether, only commenting: "I will refrain from sticking my nose into this debate..." (21).

This is but one example of a number of issues up for debate. Overall, the book offers much to students of power, law, and economic history in medieval Scandinavia. In addition to Helgi's article, I found Ian Beuermann's, Már Jónsson and Patricia Boulhosa's, Nils Blomkvist's, and Thomas Lindkvist's particularly illuminating. That I find myself obliged to quibble about a minor but all the more irritating flaw that immediately catches the eye is therefore not meant to distract from my otherwise wholehearted recommendation: a single article contains misspellings in Old Norse and Icelandic titles and names that are beyond acceptable, aside from other errors and inconsistencies in referencing.