12.03.22, Layher, Queenship and Voice in Medieval Northern Europe

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Eldbjørg Haug

The Medieval Review 12.03.22

Layher, William. Queenship and Voice in Medieval Northern Europe. Queenship and Power. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. Pp. 237. ISBN: 978-0-230-10465-5.

Reviewed by:
Eldbjørg Haug
University of Bergen

William Layher's Queenship and Voice in Medieval Northern Europe aims to raise our knowledge of queenship as a political institution in the three Scandinavian kingdoms in the Middle Ages. What happens in times of crisis when the ruling power of the king was impeded or ineffective, and society faced a lapse of male lordship? To answer these questions the author gives an outline of the theories of the difference between sonus and vox in order to find the voice of the three queens (29-52). Layher bases his narrative mostly on chronicles and annals, but documents and laws are better evidence in the analysis of social institutions and superior in evaluating political power. Rather than evaluate his literary analyses this review will focus on the author's main problem as presented, that is, the power of the three royal consorts.

Layher has chosen Agnes of Brandenburg, queen of Denmark, Eufemia of Rügen, queen of Norway, and the daughter of King Valdemar IV of Denmark, Queen Margaret of Norway and Sweden, as his case studies. According to the author, Queen Agnes experienced a political crisis when her husband, King Erik Glipping of Denmark, was murdered in 1286. Outstanding men from the inner circle of Erik Glipping were sentenced to death in absentia and became outlaws. Agnes became queen dowager and member of the regency of her minor son who is known to posterity as King Erik VI Menved (1274-1319). For some years Queen Agnes represented the ultimate lordship of Denmark. Layher claims that the consort of King Hakon V of Norway, Eufemia, also faced a crisis in the early 1300s because she bore no sons. And also the Queen Dowager Margaret faced a crisis in 1387, after the death of her son King Olav IV Hakonsson; the only inheritor according to the law of succession was King Albrecht of Sweden who belonged to the House of Mecklenburg. William Layher's contribution in the research of these events is based on literary analyses of six songs by the minstrel Rumelant of Saxony, the three Eufemia-songs that are based on courtly literature from the Norwegian court, and the Swedish poem Albrecht. The dialects of the poems are important in his analysis.

Little is known of Rumelant, but some of his songs are preserved in manuscripts of the early fourteenth century. Six of these songs are about the murder of King Erik Glipping. They without doubt reflect the sentiments towards the murder that were present in the circles around the regency of the minor king. The Swedish historian Hugo Yrwing has held Duke Valdemar IV of Sleswig to be the mentor of Rumelant. The duke was a descendant of King Abel and a potential pretender to the crown. He had much to gain by the sentencing of the inner circle of Erik Glipping, but the alliance of Agnes, Valdemar, and Prince Vitzlav of Rügen fades after the trial; Vitzlav continues to be prominent in Danish politics. The Danish outlaws found a refuge in Norway and played a part in inter-Scandinavian politics in the years that followed.

There is no lack of research on the turbulent years in Danish history that established the Christopher line as the royal house in Denmark, but I miss some important contributions in Layher's bibliography. The guide to Danish history up to 1340 gives an overview of the political, economic, and social history in the period, as well as the main points of view that have been presented. Helge Paludan emphasizes the strengthening of the king's authority during Erik V Glipping's reign up to 1282. His mother, the Queen Dowager Margaret Sambiria, was a driving force. The turning point is 1282, when the king had to make a vow to the Danish magnates every year to call the Danehof, that is, the Danish medieval parliament. [1] Niels Skyum-Nielsen's posthumous exposition "Ladies and Savages" on Danish gendered history between 1250-1340 analyses both Queen Agnes' power and her regency, discusses whom Rumelant of Saxony was influenced by and mentions the fact that the six songs by the minstrel are given in Middle Low German. [2] A discussion of Skyum-Nielsen's points of view would have been interesting. Layher excludes both Danish foreign policies and the conflicts between church and state in the period. His unreserved attribution of Rumelant's songs to Queen Agnes may be correct, but if the dialect is the proof of this, there are other possibilities. Denmark took part in the medieval 'drive to the East' and had several colonies on the shores of the Baltic. Middle Low German was a lingua franca in these waters, and it is more probable that Rumelant performed his songs in that dialect in order to be understood by a larger and more responsive audience than if he had used his usual Middle High German dialect.

The second case study is on Queen Eufemia of Rügen, the consort of King Hakon V Magnusson of Norway. Three rhymed novels written in medieval Swedish, Eufemiavisorna, are attributed to her. There is no doubt about the attribution, and Erikskrönikan tells about the relationship between Queen Eufemia and Duke Erik Magnusson. Layher takes this relationship a step further; he considers the translations into Swedish as an attempt to solve the problem that the kingdom faced by Agnes giving birth to only one daughter (110). But he takes for granted that the Eufemiavisor were translated directly into Swedish. Too many of the French novels translated into Norse sagas have been attributed to the court of King Hakon IV Hakonsson. Helle Degnbol has substantiated that the French narrative poem of Floire and Blancheflor that is dated to the middle of the twelfth century was translated, probably from an Anglo-Norman version, into a Norwegian prose narrative prior to the appearance of the Swedish poetic rendering in about 1312 as one of the Eufemiavisor. Judged by one of the earliest manuscripts of prose translation of Flores ok Blanzeflor, it has been true to the original French version, a result opposing the traditional wisdom that the Icelandic fourteenth century version is based on the translation performed during the reign of King Hakon Hakonsson who died in 1263. Moreover, Helle Degnbol will not exclude that the first translation of Flores ok Blanzeflor was carried out at one of Hakon V's chanceries; the dialect could indicate Tønsberg where the royal bureaucracy had a collegiate church. [3] There is also the possibility that the poem originally was given in Old Norse. Layher emphasize that the poems were translated to Swedish directly from the so-called aristocratic version, but this is probably wrong.

Moreover, Layher has not understood the Norwegian laws which he uses to substantiate Queen Eufemia's presumed political crisis. The law of succession is given in Magnus the Lawmender's code of the countryside in the section on Christendom (Norges gamle Love vol. II, pp. 24-32), not in the Hirðskrá (ibid. pp. 387-450) which is the statute of the king's guard. [4] The succession law did not allow women to inherit the throne, but the son of the late king's legitimate daughter could succeed. But King Hakon V made an amendment to the succession law when his daughter Ingeborg was only one year old (Norges gamle Love vol. III, pp. 44-55). Illegitimate sons of the king were moved further down in the succession, legitimate sons of a king's legitimate daughter had a better chance, and also the legitimate daughter of a king could now succeed. This meant that the maid Ingeborg, the daughter of the late King Eirik Magnusson and Isabella Bruce had a better chance of becoming "king" of Norway if none of the two cousins by the same Christian name had legitimate sons before King Hakon V passed away. The older Ingeborg was betrothed to Duke Valdemar Magnusson of Finland, but the couple had no offspring reach maturity or survive their mother. Layher further maintains that Hakon V's amendment to the code of the countryside 17 June 1308, which he incorrectly calls a 'royal proclamation,' addresses the issue of female succession. The amendment concerns the king's guard and abolishes the highest rank of the hird. Lars Hamre has maintained that the amendment should be considered as an amendment to the Hirðskrá. [5]

William Layher's last case study concerns Queen Margaret, the founder of the late medieval Nordic union between Denmark, Norway and Sweden. For more than thirty years she possessed real power. My objection to the case study on her is not his analysis of the poem Albrecht, which may well be from Queen Margaret's period (137 f.); it is his inadequate attempt to attribute the poem to Queen Margaret herself. Admittedly the political context of Queen Margaret's achievements is difficult, not least because an analysis of this monarch transcends the national historiographies of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Layher wrongly calls her Queen Margaret of Norway and Denmark, but she was never a Danish king's consort and never used this title; she called herself Margaret daughter of Valdemar. When she was elected in Denmark in 1387 to succeed her son, King Olav Hakonsson, the Danes' reservation was that she should hold her position until the council and she together found a new king. One of the reasons for this election rather than her nephew, Albrecht IV of Mecklenburg, was that Norway wanted Queen Margaret as the successor of her son; King Olav had been the hereditary king of Norway. The Swedish King Albrecht of Mecklenburg was the cousin of the late Norwegian king, and was the only inheritor to the crown according to the laws of succession. But a civil war raged in Sweden, King Albrecht' position was inferior, and a succession in Norway was out of his range. If the Norwegian Council of the Realm had done such a stupid act as acclaiming King Albrecht in this situation they would have had to face execution or civil war. King Hakon V's amendment to the law of succession from 1302 had opened for female succession. Queen Margaret, not King Albrecht, was the inheritor of her son's private properties and fortune. Moreover, she had also inherited her father's estates and was by far the largest single landowner in both Denmark and Norway. [6]

After having been assigned royal authority in Norway, Queen Margaret had a meeting with the Swedish magnates who had rebelled against King Albrecht. They were identical with the executors of the will of the Swedish drots Bo Jonsson Grip and were about to unite with King Olav against Albrecht of Mecklenburg when the young king suddenly died. They had no better choice than support Queen Margaret. [7] Contrary to Layher, Margaret was called to Sweden by the magnates; she did not invade the country. The best and simplest explanation of the complaints from the poem Albrecht is that it reflected the Swedish aristocracy's grievances. That there was "a crisis in male lordship" cannot be substantiated by historical facts. On the contrary, after the battle at Åsle (not Falköping) in 1389, one of the Danish annals praises God "who gave the victory into the hands of a woman." [8]

This reviewer does not find William Layher's hypothesis on the relationship between three medieval Scandinavian queens, contemporary poetry, and a presumed male political crisis facing each of them to be substantiated. The author's outline of the theories on a voice is interesting and has a value of its own, but there are too many mistakes and inaccuracies in his exposition of the historical context. He thus fails to link his theory to the evidence. Layher's analysis of six poems by the minstrel Rumelant of Saxony is the most successful part of the monograph, but an in-depth philological analysis of all the manuscripts that he used would have been useful.



1. Helge Paludan, "Tiden 1241-1340," in Danmarks historie bind 1: Tiden indtil 1340, ed. Aksel E. Christensen et al. (Copenhagen, 1977).

2. Niels Skyum-Nielsen, Fruer og Vildmænd. Dansk Middelalderhistorie 1250-1340, ed. Inger Dübeck et al. (Copenhagen, 1994), pp. 127 ff., passim.

3. Helle Degnbol, "Le poème français Floire et Blancheflor, le récit en prose norroise Flóress saga ok Blankiflúr et la chanson suédoise Flores och Blanzaflor," Revue des Langues Romanes 102 (1998); idem, "Fair words: The French poem Floire et Blancheflor, the Old Norse prose narrative Flóress saga ok Blankiflúr, and the Swedish poem Flores och Blanzaflor." (forthcoming).

4. Steinar Imsen, ed. Hirdskråen: Hirdloven til Norges konge og hans håndgangne menn (Oslo: 2000) is based on a better manuscript than Norges gamle Love, vol II, pp. 337-450 and has a parallel translation into Norwegian.

5. Lars Hamre, "Litt om og omkring Håkon V's hirdskipan," (Norwegian) Historisk tidsskrift 72 (1993).

6. Gustav Storm, "Dronning Margretes valg i Norge," (Norwegian) Historisk tidsskrift 4 (1901); and Eldbjørg Haug, Margrete, den siste dronning i Sverreætten: Nordens fullmektige frue og rette husbonde (Oslo: 2000), pp. 149-179.

7. Herman Schück, Rikets brev och register: Arkivbildande, kansliväsen och tradition inom den medeltida svenska statsmakten, Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Riksarkivet (Stockholm, 1976), pp. 201-9; and Erik Ulsig, "Dronning Margrethe og mecklenburgerne," Historie 1 (2003).

8. Scriptores rerum Danicarum tom. VI: 531-535; and Kr. Erslev, "Studier til Dronning Margrethes Historie, " (Danish) Historisk Tidsskrift Series 5, vol. 3 (1880-1882).

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Eldbjørg Haug

University of Bergen