05.04.05, Helle, ed., Scandinavia

Main Article Content

Bridget Morris

The Medieval Review baj9928.0504.005


Helle, Knut, ed.. The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I: Prehistory to 1520. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xx, 872. ISBN: 0-521-47299-7.

Reviewed by:

Bridget Morris
University of Leeds

Up to the publication of this book, the main reference work on medieval Scandinavia has been the invaluable Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder (KLNM), in twenty volumes; and in English, the useful single-volume Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia, edited by Phillip Pulsiano. There are also several histories of the individual Scandinavian countries, a few of them in English, and of course very many specialized studies and monographs in the Scandinavian languages which deal exclusively with one or other period or region. Because of the inherent dividing line between western and eastern Scandinavia, and that between viking-age and post-viking-age research, these accounts often do not interrelate, except only occasionally and tangentially, and it can be difficult to obtain an overall picture of the emergent Scandinavian countries at any given point in their history and to identify comparatively the nuances in their respective histories.

This ambitious and comprehensive Cambridge history of Scandinavia will therefore be warmly welcomed in the English speaking world for its attempt to overarch the complexities of a long and diverse historical period within a large and varied geographical region. The book treats the whole of the Scandinavian region (Norden), including Finland and the Atlantic isles, and intermittently the countries of the southerly shores of the Baltic. With the exception of Michael Barnes, Professor of Scandinavian Studies in London, and Peter Sawyer (who is nowadays an honorary 'Scandinavian'), all of the contributors to this volume are Scandinavian nationals--the majority from Norway and Sweden--and the leading figures in their respective fields of history, archaeology, literature, philology, and geography.

Obviously, this is a vast region to address in a single volume, and the essential history that is covered starts with the shared roots of the pre-historical era, then moves to the gradual differentiation that took place in the early medieval period--politically, economically and culturally--and ends with the attempt at greater unification in the later Middle Ages, the effects of which lasted well into the early modern period. The stated aim of the volume's editor, Knut Helle, is to produce an "authoritative history based on most recent research"; however, because of the exigencies of the editing process, Helle states that the research cut-off was the mid 1990s, so the book is already (but understandably) ten years 'out of date.'

The first chapters on the pre-history are by medieval geographers and archaeologists on the landscape and resources during the stone, bronze and iron ages. It is useful to have these summaries of current views in archaeological scholarship and the partially map-based chapters are easy for the non-specialist to assimilate. Part II comprises four chapters on Viking Age Scandinavia, opening with a clear outline overall survey by Peter Sawyer on the expansion abroad, in raids and trade in both west and east, looking at theories of the Viking expansion overseas and the surprisingly wide range of terms for the Scandinavian adventurers. The next chapter, 'Viking Culture', is something of a catch-all survey under this broad head, opening with a section on geography, resources and physical restraints (with some overlaps with the information already given in Part I), ships, the economy (mainly buildings), religion, myths and world view, morality, poetry, runes, art and architecture. While these 'cultural' subdivisions give a piecemeal insight into the society that produced them, they lack a clear focus, though they are well supported by bibliographical references. Ch. 7, by Peter and Birgit Sawyer, is a straightforward account of the transition from paganism although it does not probe as it might have done into the doctrinal complexities behind the process of conversion. The long chapter 8 on 'Early Political Organization' opens with an overview by Tomas Lindkvist, who stresses the need for interdisciplinarity in the interpretation of early history, the consolidation of power, and political unification. The individual regions are then taken in turn by historians of each region from which a nuanced and detailed picture emerges, and overall this is a very clear and informative chapter, good on the emerging power balance within and between the Scandinavian kingdoms individually. Readers will welcome the discussions of the evolution of these kingdoms at a different pace, and of the wide diversity of sources (or lack of them) to underpin the understanding of these developments. By this point in the book the reader is well aware that the Scandinavia that emerges in 1050 was very different from the region at the beginning of the Viking age.

Part III covers demographic and rural conditions and urbanization in contributions by Ole Jørgen Benedictow, Eljas Orrman and Hans Andersson respectively, with wide-ranging and well-documented surveys of all the Scandinavian regions, not overlooking the Lapland and the Faeroes (oddly spelt Føroyar throughout this book). These chapters highlight some of the differences with Europe, such as the allodial nature of land ownership, and the deep-seated freedom, in law and practice, that ran throughout Scandinavian society. Women, too, had a distinctive status, though practices varied depending on local conditions, from the meager inheritance of a cow by a daughter in Finland, to full female involvement in farming and fishing life, and to the women of the Icelandic chieftain class who appeared to have considerable independence.

Part IV, on the 'High Medieval Kingdoms,' contains a sequence of chapters on the development of the monarchy and government across constituent parts of the region, highlighting the solidarity and consolidation of kinship, the development of the aristocracy, the centralizing tendencies within the state, and the role of the church. What resulted from these complex developments was, in Helle's words, the "inter-Scandinavian entanglement" that came to characterize the later medieval kingdoms, a phrase that is possibly an understatement.

Part V, 'High and Late Medieval Culture,' opens with an essay under the title 'Ideologies and Mentalities' by Sverre Bagge, who examines the impact of the 'king's mirror' genre as a reflection of the transition from a kin-ruled to a king-ruled society, and the emergence of a courtly culture along European lines, which was accompanied by a shift in the concept of honor, and a clearer definition of the aristocracy. The chronicle writings provide an informative source for the ideological backdrop to the period. The influence of the Church is the other dimension discussed here, with treatment of sermons and wall paintings, and the extent to which paganism did not die out in remote areas as against the extent to which Protestantism did not penetrate deeply: an old question which the geography of the region must surely go a long way to answering. There is also discussion of the lack of sources concerning personal spirituality (although St Birgitta's revelations might have merited a mention at this point). On the other hand, public spirituality is frequently in evidence, as for example in the Norwegian rite of leading a deceased man's saddle into a church at his funeral, as a display of his public status, and then offering his horse to the church to be redeemed for a sum of money by the man's heirs. This sort of rite appears to me reminiscent of the custom of public display by the Viking lords, and it is suggestive of the continuity between old practice and new, which is another theme that this book conveys across its pages.

Lars Lönnroth, Vésteinn Ólason, and Anders Piltz are the joint authors of a section on 'Literature.' This survey crosses national boundaries, and ranges over the topics of oral composition, the difference in the adoption of the vernacular in west Scandinavia and the retention of Latin in the east, the centers of literary creativity, Scandinavian education abroad, and the northern contribution to European scholastic education (Scandinavians being the first to teach astronomy in Paris). There is treatment of the poetry and storytelling features of the sagas, of Saxo Grammaticus and the ballad genre, Latin and vernacular religious literature. There follows a chapter by Anna Nilsén on 'Art and architecture,' which deals with Romanesque influence, applied art, and the Gothic influence. Some of the descriptions here are impressionistic, with unexplored statements about art being matched by social prosperity, and about the suffering of Christ being matched by hardship; but the wide variety of plates provides a sound idea of the distinctive features of church architecture throughout the region. Ingrid de Geer's contribution is on Scandinavian music, ranging from the finds of instruments, to the musical accompaniment to skaldic and other poetry, and the court music in its various guises. Church music brings with it standardization from outside, but with regional variations that were underpinned by liturgies for the national saints. In secular and folk music there is a lack of notated evidence, although some of the distinctive musical genres that have passed into the modern period, such as the two-part Icelandic song, the dance songs from the Faeroes, the Finnish Kalevala songs, Karelian crying songs, and Norwegian and Swedish calls to animals, may well have had their origins in the medieval period.

Part VI, on 'Late Medieval Society c. 1350-1520,' examines some of the economic circumstances that drove developments of the period leading up to the Reformation. Jouko Vahtola looks at population and settlement trends, including the effects of the Black Death, and the effects of the contraction of settlements and the agrarian crisis that affected different parts of the region in different ways. The rural population and agrarian economy, fishing, mining and the timber trade are then looked at in more depth by Eljas Orrman, who refers to the eye-witness account of the Italian travelers who were shipwrecked off the Lofoten islands in the 1430s, and who provide accounts of the life of the fishing community there (his account brings to mind that of Ottar the ninth-century Norwegian trader who is mentioned several times earlier in this book). There is discussion of the peasant revolts and their various forms in the fifteenth century. In the last three chapters there are clear treatments by Göran Dahlbäck, Erik Ulsig, and Lars Hamre of the towns and trade, the nobility, and the Church.

The last part of the book looks at the final phase of medieval history, and the very complex and constantly shifting situation of the 'Scandinavian Unions 1319-1520.' Herman Schück traces the progress within the political system towards the Kalmar Union, and Jens E. Olesen looks at the Inter-Scandinavian relations, both essays written with great clarity and bringing together many of the formative elements that were raised in previous chapters and take the reader through to the early modern period.

There is very much in this book that is truly excellent. The material is clearly presented, and the critical narrative that emerges of the political, economic and social and cultural changes are lucid and informative. It will be easy for a beginner to take a subject like 'runic inscriptions' or 'Hanseatic league,' to take two random examples, and follow through the survey into the extra bibliographical sources (which cover some forty pages, divided into general surveys, primary and secondary sources). Likewise, it will be easy for a specialist to use this book for comparative information on, say demographic patterns, or a comparison of the rise of the nobility across the region, to help illuminate an interpretation on a related matter. What is particularly useful is the interlocking narrative that emerges, and the efforts to contextualize subjects that encyclopedias by their nature cannot do. Readers will naturally have different demands of a comprehensive book like this, and inevitably there will be topics that are omitted or inadequately covered. I myself would have liked to see a further section on language, to complement the early linguistic section by Michael Barnes, whose comments on the Viking period and Middle Ages are given in a mere two paragraphs (pp. 101-102), and we only return to this subject in the 'Literature' section with the inadequately broad suggestion of "the language being very similar in all the countries throughout most of the period" (488). The questions are often asked by non-Scandinavians: how much were the emerging languages mutually intelligible, how clear are the linguistic boundaries between the component parts of the region, and how did the written languages develop against the entangled political history of the late medieval period? Likewise, the question of medieval literacy is not touched on in sufficient depth, and the Bible gets virtually no mention throughout the whole volume. Further, the scholarly specialism, and the nationality, of the individual authors has sometimes colored their approaches, as well as their book-lists, and the national boundaries, whether medieval or today's, are not in all cases broken down in favor of a pan-Scandinavian view (which is the stated aim in the editor's preface). For example, the discussion of late medieval preaching on p. 478 only mentions the Danish tradition, but on p. 517, the reader is told of the significant Vadstena sermons collection (12,000 sermons), which is now the subject of international interest in its own right.

Given that English is not the native language of the majority of the contributors to this book, the editor and his colleagues have worked extremely hard to bring this into a highly readable style that is characteristic of the Cambridge series in general, and only rarely is there a inelegant turn of phrase or style (ch. 16 might have been given further revision in this regard with overuse, for instance, of the impersonal pronoun 'one,' and odd phrases like 'suites of paintings' and 'Classicistic periods').

Although scholars will still continue to use KLNM as their first point of reference (as indeed is suggested by the wealth of references to its specialist articles in the footnotes), this work fills a conspicuous gap in the history of Northern Europe, and depicts with great clarity the complexities and varieties within a vast geographical area that pulls variously to the south, east and west in its many spheres of influence. It also highlights many perspectives that have a comparative bearing on developments elsewhere in continental Europe. This is the reference book that many scholars and students of medieval Scandinavia have long been waiting for, and it will certainly entice non-Scandinavian readers into the fascinating world of medieval Northern Europe, which comprises very much more than Vikings and Icelandic sagas.

Article Details

Author Biography

Bridget Morris

University of Leeds