Christopher Abram

title.none: Adams and Holman, eds., Scandinavia and Europe 800-1350 (Christopher Abram)

identifier.other: baj9928.0511.002 05.11.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Christopher Abram, University College London,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Adams, Jonathan, and Katherine Holman, eds. Scandinavia and Europe 800-1350: Contact, Conflict, and Coexistence. Series: Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, vol. 4. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. xxi, 369. $77.00 2-503-51085-x. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.11.02

Adams, Jonathan, and Katherine Holman, eds. Scandinavia and Europe 800-1350: Contact, Conflict, and Coexistence. Series: Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, vol. 4. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. xxi, 369. $77.00 2-503-51085-x. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Christopher Abram
University College London

Several of the contributors to this, the fourth volume in the series Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, allude to the use of the terms "centre" and "periphery" in descriptions of medieval European society and culture. "Peripheral" societies are importers, recipients, imitators of the ideas, beliefs, and institutions that are promulgated from the "centre." Owing to its relative geographical isolation, and possibly to its inhabitants' relatively late adoption into the Christian fold, Scandinavia is still often perceived in the Anglophone world as being "peripheral" in the Middle Ages, in contrast to the cultural and political centres of the west and south. This admirable and timely collection of essays challenges the "centre-periphery" model of interaction between western Europe and Scandinavia in the period 800-1350, giving prominence rather to the multiplicity of ways in which bi-directional interaction occurred between Scandinavians and their neighbours in France, Germany, Frisia, and the British Isles. It follows a conference on the same theme, held at the University of Hull in 1999.

The volume is divided into four sections. The first two deal with the activities and influence of Scandinavians overseas during the Viking Age and into the eleventh century, as reflected in the historical and archaeological record and by linguistic evidence. Beginning the essays on "Historical and Archaeological Evidence for Contact with the British Isles" is Olwyn Owen's examination of "The Scar Boat Burial and the Missing Decades of the Early Viking Age in Orkney and Shetland." Owen uses the evidence of graves excavated on Orkney and Shetland to reveal a rather surprising lack of Vikings on the islands in the early Viking Age, and shows that native Pictish traditions survived well into the ninth and possibly even into the tenth century, suggesting that "the story of the early ninth century was not a simple case of native peoples being overwhelmed by incomers." Derek Gore's brief account of "Britons, Saxons, and Vikings in the South-West [of England]" argues that "Scandinavian leaders perhaps saw the south-west peninsula as the Achilles heel through which Wessex and later England could be effectively attacked," attracted by the political instability that attended native British resistance to West Saxon rule. This conjecture is nowhere proved, so far as I can see, by the evidence (mainly from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) that Gore cites. It is an intriguing thought, but one which will need substantial augmentation and refinement before it becomes generally accepted. The end of the Viking Age comes into focus in Anne Pedersen's "Anglo-Danish Contact across the North Sea in the Eleventh Century: A Survey of the Danish Archaeological Evidence." As Pedersen notes, while "research into the presence of Danes in England may draw upon a large body of very different sources ... for Denmark, the opposite is the case." Evidence for Anglo-Danish contact of a Danish provenance is restricted to a few runic inscriptions and to archaeological finds, an overview of which Pedersen provides in her essay. Her presentation of the various English objects found in Danish excavations, and of artefacts produced in Denmark under the influence of Anglo-Saxon styles and craft techniques, is clear and thorough and supported by excellent photographs and maps. The archaeological record, argues Pedersen, supports the interpretation of three distinct phases of Anglo-Danish contact: during the earliest raids, direct return of English objects to Denmark did not occur, as the raiders reinvested their attained wealth; during the period of Viking settlement in England, artefacts of a Scandinavian type are found in the Danelaw, but the traffic was one-way; finally, into the eleventh century, the renewed attacks that culminated in the Anglo-Danish kingdom brought the two areas into much closer contact, and a bi-directional exchange of objects, travelling craftsmen, and artisans began, accounting for the sudden increase in English or English-influenced objects in Denmark. David H. Caldwell closes the opening section with the second of fivecontributions to address the Scandinavian impact on Scotland and the Northern Isles. In "The Scandinavian Heritage of the Lordship of the Isles," he traces the Scandinavian descent of the leading Highland magnates of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Caldwell shows that, although Norway ceded control of the Western Isles in 1266, Scandinavian influence persisted long after that date. Material culture, military organization and administrative structures, even building techniques, all retained strong similarities to Scandinavian types in the area on which the Lordship of the Isles was centred. But that is not to say that the Lords of the Isles and their subjects continued to look to Norway for inspiration or guidance, or to regard themselves as specifically Norse beyond 1266. Rather, says Caldwell, the lingering traces of Norwegian influence reflect the conservatism of West Highland society at the time.

The book's second section, on "Evidence for the Linguistic Impact of Scandinavian Settlement," begins with an essay by Peder Gammeltoft entitled "Contact or Conflict? What Can We Learn from the Island-Names of the Northern Isles?" In provocative contrast to Olwyn Owen's analysis of the situationearlier in the volume, Gammeltoft believes that the Viking takeover of Orkney and Shetland resulted, after a brief phase of peaceful mercantile and exploratory interaction, in the sudden, early, and catastrophic destruction of the native Pictish population, "obliterated by the incoming Scandinavians, either by warfare, slave trade, or disease--or a combination of these." This conclusion is based upon the low number of Pictish-related place-names in the Northern isles: of the island names that have been preserved, only Unst, Fetlar, and Yell are of Pictish, rather than Norse origin. According to Gammeltoft, this must mean that "the Picts ceased to be an ethnic group of any relevance at an early stage." The papar, the monks whom the Historia Norwegiae mentions alongside the pettar as the original inhabitants of Orkney, on the other hand, are accepted to have existed in a state of peaceful co-existence with the Norsemen, since island-names containing the element papa- have been preserved. "On these grounds," writes Gammeltoft, "it would be tempting to argue that the monks, the papar, were of relevance and well known to the Scandinavian settlers. Conversely, it may be argued that the Picts did not constitute a relevant, or even identifiable, ethnic grouping." Place-name experts will have to decide for themselves whether the onomastic evidence really supports Gammeltoft's interpretation; I feel that we should be cautious about attempting to solve a historical problem of this sort with recourse to only one type of evidence alone. An integrative multidisciplinary approach to the subject will be necessary if we are ever satisfactorily to establish what happened to the Picts in the Northern Isles.

Another revisionist theory is put forward by Arne Kruse, in "Norse Topographical Settlement Names on the Western Littoral of Scotland"; in this case, the author argues against the prevailing opinion, as propounded by W. F. H. Nicolaisen, that the Norse names given to places along the west coast of Scotland were given to them by visitors, and not by settlers, because they use topographical rather than habitative nomenclature. Kruse argues, most convincingly in my view, that topographical names relating to prominent features in the landscape were given by the Norsemen to their primary settlement sites, since a stable resident population is hardly likely to adopt place-names from an itinerant one. The absence of habitative vocabulary is explained by the fact that, by the time that secondary settlement took place beyond the initial group of sites, the Norse language was no longer the medium in which the population primarily operated. This naming pattern is observable in other areas settled by Vikings.

Accepting Kruse's theoretical repositioning of the likely pattern of Norse settlement naming, Andrew Jennings uses the Norse place-names of Kintyre to reconstruct the history of the Norse settlement in an inhabited, Gaelic-speaking territory. The evidence that Jennings presents certainly seems to support Kruse's theory, and the cohesion between the two essays makes them together one of the strongest parts of the whole book.

Few scholars are better equipped to write on the linguistic implications of runic inscriptions than Michael Barnes. Here, he provides a comprehensive overview of the Insular corpus of Scandinavian inscriptions, in an attempt to determine "the type, position, and ultimate fate of Scandinavian speech in the British Isles," freely admitting, however, that the evidence is sporadic and often rather weak. Barnes's analysis of the inscriptions does little to alter our overall impression of the Scandinavian presence in the British Isles, although they do provide some evidence that Scandinavian dialects probably did not survive much beyond the third generation of Norse settlers in most areas. An appendix containing transliterations of all the inscriptions in the corpus (with the exception of those from Man, and Maeshowe, which have been published elsewhere) will be of particular use to readers who may be inspired to pursue further work in this direction. One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the participation of so many leading scholars in a variety of disciplines. Gillian Fellows-Jensen has been a leading practitioner of Viking Age place-name studies for decades, and she brings her considerable experience in the field to bear in the volume's final onomastic essay, "Scandinavian Settlement in the British Isles and Normandy: What the Place-Names Reveal." Fellows-Jensen provides a comprehensive, if necessarily brief, analytical survey of the eleven distinct zones of Scandinavian settlement in the British Isles and Normandy, identifying the types of place-names found in each; these place-names are shown in many cases to be diagnostic of the origins of the settlers and of their patterns of settlement. She concludes, however, with the important caveat that "many of the names can have been bestowed upon the settlements that now bear them long after the Viking Age by people who no longer spoke, or even understood a Scandinavian language."

The final linguistic essay is Elisabeth Riedel's "The Linguistic Heritage of the Scandinavians in Normandy." The study of Scandinavian linguistic influence upon the dialects of the areas of Frankish soil settled by Vikings has languished somewhat: concluding her brief survey of previous scholarship on the subject, Riedel comments that "we still do not know how many words the Scandinavians have bequeathed to Normandy." She proceeds to describe the literary and non-literary corpora on which her investigation is based, before offering a list of those lexical fields in which she finds most significant traces of Scandinavian linguistic influence: maritime vocabulary, vocabulary to do with land, and domestic and legal vocabulary. As it stands, this essay is little more than a couple of lists, but its presence in the volume may well help to stimulate further inquiry into a rather neglected field. Riedel's own doctoral thesis, from which this piece derives, will itself be an important step in enabling us to use traces of linguistic contact to evaluate more effectively the extent and nature of the Viking presence in Normandy.

The second half of the volume is by and large concerned with the post-Viking era, which may reasonably be said to have begun along with the conversion and Christianization of Scandinavia. It is with this epochal religious and cultural shift that the book's third section is concerned. Stefan Brink offers us "New Perspectives on the Christianization of Scandinavia and the Organization of the Early Church." Beginning rather discouragingly by stating that "to discuss the conversion of Scandinavia may seem to be a rather adventurous and even fruitless task," Brink goes on to disprove his own pessimism with an elegant and fruitful account of recent advances in the study of the Christianization process, beginning with the tenth century: in this respect he draws upon work completed as part of the important multidisciplinary research project "Sveriges kristnande." On the basis of archaeological discoveries, particularly the apparent construction of small Christian churches on certain farms during the "pagan" era, Brink argues against a monolithic view of the earliest phases of Christianization in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. There are significant and hitherto not always recognised regional variations in the date, rate, and pattern by which Christian practices were adopted.

The scope of Brink's article precludes mention of the Christianization of Iceland and the other Atlantic settlements. But Christopher D. Morris joins Brink in pushing back the date at which Norse communities began--at the "local private landowner level"--to worship Christ. Once again, it is the recent discovery of small chapels and churchyards, probably dating back to the tenth century, which suggests that the high-level political conversions described by the written sources do not always mark the beginning of Christianization in a given area. Morris's examples are taken from the islands that Brink omitted, as revealed in the title of his article: "From Birsay to Brattahlíð: Recent Perspectives on Norse Christianity in Orkney, Shetland, and the North Atlantic Region." Old Norse specialists might regret Morris's--an archaeologist--reliance upon translations of original texts, but taken together with Brink's essay, to which Morris provides an illuminating corollary, historians of the conversion will ignore the implications of these archaeological advances at their peril.

Tore Nyberg's essay on "Early Monasticism in Scandinavia" is the only contribution to this volume that has appeared elsewhere, as part of his 2000 book, Monasticism in North-Western Europe, 800-1200. Nyberg provides a characteristically thorough narrative of the origins and development of the most important Scandinavian monastic foundations, and suggests a number of ways in which this field of study may proceed in the future. Unlike the previous two contributors, who regarded the precedence given to written over archaeologicalevidence as a worrying trend, Nyberg reminds his readers that the history of monasteries is preserved above all in their written documents, which have, in the case of the Scandinavian houses, to a large extent been neglected.

Many of the best essays gathered together by Holman and Adams manage to combine detailed investigation of a topic with a ready awareness of its implications for the subject of the book as a whole. Those by Jan Ragnar Hagland and Janus Møller Jensen, whilst being scrupulous and scholarly pieces of work, are so specialized as to make them distinct from the essays around them. Hagland's essay deals with a single aspect of canon law, the degrees of consanguinity allowable in marriage, and compares native Norwegian laws with developments in the mainstream of European legal thinking. Jensen, meanwhile, provides an extremely detailed (and rather pedantically over-referenced) analysis of the crusading impulse as it was experienced in Denmark in the mid-twelfth century. The Wendish campaigns prosecuted by the Danish kings, with the full support of the national church, he views (plausibly) as a reflex of the pan-European fervour for holy war. Readers interested in either of these rather narrowly conceived areas of research will find both articles to contain much of value; they interact rather less than some other articles with the overarching import of the book as a whole, however.

The last scholar to contribute on the theme of Christianization is the art historian Axel Bolvig. It is Bolvig who provides the book's most explicit attempt at a theoretical articulation of the relationship between the "centre" of European Christian culture and its Scandinavian "periphery": his focus is on Romanesque art and architecture in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He equates the complex interrelationships of medieval European cultures with the way that the World Wide Web functions. We should not seek to find influence from specific centres on a given region (Bolvig's examples all come from Denmark), but rather to look at cultural developments in "a European perspective, then in a local perspective, but never in a national one." I find this last phrase a troubling one: it may answer for Bolvig's test case of Romanesque wall-paintings, which he sees as a reflection of an aesthetic universal among the class of people who became patrons of church building and decoration, and as having little to no bearing on the lives of the ordinary people. But considered as a generally applicable theory, it seems to have its weaknesses: how does "European culture" become "local" culture? In some instances, at least, "national" culture has served as an intermediary between European cultural movements and the lives of individuals and their communities. Would not the literature associated with the court of Hákon Hákonarson of Norway, some of which explicitly mentions that it was written down by royal appointment, count as a cultural interchange on a "national" level? Many scholars believe that Hákon instigated a programme of direct literary imitation of contemporary France (including the employment of the famous--and presumably French--translator, Brother Robert) as part of his drive to modernize the Norwegian state along continental lines. As soon as nations conceive of themselves as such, they have the potential to act as transmitters and receivers of "official" culture. The adoption of Romanesque art in Denmark may not have been an example of cultural influence on a national level; I find it difficult to accept, however, that this particular example of cultural influence provides a model generally applicable to all of medieval Europe.

Written texts are foregrounded in the final section, which searches for evidence of the book's three overarching sub-themes: contact, conflict, and coexistence. Judith Jesch, writing on "Vikings on the European Continent in the Late Viking Age," intends to deal with contact, but her account of Viking activity in Saxony, Frisia, France, and beyond shades quickly into narratives of conflict, reflecting the interests of the contemporary sources that she uses. At the centre of Jesch's study are Sighvatr Þórðarson's Víkingarvísur, a series of linked stanzas describing the youthful (and violent) exploits of King Óláfr Haraldsson in the early part of the eleventh century. Students of skaldic verse will welcome Jesch's new insights into Sighvatr's poem; more important for historians is the range of other sources, from Scandinavian runic inscriptions to continental annals, by which the evidence of the skaldic verse is illuminated, or challenged. Like several of her fellow contributors, Jesch lays down the gauntlet to future scholars; she aims to encourage others to re-evaluate the Viking presence on the continent in the light of the full range of sources. Many of the contributors to this volume, and presumably many of the readers, are Scandinavian specialists. Brian J. Levy and Alan V. Murray, by contrast, are experts, respectively, in medieval French and in the history of the Crusades. Levy provides a brilliant exposition of the changing fortunes of "the Viking" at the hands of Anglo-Norman authors. Norse characters are found reasonably often in Old French texts from post-Conquest England; they are viewed with uncompromising hostility in vernacular chronicles and saints' lives, but find more sympathetic treatment in indigenous romances. Historical verisimilitude is not a concern of these authors, even in texts from the former Danelaw like the Lai d'Haveloc; just as in modern popular culture, audiences were presented with a stereotyped vision of the Viking, who could be hero, villain, or simply local colour.

In "The Danish Monarchy and the Kingdom of Germany, 1197-1319: the Evidence of Middle High German Poetry," Murray argues that the composition of a number of Middle High German panegyrics in favour of the Danish monarchy reveals two things about Denmark in the thirteenth century. First, they reinforce the notion that Denmark was turning away from traditional Scandinavian kingship, towards a more westernized model: Saxony (if Axel Bolvig will allow it) was Denmark's most proximate and influential neighbour at this period. Secondly, these poems may show that poems in praise of Danish kings were intended for German-speaking audiences, reflecting the "political interests and weight of Denmark throughout the north of the German Reich." Both Levy and Murray present texts that will probably be unfamiliar to most Scandinavianists, and this aspect of the book is a particularly commendable reflection of the interdisciplinary conception of the collection as a whole.

Úlfar Bragason is the only Icelander to have contributed a piece to the volume. His "The Politics of Genealogies in Sturlunga saga" (translated by Anna H. Yates) links the genealogical sections of Þórðr Narfason's compilation with changing attitudes towards rulership among the chieftain class in Iceland in the thirteenth century. The idea that families like the Sturlungs had ancestral claims to power was a relatively late development in Iceland, although in conventional monarchies (such as Norway, for example) the importance of a king's ancestry was of course already well defined. "There was," writes Þlfar, "a clear contact between the ideas of Icelandic chieftains and the continental model, a move towards a lineage system of kinship. Ultimately, this facilitated the submission of Icelandic chieftains' power to the Norwegian crown". Sturlunga saga served in part to promulgate its subjects' new conception as themselves as rulers along more conventional European lines. Relations between Iceland (on the periphery of the periphery that was Scandinavia, if you like) and Norway (very much a centre of the Icelanders' contact with the outside world) are also the subject of "Narrative, Contact, Conflict, and Coexistence: Norwegians in Thirteenth-Century Iceland," by Chris Callow. Callow examines the portrayal of the austmaðr, or "man of the east" in the Sagas of Icelanders and the Contemporary Sagas. The figure of the austmaðr is frequently used to provide light relief in these texts: Callow cites numerous instances of these characters serving as the butts of Icelanders' jokes. What the author does not do, however, is prove to my satisfaction that austmaðr refers to a Norwegian in all, or indeed in many, cases. Callow's essay does little to advance the overall theme of the collection; although the term austmaðr does merit his attention, these figures are mere ciphers in the sagas, and really tell us little about medieval Icelanders' attitudes towards their Norwegian cousins. The introduction of roman script into Scandinavia is one of the most telling examples of European cultural influence in the region. But Scandinavians had a flourishing script-system of their own: the runic alphabet. In "Literacy and'Runacy' in Medieval Scandinavia," Terje Spurkland juxtaposes the two writing-systems, and examines the textual communities that produced them. The writing of roman script and the carving of runes were two distinct cultural activities, prosecuted by two distinct groups: the literate, and those whom Spurkland wishes to call the "runate." Supported by many well chosen examples, Spurkland demonstrates the communicative contexts in which the two systems operated independently of each other, and those much rarer instances where they intersect, indicating the existence of a textual community that was both literate and runate. Spurkland's article will become a canonical part of the literature on the cultural context of runic script: if it helps to remove from current usage the phrase "runic literacy" (two words which encode entirely different cultural concepts), then so much the better. Randi Eldevik offers an analysis of the figure of Hecuba in medieval Scandinavian literature as a key to understanding the reception of classical antiquity in the Nordic countries. The main part of her essay is a close reading of the Hecuba episode from the Icelandic Trójumanna saga, although she is also interested in Saxo Grammaticus's Latin writings and in analogues to the story found in Old Norse legends and sagas. Her conclusion is that "the archaic hero-tales that make up the Troy story had in themselves always contained much that was congruent with the native Scandinavian heroic tradition," but that by observing the subtle ways in which Norse authors adopted and adapted the stuff of classical literature, we may gain an extra insight into the nature of the cultural fusion between native tradition and imported exemplars that was taking place in Scandinavia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. To bring this excellent book to a fitting summation, the Norwegian historian Sverre Bagge offers an essay entitled "On the Far Edge of Dry Land: Scandinavian Culture in the Middle Ages." Bagge, as his title would suggest, does still regard Scandinavia as a "periphery" to the feudal and scholastic centre of western Europe, but he traces some of the ways in which Scandinavian cultures, politics, and ideologies moved closer to European norms over the course of the medieval period. His main concern is to identify a developing strand of royalist ideological literature in Norway, taking into account texts such as The King's Mirror and The Speech against the Bishops, as well as the sagas of the Norwegian kings Sverrir and Hákon Hákonarson. The shift towards secular ideological literature is one which Bagge finds mirrored in other European cultures; he maintains, however, that the modes of expression used by these authors to bring home their ideological message (he does not shy away from the term "propaganda"), owe much to native Scandinavian traditions. The necessity of appealing to a relatively uneducated non-elite, upon whom Norwegian and Icelandic rulers were dependent to a greater extent than established aristocracies in other countries, may have helped to maintain a more independent cultural identity: Scandinavian polities developed along the same lines as other European nations, but they did not all move as far or as fast towards total incorporation into the mainstream of western Europe.

It is a pleasure to be able to commend this volume as almost a model of its kind. Several of the essays reviewed above (particularly those by Barnes, Fellows-Jensen, Nyberg, and Riedel) will serve as valuable tools of reference for future students and scholars; others (for example Kruse and Spurkland) offer fundamental challenges to the course of research in their respective fields. Almost all are provocative in the best in the sense of the word: they will engender debate, and act as a stimulus for further work, and they all adhere to extremely high scholarly standards. The editors and publishers deserve the highest praise for assembling such a wide-ranging, yet successfully cohesive, set of essays from specialists across the full range of relevant disciplines. They must also get most of the credit for the excellent standard of presentation throughout this volume: for a collaboration between scholars from so many different backgrounds--including native speakers of six different languages--the consistency of referencing, and the standard of English, are exemplary. I would have found an index helpful, but that is my only real criticism of an otherwise handsome and user-friendly book.