12.10.10, Poulsen and Sindbæk, eds., Settlement and Lordship in Viking and Early Medieval Scandinavia

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Orri Vésteinsson

The Medieval Review 12.10.10

Poulsen, Bjørn and Søren Michael Sindbæk. Settlement and Lordship in Viking and Early Medieval Scandinavia. The Medieval Countryside, 9. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2012. Pp. xvii, 337. ISBN: 978-2-503-53131-1.

Reviewed by:
Orri Vésteinsson
University of Iceland

For years I have been telling students in my Viking Archaeology class that the transformation Scandinavia underwent in the course of the Viking age was not just about raiding and trading, building kingdoms and converting to Christianity, but that there was also a change even more fundamental; an agricultural intensification that produced the surplus, the rents and taxes, which supported the aristocracy and the increasingly effective state structures that we know from the post-Viking Age.

General statements to this effect can be found in many textbooks about Viking Age Scandinavia (although the issue is also commonly ignored altogether) but solid research has been hard to come by and no comprehensive treatment has been attempted for decades. It is therefore very welcome to have finally a volume that addresses an important aspect of this matter, the nature and development of lordship in Viking age and post-Viking age Scandinavia. In Settlement and Lordship in Viking and Early Medieval Scandinavia, edited by Bjørn Poulsen and Søren Michael Sindbæk, the focus is on the origins of the aristocracy and estate structure that can be studied through documents from the late eleventh century onwards. Despite claiming to deal with the whole of Scandinavia the emphasis is very much on southern Scandinavia, Denmark in particular, no doubt for the good reason that this is where strong aristocracies and complex estate structures emerged first and developed most fully, and where, consequently, they have been studied most vigorously. Insofar as there is a comparative perspective it is with continental scholarship on feudal relations. As a group the contributors belong to the (now several decades' old) reaction against Scandinavian exceptionalism, the view that Scandinavian social structure was essentially different, simpler, more free and less oppressive, than further south, and that when Scandinavians did adopt feudal structures after the Viking age theirs were more moderate and sensible versions of French or German practice. The reaction against this view holds that Scandinavia was not cut off from the rest of Europe but integral to it, even in the Viking age, and subject to the same social and economic developments; that any differences are differences in detail rather than basic pattern. This is hardly controversial but the stance has a tendency to lead to automatic satisfaction whenever the Scandinavian evidence can be read through continental lenses. This is very often based on a simplistic reading of the continental data, as if all practices and structures south of Danevirke were the same, homogenous and unified. Of course the reality was quite different and the efforts of the Blochs, Verhulsts and Dubys have largely been about distilling some sort of essence from the heterogeneous muddle that is European social and economic relations in the Middle Ages. Applying this essence--scholarly representations of common European practice--to the Scandinavian case sometimes can seem illuminating, e.g. when Scandinavian estate structure is equated with "le domaine bipartite" as is done in this volume (no doubt correctly), but if it is only done to confirm expectations then it fails to do what should really be the objective of such comparisons: to test the assumptions of the theories we are using to understand the past. Scandinavian historians and archaeologists tend too much to be passive receivers of continental wisdom but they are in an excellent position to critically examine the ideas and concepts developed by continental colleagues, often unnecessarily myopic in their conviction that the whole can be understood by looking only at the core. If the basic assumption is right that Scandinavia was an integrated part of Europe then it also follows that it can serve as a testing ground for the conceptions we use to describe European practice. Instead of asking: Is this European practice found in Scandinavia? we could ask: Does the conception of this European practice make sense in light of the Scandinavian evidence? This is not a criticism of the present volume; it has an entirely worthwhile and justifiable focus on a specific Scandinavian problem, but rather of the attitudes that underpin it and much other Scandinavian medieval scholarship. Scandinavia is a part of Europe and its scholars should engage with, rather than just receive, ideas about what was European practice in the Middle Ages. And just as Europe south of Hedeby has much to learn from Scandinavia so southern Scandinavia has much to learn from its northern parts. There is a gradient of diminishing complexity, social and economic, the further north one goes, which is essentially an effect of diminishing resource density, but rather than ignoring the north on the basis that it lacks the complexity of the south, this very simplicity creates the opportunity to examine the essentials of the structures we are interested in understanding. This is a criticism of the present volume: in the unacknowledged narrowness of its geographical scope it misses out on possibilities, which from the northern perspective seem obvious, to bring to bear on its topic lessons about, for example, the relationships between patrons and clients and the more easily comprehensible mechanisms of simpler estate structures.

In their introduction the editors describe the aim of the volume as to define the changing nature of lordship in Viking and post-Viking Age Scandinavia. As they explain there are two principal viewpoints on this; a "modernist" one which holds that post-Viking age lordship in Scandinavia was essentially a new phenomenon beginning in the late Viking Age, replacing a fundamentally different system based on the free association of free men with their leaders, while the "primordialist" view maintains that in Scandinavia lordship based on exploitation of free or unfree labour goes way back into the Viking Age if not the mists of time. The individual contributors can by and large be forced into these pigeonholes, although each would then have their own, often quite different, elaboration of their stance, but my impression after closing the book was that this dichotomy has outlived its usefulness. It seems clear that complex and centralised landholding, with implications of unequal social and economic relations, can be traced back into the Viking Age and beyond, but also that significant changes were occurring among the landholding class in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (at least). The present volume shows admirably both the strengths and limitations of Scandinavian scholarship on this issue. The strengths include the extensive and ever expanding archaeological evidence from the Viking Age and the strong tradition of settlement history based on place names, early maps and landscape analysis, a tradition with a focus mainly on the post-Viking age and later Middle Ages. Many of the case studies show clearly the vitality and promise of Scandinavian scholarship in these fields, but the volume as a whole also shows what is missing and still needs to be done.

It comes out quite clearly that there is a still unbridged chasm between the epistemological tradition that studies the post-Viking Age through written documents and the archaeologically based perception of the Viking Age itself. Concepts defining status (e.g. thrall, bonde), property units (e.g. bol), territorial units (e.g. herred), tributary mechanisms (e.g. leidang) or socio-political relations (e.g. veizla) are vital to our understanding of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and there is, and has long been, a strong desire to trace their antecedents back into the Viking age. There is a venerable tradition of hypothesizing about such things and some such hypotheses, especially those with anchoring in place-name studies, may seem more reasonable than others, but ultimately this is a Sisyphean undertaking. The problem is that even when the archaeological and landscape evidence can be made to seem to support a proposition that some post-Viking Age concept also had a Viking Age manifestation, there is always an unknowable uncertainty about this which makes such hypotheses easy to dismiss. They can only survive as long as there is consensus not to be too critical and demanding--and that is never a winning recipe in academia. The desire to project backwards is understandable but it cannot produce results which can be used to develop new knowledge and understanding. The only solution is to construct archaeological criteria that can be examined across the chasm that divides the effectively prehistoric Viking Age from the historic Middle Ages. This would require a much greater effort in trying to understand the archaeology of the post-Viking Age in relation to the written evidence contemporary with it, and only from such deeper understanding of the linkage could the archaeological thread be followed back into the Viking Age.

That there is still a long way to go is demonstrated by the lack of resolution of even the most basic archaeological criteria. As the editors acknowledge (12) it is possible to read through this volume and think that every single farm excavated in Viking Age Scandinavia was a magnate farm--the mean hovels of the peasants and slave cultivators are conspicuous by their absence--and even the one dissenting voice (Søvsø, 121) is directly contradicted by Sindbæk himself (121) on whether there may be signs of socioeconomic differentiation in Vorbasse. It is a pretty fundamental issue, the recognition of differential status from dwelling remains, and the fact that it is unresolved, unaddressed in fact, suggests that there is still scope for elementary theorizing in this field. A lackadaisical attitude to the use of concepts--which relates to the uncritical reception of continental terminology which I complained about above --is also betrayed by the really quite amazingly loose usage of the term "feudal" which is bandied about in this volume as if it was an entirely unproblematic and transparent concept. It does have a particular heritage in Scandinavian historiography and students reared in that tradition will not blink an eye over this but anyone else is bound to find it bizarre. Another fundamental matter, discussed in the introduction (21-23) but not addressed in any of the papers, is that of surplus production, and most particularly whether there was an increase in production, agricultural intensification. From an archaeological point of view this seems to be a key issue: if there was significant intensification in the late Viking Age or immediate post-Viking Age (not to be confused with settlement expansion for which there is good evidence) then that would support the modernist stance while more gradual intensification or none at all would be grist to the mill of the primordialists. If there is palaeoenvironmental research that could throw light on this there is little sign of it in this volume. It is the sort of absence that makes the outsider wonder whether a reassessment of priorities might not be in order.

Settlement and lordship in Viking and Early Medieval Scandinavia is an important contribution to the debate on a vital issue of Scandinavian history. As a whole it gives a clear idea of the scope of the problem and the state of the art, its strengths and weaknesses and will undoubtedly help to focus further research in this field. In the individual papers there is much new data, fresh observations and stimulating ideas relating to individual topics. Many of the contributors have their eyes on a particular discourse that has been going on in their own backyard but the majority are nevertheless accessible to the non-initiate. Anyone interested in the history of land and lordship in medieval Scandinavia will find their time well spent consulting this volume.

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Orri Vésteinsson

University of Iceland